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As the sun set on the Occupy Seattle encampment in December 2011, the question “What next?” hung in the air, as it did over Zuccotti Park in New York City. The tents were gone, our spirits were dampened, but an awakened sense of empowerment prevailed.
The movement had given voice to a widespread fury at big business and a recognition of the gaping class divide. Key to Occupy’s success were the thousands of young people who had helped elect President Obama and had completed their own first steps toward achieving the American Dream, only to see their college degrees translate into crushing student debt and poverty wages.
Inside and outside the encampments, discussions about the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street began to evolve into questions about the viability of capitalism itself. A revived search for an alternative had begun.
Socialism has been declared dead many times. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing collapse of the “communist” regimes in Eastern Europe, the global capitalist elite launched an unprecedented ideological offensive. The obituary was written not only for socialism, but for the basic ideas of collective struggle by the working class.
Now, after three decades of virtually untrammeled neoliberal policies, with class questions again brought to the fore by unprecedented levels of inequality, we have been witnessing a renewed interest in socialist ideas. Half of the young Americans surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 viewed socialism positively, according to a Pew Research Center poll in December 2011.
The winter of Occupy sparked a debate in my own organization, Socialist Alternative. Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential-election year and the inevitable pull of corporate politics, Socialist Alternative called for independent candidates representing the 99 percent to run across the country.
Here in Seattle, I filed in a race for the Washington State House as a socialist “Occupy” candidate. The Democratic Party establishment has virtual monopoly control over Seattle politics, as it does in most urban centers. The city has increasingly become a playground for the wealthy, with the nation’s fastest-rising rents and a rapidly gentrifying urban core. My campaign was a referendum on corporate, neoliberal politics: I flatly rejected cuts to education, mass transit and social services, while calling for taxes on the rich and a $15 minimum wage.
After receiving one of the highest votes for a socialist candidate in decades, I ran again in 2013 for the Seattle City Council. Once again, my campaign made bold anticorporate demands—for rent control, a “millionaires’ tax” to fully fund social services, and a citywide $15 minimum wage. Running independently as a Socialist Alternative candidate helped me tap into voters’ anger at the status quo of corporate politics. In Seattle, the council members pay themselves $120,000 a year, the second-highest council salary among the nation’s forty largest cities. I accepted no corporate donations and pledged to take only the average Seattle worker’s wage of $40,000. I also promised to use the rest of my salary to help build social movements.