Naomi Klein's New New Left
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After spending 24 hours trailing thousands of protesters, scores of journalists and hundreds of riot gear-clad cops through the hot streets of L.A., Naomi Klein was not as upbeat as she would like to be. "There is a danger here of launching into laundry list activism," she said, taking a breather in a makeshift cafeteria full of lefties. "It's called a coalition, but it's really everything in the kitchen sink."
Klein, a Canadian journalist and activist, had come to Los Angeles to join the protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention. And like many on the street she was convinced that a new radicalism was underway. Yet unlike the scores of the dreadlocked, pierced, black-clad radical youth, Klein's enthusiasm was muted by a sharp critical edge; she was not so certain that this movement of protests wasn't just running in place.
"Ever since Seattle, the American Left surprised itself by being alive," she said with her characteristic no-nonsense force. "And now this weird psychology has set in where the Left is so afraid of losing the momentum of Seattle they have to keep organizing the next Seattle or the whole thing will dissipate."
Klein wishes the demonstrations had been more organized or, even better, focused on corporate power, which is the subject of her book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.
"Corporate greed is what connects The Gap and campaign finance reform," she argued. "It's where the connections to all these diverse groups -- the sweatshop activists, the environmentalists, the drug war protesters -- meet."
Klein warned that it is "very, very dangerous for activists to be sloppy right now," since corporations and institutions like the World Trade Organization are excelling in "doublespeak" and "obfuscation" to the point where they can successfully undercut their critics.
"Everything's being repackaged," Klein said. "The World Bank is being repackaged as an AIDS elimination program; the WTO is being repackaged as an anti-poverty organization." This means, she insisted, that there is a burden on the Left to sharpen its analysis and not just fall back on old rhetoric. "Otherwise, we'll even lose our language."
Klein, at 30, is an expert in the use and abuse of language by corporations and financial institutions. No Logo has been described by the Village Voice as "one of the anticorporate movement's best hopes yet." And even the New York Times -- hardly on the cutting edge of activism -- has called it "a movement bible." The reason for these accolades is that Klein shows with ruthless clarity how companies have shifted from being purveyors of products to marketers of brands, of "ideas." The Gap sells cool minimalism, not t-shirts. Starbucks sells community first and coffee second. And most of what they sell, however patriotically American, is made abroad.
Among Klein's main points is that brand-centered corporations have created a new Organization Man, except this time he is a part-timer who by day pumps out Starbucks cappuccinos to the rhythm of the Gypsy Kings and by night cruises the mall. And just like William Whyte's Organization Man of a generation ago, Klein's Starbucks barrista is a person on the brink: stunted by a system, which now is not excessively conformist or homogenizing but craftily accommodating of cultural differences.
Klein convincingly argues that corporations today not only pay the bulk of their employees miserable wages, they coopt whatever dissent could be used against them -- through hip multimillion dollar advertising campaigns. Tommy Hilfiger's use of black street culture to sell sweatshop clothing is one of her favorite examples.
Klein is certainly on to something. Like Thomas Frank, editor of the cultural journal The Baffler, she is adamant that corporate branding and advertising have put her generation into a mesmerizing cultural and political stranglehold. But unlike Frank, she believes this is not a permanent or inevitable condition.
"This book is hinged on a simple hypothesis," she wrote in the introduction to No Logo, "that as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations, particularly those with very high name-brand recognition."
A brisk writer with a biting sense of humor, Klein calls the CEOs of companies like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger "the new rock stars" -- "full-time professional teenagers" who are "forever trailing the scent of cool." Though they may no longer have civil rights or free love on their minds, she argues they have taken the lessons of the media-savvy 1960's counterculture and applied them to branding their product. Benneton sells itself through ethnic diversity; the Body Shop through environmental correctness, and in doing so quashes political progressivism through marketing.
Klein is also particularly astute in connecting the consequences of corporations' cost-cutting decisions -- which include the movement of production to third world sweatshops and temp labor -- to the potential for the movement she advocates. Yet she is weary of how this strategy could backfire.
"There is no doubt that anticorporate activism walks a precarious line between self-satisfied consumer rights and political action," she warns.
She argues that the real hope for a movement against global corporations lies not in consumer activism but in organizing workers and government regulation of corporate behavior.Unfortunately, though, she provides no analysis of how this government regulation would be greeted by leaders in the third world, many of whom see the movement of factories and paying jobs, however low-waged, to their countries as the only pragmatic scenario for development.
Whether the anticorporate movement Klein champions finds bigger wings, what is certain is that she is proving herself a leader among a new breed of North American Lefties. Perhaps not surprisingly, Klein is a third generation rabble-rouser. One of her grandfathers, a Marxist, was fired by Walt Disney for trying to unionize the animators of "Fantasia." In the late 1960's her parents left their home in the United States to protest the Vietnam War.
Klein explains that as a teenager in Montreal, she rebelled against her socialist parents by becoming a "mall rat," working after school in a chain clothing store. But those days of vapid rebellion did not last long. In college at the University of Toronto, she became, as she puts it, "Miss P.C.," editing the campus newspaper fueled by the fire of identity politics. Klein says now, though, that the some of the victories of identity politics were empty because media representation did not translate into political power.
"We were clamoring for better media representation and we got it," she said. "But it was kind of a hollow victory, although certainly it's better to have sitcoms that represent lots of different groups than not. Still, it's hardly revolutionary."
Since Seattle, Klein has been hot on the trail of the protest movement. Although she is critical of its trajectory, she is thrilled that "a tremendous fascination with activism" has emerged, which she said is due to the fact that "activism has become about actual acts."
"Activism had become so ritualized," Klein explained. "You know, you march to some office or government building somewhere that's locked. It's Sunday. You yell at it. And then you turn around and go home."
Klein understands why that kind of activism has been greeted by a tremendous amount of cynicism by the media. "The attitude was: you've seen one protest, you've seen them all."But Klein is not an apologizer for the press. Nor does she apologize for whatever violence has occurred at the demonstrations. "There has to be a type of activism that can accommodate the rage of people being abandoned by the system," she said.
As far as the Democratic National Convention is concerned, she said people had a perfect right to be furious. At a panel on commercial culture organized by Arianna Huffington, Klein made the kind of salient point that has become her trademark. "This convention will be remembered as the one where the marriage between money and politics was fully made," she said to an audience overcome with applause.
Whether or not the Left will be able to cause a long-due divorce between money and politics is unclear to Klein. She asserts that the 1960's protest movement, though instructive, is not necessarily the best model to follow. Rather she advocates looking back another three decades to the broad-based economic movements of the 1930's -- when there was a loose coalition of labor, consumer groups, farmers, sweatshop workers and women's organizations working to change economic and social policy.
"We should not be talking about the '50s and '60s, but the '30s, except with a twist," said Klein. "This is not activism in the shadow of economic collapse; it's activism in the shadow of economic boom, which I think is just as energizing."
But energizing for whom? This is the question that rankles Klein and her anticorporate collegues-in-arms. Can a movement with no center, a movement that is insistently non-hierarchical, a movement that looks from a distance very much like laundry-list activism, pull in enough people to effect change? And since activists in this movement of movements are not self-described socialists, as was often the case in the '30s, how can they make a case that they are offering an alternative political ideology? Maybe they cannot. Maybe all they can do is advocate for a softer, gentler form of corporate capitalism.
Klein's argument that capitalism with a human face begins with a world-wide discovery of the destructive tactics of corporate branding will certainly pull in college-educated North Americans like herself. After all, as she points out, the culture of corporate advertising is what they all have in common. Almost everyone can deconstruct an Apple ad splashed with a photo of Ghandi or John Lennon. But whether it is truly politicizing will depend very much on which way the economy goes.
What is clear amidst all these unknowns is that Naomi Klein is helping to define the issues and activism of the New New Left. She joins a growing body of North Americans and Europeans who are outraged that corporate greed is sounding the death knell to democratic politics.