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From the archives: Naomi Klein – why it’s time to show our face

Naomi Klein tells Mat Little how she put into words what so many were feeling – and why it’s time the new movement showed a public face and built coalitions with others on the left (published in issue 79, January 2001)

November 18, 2014
10 min read

800px-Naomi_Klein_1When post-Cold War triumphalist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘the End of History’ in 1992, he based his thesis not just on the collapse of communism and the seemingly unstoppable march of capitalism, but also on the pacified nature of western societies. The age-old struggle for recognition was over, said Fukuyama, liberal capitalist democracy could satisfy every conceivable human need, material and spiritual. Younger generations, previous incubators of rebellion, were now as conservative as their parents; everyone, it seemed, just wanted to go to law school. No flicker of resistance remained.

If Fukuyama was still wearing his self-satisfied Rand corporation grin seven years on, Seattle must have taken some of the shine away. ‘Serious people on the left,’ he said rather nervously, ‘should repudiate these kooky fellow travellers.’

For Naomi Klein, Seattle must have evoked rather different emotions. When she began researching No Logo in 1996, capitalism had become so ubiquitous the word was dying out through lack of contrast; the book, she concedes, began as something of a journalistic hunch. Now, post-Seattle, post-Prague, she is credited with an almost prophet-like insight into the revolutionary zeitgeist. ‘Naomi Klein, said The Times, ‘is probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world.’

It’s not false modesty, but 30 year-old Klein is eager to point out what she is not: ‘I’m not the leader of a movement. I didn’t write the Das Kapital of the anti-corporate movement.’

What she did was to put into words something so many people have been feeling and thinking, to articulate a sense of loss, longing and anger. No Logo cannot be reduced to a manifesto of a movement that shunned manifestos, nor a militant ethical consumerist handbook (‘Thanks Naomi, now I can shop better,’ ended one grateful review posted at Amazon.com). Rather it has made clear something people already knew inside, ‘recognised’, as she has said, ‘a movement that already exists.’

To Klein, the anti-capitalism movement stems from a deep ‘rage’, a visceral instinctive resentment: ‘It has to do with a feeling of having everything from you stolen, including your most precious ideas and almost a sense that language becomes useless and anything is able to be twisted and used to sell some stupid thing.’

All the rage, not for sale

Anti-capitalism is the political expression of a generation plundered for new marketing strategies, for whom every new impulse or thought has been commodified, made safe, and sold back to them. It is an attempt, however sporadic, to claim back some of our mental and physical space.

Yet she believes such resentment would merely have festered unacted upon, were it not for a self-destructive change in the corporates themselves. As business has systematically attempted to relieve itself of the burden of a permanent, secure workforce, it has, unwittingly, freed up the rage.

‘For the legions of temps, part-timers, contract and service-sector workers in industrialised countries, the modern employer has begun to look like a one-night stand who has the audacity to expect monogamy after a meaningless encounter,’ Klein observes in No Logo. A generation which imbibed the free agent ethos from school onwards, has lost its attachment to, and fear of, corporations. Like conventional political parties, corporations have lost their hold over people. ‘I can feel free to attack corporations because I don’t expect a job from them,’ says Klein. ‘I’m a freelancer like so many other people. I’m not putting my whole future on the line.’

This collision, this sense of being preyed upon and abandoned at the same time, is what, in Klein’s eyes, gives anti-capitalism its motivating force and makes it so difficult to deal with. You can’t co-opt, pacify it or buy it off. ‘People are always saying, aren’t you worried that if marketeers read No Logo, they’ll know how to co-opt the movement,’ says Klein. ‘Actually, if marketeers read the book, they’ll know there is no way they can co-opt the movement. Because it is so much a reaction against the co-optation of everything, the very worst thing you can do is try and co-opt it, because it will only feed the rage. That’s this movement’s suit of armour.’

But if the movement isn’t going away, where is it going? It has proved itself an incredibly adept exponent of the so-called ‘Dracula strategy’, dragging the covert machinations of global economic institutions into the light. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which made it illegal for governments to impose conditions on multinationals investing in their countries, was defeated this way. The movement ‘without followers’ has also displayed an anarchistic willingness to go for the corporate jugular and confront power head-on. But what now defines the disparate strands of anti-capitalism?

To Klein, anti-capitalism is about reclaiming the public sphere, finding a non-commercial space where people can act as citizens. ‘This isn’t an anti-consumerism movement,’ she says, ‘it’s fighting for a public sphere full stop, whether that sphere is the right to form unions, to have government regulation of the labour market, or for the right to ban ads from your university.

The creative spark, the fertility of resistance behind the protests, Klein largely attributes to Reclaim the Streets (RTS): ‘This idea of reclaiming streets by force or sheer volume has spread and crops up in very strange places. In many ways, it is the spirit that unites all the protests and all the activism, this radical reclaiming of space. RTS’s importance has almost been as a metaphor.’

But can this radical reclaiming of public space move beyond the creation of temporary autonomous zones to a next stage, to something more enduring, a long-term subversion? Klein thinks so. She cites the example of the so-called ‘social centres’ in Italian cities, huge squats, which are home to around 200,000 people and act as massive community, music and art centres. ‘They are building their political culture tied to these cultural spaces.’

And as branding becomes ever more all-consuming, and public space ever more scarce, Klein believes these lived alternatives will take on a vital role. ‘There is talk now that the ultimate value added that a brand can give to their customer is unbranded space,’ she says. In Japan now you can pay to visit the Sony village, a place with no adverts and nothing to buy. Disney owns its own town, ‘Celebration’, in Florida, a re-creation of small-town America before malls and brands took over. Canada has its own brand-created wilderness holiday destination, Roots Lodge. Such seductive cultural enclosures, Klein thinks, will become more common and people will live inside them.

The allure of these private utopias can only be challenged by public ones. ‘The only hope we have to combat this vision of a corporate world,’ says Klein, ‘is to create alternative spaces that give people a sense of another way of living that is also exciting and thrilling.’ She believes the convergence centres at Seattle and Prague, ‘parallel, mini-villages’ offer a glimpse of this new kind of public space. ‘It’s really powerful,’ she enthuses.

Pulling the threads together

But to Klein anti-capitalism is about much more than attempts to reclaim the remnants of citizenship from corporate behemoths in the developed world. It also represents a new internationalism that binds the far more extensive protests against trade liberalisation in the south, such as the near-revolutionary revolt against Bolivian water privatisation, with the awakening in the north. She now sees her role as that of articulating ‘the thread that connects’: direct action groups in developed countries and peasant movements in the south; the anti-commodification ethos in RTS with Indian groups battling against the corporatisation of life itself in the form of GM seeds; anti-capitalist protesters in Prague with landless peasants in Thailand planting vegetables on golf courses.

‘There is not a north-south dichotomy,’ she insists. ‘The movement is bringing issues down to basic principles of self-determination, reuniting with very old ideas to do with colonialism. It is futile, in her view, to expect such a movement to ‘line up behind anybody’s 10 point plan’ and she is scornful of attempts by groups such as the Socialist Workers Party to try to divert its energy into Trotskyism—attempts which became ‘close to paralysingly disruptive’ in Prague.

For the non-vanguardist left, however, hooking up to the ‘kooky fellow travellers’ may be the path out of the ghetto it has lumbered in for so long. ‘There are a lot of left organisations that realise they don’t have a future without this energy and power and that they need to open their minds and listen to these activists rather than treating them like misguided youth who don’t realise that soon they have to get in line with a neat hierarchical structure,’ says Klein.

The power of Seattle came from just this kind of coalition between organised labour and anti-capitalists, the Teamsters and the Turtles. In Canada, this has been taken a stage further with moves to create an anti-capitalist (rather than just anti-corporate) ‘structured movement’, designed to go beyond the usual coalitions and networking on the left. It includes radical officials and members of such unions as the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Postal Workers, alongside independent socialists, members of small existing socialist groups, the left of the New Democratic Party (Canada’s nearest thing to a Labour Party) and activists working in various campaigns around poverty, ecology, anti-racism and anti-police brutality, as well as the anti-globalisation protests. ‘We are at the early stages of this process,’ says Klein, ‘but it’s hopeful.’

If the older left has to open its eyes to the new movements, anti-capitalism itself has to come out of the shadows and show a public face, according to Klein. The fetishisation of the anonymous leader, based on the model of Zapatista Sub-Commandante Marcos, may be romantic, she believes, but is fast becoming a barrier between the movement and a potentially sympathetic public.

‘It’s time to show your face,’ she says, ‘because people connect to other people, not to anonymous ideas. That doesn’t mean saying, “I’m a leader, follow”, it just means saying who I am, this is why I’m here, this is my story. That is all I’m trying to do. This is a criticism I make to anarchist friends of mine who I know are the key organisers, who don’t want to be public. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I tell them that and they tell me I’m wrong.’

Picture credit: Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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