Sunday November 12, 2000
Imagine a world designed by Disney, marketed by Nike, and described by Franz Kafka. When you wake up in this world, you think you are putting your clothes and shoes on, grabbing a coffee, getting in your car and filling it up with petrol; you think you are switching on your computer when you get to work and maybe having a cigarette or a soft drink at about 11. But you are sadly mistaken.
What you are actually doing is buying into a lifestyle, having a 'deep emotional connection' with fitness or coffee. Of course, the clothes, the car, etc. really exist, but the plane on which you are experiencing them is a higher one, of ideas and aspirations. And behind the scenes of this enclosed, almost sci-fi universe of concepts and intangibilities is another, horrific one, in which you are exploiting people in sweatshops as you put on your shoes, working them to their deaths, and you are supporting the murder of a Nobel Peace Prizewinner as you fill up your car. We are all already living in this world. And for many the only way out seems to be to listen to Naomi Klein.
Klein is the 30 year-old author of No Logo, a book which came out in Britain at the beginning of this year to rapturous reviews, and which has since developed a life of its own. It has been called a manifesto, 'the Das Kapital of the growing anti-corporate movement', and it set out to document the aims and rationale of the group that demonstrated at Seattle and Prague, before those events had even happened. Over the course of this year, No Logo has had a burgeoning, massive success, recommended by word of mouth; all over the world, people are sending loop emails to their friends, telling them how it has changed their life, how something they had felt but not understood has suddenly become clear. Klein now gives talks so often she jokes that she'll 'never write again', though she has a regular column in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail . This week she is in England, and speaking publicly every night. However, she rejects the idea that No Logo is a manifesto.
'There is no Das Kapital for the anti-corporate movement,' she says. 'One of the best things about this movement is that no one is handing down a manifesto from on high.' Klein is extremely articulate both in writing and in conversation, but even so, in order to understand her and understand what's going on, you have to be able to embrace anarchy, to see how the chaos is organised. None of the old rules apply, and this is instantly in evidence when we meet.
We have coffee at a private club in London, where Klein has been put up by her publisher. 'Are you part of this scene?' she whispers, still looking slightly dazed from last night's performance at the bar: Robbie Williams swanning around with paparazzi at his feet. 'No,' I mutter, 'I object to private clubs on principle.' She smiles sympathetically, and I interpret a tinge of pity for my unsophisticated view of left and right. As she makes clear in her book, we have to redefine our enemies, and, obviously, no one's going to change the world by not joining the Groucho Club.
Klein is poised. She has a soft, pretty face and a sweet, unstrident Canadian voice. She wears glasses some of the time, and can look studious or glamorous, very noticeable or usefully hidden. You can imagine her travelling the world for her book, interviewing sweatshop workers in South-east Asia and schoolchildren in Canada; but you can see just as easily that she is the person you've read, who knows her Marx and her Guy Debord, and the person you've seen on stage, voicing the beliefs of an international political movement.
No Logo is exhaustively researched - it's full of facts and figures, it contains tables and diagrams - but it's not dry. Klein illustrates points with her own experiences, and has conducted what must be hundreds of interviews. What the book does best, I think, is to conjure up a world view that seems paranoid but is in fact appropriately worried.
In the 1980s, Klein explains, there was a shift in focus from manufacturing to marketing. The goods themselves became unimportant, and branding was what mattered. As production moved to the Third World, thousands of jobs were lost in the First, and meanwhile, the power of the brand was unstoppable. In 1998, Coca-Cola ran a competition in American schools to see who could come up with the best marketing strategy for distributing Coke coupons: one school staged an official Coke day, and when a rebel turned up in a Pepsi T-shirt, he was suspended.
Klein quotes advertising executives, whose language is dizzyingly illogical: at Nike, for example, the product is nothing but 'the most important marketing tool'; Polaroid made the fatal marketing mistake of 'thinking they were a camera' (sic) - really, Polaroid is a 'social lubricant'. 'Products are made in the factory,' one adman says, 'but brands are made in the mind.'
It is this mind-play that is so frightening. Exploitation of workers in sweatshops is bad enough, but when big corporations are promoting a lifestyle, it is all the more horrendous that the 'lifestyle' of production, behind the branding curtain, is no life at all. And perhaps the canniest corporate technique is the appropriation of politically aware language. At Nike, Tiger Woods blares from billboards: 'There are still courses in the US where I am not allowed to play, because of the color of my skin'. The revolution of identity politics has come to serve capitalism: what better mask for corruption could there be than an apparent battle against corruption? Corporations, as the anti-corporate movement is saying, are more powerful than governments, and they can turn anything to their advantage.
For instance, 'culture jammers' replace billboard ads with scathing parodies of the same. 'A good jam,' Klein explains, 'is an X-ray of the subconscious of a campaign, uncovering not an opposite meaning but the deeper truth hiding beneath the layers of advertising euphemisms.'
But then the advertisers see these adaptations as good jokes in themselves, and in a nightmarishly post-modern move adopt the idiom of the culture jam for their own ends. Over time, it seems barely noticeable: what was Situationist in the Sixties is Absolut Vodka in the Nineties. Marketing continues to absorb its opposition, and, as one activist in the book puts it, 'this generation wants their brains back'.
Klein, however, tells me that 'this is not a youth movement. There's a great deal of co-operation going on - for instance, in the States, college-age students against sweatshops are working with labour leaders their parents' age. There isn't that vanguardist, don't-trust-anyone-over-30 bullshit that was so much a part of the Sixties'.
But although Klein claims that the movement is not about a generation, a large number of those who have found guidance in her book are of a particular age. Many of us now in our twenties and thirties feel left behind by the political movements of the past century, too late for everything. It's become a cliché to say that the Left has lost its way and that there is nothing to fight for. (Perhaps it's just that, as she puts it, 'it's a classic symptom of teenage narcissism to believe that the end of history coincides exactly with your arrival on Earth'.) Her book undoubtedly appeals to many more, but this is the group to whom it has given direction.
And Klein seems perfectly placed to offer answers, since the history of her family is like a history of the Left. Philip Klein, her grandfather, was an animator at Disney, and organised the first strike there, as a result of which he was sacked and blacklisted. He taught her to 'always look for the dirt behind the shine'. Her parents left the United States in protest against the Vietnam war, and Naomi grew up in Canada, a child enamoured of the shiny symbols of capitalism: Barbie, Shell, McDonald's. Her mother made a controversial and influential documentary in 1980 called Not A Love Story, an anti-porn film about the life of a stripper. The backlash, or just the ordinary course, of her teenage life was to love the brands.
But now, she says, 'what we're finding out is that our parents raised a bunch of really radical kids'. Although she says she can see a line, or rather many lines, from then to now, this movement is not inherited in quite the way the family story implies. 'You know,' she tells me, 'I object to any characterisation of this movement as somehow emerging from scratch. But I also equally object to characterisations that it's just the same old thing - you know, the Socialist Workers Party line, which is sort of, "finally, the kids have realised the revolution is nigh".'
This movement (it is usually just 'this movement', without a longer name) is, Klein says, 'reserving the right to come up with solutions that are new. And that basically means taking a little bit from Marxism, a little bit from socialism, from environmentalism, from anarchism, and also a lot of inspiration is coming from even older places, and more indigenous theories about self-determination.
'For example, the Zapatistas in Chiapas [Mexico] have been a real source of inspiration. But people often compare the movement to the Sixties, and I think that's not the right comparison - I think a much more interesting and appropriate parallel is with the Thirties, when there was a cross-generational, cross-sectoral, strong coalition.
'The difference between then and now is that this is happening at a time of great prosperity. So I think it's somewhere in the middle,' she concludes. 'This is part of a history, but it is new, and the reason I think it's new is that I don't think it has articulated yet where it's going to go.'
The unarticulated aims of the movement are, surely, what leaves it open to criticism, though? Klein responds by referring to the World Bank and the IMF: 'One thing to say to that is that an extraordinarily coherent vision can be really dangerous, and people get so attached to it and seduced by it that they force the world into it. And the other thing is that some of the people who have criticised this movement from the left don't remember how disorganised they were in their heyday.'
When Klein wrote No Logo , she wasn't sure what the issues she was writing about would turn into. Now she is being hailed as a prophet. 'I wrote the book because I thought there was a movement, but it was an act of faith - I wanted there to be, but I knew at every stage that I could very well be wrong, that these little pockets that I was following could just be that. So I was surprised by Seattle - I'm constantly surprised. I was surprised that despite 11,000 police officers in Prague, protesters still made it into the conference centre and danced on the walls!'
Things have changed since then, and she has clear views on what should be done next. 'I do a lot of speaking on university campuses and at activist gatherings and what I find now is that there is an amazing consensus - that we had the mass demonstrations, we've proved we exist, and in some ways we got a little bit ahead of ourselves, and this is a moment to take a step back and do some of that communications work and theoretical work. Which doesn't mean writing a movement manifesto that everybody's going to agree to. It means identifying what the core shared beliefs are across borders, and then organising it based on that.
'I believe that the most fundamental core belief of this movement is self-determination, which actually means that the whole idea of coming up with a one-size-fits-all theory of how to run the world is completely antithetical to the process. So what you do is you think about mechanisms for real self-determination to take place.
'You know, we hear about the militancy of Seattle or Prague but there's also a wave of direct action in native communities all over the place. Not just Chiapas, but where - rather than seeing their natural resources being depleted by logging companies or commercial fisheries - people are taking it into their own hands and creating blockades. It's happening more and more, and it's part of the same process of reclaiming things.'
It's interesting to see the way Klein says 'we' when she refers to the movement. When she wrote her book, she set out to document something, and yet it has been received as a call to arms by those who were ready for one. What exactly is her relationship with her subject, I wonder?
'Well,' she reflects, 'I do think it's strange that sometimes people call it a manifesto, because it's not. But I didn't do it purely as an act of journalism. I did it knowing how I'd become involved in it. I did understand my own relationship to politics, which is that the thing that sways me most is argument. I wanted it to be a journey where at the end you would be onside, and you would think it was inevitable.'
The evening after our conversation, Klein gives a talk at a meeting of the World Development Movement, to launch the campaign against Gats (the General Agreement on Trade in Services), an agreement of the World Trade Organisation; 1,000 people are in attendance, and more than a hundred others are turned away. She speaks with great lucidity about how they should not see themselves as anti-trade, only as against the damaging conditions and strings attached to trade. She refers to the movement's roots in colonialism and resistance, and comes back, again and again, to the concept of self-determination. No jargon is resorted to, no issues are fudged.
At one point, a Bolivian woman stands up to ask a question. 'Our services have been privatised.' she says. 'Is a riot enough to get our water back?' Klein looks straight at her and leans into the mike. 'No. It's not enough,' she admits, and offers other strategies for getting organised. 'Can we agree on what we're for?' Klein finally asks. 'How can we move from symbolic victories to deeper, more long-lasting change?'
Over the course of the evening it becomes clear that Klein can and has made a difference because she is commentator, activist, and guide all at once. 'Our task is not to create a movement from scratch,' she proclaims to a rapt audience. 'Our task is to recognise the movement we already have.'
Like the good witch in the Wizard of Oz who tells Dorothy that, in the form of ruby slippers, she has been wearing the means to her end all along, Klein is a prophet who sees the present. She just sees it better than anyone else.
ANTI-CORPORATE MCNUGGETS (FIVE THINGS THE MOVEMENT IS AGAINST)
1 The conquest of cool by big business (Richard Branson, Bill Gates and other rock'n'roll billionaires).
2 Branding, advertising and marketing (the triumph of concept over product).
3 Charles Handy, Tom Peters and all other business school gurus who preach downsizing and outsourcing.
4 The exploitation of Third World labour by groovy capitalists who pretend they're 'concerned'.
5 Anita Roddick.
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