News & Politics

Naomi Klein's Passionate Discourse

'We're talking about the fate of the planet, but we're so worried about being perceived as reasonable, that we drain our discourse of all passion.'
Naomi Klein is one of the leading voices in the global justice movement, though she might take issue with that characterization as a matter of principle. She chronicles the issues, demonstrations and grassroots activism which have largely been ignored by the mainstream media in her books No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies, and Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate.

Although Naomi is a non-fiction writer, she writes with the passion, energy and creativity of a poet. We recently talked with her from the studios of WORT 89.9 FM, Madison's community radio station. We discussed the role of art in direct democracy movements, and the manipulation and reclamation of language, words and ideas.

Yogesh Chawla: Can you give our readers a brief overview of the global justice, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-globalization movement? And your involvement in it?

Naomi Klein: There are a lot of names for this movement and I think that probably speaks to the fact that there isn't one movement. There has been a kind of convergence of movements in the past five years or so in North America and Europe. A lot of these movements have been active for longer in southern countries. Particularly in Latin America and India, where you have really strong movements against the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and so on.

And I think it's quite accurate to call parts of the movement anti-capitalist because they are. I think particularly from young people who started off maybe questioning why corporations were so involved in every aspect of their lives, took over so much public space, were involved in their education, and so on. And then became active in anti-war activities and then made connections between the two and came to a broader critique of capital and its role in the waging of wars and in pushing down labor standards, environmental standards and so on. And then I think that there are aspects of this convergence of movements that are more anti-globalization. I wouldn't consider myself part of those movements, but there are elements that are much more about returning to local economies. There really isn't any consensus or any one movement.

And I think there's a lot of variety regionally -- in European movements, and Latin American movements and North American movements. But there are some common themes that bring them together. And as far as my involvement is concerned, I guess I'm a writer and an activist. And I guess my main activist tool is writing and research. And I wrote a book a few years ago that came out right when the protests in Seattle were happening, so there was an explosion of conferences and convergences and I just kind of got swept up in it.

Sachin Pandya: It's a fine book, too. Just to add that.

YC: Actually both books, No Logo and Fences and Windows. You were just talking about convergence of movements. And we saw that in the recent anti-war protests in Madison. What we noticed, particularly being more of a literary kind of group -- is that poets and artists had a specific presence at these events. And also in Madison, a lot of the anti-war activities were specifically organized by artists and writers and poets. Did you see the same thing happening nationally and internationally and also, could you describe this energy?

In some ways I feel really unqualified to talk about the anti-war movement in North America, because I just came back from Argentina, where I've been living for close to a year. So I was in Buenos Aires during the war. But that energy you're describing was very present -- is very present -- in Latin American resistance movements against neo-liberal economic policies and also against the war. Which I think is just the fact that creativity is considered once again a political -- not just a political priority as in dressing up the protests -- but at the center of the spirit of how political alternatives will emerge. A shaking off of dogmatism and a sense of "believe this because it's good for you," or "participate in this because it's like homework." A desire to capture that sense of spontaneity and creativity as a political act. I think you see that in movements like the Zapatista movement. Which, if one were to choose one political moment that sort of kick-started this current wave of resistance -- because I don't think that we're talking about anything new -- is when the Zapatistas began their rebellion, their uprising in 1994. The day that NAFTA took effect, on January 1, 1994, they put that resistance squarely within a 500-year tradition of resisting colonialism.

But the Zapatista rebellion weaves poetry so deeply -- poetry and art, visual art, into the fabric -- and puts it at center stage. And of course Marcos' writings -- they are the opposite of Leninist dogma. They are these poems that come down from the mountain and are picked up and put on the Internet. And I think that had a profound effect on a new generation of activists. That sort of freed us to think about what political writing could be.

SP: You seem to get excited in your writing about actions and protests like Reclaim the Streets, things that can be much more of a carnival experience. Obviously one of the big goals of these kinds of protests is more than just about getting streets back for bicycle traffic, but about reclaiming public space. And I think one of the things we've noticed here, getting involved locally in trying to create public spaces for the arts, poetry readings, art shows and things like that, is this idea that public space has a necessary purpose, a very specific purpose. It's not just a place where people can stand publicly and mingle. We need to use those spaces as forums for a certain kind of discourse and a certain kind of thought.

Can you talk a little about the role, perhaps throughout Europe, that arts and artists has played in those kinds of protests? And what you think the role of art in public space really is?

Well, I think that there has been a community of artists that are linked, some of them acting on their own, who are trying to free art. A friend of mine, John Jordan, is one of the founders of Reclaim the Streets in England. He recently gave a paper at the Tate Modern in London, which was about performance art, and the name of his presentation was "Escape the Art Bunker." It was sort of a challenge to the arts community in Britain, who do tend to lock themselves up in art bunkers. And the Tate looks like a bunker, which is why he used that phrase. To bring art to the streets, and to make that their tool. I guess to come back again to the Zapatistas -- there's this idea that anything can be a weapon if you use it right. And you know, that's their famous phrase: Our word is our weapon.

But a video camera can be a weapon, and poetry can be a weapon. One of the examples that I am thinking of is a project that happened in Quebec City during the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) a couple years ago. A group of artists realized that there was going to be a huge repression, and they wanted to do something that would be both beautiful and functional. So, they produced about 5,000 bandanas that they silk-screened with the image of a fence on it. Because that was sort of the image of Quebec City. They fenced the whole downtown.

It was a way of taking, of playing -- being aware of how our movement's iconography was being manipulated in the media. Black Bloc sort of all masked-up and anonymous. It was becoming almost borg-like and threatening. They were realizing that people do need to wear masks because they are being tear-gassed, but how can you play with the image of the mask so that you are more in control of your image?

Right before September 11, when there were going to be protests in Washington against the World Bank and IMF, there was a project. Those protests were cancelled because the meetings were cancelled, but the project by a group of artists was to put sequins and feathers on gas masks. Once again, it is the same idea. The idea of art that is functional.

I'll give you another example from Argentina. What I've been doing in Argentina is making a documentary film about an amazing movement that's happening there, which is the occupied factory movement. You have all these factories that during the economic crisis were shut down, went bankrupt, or the owners decided it was no longer profitable to do business in Argentina, and they shut down the factories to move them elsewhere. But in about 150 cases the workers at these factories refused to leave, so they locked themselves in and did something which was kind of the reverse of a strike. Instead of withholding their labor in the traditional strike sense, they refused to stop working. Seamstresses refused to leave their machines and kept sewing, and tile workers kept making ceramic tiles. The factories in 150 cases have stayed open, are sustainable, and people are getting paid, in many cases more than they were before.

In one of the most famous cases, there was a factory called Brookman. It was a clothing factory and it was one of the first factories to be occupied. While we were there, they were evicted after a year and a half of staying working, of continuing production. There was a massive police presence outside the factory, and the workers decided that they wanted to go back in and retake the factory. So once again, there was a group of international artists who had a meeting to talk about what they could do to help, to be practically useful.

Because the workers were going to walk across the police line, they (the artists) produced these Plexiglas shields. They covered them with huge blown-up photographs of the women working. So the women were holding these Plexiglas shields with photographs of themselves working at their sewing machines. It was very powerful, because of course all these women wanted to do was work.

It also meant that if the police were going to beat them -- which in the end they did do, there was a very strong repression -- that they were going to have to create this media spectacle where they attacked people working, which is very powerful. They would actually have to attack the photographs. And in a country where you have more than 50% of the population below the poverty line, that is the absolute worst thing that you can do. Because work is sacred now, because you need it so badly.

So those are just a few examples of how artists I know are marrying, sort of bringing a sense of aesthetics and creativity in play but really being very practical. You know it's just not enough to decorate the protests -- the idea is to be functional and useful.

YC: It also kind of turns the notion of power on its head -- fighting water cannons with squirt guns, or firing teddy bears into protests.

SP: On the flip side of getting art involved in the movement, one of the things that I think about is the way that corporations have seized upon the anti-capitalist message -- used some of the techniques and injected them into their own ad campaigns, their own brands. I know you have written about some examples of the Gap spray-painting "Independence" on their own windows, or video games like "State of Emergency," where you get to be an anarchist and attack the police.

How do you see that happening and what, as activists and artists, can we do in terms of language to prevent them from co-opting our message? What are some types of speech that they can't get after?

Once again, I don't feel 100% up on it because I have been outside of North America. Although this was an issue in Argentina, after what I guess is called the Popular Rebellion on the 19th and 20th of 2001 -- when you saw hundreds of thousands of people pour into the streets, and they successfully overthrew the government.

The symbol of those protests, the brand if you will, was the pot, because people were banging pots and pans. It was this wonderfully democratic form of resistance, because it wasn't the usual loudspeaker and people following in columns, which is the way politics is often done, particularly in that country. Everybody who had a pot -- and of course everyone has a pot and a spoon -- was a full actor in that moment. They were creating this noise. It was actually completely non-verbal. It was this roaring sound of rejection. But when I got to Buenos Aires a month after those protests, on the cover of Elle magazine was this beautiful, emaciated model wearing this little skimpy cocktail dress with pots hanging from it. It took a month to get on the cover of Elle as cacerolazo chic (ed. note: cacerolazo is a form of protest involving the banging of pots and pans). And people there -- I think rightfully -- completely ignored it because it was so inconsequential. I think when you have a live political movement that is really talking about profound political change to the economy and to the political elite, it doesn't really matter whether it ends up being kind of co-opted in a cell phone ad. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

I think in North America this project -- I'm talking about the marketing project -- was interrupted by September 11. I think it's only just restarting now. I think that a lot of the companies that were going in this route -- sort of hyper-alternative anti-corporate advertising -- were very much spooked by September 11, and immediately wrapped themselves in the American Flag. That's what's in the window of a Gap now. I think that some of these companies continued in this direction more in Europe. But in North America, they're producing videos where you get to be the North American G.I., not the activist.

YC: It's on the Army web site.

SP: Right, the Army has released a video game where you can go around and practice shooting people.

Right, so I'm not sure that this is that much of an issue at the moment, although there's always going to be a few examples. And I've personally experienced this in rather disturbing ways since No Logo was published, because I decided against the wishes of my publisher not to trademark "No Logo," the phrase. What's happened to me is that a few businesses have gone and trademarked it.

YC: Isn't there a "No Logo" clothing company?

Yeah, there's a shoe company in Italy now, and a food company and a cell phone company. A lot of money is being made, and it looks exactly the way it's designed on the cover of my book. And it's frustrating for me because I actually get email from people who say that they think I've produced products. That does bother me. But the alternative would be doing exactly what I argue against in the book, which is trying to own ideas and keep them from spreading. Which is exactly the opposite of what most activists want. You want ideas to spread.

SP: You've become kind of the public face of the global justice movement, or at least one of the spokespeople. Outside of these people co-opting No Logo, there is sort of a brand -- the look and style of your books, and the global justice movement as a whole. Is this something that you worry about? Do you think of going off in a different direction to subvert your own brand? Do you think that having a brand is a bad thing for the movement?

I do worry about it a lot, actually, and I do try to subvert my own brand in various ways. I think that for a long time I really didn't see that it was happening. I thought it was being used by the right wing press as a way to discredit the book, because every interview I did a journalist would go "But you're your own brand," as a way of saying "Okay, we don't have to listen to your arguments." But I do think that it has happened. And it happened because this is an extraordinarily diverse movement of movements that I'm involved in -- it's really hard for media types to digest and understand. And I think that in many ways that's what makes it strong and resistant to the types of co-optation we've been talking about.

But I think that there's a really insistent, tenacious narrative about how movements work, and how political change works, that has a life very much outside this movement, that has to do with charismatic leaders who write manifestos and then people following them. We all know that narrative, it's a pretty hackneyed one, and it's on the History Channel every night.

This movement hasn't produced that narrative because it hasn't allowed leaders and followers to emerge in that sense. If you think about the anti-war movement on February 15, there were tens of millions of people on the streets around the world, but you'd be hard-pressed to name who led that movement. Which is extraordinary.

So yeah, it troubles me when I'm used to subvert -- the only thing I can do is do less media, in terms of interviews, which I have done a lot of -- which I guess we're doing now.

SP: We appreciate that.

YC: We'll make sure the least amount of people read it as possible.

Well, you never know -- and also to refuse to extend the brand. We got a movie proposal, and things like that. I said from the beginning -- it's not a brand, it's a book. I haven't built the brand. Other people have taken it and used it to sell things, and that's been a little difficult. it's a complicated process, because I am also so pleased every time I get a letter from a 16-year old kid in the suburbs who doesn't really have access to the alternative press, and was able to get the book at a superstore. And it becomes sort of a bridge to hooking up with the activist world. I hear those stories, I think writers always hear those stories -- so it does balance out.

YC: Going beyond this whole crazy notion of Naomi Klein as a brand, let's get back a little bit to your writing. In Fences and Windows in particular, you describe writing dashed-off, late at night after protests, emailed from tear gas-filled community centers. This kind of resembles the way a poet would rip out some poems in their journal, or how an artist would document an event in their sketchpad as it's happening. Have you ever felt the urge to send poetry or prose into your editor instead of your article or column, or have you ever felt one of your speeches or lectures turn into kind of a poetry slam-type spoken word performance? Anything like that?

I said in the book that a lot of this whole process since the book came out was difficult for me, because I hadn't done any public speaking, and I was battling stage fright at every turn. But since I've become more comfortable, I think that there have been some examples verging on what you're describing. I've definitely been loosening up a little bit. And I've been telling my publishers when they ask me what my next book is -- I keep telling them it's going to be a science fiction novel. They just stare at me really frightened and pretend I didn't say it. But that's the plan. That's the current plan.

YC: Have you ever dabbled in poetry? Have you ever had any secret fantasies of being one of the Marcos poets who sends your writing down through the mountains to the people?

I've written plenty of bad poetry in my time.

SP: I think everybody has -- that's nothing to be ashamed of.

YC: If you'd like to send some of it along, I'm sure we'd be more than happy to see it.

I think I'll save the world from that. It's the one thing I can do. it's the one thing in my power.

SP: Obviously, words are getting to be a dangerous thing in times like these. I think about Donald Rumsfeld saying empty, empty things like "the absence of evidence isn't the evidence of absence" or some such thing about weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq). I think about us as poets, you as a writer of nonfiction. How do we get our words back and get them to mean things again when they're being so brutalized by corporate and by governmental language right now?

I could be wrong, but I actually think that the answer is to speak them with passion. I think on the left, we tend to be really cautious because we're so afraid of being dismissed as hysterical and dogmatic. We end up saying incredibly powerful things far too calmly. We're talking about the fate of the planet, but we're so worried about being perceived as reasonable, that we drain our discourse of all passion.

I actually don't think it's that hard to reclaim words and meaning from the Donald Rumsfelds of the world, because I think that people are so able to identify and relate to words that are connected to beliefs and passions. I think that the left and progressive movements in the U.S. -- because they're so embattled by the media, so mocked and dismissed and silenced, etc. -- we really internalize this idea that there's something wrong with what we're saying, that we have to say it so carefully.

I think about somebody like Arundhati Roy. To me her political essays really are poetry. And she gives people permission to write from the heart. When she writes about war, it's so filled with rage and love. And she's completely unashamed and embarrassed by that. And it's such a relief when you read it, because everyone's always trying to be so reasonable, and it comes out so bloodless. I think that's a role that poets and fiction writers can play at this point. And I think that Arundhati, who is a real model for this -- she understands that she is doing it very consciously -- allows people to get mad. This is what we need from our artists and theorists and critics right now.

SP: Well, I think we've taken a fair bit of your time, and we appreciate that. We wanted to ask you one last question. Do you have any particular poets or artists that have strongly resonated with you and inspired you, and kind of perhaps lead you down this path?

I talked about a couple of them in terms of the current activist world right now -- Arundhati Roy and Marcos. Their writing has I think had a big effect on me and on the movement in general, in terms of a permission, that everything doesn't have to be linear. And that it's as important to speak to people's hearts as it is to speak to their heads.

I think music for me has a big effect as well. We just saw Spearhead last week, and Dead Prez. And we just hung out with Billy Bragg last week. [Another band is] Orishas. And there's an amazing Argentinean band called Bersuit that is really deeply involved in the occupied factory movements. I guess I tend to get more of that inspiration from music, although after this conversation I'm going to read some poetry.