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Naomi Klein: How Corporate Branding Took Over the White House

Ten years after the publication of "No Logo", Klein looks at how Obama created a brand that won him the Presidency. Will his failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him?

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The risk - and it is real - is that the response will be waves of bitter cynicism, particularly among the young people for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics. Most won't switch parties, they'll just do what young people used to do during elections: stay home, tune out. Another, more hopeful possibility is that Obamamania will end up being what the US president's advisers like to call "a teachable moment". Obama is a gifted politician with a deep intelligence and a greater inclination towards social justice than any leader of his party in recent memory. If he cannot change the system in order to keep his election promises, it's because the system itself is utterly broken.

It was a conversation about changing the system that many of us were having in the brief period between the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999 and the beginning of the so-called war on terror. For the movement the media insisted on calling "anti-globalization," it mattered little which political party happened to be in power in our respective countries. We were focused squarely on the rules of the game, and how they had been distorted to serve the narrow interests of corporations at every level of governance - from international free-trade agreements to local water privatization deals.

Looking back, what I liked most was the unapologetic wonkery of it all. In the two years after  No Logo  came out, I went to dozens of teach-ins and conferences, some of them attended by thousands of people, that were exclusively devoted to popular education about the inner workings of global finance and trade. It was as if people understood, all at once, that gathering this knowledge was crucial to the survival not just of democracy but of the planet. Yes, this was complicated, but we embraced that complexity because we were finally looking at systems, not just symbols.

In some parts of the world, particularly Latin America, that wave of resistance spread and strengthened. In some countries, social movements grew strong enough to join with political parties, winning national elections and beginning to forge a new regional fair-trade regime. But elsewhere, September 11 pretty much blasted the movement out of existence. What we knew about the sophistication of global corporatism - that all the world's injustice could not be blamed on one rightwing political party, or on one nation, no matter how powerful - seemed to disappear.

If there was ever a time to remember the lessons we learned at the turn of the millennium, it is now. One benefit of the international failure to regulate the financial sector, even after its catastrophic collapse, is that the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as "free market" but "crony capitalist" - politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support. What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate greed is at its highest point not just in my lifetime but in my parents' lifetime as well. Many of the points supposedly marginal activists were making in the streets 10 years ago are now the accepted wisdom of cable news talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages.

And yet missing from this populist moment is what was beginning to emerge a decade ago: a movement that did not just respond to individual outrages but had a set of proactive demands for a more just and sustainable economic model. In the United States and many parts of Europe, it is far-right parties and even neofascism that are giving the loudest voice to anti- corporatist rage.

 
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