Naomi Klein: There has to be a boldness and a recapturing of the utopian imagination
In 2015 after release of Laudato Si’, the Vatican invited Naomi Klein to be a keynote speaker. She has a new book coming out this month. An excerpt of a piece in The Guardian this week follows.
..Her (Naomi Klein’s) 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, argued that neoliberal capitalism, the ideological love affair with free markets espoused by disciples of the late economist Milton Friedman, was so destructive of social bonds, and so beneficial to the 1% at the expense of the 99%, that a population would only countenance it when in a state of shock, following a crisis – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a war. Klein developed this theory first in 2004 when reporting from Baghdad and watching a brutally deregulated market state being imagined by agents of the Bush administration in the rubble of war and the fall of Saddam Hussein. She documented it too in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka, when the inundated coastline of former fishing villages was parcelled up and sold off to global hotel chains in the name of regeneration. And she saw it most of all in the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when, she argued, disaster was first ignored and exacerbated by government and then exploited for the gain of consultants and developers.
Friedmanites understood that in extreme circumstances bewildered populations longed above all for a sense of control. They would willingly grant exceptional powers to anyone who promised certainty. They understood too that the combination of social media and 24-hour cable news allowed them to manufacture such scenarios almost at will. The libertarian right of the Republican party, in Klein’s words, became “a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain”.
In 2008, the year after The Shock Doctrine was published, Klein believed that the financial crash would prove a reckoning for this cynical philosophy. That the ways in which the Wall Street elite had enriched itself through manipulation and deregulation would finally be exposed in plain sight. In retrospect, it seems, the monumental frailties of the system, its patent vulnerability, allied with concerns over terrorism and a global refugee crisis, only made populations more desperate and fearful. They appeared to crave anyone who could suggest simple solutions to apparently intractable problems. Anyone who said that they could turn back the clock to “make America great again” and who had the branded cap to prove it.
For those of us who can’t help looking at those events without turning lines from WB Yeats’s The Second Coming over in our heads (“what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), Klein’s new book – which examines in detail both the phenomenon of Trump and how liberal and progressive forces might counter his reality – is a brilliant articulation of restless anxiety.
Speaking at her home in Toronto last week, Klein suggested to me that Trump’s novelty was to take the shock doctrine and make it a personal superpower. “He keeps everyone all the time in a reactive state,” she said. “It is not like he is taking advantage of an external shock, he is the shock. And every 10 minutes he creates a new one. It is like he has these lasers coming out of his belt.”
She wrote the book very fast, much faster than is her usual habit, because she feared that the further into a Trump administration America travels, the less scope there might be for resistance, for building an alternative. In this she believes that there are important precedents for people to understand. She points hopefully to the example of Spain in 2004, when after the Madrid train bombings the prime minister, José Maria Aznar, announced that a state of emergency and special state powers were necessary. The people, remembering Franco, took to the streets to reject that analysis and kicked the government out, voting in a party that would pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. She is fully aware, too, of the alternative in Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s successful plea for dictatorial powers following the chaos of the failed coup in 2016. Klein’s book sets out those examples in advance of any comparable shock in America, and makes the case for collective resistance in the event of crisis. “I hope none of it happens [in the States] and none of it is useful,” she says, “but just in case, I wanted to have it out there as soon as possible.”
The daughter of American parents, Klein lives in Toronto with dual citizenship. When she thought about putting her book together, her original plan was for an anthology of articles threaded together with interviews, but once she started analysing the presidency she kept writing in a kind of frenzy. One of the benefits of having a deadline and an all-consuming project was that it meant she was forced to use the blocking app Freedom to protect her from the distraction of the internet. “I think if I hadn’t written this book I just would have stared at Twitter like many others for months on end, watching it unfold, and writing snippy things at people.”
That tendency among Trump’s critics, she says, is a symptom of his banal influence. She devotes one section of her book to the notion that through Twitter Trump is making the political sphere in his own image and that “we all have to kill our inner Trump”. Among other things, she says, the president “is the embodiment of our splintered attention spans”. One essential ingredient of resistance, she suggests, is to retain a belief in telling and understanding complex stories, keeping faith with narrative.
One of the questions that Klein’s book does not reach a conclusion about is how conscious Trump is of his shock doctrine tactics. Is he a demagogue in the scheming manner of Putin and Erdoğan, or just a useful idiot for the forces around him?
“I think he is a showman and that he is aware of the way that shows can distract people,” she says. “That is the story of his business. He has always understood that he could distract his investors and bankers, his tenants, his clients from the underlying unsoundness of his business, just by putting on the Trump show. That is the core of Trump. He is undoubtedly an idiot, but do not underestimate how good he is at that.”
Beyond that he has, presumably wittingly, “surrounded himself with some of the world’s most expert crisis profiteers”. Men who have made billions out of meltdown and financial crisis, such as Wilbur Ross, the “king of bankruptcy” who is now secretary of commerce, or the various crash-plutocrats recruited from Goldman Sachs and elsewhere. (“In any other moment,” Klein says with a laugh, “the very fact that the CEO of Exxon Mobil is now the secretary of state would be the central scandal. Here we have a situation where there is so much else to concern us it is barely a footnote.”)
Klein’s book on Trump comes garlanded with quotes from just about every notable leftwing intellectual celebrity you can think of. Noam Chomsky calls it “urgent, timely, and necessary”. Yanis Varoufakis describes it as “a manual for emancipation by means of the only weapon we have against orchestrated misanthropy: constructive disobedience”. Michael Stipe, meanwhile, asks: “Who better than Naomi to make sense of this madness, and help us find a way out?”
Does she recognise the danger that she is preaching only to the converted, and further entrenching our polarised politics? She obviously hopes that is not the case, pointing to the parts of the book in which she criticises Hillary Clinton and Obama and (even) Bernie Sanders for failing to connect effectively enough to the lives of the left-behind. Her overriding anxiety is that while the liberal left wrings its hands over the ways that the US election was lost, and gets embroiled in Russian conspiracy theories, not enough attention is being paid to the conspiracy happening in plain sight: the dangers of kleptocracy, and the broken promises to the working class.
“I am not saying Russia is not important,” she says, “but Trump’s base is very well defended against that: ‘the liberal media is out to get him’, ‘it’s fake news’, and all the rest.” While we are all clicking and fixing our eyes on the never-ending Trump show – the handshake with Macron, the hand-holding with May – he is, she argues, enacting policies that are systematically moving wealth upwards, and crucial questions are not being asked loudly enough: Is your social security safe? Is your healthcare safe? Are your wages going to be driven down? “He benefits so much from that focus away from economics.”
Klein has not been surprised how, at a time of economic downturn and mass migration, nationalism has once again proved such a potent force in successive elections in the west. She makes the argument that the only thing that can rival those forces of white nationalism and xenophobia is a justice-based economic populism on the left. What Hillary Clinton’s campaign proved, she suggests, is that when you run a centrist free-market candidate against “fake populism” it’s a recipe for disaster.
Doesn’t the election of Macron in France prove that pragmatic centrism is still a viable force if the right candidate emerges to express it? Klein believes the jury is out on that question. “The fact is Le Pen did better in that election than she ever should have. I think the issue is what happens if Macron governs with the kind of austerity that has fuelled these forces, and his shine wears off? What happens the next time around?” The analogy that Le Pen equals Donald Trump is not exact, she says. “It is more Le Pen equals David Duke [former leader of the Ku Klux Klan]. If David Duke got the percentage of the vote that Le Pen got, we would be terrified, as well we should be.”
Klein welcomes the emergence of unashamedly leftwing candidates, with an ability to inspire enthusiasm, particularly among the young. She points to the nostalgic socialism of Sanders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Jeremy Corbyn as evidence of this. But don’t they look more like the past than the future?
“I don’t think any of these guys figured it out,” she says. “But we should think about the fact that Mélenchon could get 70,000 people at a rally from nowhere, and look at the surge we have seen with Corbyn. Especially given the fact that he is kind of the exact opposite of a charismatic politician.” (Once the result was known, Klein emailed to say: “The UK election really showed the power of leading with substance and ideas, rather than slick packaging and fear. The more May tried to exploit people’s fear and shock – telling them they might need to give up their privacy and human rights to fight terror, that they should delegate their rights to her – the more [Corbyn’s] message of hope, that positive ‘yes’ looked like the better option to many people.”)
In this sense, Klein places a lot of faith in the cyclical nature of cynicism and hope, believing that the generation now in its teens and 20s is much less phobic of electoral politics than her generation ever was. She experienced a version of that cycle in her own growing up. She was in many ways born to protest, the third Klein generation of principled resistance.
It began with her paternal grandparents, Anne and Philip, who met as communists in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1930s. Philip was an animator for Walt Disney. He organised a strike at the studios during the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and was fired as a result. He went to work in a shipyard, before he and his wife became part of the nascent green movement, living at the Nature Friends retreat in Paterson, New Jersey, tending their vegetables, listening to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Klein’s parents took that retreat from American life a stage further by moving to Canada, in part in protest over the Vietnam war. Her father worked as a paediatrician in public hospitals. Her mother, Bonnie, a film-maker, helped to create the feminist film collective Studio D and made documentaries about Greenham Common and a polemical film against pornography.
Klein has recalled how she rebelled against her radical upbringing, insisting on makeup and pop culture; how she always resented being dragged along to peace marches and demonstrations, or what she later called “another poncho picnic”. She was for most of her teens dismissive of her mother’s feminism. She credits two particular catastrophic events in changing her mind. First, aged 46, her mother suffered a brain tumour and a series of strokes that left her quadriplegic. Klein helped to nurse her for six months and was inspired by the fortitude and spirit her mother showed in her partial rehabilitation, and the strength she discovered in herself. At around the same time, during her first year at the University of Toronto, a gunman killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, declaring: “I hate feminists.” The event motivated Klein into political activism and she has called herself a feminist ever since, though initially she was sceptical of conventional party politics.
“Among my generation there was a purist position that any contact with electoral politics was an unforgiveable compromise,” she says. “I don’t see that nearly so much in this generation. Part of it is based in movement building but it also involves running people for office at every level.”
She hesitates to suggest her book as a rallying cry for a political party – she is wary of making herself anything like a figurehead, hoping to be “one voice among many” – but suggests that there are ideas in it that people might gather around. She is doing a series of (inevitably sold-out) events across the US to support the book, though she says: “I have a five-year-old son so I won’t be permanently on the road.”
The part she hopes will most resonate with her audiences is the “Leap” manifesto – “an integrated leap forward on climate action, racial justice, decent jobs”. She has created Leap with her husband, Avi Lewis, a documentary film-maker, in conjunction with various activist groups – “heads of labour federations and unions, directors of major green groups, iconic indigenous and feminist leaders, key organisers and theorists focused on migrant rights, open technology, food justice, housing, faith, and more…” from across Canada and beyond. The ideas are an extension of the theme of her last book, This Changes Everything, which argued that a new progressive politics had to be built around a radical and sustainable green tech revolution, and an outright rejection of fossil fuels.
The proactive message is at least as important as her deconstruction of Trump, she hopes. “When I wrote The Shock Doctrine I really did think that just showing how crisis was exploited would be enough to repel it,” she says. “Then the crash happened and I watched these social movements fill squares in Portugal and Italy and Spain – I lived there for months – all chanting ‘We won’t pay for your crisis’. I ended This Changes Everything with an interview I had with Alexis Tsipras before he was elected in Greece, where he said to me ‘It is enough in this moment to say no.’”
Klein profoundly disagreed, because “no is never enough”. Anger and rejection of the status quo will never sustain people on its own. “The triumph of neoliberalism is the idea that the alternative is always even worse. To overturn that there has to be a boldness and a recapturing of the utopian imagination. If we can’t do that, then I really don’t think we have a chance against these guys.”
Klein ends her current book talking about these movements that have spontaneously expressed resistance – Black Lives Matter, various green and community groups – and argues for them to come together. “To resist this we have get out of the silos,” she says. “Environmentalists in one corner, feminists in one corner, racial justice in another. We don’t have enough spaces where we can get together.”
In expressing this hope, Klein references the example of her mother’s stroke and the ways that devastating event shaped her understanding of coping with crisis. She takes it as an example that sudden adversity generates strength and hope as well fear. “In a shocked state, with our understanding of the world badly shaken, a great many of us can become childlike and passive, and overly trusting of people who are only too happy to abuse that trust. But I also know, from my own family’s navigation of a shocking event, that there can be the inverse response as well. We can evolve and grow up in a crisis, and set aside all kinds of bullshit – fast.”
“My mother’s stroke was a really formative moment in my life,” she says. “And I think because of it I have been attuned to seeing other expressions of that. When I started to write about crisis in The Shock Doctrine, it was with a sense that these moments of trauma could bring out the best in people.”
We talk a little about how the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have again exemplified that fact. How, contrary to the efforts of forces that might have exaggerated the fear and exploited the crisis to divide us, they became occasions to reaffirm tremendous shared humanity and spirit. One aspect of that, I suggest, is that at heart, people aren’t made to be fearful all the time, life reasserts itself.
“The thing about the shock doctrine is that if they try to use it too much it stops being shocking,” Klein says. “That is the importance of historical memory in these moments – and of course Britain has the blitz spirit in its DNA: we are people who do not crumble during crisis.
One of the difficulties that America faces, she suggests, is that it doesn’t have that kind of collective memory. Historical struggles that the nation has overcome – Jim Crow and civil rights, the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war – have not been shared narratives, and therefore have been harder to unite around.
She hopes that a shared investment in the environment can provide some of that social glue; in this respect, Trump’s rejection of the Paris Accord can be a starting pistol for communities to take action into their own hands. The cities and provinces that have pledged to abide by the Paris principles prove the limits of central power. “The message is that neoliberals control a lot but they don’t control everything. They don’t decide how we get our energy or move ourselves. Part of breaking the spell of neoliberalism is having people live an alternative, and cities and communities are where that happens. The institutions that used to be the backbone of social movements are in disarray and so diminished, and so we need to fix it for ourselves.”
In this sense she envisages her Leap idea as a piece of open source code: “If you make activism a brand, you are in competition with similar brands, doing similar work,” she says. “With Leap, if you want it, take it, do something cool with it, if you don’t want it, who cares?”
How optimistic is she about that prospect?
“I have good days and bad days,” she says. “Or good parts of days and bad parts of days. It is undeniably terrifying that at this moment of such intense gravity for the planet this figure of such extreme stupidity has risen to power. But that means that there is more urgency to find solutions.” She laughs. “Will that do as my message of hope?” she asks.
I guess it will for now, I say.