Calmness In Outrage: Naomi Klein

NO Logo was published in January 2000, and addressed the new century directly. The argument advanced by Naomi Klein seemed to promise a new world to go with it. From the perspective of those holding high office in tall buildings, this seemed more like a threat. Street-level activists had already demonstrated Klein’s prescience even while her manuscript was being bound and printed, shutting down a World Trade Organisation conference, and downtown Seattle in the process, towards the end of 1999.

Almost eight years later, Klein does not believe that the anti-globalisation movement is finished, but accepts that the “moment” has passed. “For a little while there,” she remembers today, “you had thousands of people crashing this experts-only world, demanding to be involved in wonkish discussions about economic policy and intellectual property rights.”

One reading of recent history – Klein calls it “the official version” – suggests that moment ended on September 11, 2001, when the resistance to Western capitalism went violently out of fashion. What momentum it had gathered was then redirected against the pressing matter of the “war on terror”, and questions of how, and where, and whether, it could or should be fought. The fact that No Logo had been fashionable in the first place came to suit the reactionary view that Klein’s book was no more than an ephemeral artefact, and the author herself a hypocrite for writing such a youth-oriented, style-conscious, marketable treatise on the true cost of high-street shopping. “Oh yeah,” she says. “People used to enjoy informing me that I was actually my own brand. Hopefully I won’t be getting that any more. I’ve done lots of different things in the last few years, but I haven’t started a consulting agency or anything like that. So I’m obviously a bad brand manager, and I’ve probably lost a lot of brand recognition.”

Which is to admit that her follow-up book has been a long time coming. (Fences And Windows, published in 2002, was a collection of Klein’s then-contemporary speeches and journalism.) But Klein is never inactive, and usually the opposite. She and her husband, the documentary-maker Avi Lewis, spent most of 2003 in Argentina shooting The Take, a film about the factory workers who reoccupied their former places of employment, under their own terms and management, in a collective rejection of the globalist model that had imploded and left them abandoned.

Klein visited Iraq in spring 2004, just before the Coalition Provisional Authority nominally transferred power from the United States and its contractors to the new domestic government. What she saw and heard resulted in Baghdad Year Zero, an essay which became notorious for its portrait of the reconstruction process as a lethal free-trade bazaar, where insurgent viciousness was being generated as much by the CPA’s bold new liberalised and deregulated economy as by the US military occupation itself.

“Instead of creating the best place in the world to do business,” wrote Klein, “they have managed to create the worst not a corporate utopia but a ghoulish dystopia where going to a simple meeting can get you lynched, burned alive, or beheaded.”

A year later, she was in Sri Lanka, where post-tsunami building work had become grounds for profiteering land-grabs, as developers seized prime beachfront property from the fishing communities that had literally been wiped out. Within weeks, she was watching the same thing happen first hand in New Orleans, when those parts of the city drowned by Hurricane
Katrina were rapidly redesignated as flat-tax free-enterprise zones.

“Things got a bit crazy for a few years,” says Klein, referring to her workload in terms that would also do fine as an epigraph for the early 21st century. But since 2005, Klein, who still lives in her birth city of Toronto, has been sitting in her parents’ home amid the quiet woods of British Columbia, formulating all of this field data into a unifying theory, and an unofficial history, that might actually explain how the world now works. She calls it The Shock Doctrine, and it is the title of her new book, which was finally published last week. The subtitle: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism. “I don’t claim that it explains everything,” says Klein. “But I do think it explains a major something. We already have the official version of events, but there are huge parts of that history missing. This book is a supplement that I hope fills in some of those missing parts.

“It gives people an important piece of the story, which maybe they can use to create their own theory.” On the afternoon I meet Klein at her British publisher’s office in central London, The Shock Doctrine has not yet gone on sale, but she has already spent the morning responding to the objections of those who have reacted badly to extracts they read in a newspaper, or had heard enough about it to decide that they disagreed.

“I knew that defending this book would be part of the deal,” she says. “I also think the book speaks pretty well in its own defence. The problem is it’s not quite out there yet, and already people are getting the wrong ideas about it.” Klein has at least two weapons to use against pro-capitalists and neo-conservatives: her facility for debate – “You have to answer the language of faith with the language of morality” – and her ability to make them sound silly.

She does this literally, mimicking the stentorian voices of those invariably male experts who tell her, “Oh, but you don’t mention how bad state socialism was” or ask her, “Oh, so what are your alternatives?” The day before this interview, Otto J Reich, who was Ronald Regan’s ambassador to Venezuela, and more recently George W Bush’s special envoy to the Western hemisphere, dismissed Klein and her new book without having read it.

“There is no such thing as disaster capitalism,” he said, and if he said it anything like the way Klein now quotes him, Reich must have spoken with the pomposity of an elder cartoon elephant.
Amused and perversely validated as she was to hear a phrase of her own invention even used, however dismissively, by a man she politely describes as “one of the most, um, controversial US foreign policy figures in Latin America”, Klein is expecting more of the same. This is why she asked her husband to travel with her while she promotes The Shock Doctrine (“We see this as kind of a political campaign, and I couldn’t really deal with the attacks by myself”), and why she has gained a new empathy for the apathetic.

“I think for the first time in my life I can see how people just throw in the towel. I never understood that before. But it’s hard. I guess I’m saying I can see the appeal of not bashing my head against a wall. But then you look at people who have made the decision to become cynical and disengaged. Really, just look at those people. Look where it leads, ha ha. They don’t look relieved to me, they look self-loathing. I won’t allow myself to go there.” Klein herself looks as good at 37 as she did when No Logo made her famous in her late 20s. She is wearing a white jacket that might well be designer, and carrying one of those new Apple iPhones.

“It’s terrible, right?” she asks me when the thing goes off. “It’s my book tour phone. I’ve never had one of these hand-held devices before, but I’m not going to be home for three months, and I knew I’d need constant access to email, so I decided to go straight for the cool new gadget. It’s not such a good phone though. You need really tiny fingers to push the buttons.”

Attractiveness and stylishness have not always worked in her favour, and may still give her ideological opponents whatever licence they feel they need to get at her by way of her profile. The Economist defined this approach with a 2002 op-ed piece that attempted to assassinate Klein’s character as manifesting “all the incoherence and self-righteous disgust of the alienated adolescent”. That assessment could just as easily be interpreted as a superficial reading of Klein’s true substance: her continued dedicatation to the teenager she had in mind when she wrote No Logo. “I was writing that book for the girl I had been at age 19. For any girl at that age, who has the politics but doesn’t have the arguments to back them up. That’s who was sitting on my shoulder. I wanted to arm that 19-year-old. And then so many of the letters I got about No Logo came from young women, which to me was the most gratifying thing about it.

“Just knowing that I engaged with those women by being who I am that is very, very, very important to me. Because I get so much flak for writing the way I do, for not being an old man.”

Klein acknowledged throughout that first book that she was typical of her peer group in some ways and not in others, having made herself a model of the average teen consumer in a brief and calculated bid for rebellion against her socialist parents.

Her father was a physician, her mother a film-maker, and both of them were US citizens who had dissented from the Vietnam war by relocating to Canada (and who were, in turn, the children of American Marxists – Klein’s grandfather worked as a Disney animator until he was fired for organising the corporation’s first labour strike). The values implanted by her family were not activated until she went to university in Toronto, but Klein has always allowed for the possibility that her politics are in themselves luxury products of a safe liberal environment. This might make her work more, or less, impressive, depending on your point of view. But she is not boasting when she describes The Shock Doctrine as “a big book” and “a radical thesis”.

Klein gives all due credit to her research team, and defers to those who have risked or even given their lives to provide some of the stories she uses. China would have no place in her thesis if it wasn’t for the work of dissident journalist Wang Hui. She would never have noticed the insidiously unchanged economy of post-apartheid South Africa if William Gumede, a writer on such matters, had not admitted to her that even he didn’t notice it at first. And her chapter on 1970s Argentina owes at least some of its power and clarity to the words of Rodolfo Walsh, who effectively signed his own death warrant with his Open Letter From A Writer To The Military Junta. As a finished product, The Shock Doctrine says more than she set out to write, or to prove. Klein’s conclusion is that every natural and man-made disaster on Earth now occurs within the context of a global power structure that has been engineered to turn financial and political profit from the resulting panic. Klein has come to see violence in Iraq, poverty in Russia, torture in Latin America and market collapse across Asia as evidence not of chaos but of order, resulting from a “50-year crusade to privatise the world”.

And the architect of this era she identifies as the recently deceased American Nobel laureate and intellectual, Milton Friedman, whose pathological devotion to pure capitalism, and no less zealous aversion to any and all forms of public investment, has influenced so many modern policy-makers that almost every recent government – including brutal South African dictatorships – has owed something to the application of his logic. “It’s more than an implication I’m making,” says Klein. “It’s not a conspiracy theory either. I’m talking about a deliberate project by these so-called technocrats to remove economics from democratic accountability. If we look at who these men are and what they believe, they don’t really hide the fact that they think government should disappear, except as an ATM machine for their businesses.”

The men she is referring to include self-confessed Friedman accolyte and former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, as well as serving vice president Dick Cheney, who owns stocks in Halliburton that have increased in value by 300% since the corporation was granted its contract to provide “logistical support” to the American military in Iraq.
By declaring that the slaughters that occupation has perpetuated are the consequences of a plan, rather than the absence of one, on the part of the Bush administration, Klein appears to be suggesting that these men are either ignorant or antipathetic to the human cost of their decisions. Which is it? Does she believe, as Professor Andre Gunder Frank once said of Friedman, that they are guilty of “economic genocide”?

“Yeah. Some of them. But their rationale is that all this human pain they clearly see as a difficult stage on the road to utopia. This is what all ideologues believe – OK, 72 million are impoverished in Russia but these are growing pains on the way to a free market economy which will ultimately be so much better than state socialism that it will all be worth it’.” Capitalists used to say of communists that they were bound to fail because their system did not acknowledge the truth of human nature.

Klein now seems to be saying the same thing right back at them. “Well, I think we’re complicated. We are both selfish and generous, and these impulses compete, and any ideology that claims we’re only one is probably full of it. But this ideology of disaster capitalism says you are free to indulge in your greed because by that indulgence you are actually helping the most people possible. I don’t believe it. And it’s not just a difference of opinion. Because I think that is less an ideology than a cover story.”

It is difficult to imagine what Klein’s 19-year-old self would think of all this, or whether she could even comprehend it. “If you were 19 when you read No Logo, then you’re 26 now,” she says hopefully, although she admits that The Shock Doctrine may be less “galvanising” because of the size and complexity of the historical force it refers to. There is also a strange lack of anger in the language that she uses for this book. Klein saves her “snarky remarks” for her speeches. “You want to present the facts with a gravitas and a sense of morality that gives people the tools to have their own reaction. You don’t want to crowd them with yours.”

Her favourite comment on The Shock Doctrine so far has come from one of her heroes, the artist and novelist John Berger, who said he read it not with anger, but with “calm”.
“To me, that’s, like, the highest compliment. When you get information that you don’t know how to process or articulate, you tense up, right? But when you read something that just says it, that makes the right connections, it’s a relief. Your body relaxes. So I don’t want this book to make people feel mad, or dumb. I want them to feel calm.”

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