[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Naomi Klein profiled ahead of new book, Shock Doctrine
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Mon Sep 3 18:54:36 BST 2007
(We'll have a chapter of the new work on the CCS website in coming days.)
Shocked and appalled
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 31, 2007 at 11:57 PM EDT
If there's anyone who knows the ins and outs of a successful marketing
campaign, it's Naomi Klein.
So why is the author of the bestselling No Logo, the 2000 book that tore
apart the pretensions of “Just Do It” brand-building while inspiring the
social-justice spirit in young consumers, walking away from a screening
of the video for her long-awaited new book, The Shock Doctrine?
“It's too disturbing,” she says, as she closes the door to the small
room that started off as our meeting place but now feels more like an
Of course, if you're a truly discerning consumer of the commodity that
is intellectual culture, you're focusing less on Ms. Klein's sudden
disappearance from her own promotional gathering and more on the fact
that her massive new tome (to be published on Tuesday in seven
languages) comes with its own trailer – if trailer is a word that can
begin to describe this dense and darting six-minute documentary created
by Ms. Klein and Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron ( Children of Men, Y
Tu Mama Tambien), which will shortly make a more public appearance at
the Toronto International Film Festival.
Book videos “are the hot new thing in publishing,” according to the
37-year-old Canadian author, whose particularly successful brand of
activism-for-our-times has always had a soft spot for the hot new thing.
And why not? Why should left-wing politics be preachy and above-it-all,
which is certain death for any movement that is sincerely committed to
reaching the masses, whoever they now may be?
Those are particularly relevant questions when the subject is as
difficult and unsettling as the one Ms. Klein has chosen for her No Logo
follow-up – no less a theme than the human devastation caused by the
unrelenting propagandists for the free-market economy over the last 35
years, from the torture chambers of Augusto Pinochet's Chile and the
murderous disappearances in Argentina's military rule to the morass of
Hurricane Katrina and the shock-and-awe destruction of Iraq.
No wonder Ms. Klein flees her own video. Reduced to a film-festival
format, The Shock Doctrine scours the vulnerable brain, as the jarring
noises of crying babies and wailing cats surround images of pain and
torture that are meant to represent the shock-therapy metaphors peddled
by unsparing market economists – in the most visceral and literal way.
This, to Ms. Klein's sensitive eye, is the ugly face of capitalism, and
it's a sight she can't stand to see.
We're a long way from No Logo, a book that exposed the cruel ruses of
global branding, true, but didn't implicate us quite so much in the
writhing bodies and twisted souls of the market's innocent victims.
Smart 17-year-old girls latched on to it and found in its breezy pages
the substance to go with their style. Hundreds of them wrote personal
letters to Ms. Klein, thanking her for opening them up to the world of
politics, a place from which they thought they were barred.
No Logo was upbeat, empowering, effortlessly superior to the globalized
economy it described (to the point where some critics accused it of
being just an elevated version of consumer snobbery). The 662-page Shock
Doctrine, as you might guess from its subtitle, The Rise of Disaster
Capitalism, is much more prickly and much less eager to please.
As such, it is a risky venture for a woman who found a devoted worldwide
audience with her previous book, including praise from British and
American rock stars and a paparazzi following in Italy, where unlicensed
No Logo boutiques honour her fame. She deliberately resisted writing an
obvious sequel – to the point of investing over $200,000 of her advance
payments in research operations, building a virtual academic institute
in order to get the goods on such unsexy free-market gurus as the late
University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Her acknowledgments
alone run to eight pages.
“I did feel some pressure to write another No Logo,” she says, returning
to the meeting room after the video's cacophony has given way to a more
bookish calm. “ Politics … but fun!” she says, in a parody of the
marketing voice that can reduce every bright idea to its most lucrative
and inane. “ ‘Easier than Chomsky,' someone said. Well, this isn't that.”
The Shock Doctrine, in her analysis, is “the secret history of the free
market.” The concepts that economists such as Prof. Friedman and
institutions such as the World Bank so zealously promoted –
deregulation, privatization, free trade, debt reduction, huge cuts in
the public sector, targeting trade-union movements – have become so
mainstream that they seem inevitable for any political office-seeker in
a Western democracy, even if they lead to lower wages and less
protection for the working classes.
But Ms. Klein is determined to show that this free-market utopia,
designed to benefit big corporations and their allies in government, is
neither inevitable nor democratic nor a good thing. And by doing so, in
her detailed histories of those political and economic crises where the
free marketeers overplayed their hand (Prof. Friedman is disturbingly
tight with the repressive Pinochet, for example), she also wants to
shake us out of our deference to crisis-capitalism's shock therapy and
lead us back to the more humane values of democratic socialism.
Does that make sense? In Ms. Klein's world, these are givens.
Free-market ideals are undemocratic by nature and can be imposed only
against the will of the people at “a moment of collective vertigo” when
the ordinary rules of political behaviour are suspended – one classic
example being Sept. 11, 2001, when right-wing think tanks rolled in with
readymade agendas to take advantage of what she calls “a period of
disorientation, when you trust authority figures and think Rudy Giuliani
is your long-lost daddy.”
Her project is a secret history because so much free-market rhetoric, in
her view, is at odds with the way these economic “reforms” have been
carried out. Since people won't choose a more precarious economic life
willingly, they have to be fooled or shocked or tortured into being
compliant – which sounds accurate in describing Pinochet's Chile and
post-9/11 Iraq, both of which submitted under duress to the delusions of
free-market ideologues, but doesn't quite correspond with the usual view
of the divisive but freely chosen Margaret Thatcher and Mike Harris.
Ms. Klein will point out that Mrs. Thatcher's government arranged for
striking mine workers to be beaten and spied on, and that Ontario's Mr.
Harris had an education minister who was actually videotaped talking
about the need to prepare the way for cuts by “creating a useful
crisis.” But she's not about to entertain the idea that Mrs. Thatcher or
Mr. Harris came to power because a mass of people actually preferred
their ideology to the alternative – we must have been bullied or duped
or metaphorically tortured.
As a secret history of capitalism, The Shock Doctrine, for all its hefty
research and convincing connect-the-dot revelations about the money
men's back-room machinations, doesn't purport to be even-handed. Being
balanced and boring just isn't Ms. Klein's style, in activism as in the
rest of her life.
This leaves her wide open to challenges from free-market defenders such
as National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, who comments: “It is true that
radical changes in economic policy are usually only possible in
conditions of crisis: Chile under Pinochet, Thatcher after the Winter of
Discontent, New Zealand after the currency crisis. Israel and Ireland
are more recent examples. But that is true not only of free-market
reforms: Communism was only imposed in Russia, Cuba etc. after the
‘crisis,' albeit self-inflicted, of revolution.
“And whereas communism has everywhere been renounced at the first
democratic opportunity, I note that none of the free-market experiments
I mentioned have been reversed, though different parties have come to
But such polite observations from the other side are not about to waylay
“ The Shock Doctrine is an alternative history,” she says with amiable
defiance. “This is the part of the story that's been left out. Hundreds
of books talk about the other version of history, about the
ineffectiveness of big government and the corruption of big labour and
the problems of stagflation. This is not that kind of book.”
Ms. Klein's left-wing certainties, her refusal to lie down and accept
the fact that the business mentality has triumphed, are rooted in her
family history: “I don't question being a leftist any more than I would
question being a Jew – it's the culture I got taught as a kid.”
Her upbringing, she believes, is responsible for The Shock Doctrine's
theme of resistance against the privatized world. Her American parents,
who came to Montreal during the Vietnam War, both thrived in publicly
funded occupations – her mother as a feminist National Film Board
director, her doctor father as the founder of a natural-childbirth
clinic who also taught at McGill University and worked at a large public
hospital. But when Ms. Klein was a baby, the family moved to Rochester,
N.Y., and suddenly her mother was working out of a trailer for a local
public-access station, while her father treated uninsured patients at a
tiny clinic on the edge of town.
“They faced the choice of whether they'd be totally marginal in the
United States or part of the mainstream in public institutions in
Canada,” says Ms. Klein.
After five years in the United States, the choice seemed more clear-cut,
and so Ms. Klein came of age as a serious-minded Montrealer –
auspiciously, she wrote a Grade 9 essay on the CIA's responsibility for
Pinochet's 1973 military coup. Clearly, talk in the Klein household was
dominated by big issues. Her grandparents on her father's side were
ardent old-school lefties, both of whom supported Stalin out of
unassailable faith in the communist cause. Her grandfather, who worked
on Fantasia, led a strike at the Disney studios, and Ms. Klein grew up
hearing tales of her father, age 13, joining in the protests.
“These are my childhood stories, what we heard on car trips,” she says,
“about my grandfather getting blacklisted, about my father screaming
‘scab' on the picket line at Disney.” Her grandparents joined a rural
left-wing community in New Jersey called Nature's Friends, where Woody
Guthrie would show up to sing to the converted. This is where she spent
her childhood vacations, giving the lie to the much-repeated description
of her in her teens as just another “mall rat” – a recurring image that
makes her wince.
“It's pure propaganda. Yes, I really was a teenager in high school, but
the truth is I was a pretty serious kid. It was played up as an
interesting angle when No Logo was published” – the phrase “mall-rat
memoir” even found its way to the dust-jacket – “and I didn't do enough
to hide it. It will haunt me forever. I do think it's silly, though. Do
men who write fairly serious books get this kind of treatment?”
Having grown up in a Jewish socialist family where politics was table
talk, she married into another where the bar may have been set even
higher. Her husband, the hyper-articulate CBC television host Avi Lewis,
is the son of former Ontario NDP leader and UN AIDS envoy Stephen Lewis
and of legendary feminist columnist Michele Landsberg. He is also the
grandson of the late federal NDP leader David Lewis – the last of the
supremely confident Canadian socialists, who coined the phrase
“corporate welfare bums.”
Ms. Landsberg first came across Ms. Klein, then the editor of The
Varsity at the University of Toronto, when the young writer called for
reassurance after drawing fire for criticizing Israel in the student
newspaper. “It was very brave of her to take on the Jewish
establishment,” Ms. Landsberg says. “She said what she believed without
softening the blow, and I was very impressed by her courage.”
As a regular at family colloquies, Ms. Klein most often ends up trading
ideas with Stephen Lewis. “Both of them are at a loss for small talk,”
says Ms. Landsberg. “They're both thinking about stuff, and there's this
great engagement around issues.”
Still, Ms. Landsberg feels that Ms. Klein's greatest similarity is to
David Lewis. “We have these old snapshots of David at the Socialist
International meetings before the war, as a very young man, and there's
the same intellectualism of the left, and the same passion. That's the
tradition Naomi is a part of, and I see hope in that.”
Moving with the time
The left in Canada has been suffering from a crisis of confidence for
many years. Ms. Klein encountered it head-on in her early 20s when she
led a pack of her university-journalism friends in the effort to remake
a long-standing but faltering left-wing Toronto publication called This
Magazine – only to be met with complaints that she was dumbing it down
and selling out by directing some of the magazine's attention (however
critical) to popular culture.
“There are always people on the left who are resistant to change,” she
says, “who are terribly nostalgic for a mythic moment when everything
was figured out. … But while I feel a part of the tradition, I'm also
trying to evolve it. This Magazine was in trouble, and that's why it was
handed to a gang of 22-year-olds. It had not changed with the culture.”
But this is a left-wing thinker who can change with the culture – and
even manages to change the culture herself. With No Logo, she helped
foster a more critical and nuanced understanding of global business
practices at a time that she calls “the high-water mark of corporate
With The Shock Doctrine, both her goals and her challenges are much
greater, despite the fact that the triumphs now seem much less secure,
after Enron and the conspicuous failures of the Iraq master planners –
one of whom, Paul Wolfowitz, went on to run the World Bank.
“We're living in a moment of unbelievable defeatism and passivity,” she
says, with more animation than that blanket statement should allow.
But instead of rounding on the overly passive masses – somebody must be
electing all these duplicitous leaders, or yielding quietly to the
corporate cuts or nodding off when so-called terrorists are held for
years without trial – Ms. Klein spreads what she calls her “mobilizing
stories” in order to rewrite the history of the free market's triumph,
so that left-wingers can realize how they were outmanoeuvred and learn
from their mistakes.
The brief sense of victory that No Logo seemed to promise to thoughtful
shoppers now seems a long way off, after the post-9/11 arrogance of the
disaster capitalists in Iraq, who paid no attention to Ms. Klein's
arguments that the policies of globalization would come crashing down.
“They made the transition from Free Trade Lite, opposing the
anti-globalization movement through arm-twisting and bullying, to ‘Who
needs the International Monetary Fund? We'll treat this bombed-out
country like a blank slate, with no government and no negotiating.' ”
In response, Ms. Klein offers up encouraging examples of people who have
refused to play along, like the Germans who didn't buy into the
economists' miracle cures at the difficult time of reunification: “They
know from their history how dangerous it is to shock society. The forces
unleashed are volatile, and they're not forces you can control.”
This is not the bravado of a David Lewis, not even close. But for the
endlessly marginalized left, it's a start.
“Almost no one I know has the confidence David had,” Ms. Klein says.
“We've internalized the narrative that our ideas have been tried and
have failed – which is why we have strong critiques, but when it comes
to producing alternatives, we go weak.”
Even a bright, audacious, bestselling leftist Naomi Klein can admit to
carrying around the idea that “when we're in power, we're a disaster.”
And despite the hopes of her Lewis in-laws, she doesn't, so far, have
any interest in running for elected office – a generational difference
Michele Landsberg finds hard to accept, even as she acknowledges the
shock-resistant activist's lesson that there are many different ways to
change the world.
John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
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