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Naomi Klein Gets Global

The anti-corporate activist and author talks about how to create a world free of neo-liberal market orthodoxy and full of vibrant, local participatory democracies.
 
 
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“I think that we should be a lot angrier. I think there's too much politeness in our response to mass theft and mafia politics.”

As the unofficial spokesperson for the anti-globalization movement, Naomi Klein wants everyone to quit calling it the "anti-globalization movement."

"The irony of the media-imposed label, 'anti-globalization,' is that we in this movement have been turning globalization into a lived reality, perhaps more so than even the most multinational of corporate executives," she writes. Klein and a globeful of protesters are building connections from "landless farmers in Brazil, to teachers in Argentina, to fast food workers in Italy... to migrant tomato pickers in Florida."

While she's at it, Klein is also not quite comfortable with being called a spokesperson. "This movement doesn't have leaders in the traditional sense," she writes, "just people determined to learn, and to pass it on."

Either way, Klein is one of the most articulate champions of the movement's history and drive. She narrates the evolution of thousands of different groups around the globe, that are working toward their vision of a world free of neo-liberal market orthodoxy and full of vibrant, local participatory democracies. Her new book is "Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate." She spoke with AlterNet while in San Francisco.

AlterNet: On the one hand, these are hard times for activists. You write about the criminalization of dissent with the war on terrorism. But these are also good times for anti-corporate activists, as public sentiment is turning against greedy executives. Are these the best of times, or the worst of times, or both?

Naomi Klein: I would say... We're winning the arguments but losing the war... (laughter). I do think that a lot of the arguments that were being made by activists, almost exclusively, are now becoming mainstream accepted opinions.

About deregulation, for example?

About deregulation, about corporate self-regulation. This was really clear in Johannesburg [at the Earth Summit]. The thinking that has been in vogue in government and UN circles in the past 10 years has been the "carrot not stick" idea about political change. Provide incentives, positive PR, and reward best practices but don't try to regulate worst practices. This requires an extraordinary amount of credulity on the part of the public. And as we know credulity has been in great supply in the past decade. I think that's definitely on the wane.

But that said, even though the idea of corporate self-regulation is an absurdity right now, that realization isn't translating into regulation in the people's interest, into setting binding standards. In Johannesburg it was still all "voluntary targets" and "partnerships." It was like a trade show. The only regulation we're seeing is regulation that protects shareholders, not regulation that protects workers or the environment. So, we're winning the argument but losing the war, because we have I think failed to really think seriously about power and how political change happens.

I think a lot of us on the left still believe that it is about winning arguments, it's about marshalling facts, being damning, just kind of auditing the record. And maybe we're not thinking about the fact that nothing's going to change until we really start organizing counterpowers that can be countervailing forces to the impunity we're seeing from corporations or from the state.

Where do we start? What does that look like?

What does that look like? We have a few examples of powerful movements. The movements that are having the most serious effect on power are in Latin America. Just in the last six months, it's starting to be reported in the New York Times and Washington Post: There is a huge backlash against neo-liberalism in Latin America. It's often reported on in really sloppy ways, like as a rise in anti-Americanism, as part of a war on terrorism narrative. But what it really is is a total discrediting of these economic policies based on their track record.

Argentina is the best example of that. Argentina was the model student through the '90s, with booming economic growth, huge amounts of private investment. But what we didn't hear was that behind these good new stories, disparity was widening. Money was being made through mass layoffs in state plans to privatize, and it was a paper boom much like the other paper booms of the 1990s, much like the dotcoms and Enron.

So, the response in Latin America has been to develop really interesting new organizing models. These models are able to contend with the reality of the effects of these economic policies, they don't just rely on stale Marxist rhetoric. It's not workers of the world unite, because what does that mean when you have 40 percent unemployment and you have a whole generation of people who have never had a job, or only ever had a contract?

One of the signature effects of neo-liberal economic policies is the erosion of community, the communities we used to use to organize. The signature of neo-liberalism is isolation and atomization. It looks different in different places. In an industrialized country in a rich city, it looks like workaholism, people not knowing their neighbors, or the displacement that comes with gentrification. It's the cliché of our age that we are isolated from each other and that we're all longing for community. In poor countries, it's much more dramatic displacement, from countryside to city, from country to country, the displacement of unemployment. It's the displacement of becoming economically discarded.

Where counterpowers are really exciting and interesting are where people are thinking in this new context. They're not trying to impose an old context on an old structure. In the campaigns that have stopped privatizations in Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia whole communities have been organizing, from grandparents down to little kids. This is what different about what's going on now. We have a lot to learn in the north from this idea of social organizing, social unionism.

What would be the most successful example of that?

In the past six months there have been successful campaign movements to block privatizations all over Latin America. It started in Bolivia when they threw out Bechtel. That was in 2000. But I think that success and the rumor of that success spread slowly.

The story took forever to get to the States.

Even in Latin America, it was kind of isolated. Part of what the movement of movements has been doing in the past couple years has been just spreading success stories. We are isolated from our own success stories. And then we are more prone to the idea that there is no alternative narrative. But the Argentine resistance movement, Brazil's experiments in participatory democracy, even Chavez's defiance have emboldened people.

I think historically the left has made a mistake of choosing a certain sector of population as kind of the vanguard, separating out one sector like the workers, deracinating them, pulling them out from their families and communities saying, "These are the people that will lead the revolution and lead us to political change."

The piqueteros [in Argentina] formed unions of unemployed workers. They couldn't shut down a factory since they had already been thrown out, so they occupied the roadways where goods were being transported, the key trade corridors. They moved into the streets for weeks and months at a time, whole families. They became shantytowns in the streets. This organizing model was really what led up to the explosion on Dec. 20 last year when they brought down the government in Argentina and then went through five presidents in two weeks.

After that, they sort of fell off the news and nobody really knows what's going on in Argentina now... But what actually happened is an explosion of participatory democracy -- everything from factories being occupied to hospitals that were shut down being re-opened by laid-off doctors. And it's an incredible counterpower to a failed state.

That version of the story, that narrative, is definitely not the one we've heard up north. What would the corollary be, in the north? Do we have any similar stories?

One other thing that's happening in Canada is a renewed interest in local politics, in municipal politics. Over the past few years, spending cuts have been coupled with an off-loading onto cities and towns. Basically cities and towns are feeling the brunt of economic globalization -- whether that's cuts in welfare, local housing, school board, health care.

For the first few years you had a really depoliticized municipality just kind of implementing these cuts. Now I think that there is a much more confrontational ethos emerging in the cities. You have a lot of young people who've never been involved in electoral politics before, who don't believe in party politics for good reason, who are getting involved in municipal politics with the idea that if you can take over the school board, if you can take over the city council, you can turn the city into a site of resistance, you can refuse to implement the cuts.

What do you think has been the best example, in the States, of activists using the combustion of corporations like Enron and World Com to bring about change?

Frankly, there's tons of really good stuff going on, but my impression (and I say this as someone who hasn't spent that much time in the U.S.) is that it has been too atomized to break through. In some ways, we have to be honest that we've kind of lost a lot of opportunities in the last few months with the implosion of Enron and the crisis of credibility in the corporate sector. We're finally getting a close examination of the obscene compensation packages of people like Jack Welch. And I think frankly, there's still too much timidity. I think we've internalized it post-9/11, so I think we're not being as bold as we should be in the face of the mainstreaming of a lot of what used to be the purview of a few anti-corporate Web sites.

What do you want to see more of?

I think that we should be a lot angrier. I think there's too much politeness in our response to mass theft and mafia politics.

What do you say to people who are newly galvanized, by the war on terrorism or the corporate crisis, but who aren't sure how to get involved? To people who don't go to rallies because they seem clichéd and who don't vote because it seems pointless?

In the past few years there's been a huge increase in activism, a new generation of activists going to demonstrations in the hundreds of thousands. And the kind of paralysis that you're describing in part has to do with being absolutely overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. When I was writing "No Logo" it was clear that anti-sweatshop campaigns were providing a really important first step for young people who weren't going to go to a rally but had a way to act at their school. And we need to constantly be thinking about those entry points, that are not just about consumer politics. Not just a rally and a boycott.

The way to bridge the gaps is through direct action. You've got to give people a taste of another way of being that breaks through a kind of spectatorship stance by demanding change and actually doing it. That could mean reconnecting electricity in South Africa or putting your body on the line to stop an eviction in Canada, squatting land to reclaim it. This is what has galvanized people around the world.

In my city, Toronto, anti-poverty activism like the Ontario Coalition on Poverty seems to be that bridge. It's saying OK, one thing you can do in your city is act with people who are the most vulnerable, the most discarded. This is often dismissed as local and not serious activism. But I think that these are genuinely grassroots and practical forms of direct action -- not symbolic direct action outside of the summit where you decide to get arrested and stage symbolic confrontations at a police line, but direct action -- that's going to have a real effect, whether it's going to put a roof over someone's head or stop a deportation, bring water or electricity or land. And these grassroots movements are increasingly globally networked.

That network is quite new. Around Seattle, the people who were networked were the NGOs, the students, the anarchists, globally, but it really wasn't the people who were most personally affected by these policies. For obvious reason -- access to technology and the immediacy of fighting for a roof over your head you're not necessarily going to be inclined to do international outreach. So a tension developed between global and local activism. [The global protests] were becoming increasingly abstract. It was harder and harder to explain just what these protests were about. And there was a lot of resentment building for people who around the world were dealing with the effects of these policies on the ground. They were questioning how much resources were being spent in the summit hopping, in the mobilizing people, on the buses, and also in legal fees. But I think through exchanges like the World Social Forum, or Via Campesino we're starting to see a change.

I saw this very clearly in Johannesburg. In addition to the NGO summits of various kinds, there was also a week of the landless and a landless camp. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen something like this -- the MST and Via Campesino from El Salvador, from India, from across Africa -- they were exchanging stories about land reform and land reclamation, they were debating Mugabe endlessly.... And I can tell you that the anti-poverty activists in my country are part of that network. This is probably one of the most encouraging developments.

In your book, you say that you have tried to document a moment in the history of this movement of movements, without predicting what's next. But... what's next? Does it have to do with networking these local movements worldwide?

I think that's a big part of this. I think that we've gotten really good at defining what we're up against -- a dual crisis. One side is the economic crisis in neo-liberalism. This model is failing around the world. The promise of globalization is the promise of development and of bringing under-developed countries into the global economy. The implementation of these policies around the world has exacerbated inequality. It has created crises in Asian tiger economies, in Eastern Europe, in Latin America. The only success story that guys like Jeffrey Sachs can point to anymore is China. And they don't see the irony that they're Communist!

And protectionist...

Absolutely, extremely interventionist -- it's by no means the strictly neo-liberal formula that is creating their growth. In rich countries, the economic model has created enormous wealth for an economic elite. But for most people it's been status quo or worse. So that's not anything to brag about. We've gotten very good at naming that problem. It's taken a while. In the three-year trajectory that I'm writing about, it went from a critique of a few bad apple corporations, to a critique of privatization, to a critique of neo-liberalism as it's being enforced, to a deeper understanding that this is a stage of capitalism. That's a lot of what the protests have been doing, making intellectual connections between seemingly isolated cases, to outing a global system.

And the flip side of neo-liberal economic policies is the global crisis in representative democracy. That's why people started going after corporations in the first place, because around the world they felt they had lost the ear of the people they elected. As Ralph Nader said, we went into the streets of Seattle because we could no longer afford the price of admission in Washington.

I think that if we really come to terms with those twin crises, then we'll come up with alternatives. It's not just being driven to local politics because we've given up on federal or state politics but it's also basically a suspicion of centralized power. It's a suspicion of what happens whenever power is centralized -- whether it's centralized in a socialist state government or in a neo-liberal government or in a religious fundamentalist regime.

The reason we haven't moved beyond this point of naming what we're up against is because most of us feel we really don't have the opportunity. We're not strong enough to act yet. There's this idea that you work out your action plan and then you implement it, like a business plan. But I think political change happens through tremendous upheaval. There needs to be opportunity for there to be real innovation, i.e. we're not really going to move towards building alternatives until we really start to believe and actually have reason to believe that we're going to be able to implement it. Otherwise we're just sitting wanking, right?

That's why I'm obsessed with Argentina right now -- and I am obsessed, we're making a film about Argentina, we're moving there for six months from November to April. The idea is to follow how these twin crises have reached their apex in Argentina. You have the model child of the IMF in total disarray, failing, in every conceivable way. And then you have a rejection of the political class that is beyond anything I believe we've ever seen in history. It's so deep, it's actually changing the whole political narrative.

The slogan on the streets of Argentina is "Que se vayan todos!" It's everyone, everyone out! It's chanted at every level of government, it's chanted at corporations, at privatized electrical companies at the supreme court, every institution that represents any kind of institutionalized power. It's a total loss of faith in delegation.

I believe that because of the depth of the crisis there, through the process of engaging with an election campaign, the grassroots movement -- the piqueteros, the neighborhood assemblies -- are going to come up with a kind of a template for change. I'm not saying they're going to win the election and that the country is going to be run by neighborhood assemblies, although that would be great. But the level of mobilization in Argentina is unlike anything I've ever seen before. And I think that in trying to do this, they're going to take this debate light years forward. They're going to paint a picture for us the rest of the world about what another system would look like.