NAOMI KLEIN’S anti-capitalist view of the global crisis
Naomi Klein takes an anti-capitalist view of global warming; she appears in a Lannan event at the Lensic
When Katharine Viner, the newly appointed editor-in-chief of The Guardian (the 12th in the paper’s 194 years, and the first woman), talks to journalist Naomi Klein at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, April 29, as part of the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series, they’ll renew a friendship that goes back some 15 years. In 2000, Viner traveled to Toronto to interview Klein for a Guardian weekend feature on the Canadian journalist’s first book, No Logo. In it, Klein took the corporate propensity for putting brand before product and turned it into an anti-capitalist manifesto. Sweat shops shared scrutiny with subtle-but-evil labor manipulation in the U.S. and deceptive attempts at market control. Klein made a personal connection to the issue, writing about growing up as a mall rat chained to the very brands she now scorns. Viner called the book “a word-of-mouth sensation, giving voice to a generation of people under 30 who have never related to politics until now.” Quoted in an August 2014 piece in Vogue celebrating Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster), Viner declared that Klein has “this clairvoyant skill of nailing a subject before anyone gets there, and then within months, it’s mainstream thinking.”
What Klein nails in This Changes Everything is the scope of what it will take to stop carbon-induced climate change. It won’t be accomplished through small, feel-good measures: Such a momentous act would require a complete sweep of the current carbonbased system and all the attendant evils of its capitalist business practices. This, she argues, can only come from the kind of massive, social movement that has little historical precedent. The abolition of slavery, with its significant loss of wealth for the slave-owning class, hints at the magnitude of struggle needed. She doesn’t spend time proving the existence of climate change, but she does speak to its denial. She describes the tangle of business and government that must be dissolved if the coming disaster is to be avoided. Along the way, she brings many of today’s biggest issues, including inequality, into the picture. In “Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate,” published last December in The Nation, Klein echoed the themes of her book: “Thinly veiled notions of racial superiority have informed every aspect of the non-response to climate change so far. Racism is what has made it possible to systematically look away from the climate threat for more than two decades.”
What, indeed, would it mean if the response to the climate crisis was based on the belief that the lives of the impoverished and people of color actually do matter? “We would all be treating the climate crisis as a full-scale five-alarm fire,” Klein told Pasatiempo from her home in Toronto. “Our governments have been engaged in these deeply immoral negotiations about how much temperature rise to allow before we consider doing much. In [the United Nations’ 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen], where it was decided that we would allow a 2-degree-Celsius rise in global temperature, the African delegations marched through the halls saying this was some kind of death sentence. Some used the word ‘genocide.’ It’s a very crude costbenefit analysis that gets made. The pace of climate change so far is affecting parts of the world that have such a small economic output, big industrial countries of Europe and North America don’t feel it’s necessary to change their economies.” Klein’s book considers the famine following the drought in Africa and the islands and coastlines, often home to people of little means, that industrialists and politicians are willing to let disappear. She links these to the politically powerless, high-poverty areas in the shadow of oil refineries and chemical plants both here and abroad.
Klein’s third book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, opens and ends with a type of natural disaster that, climatologists warn, could become more frequent as weather patterns change. She cites war and political struggle in Iraq, Argentina, and Chile as well as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia to show how corporatist entities exploit disasters, natural and manmade. Viner has said that The Shock Doctrine changed mainstream thinking, making every economic crisis suspect; making wars appear to be waged only to forward business; and spotlighting how hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters are predictably followed by disastrous attempts to privatize and control. Any disaster or setback presents a vulnerability the free-market economy can exploit for profit.
Hard economic times can also be an opportunity for progressives, Klein said. “The Shock Doctrine talks about how this strategy was developed in the right-
wing think tanks to respond quickly to push through an agenda through — undemocratically — as a way to circumvent the fact that economic crisis has organically given us moments of progressive change. Everything went wrong in 1929, but there was much intervention: the establishment of financial regulation and the birth of the social safety net.” Klein thought that 2008 could have been a similar turning point, and that it wasn’t reflected not on how well the ideas of her best-selling book had sunk in, but on how adeptly neo-liberal, free-market champions could resist them. “2008, 2009 were deeply depressing to me,” she admitted. “I thought, naively, that if people understood the [shock-doctrine] tactic, that people could resist it. What became clear to me, after seeing that people really did try to resist and take advantage, was the ability of the wealthy to turn a public crisis into a push for austerity. You saw huge resistance to this around the world, especially in Europe, but not enough to stop it.”
Part of that inability to stop social and economic re-engineering in favor of corporations is cultural, Klein explained. “We keep imagining the same future for ourselves. Every post-apocalyptic movie we see, every Hollywood disaster flick, every film that imagines ecological disaster shows the ‘one percent’ living well and everyone else in some form of slavery, as if it’s already happened. There’s a sense of defeatism, that there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re the Matrix generation: We can’t imagine the way out of the problem.”
As Klein did in No Logo, she works her personal experiences into the narrative of This
Changes Everything. This time, it’s a frank discussion of fertility and pregnancy (the book is dedicated to her son) and her concerns after possible toxic exposure while covering the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “I was feeling very blocked when I started, and I needed to write about this before I wrote the book. I realized I was going through the kind of intense experience that I needed to write through before I could go on. I thought I could let it sit in the drawer or publish it as a stand-alone. Then I canvassed my friends about including it in the book. Make it the foreword? I made it the ending. But I was worried about being narcissistic. A book on a topic so huge: What right do I have to go small?”
The process of putting together her four books (there’s also a 2002 collection of published essays, Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate) has changed for Klein since No Logo. “For Logo, I wrote out an outline and followed it. Both The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything changed radically as the research revealed more and more things to me. I find books get harder to write as I get older. Writing is easier and really liberating when you have that youthful overconfidence.”