“At the Heart of Democratic Socialism Is the Ethic of Solidarity”
Nikil Saval is a union campaigner, leftist magazine editor, and a democratic socialist who is running for Pennsylvania State House. In an interview with Jacobin, he talks about his history of working on hotel workers’ boycotts and editing n+1, how the Bernie Sanders campaign inspired him to run for office to advance left politics, and building a Pennsylvania and a world for the many, not the few.
- Interview by
- Indigo Olivier
Nikil Saval is the co-editor of n+1, a community organizer, leader of South Philly’s second ward, and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. The thirty-seven-year-old democratic socialist is running for Pennsylvania State Senate’s first district on a platform of a homes guarantee, workers’ rights, universal family care, criminal justice reform, public education, and a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania.
Saval is campaigning to unseat Larry Farnese, a corporate lawyer who has held the Senate seat since 2009 and was indicted in 2016 for bribing a committeewoman to vote for him. If elected, Saval will be joining a group of newly elected progressive politicians in Pennsylvania, including Larry Krasner and Kendra Brooks, whom his organization, Reclaim Philadelphia, helped elect.
Saval spoke with Jacobin about his campaign and the organizing potential of electoral politics.
You’re an editor at n+1 and have a background in journalism. What made you run for office?
I would say that n+1 actually taught me quite a lot about politics. One of my first pieces for the magazine was about the fight over the Atlantic Yards project in 2005, which is in Downtown Brooklyn. A no-bid contract was dropped on this community to build many luxury towers and a new arena for the Brooklyn Nets, and it detonated this whole fight over the nature of development, who development was for, and where the city was going.
I had just moved to that neighborhood a few months before, and my apartment was one of the ones directly threatened by the huge influx of cash that developers were bringing to the neighborhood. I had been writing about it for n+1, and being edited so carefully by my colleagues taught me a lot. It was one of my first lessons, I think, in politics. As a left-wing magazine, I felt like I was compelled as an editor and as a writer to think through a lot of those issues.
I had marched in antiwar protests and in immigrant rights protests in 2006, so I felt politically active, but in 2009 I began volunteering with UNITE HERE, the union of hospitality workers. I felt like these things informed my writing and vice versa. I wanted to learn to be an organizer, and I wanted to learn from the labor movement in particular — to be in the labor movement directly.
At the same time, I was also really interested in the history of white-collar work and office work, and I ended up writing a book partly based on my own experience of working in publishing. Working in the industry drove me to become a boycott organizer with UNITE HERE and then write about the experience of white-collar work. I think those two things were always connected for me, and so jumping into politics felt fairly natural.
How do you identify politically?
I am a democratic socialist.
Are you running your campaign openly as a democratic socialist?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if I could run away from it even if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.
How would you define democratic socialism?
What lies at the heart of democratic socialism is the ethic of solidarity. The idea is that workers, and the workers’ movement, should exercise democratic control over the economy. That means that many of the things we take for granted that are ruled by markets necessarily should not be. This means the way planning and development works, the way our schools function, the way workplaces are organized, in terms of the labor process and the sharing of wealth, the way society handles punishment and liberation and the way households are organized and domestic and socially reproductive labor is divided among partners, families, and communities.
I think all of these things should be decided democratically. And it means that we recognize the terrible history of race, gender, disability, and nationality in dividing workers and even in naming who is considered a worker, whether that is wage earners versus unpaid domestic workers, for example, and seeking to undo that.
I think we should name the achievements social democracy has already made, which helped us to realize that certain marketized goods should be considered social goods like health care, childcare, housing, education, and transportation. We should be seeking to preserve and expand those rights where they exist. I think democratic socialism means we have a conception of a society that makes room for people — people now and people to come — that we do not see and do not know. That’s the ethic of solidarity that the workers’ movement has given to the world.
Your campaign has been calling for “A Pennsylvania for the many, not the few.” Is that what you’re calling your campaign slogan?
To be honest, we borrowed that from the British Labour Party, but as a writer and scholar of English literature it comes from [Percy Bysshe] Shelley originally — “Shake your chains to earth like dew, Which in sleep had fallen on you, Ye are many, they are few.” To the extent that we have a slogan, it’s been Saval for All, which was one of these things which sort of started out as a joke and we settled into it. It does express something of the same spirit, which is that we are organizing with and on behalf of the large majority of people who are fighting for and believe in equality, solidarity, and justice. People who want housing for all, health care for all, who want family-sustaining jobs for all, workers’ rights for all. That’s what that expresses, that we have the majority, and the large majority of people are with us and share our values.
Could you talk a little bit about your campaign platform?
Our platform is centered around a vision of housing, climate, and care. These don’t exhaust what we’re running on, but they all inform each other, and I think they all form a fairly complete vision. The pillars of the platform are universal family care, a homes guarantee, and a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania. The idea being that Pennsylvania is suffering from a triple crisis of economic and ecological devastation and public disinvestment. Those express themselves in the cost of childcare, elder care, and health care and the state of our public institutions, especially our public schools, but also public housing and the lack of it.
We are investing so much in the private wealth that is gained from the extraction of fossil fuels as opposed to public transit and green energy that benefits millions of people. What I want to do is to push for a society that would really value care and care work and caregivers.
For a country that talks a lot about innovation and dynamism, the public discourse has a very poor grasp on what the future of work is. Much of it lies in care work and in home health care aides, nurses, but also, I include in this, teachers and hospitality workers. There is a lot of work that is being done that is not valued, is considered low-wage, but really doesn’t have to be low-wage, and this work is also low-carbon. Care work is the kind of work that doesn’t put a burden on the earth in the same way that a lot of our historical patterns of work have done, and I want to center that kind of work and those kinds of policies — policies that would make it less burdensome to care for children and care for elders. I support, 100 percent, a single-payer health care plan. We should also expand Medicaid on the state level in the meantime and guarantee health care to everyone who needs it.
Philadelphia, in particular, has a housing crisis like many cities across the country. Ours maybe looks different than certain wealthier cities like San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. We have a number of people who are cost-burdened — I believe it’s 50 percent — who pay over a third of their income in housing costs, but there is actually quite a lot of housing stock in the city, so it’s not a scarcity of existing housing infrastructure. We do have a scarcity of affordable housing in richer neighborhoods, which is familiar in places like New York or San Francisco. But then we also have severe disinvestment in poorer neighborhoods where the housing stock is not affordable to people who don’t have the income to keep up with the rent. The cost of rent is really high, eviction rates are extremely high.
I — like many candidates across the country — am calling for a homes guarantee, which would combine renter protection through statewide rent control that does not exceed the cost of living in any given municipality, statewide just cause for eviction, and statewide right to counsel in the case of eviction. I’m also calling for a generational investment in affordable housing. Pennsylvania could do a million units of affordable housing, and this involves either building it, preserving the housing that we have, or converting existing housing so that it’s usable, the point being that you would also want these houses to be low-carbon or carbon-neutral.
This is tied into our Green New Deal plan because we believe that housing, transit, and the conversion to renewable energy use are necessities for the state. Pennsylvania produces 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is an extremely disturbing, disproportionate number. We can’t continue to do that to ourselves and future generations.
You’ve talked about building affordable housing that is low-carbon or carbon-neutral, how care work is very low-carbon, and that you want to center these in your Green New Deal platform. The Green New Deal is legislation that is being proposed at the federal level. What kind of tools do you have at the state level to implement these policies, and why do you feel it’s necessary to rally around a Green New Deal at the state level?
They’re not exclusive. Federal action is the greatest source of funding for a lot of these proposals, and we should have advocates at every level of state government for the passage of federal Green New Deal legislation. But, as with the original New Deal, Pennsylvania had its own little New Deal. A lot of coordination of these programs happens through the states, and you want to have state-level projects or a state-level idea of what needs to happen. We would want to have a plan in place for a federal program and also push for these proposals in lieu of federal legislation. So I think both things are essential.
When it comes to state transportation policy or local transit authorities, those are concerns either of municipalities or the state. Converting our bus system to electric vehicles is a state concern. The way that our schools are funded is a state concern, and we could think about that both in terms of education and climate policy.
Philadelphia, in particular, has a real problem with toxicity in our school infrastructure. We haven’t built new schools in a while, and we haven’t remediated a lot of the lead and asbestos that are in our schools. Children are going to Philadelphia public schools where there are exposed asbestos and there is still lead paint on the walls. This level of toxicity in the school infrastructure is akin with the fact that teachers are poorly supported and underpaid and that their students are tested within an inch of their lives. Our priorities are going toward the private extraction of fossil fuels and the neglect of public infrastructure. Low-carbon public affluence is what we could have under a Green New Deal.
You’re one of the founders of Reclaim Philadelphia, which is an official chapter of Our Revolution. Could you talk about its work and some of the candidates that the organization has helped elect?
Reclaim Philadelphia came out of the Sanders campaign. I was a lead volunteer in the campaign in South Philadelphia, and a number of volunteers and former staffers came together after the campaign in Pennsylvania. We decided to form an organization partly because what a number of us had seen in the course of the campaign and specifically in canvassing, which was the presence of the majority of people who believe in the values and the theory of transformation that were laid out, at least partly, in that campaign.
After the Trump election, hundreds of people joined Reclaim Philadelphia. We went from about fifty people to 250 people in the course of a month. We were sort of set up to channel that energy, and had electoral knowledge and a theory of how to achieve some of the work that we wanted to do. What we wanted to do in 2017 was to put that movement to work.
We were instrumental in recruiting Larry Krasner to run for district attorney in Philadelphia. We were early to endorse him, and we recruited hundreds of volunteers to knock thousands of doors across the city. A number of people who are in the movement or supporting Krasner had been defended by him personally. They were Occupy protesters, Black Lives Matter protesters. The integrity and credibility of Larry Krasner in and among social movements, and much more broadly, was unquestionable, and for that reason he seemed, to many people, unelectable.
We saw through canvassing that there was a great desire to change the criminal justice system. Many people were ready to accept that putting money into prisons and not into schools was a fundamental mistake. That was an instance of “deep canvassing” both winning an election and helping build out our movement.
Volunteers came out of it, people were activated by that campaign, and we see this in a number of electoral campaigns across the country where electoral politics have a tactical way of growing other kinds of social movements and forms of organizing. We put that energy into a number of different campaigns. One was a state representative race in South Philadelphia, where Elizabeth Fiedler was backed by Reclaim, a number of labor unions, and DSA and was elected in South Philly.
I recruited a number of people to run for local precinct or division-level positions to get people to become leaders in the Democratic Party and transform the values of the party itself. We won a huge number of positions, and I was elected ward leader in South Philadelphia. We played a big part in the municipal primaries in Philadelphia, helping to reelect Helen Gym and to elect Isaiah Thomas to city council. Most recently, we were a big part of the coalition that elected Kendra Brooks, the Working Families candidate, to city council. She is the first independent candidate to win a council seat in modern Philadelphia history and an extremely exciting council member–elect, who I think, along with Thomas and Gym, will be a big part of the Left in city council.
Would you say that Bernie Sanders inspired you to run or that he helped bring you into political organizing on the ground?
I have organizing history that’s older than the Sanders campaign, with UNITE HERE in particular. I was really proud to receive their endorsement at my launch. But yes, I would also add that it was through the Sanders campaign that I became convinced of the values of electoral politics and that there could be an electoral politics that was deeply informed by social movements and that you could have a candidate who answered to, and was disciplined and inspired by, movement organizing. That’s what I saw in the Sanders campaign and then subsequently in Reclaim Philadelphia.
Just to be clear, I would not be here, I would not be running for office if Bernie Sanders had not run. I think a lot of people are deeply indebted to his example.
You wrote a book about the history of office work. If the entire Pennsylvania state legislature undemocratically granted you the power to pass one piece of legislation related to office work that didn’t have to be approved by any other legislative body, what would it be?
I would pass a statewide law that repeals the amendment to the National Labor Relations Act that distinguishes managers and employees, which has led to artificial distinctions among sections of the workforce and kept people out of collective bargaining units who should otherwise be included. Also, I would outlaw open-plan offices. Private offices are a human right.