In the 2016 primary, Bernie Sanders won Hawaii with a landslide 71.5 percent of the vote, despite endorsements for Hillary Clinton from three of Hawai‘i’s sitting members of Congress, former congressmen, former governors, and many of Hawai‘i’s major political institutions and unions. After the primary, takes on Bernie’s success flooded in from the continental United States
Perhaps, in line with the white male “Bernie Bro” thesis, it was due to Hawai’i’s relatively low population of black voters. Or perhaps it was because Hawai’i was one of the bluest states in the nation, with no elected Republicans at the federal or executive level and only a marginalized handful in the State House. Of course Hawai’i would be a bastion of radical, leftist politics, went this argument.
Yet Hawai‘i is a blue state in all the worst ways. Despite a rich history of struggle, the dominance of the Democratic Party and decimation of the Republican Party, and a veneer of multiculturalism, Hawai‘i suffers under the weight of neoliberalism and neocolonialism. This status quo is played out on occupied Hawaiian lands and at the expense of Native Hawaiian sovereignty.
It’s in this Hawai’i — not the fantasy one concocted by commentators after Sanders’s victory — that Kaniela Ing’s democratic-socialist campaign for Congress is taking place.
In advance of the August 11 primary, Ing has made national news as one of the new, young, charismatic champions of democratic socialism, alongside candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Carlos Rosa-Ramirez. Kaniela is running for Congress on a platform that includes a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, housing for all, universal basic income, abolishing ICE, and transforming the war economy into a peace economy. And he’s pushing this program by connecting it to Hawai‘i’s hidden radical past and challenging its contemporary status quo.
A History of Struggle
Ing’s campaign should be seen in the context of Native Hawaiian resistance to colonialism, which dates back to 1779. In the nineteenth century, the Hawaiian Kingdom was sovereign, internationally recognized, and employed hybrid forms of economy and governance to resist Western hegemony. Towards the end of the century the Kingdom was universally literate and ‘Iolani Palace was electrified by the mid-1880s, before the White House. Hawai’i had an extensive network of newspapers in‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (a Hawaiian language) and English.
During this time, plantation industries gradually arrived. With them came the birth of labor struggles in Hawai‘i. The island’s first recorded labor strike occurred in 1843, when Native Hawaiians walked off the job over pay at the islands’ first sugar plantation in Kauai.
The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, led by the sugar and missionary elite, was protested by Hawaiians from its onset. Native Hawaiians resisted with armed rebellion in the form of the Wilcox Rebellion of 1895. The Kū‘ē Petitions, uncovered at the National Archives by Hawaiian scholar Noenoe Silva in the 1990s, were signed by thousands of Native Hawaiians and sent to President William McKinley in protest of the 1897 annexation of Hawai’i.
The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom coincided with the decline of the sandalwood and whaling industries to make the sugar industry — in partnership with the Republican Party — the oligarchic power in Hawai‘i. This industry drew labor from as far as Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Portugal. The industry concentrated into a handful of corporations known as “the Big Five”: Alexandar & Baldwin, American Factors, Brewer & Co., Castle & Cooke, and Theo H. Davies & Co.
For its part, labor in Hawai‘i began to organize, at first mostly along racial lines. By the early twentieth century, Hawai‘i plantation workers were organizing across factions, slowly gaining power and small victories, but also facing heavy repression. In 1924, sixteen Filipino sugar workers on strike in Kauai were murdered by police, with many of the survivors jailed and/or deported. In 1938, union workers and families conducting a sympathy strike in Hilo were openly fired upon by police, resulting in dozens of injuries.
Plantation owners tried to head off this nascent organization by segregating their workforces along racial, ethnic, and national lines. But organizers within unions like the ILWU, inspired by socialist thought, recognized the need to organize across these lines. This organizing paid off.
In 1946, twenty-six thousand sugar workers went on a historic seventy-nine-day strike, shutting down thirty-three out of Hawai‘i’s thirty-four plantations. Workers set up cooking, gardening, hunting, and fishing committees to feed themselves and their families, morale committees to keep spirits up, and even had to import rice from the mainland after sugar companies made arrangements to block the sale of rice in stores.
The strike ended in victory: higher wages, shorter working weeks, an end to the plantation “perquisites” system (subpar company benefits in lieu of fair wages), and a union shop. The victory also translated into electoral power, with thirty-five union-friendly candidates elected to office in Hawai‘i that year, cracking the plantation-friendly Republican Party fortress. Subsequent strikes, like the six-month longshore workers’ strike in 1949, would continue to chip away at this edifice.
By midcentury, labor in Hawai‘i had become militant and organized enough to fully challenge sugar’s hegemony. With the backing of working people and soldiers returning from the war, the Democratic Party came to power in the “Democratic Revolution of 1954,” politically replacing the once-hegemonic Republican Party and the sugar elite. Today, Hawai‘i still holds some of the most robust union membership rates in the country, though they’ve suffered the same gradual decline as labor in the rest of the country.
Ing draws on this militant, anticolonial history in interviews and campaign videos to powerful effect. He uses it to convey a message that when working people organize across racial, ethnic, and national lines, they can defeat a power as entrenched as the missionary planter class. But he also challenges the updated status quo the Democratic Party brought to Hawai‘i.
Democratic Party Rule
The rise of the Democratic Party in Hawai‘i did improve conditions for working people, develop a new middle class, and diversify Hawai‘i’s elite. But it never fully challenged capital or colonialism.
Democratic politicians trumpet that today, Hawai‘i has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. But the official rate masks the fact that many residents work two to four jobs just to get by. Hawai‘i has the highest cost of living in the states, the ninth-highest rate of poverty, and the fourth-highest rate of regressive taxation on low-income people. The poverty rate for Native Hawaiians is the highest of any group in the state. A household making a little over $90,000 is considered low income while the minimum wage is $10.10. 54 percent of renters spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent.
Native Hawaiians are disproportionately incarcerated. Despite making up 21 percent of the population, over 40 percent of Hawai‘i’s inmates are Native Hawaiian, thousands of them locked up in for-profit facilities in Arizona. Hawai‘i is ground zero in the United States for native species and biodiversity loss. The specter of climate change all but ensures that Waikīkī and coastal shorelines, the economic drivers of the islands, will be underwater by midcentury.
Hawai‘i’s neoliberal establishment is largely comprised of the defense, tourism, agro-chemical, and development industries, and their attendant professionals in politics and law. Many of these companies, especially those within development and land speculation such as Alexander & Baldwin, are direct legacies of the Big Five corporations responsible for the Kingdom’s overthrow.
This network of plantation-age legacies, developers, private equity, the military-industrial complex, and multinational agro-chemical companies dominate state apparatuses. Lists of campaign contributors and other connections for establishment politicians in Hawai‘i read like a who’s who of corporate hegemony: CoreCivic, Dow, Hawaiian Airelines, Monsanto, Outrigger Hotels, Raytheon, Syngenta, and on and on.
What results is something different than the progressive, melting-pot utopia that election maps, corporate media, and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s ads depict. It’s instead defined by militarism and a parasitic tourist economy.
Hawai‘i serves as the headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command — a vital station in the US military’s Pacific pivot — and as a live-fire training ground for US imperial wars since WWII. The US military owns over one-fifth of the land in Oahu, Hawai‘i’s most populous island. RIMPAC exercises damage lands and waters. Native Hawaiian families have been historically evicted and barred from reentering ancestral lands in places like Mākua Valley or Pōhakuloa, sacred lands that are now littered with unexploded ordinance or marred by traces of depleted uranium usage after decades of use for live fire. Big Agro-chemical harms the ‘āina through Western monocrop industrial farming and pesticide use.
Tourism profits off the back of Native Hawaiian culture and Hawai‘i’s workers. Visitors engage in mostly Margaritaville-esque resort and consumerist experiences — Kalākaua Ave. is Michigan Ave., Fremont St., or Fifth Ave with palm trees. Development, gentrification, and income inequality might be most noticeable in Kaka‘ako, where shiny high rises and consumer hubs overlook homeless Native Hawaiians. Luxury condos are rapidly replacing working-class neighborhoods, generating profit for a tiny elite while exacerbating an affordable housing crisis. Even the beach is being gentrified.
Hawai‘i has increasingly become a playground for the nouveau ultrarich. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sued hundreds of Native Hawaiians to secure his claim on seven hundred acres of land in Kauai. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison owns the entire island of Lāna’i. A third of the island of Moloka‘i is currently for sale for $260 million. The only daily newspaper in Hawai‘i is now owned, after a recent merger, by a Canadian billionaire with interests in tar-sand oil.
Ing connects all these dots to the Big Five, the missionary families that controlled over half the land in Hawai‘i during the plantation days, pointing out how they never went away. They just changed names — and some didn’t even do that. Ing’s primary opponents are a rogue’s gallery exemplifying this settler-led neoliberal hegemony.
Ed Case, cousin of AOL founder Steve Case, is currently a registered corporate lobbyist for the largest union-busting hotel chain in the islands, with his most recent filing indicating he made $1.16 million in just the last eighteen months.
Doug Chin was a former tough-on-crime city prosecutor, who subsequently transitioned into a role as state AG after a stint making over $100,000 as a lobbyist for the private prison corporation CoreCivic. While state AG he negotiated a multimillion-dollar contract with CoreCivic for sending prisoners, disproportionately Native Hawaiian, to facilities in Arizona.
Beth Fukumoto was a Republican leader in the legislature as late as 2017, and voted against marriage equality, renewable energy goals, and Obamacare expansion.
Donna Mercado Kim is a conservative Democrat who voted against marriage equality, and has posed herself as a proponent of free market solutions.
The Alternative Today
Ing, on the other hand, is a testament to Hawai‘i’s history of struggle and the possibility of an alternative today. Ing was born to a working-class family, his father an ILWU member working in restaurants and his mother a shoe clerk. He’s of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese descent, claiming pidgin English as his first language. He worked his first job at fourteen in the pineapple fields, and at a local hotel cleaning rooms during his first successful campaign for the State House, where he won on a progressive platform in a Republican district. He’s also shaped by coming of age as a millennial during the Great Recession and the climate crisis.
Resistance to settler colonialism by Hawaiians and the growth of intersectional organizing on the left in latter half of the twentieth century was incredibly significant in shaping current movements in Hawai‘i. At Waiāhole-Waikāne, Kalama Valley, Makua Valley, and Honolulu’s Chinatown, Hawaiians resisted water diversions, development projects, militarism, and evictions. The most famous victory of this time was the campaign by Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana (PKO) project to stop US military bombing of Kaho‘olawe Island. Their most notable tactic was land occupations by PKO members, which successfully put an end to the bombings.
A development from this era of movement-building was a new commitment to solidarity between native Hawaiians and working-class settlers.
Anti-war activism, the movement to create an ethnic studies department, and struggles for academic freedom at the University of Hawai‘i, and environmentalist groups like Save Our Surf organized in support — sometimes on the front lines — of Hawaiian movements. Throughout this history socialism has been present, whether taken up by Hawaiians or settlers. The likes of Angela Davis, Antonio Gramsci, and Paulo Freire are easily locatable in Hawaiian scholarship and movement literature.
Activists also revived the previously outlawed Hawaiian language, Ōlelo Hawai‘i, and created Hawaiian immersion schools as tools for resisting settler colonialism and sustaining the demand for sovereignty.
These struggles have had a significant impact on today’s movements. The local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America had its first meeting in May 2017 and currently boasts over one hundred dues-paying members. Very quickly the members of the local chapter recognized that as socialists in occupied indigenous land, we had a kuleana (roughly, a responsibility or duty) to adopt a decolonial framework. After education and constructive debate, we passed our first chapter resolutions: to replace America in the chapter name with Honolulu and to wholeheartedly support the cause of Native Hawaiian sovereignty within DSH’s platform. DSH has also partnered with Ho‘iho‘i Ea to regularly work in lo‘i kalo or traditional Hawaiian wet taro patches. In other words, DSH is reckoning with its kuleana as socialists in occupied land.
Our DSH chapter is one of many local groups organizing for power from a decolonial perspective. These groups include some of the local unions that are being pushed by rank and file and leaders, such as academic labor and hospitality workers, mirroring the militant grassroots movements in these occupations on the continent.
These movements are powering the rise of politicians like Ing. They draw strength and knowledge from the elders and tradition of ongoing labor, socialist, feminist, and Hawaiian struggles, but also from the failures of American hegemony, Hawai‘i’s ruling elite, and the Democratic Party. Kaniela Ing’s campaign is significant not simply for the socialism that informs his platform. His campaign is significant because it represents and emerges organically from growing movements that seek to challenge settler colonialism and Hawai‘i’s long-entrenched neoliberal establishment.
Ing and other state-level candidates may or may not win their respective elections, but socialism and resistance to capitalist and settler hegemony has an undeniable history and potential in Hawai‘i.