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Publication Details

Reference
Nyar, Annsilla (2002) Pushing back fences with Naomi Klein (and putting up barriers with Ashwin Desai).  : -.

Summary
How does the woman once named, “probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world” possibly live up to such a formidable reputation in person? The Wolpe lecture on Friday night provided the opportunity for Durban audiences to see why Naomi Klein, Canadian journalist and intellectual phenomenon of the radical left, has earned herself such sweeping accolades. At Klein’s request, local flavour was lent to her presentation by Durban sociologist and public intellectual Ashwin Desai, author of We are the Poors of South Africa. This made for an extraordinary lecture quite unlike any experienced on the Wolpe series thus far.

Klein first entered the public consciousness through the seminal Seattle demonstrations in 1999 and her best- selling book on the global impact of corporate greed No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. No Logo rapidly established Klein as an authoritative voice in the anti-corporate movement and she was widely lauded for reinventing left politics, particularly among hitherto apolitical alienated youth. The phenomenal success of No Logo has consequently made for a climate of great anticipation surrounding her new book Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Globalisation, upon which her Wolpe presentation was based. The book follows the No Logo story and is a collection of journalistic snapshots from Klein’s activist experience from late 1999 to 2002.

Klein’s presentation was simple and immensely powerful. She spoke eloquently about the scourge of the era of globalisation as that of the demand for self-determination or what she called “more control over our lives, from the food we eat (that its safe enough) to the air we breathe (that’s its not contaminated with toxic fumes) to defining the parameters of homeland such as in Palestine.” Two principle images dominated her presentation; that of fences both physical and metaphorical. The physical fences she described are part of the reality of barbed wire, police lines, razor fences and steel barricades that keep anti-globalisation demonstrators out of top-level summits. These physical fences have to be reinforced by what she calls 'metaphorical' or 'virtual' fences, such as the fence of poverty that keeps the poor from receiving adequate health care or basic services, with some examples of virtual fences named as 'privatisation', 'public-private partnerships', ‘structural adjustment’ programs, ‘patent protection’. She called GEAR and NEPAD local versions of ‘virtual fences’, drawing appreciative laughter from the audience.

She expounded at length on the insiduousness of virtual fences, derived from their inherently deceptive character. Presenting itself in the guise of obfuscation and rhetoric, the elusiveness of virtual fences to the eye is what keeps people captive to external forces beyond their own control: “(these are) millions of small walls, (they are) harder to see because they deny that they’re there even as you’re banging your head against them.” In this way, it is fundamentally unlike an identifiable tangible enemy such as apartheid. Apartheid was big, bad and highly visible, any intelligent person could see through its grotesqueries and distortions. These kinds of fences, declared Klein, "put fences around our freedoms, but also around our imaginations and our ability to imagine that change is possible".

She spoke also of the fences around social exclusion and exiled people: "neo-liberalism doesn’t just oppress or exploit its victims, it ‘disappears’ them, now people are becoming economically 'disappeared'. This condemns people to a shadow world… the worst way to oppress someone is to say your life counts less." Klein's flawless imagery drew on the Western illusion of a borderless world and then proceeded to quash it by pointing to the physical fencing off of freedoms and the consequent crushing of dissent at the FTAA meeting in Quebec City, April 2001.

Klein spoke anecdotally of her past 10 days spent in Johannesburg, and the police brutality experienced on the candle light freedom of expression march held on August 24 to protest the mass arrests of 77 demonstrators, including the entire leadership of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM). She raised the issue of media responsibility, speaking of the tendency of media to misrepresent the protesters as “serial complainers (who are seen as) anti-progress, anti-business, anti-globalisation, anti-everything!”

Klein is pointing to one of the primary dilemmas at the heart of the movement against neo-liberalism: the struggle to define itself not only for itself but against the multiplicity of agents who demonise and criminalise it such as mainstream media in the wake of Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg, Genoa etc. But Klein does not go further in examining the plurality of the protesters. Some are self-interested, some are idealistic, some are criminal and a small angry minority happens to capture the media's undivided attention. Why should we imagine that social movements would be a homogenous force? Why should they not be riven by tensions and divisions as any other political grouping?

How then can these fences be dismantled? Klein cited such examples as trading music on the net, "landless peasants planting vegetables over golf courses, Bolivian peasants resisting privatisation of their water". The latter is a particularly heartening example of the transnational company Bechtel being driven out of Cochabamba, Bolivia after a strike protesting water tariffs (though won at the price of state bullets in the bodies of 5 Bolivians). She reminded us that pushing down fences is not as monumental a challenge as it assumes. What it involves is reawakening and reasserting humanity's natural impulse toward hopefulness and “breaking the spell of passivity” imposed by the hard realities of daily life.

Ashwin Desai followed Klein with a thought-provoking and provocative presentation, which might even have been useful had it not degenerated into a generalised and arbitrary diatribe against academics and intellectuals which bore little relation to the stated aim of contextualising local struggles against neo-liberalism. He appears to derive enjoyment in his status as ‘agent provocateur’ (as the title of his column in the Saturday Independent), stating at the outset his well established anti-establishment credentials: “…(the Center for Civil Society) being “one of the few places I’m welcome at, I’ve been barred from UDW and gotten an interdict at Engen.”

Desai chose to focus, in mordantly myopic style, on the role of academia in relation to the state. He addressed himself directly to “you academics and intellectuals” whom he labelled as “whores of money, recognition and power (who) genuflect and serve the ruling class with blinkers on". His invective continued at some length: “ (you are) at best neutral, parasitical over other people’s struggles, (you have) no neutrality, (you) take no sides, (you) get helped by globalisation, (while you are) clocking up publications in left journals.” Flagrantly biased and sensationalist, his hurtling train of invective did not omit the role of “young black academics”: “When (you) get mad”, proclaimed Desai, “its only for personal advancement.”

There did not appear to be much substantive content to Desai’s train of invective. Particularly pointless was his contention that “when crime gets to be too much, your response is to move the picket fences…” This line of criticism belongs in the same camp of ill-logic as those who take issue with Klein for earning large royalties from her books whilst criticising corporate salary discrepancies. Perhaps Desai would have us remain sitting ducks in our homes waiting to be targeted? The poor are victims to crime inasmuch as the middle classes. No doubt Desai’s aggressive stance sells newspapers (in which he writes) and boosts ratings (of television programmes he has appeared on). However for the purposes of the Wolpe lecture, perhaps a more thoughtful voice may have been more appropriate, rather than the voice of baseless demagoguery. What can be found buried beneath the weight of Desai’s vitriol? He clearly does not lack passion or the courage of his convictions. There was a sense of sincerity and conviction about his presentation that communicated itself clearly to the audience. His greatest value must lie in his status as iconoclast, which is a necessary (if dislocating) commodity in every society. But it is clear that Desai has fallen on the wrong side of such provocative attractions.

There is some irony that a public figure such as Desai from a historically disadvantaged background, armed against injustice with the lived experience of apartheid, should use the spaces of responsibility and privilege accorded him to advance arguments that are at best, only antagonistic. The most empowering message came instead from a young woman out of the North American enclave of maddened consumerism and rampant individualism, whose nurturings of activism are derived solely from a left-wing family and her own conscience. In this way Klein showed up Desai as small-minded, churlish, even foolish, particularly in terms of disregarding the responsibility which falls to the shoulders of intellectuals such as Desai who have been endowed with the privilege of education and public standing.

Powerful stuff. Klein reminded us that neo-liberalism may be powerful but it is not invulnerable. For me, still tending to the psychological wounds of an armed hijacking, Klein helped to reassert, if only briefly, some kind of semblance of order over the leap into chaos signified by three men and one gun. This, I realised, is the real seduction of Klein: she allows the disempowered global citizen a space. But this, I realise, goes even deeper. By helping to connect the lack of control within the individualised personal sphere to the global, she pointed out the insiduous tendency toward insularity that we all fall victim of. Currently hijackings and other acts of crime are a very South African phenomena. It is easy to assume that armed hijackings (and other such heinous acts of crime) are a very South African phenomenon. But that kind of gratuitous violence, which I have recently, experienced is not as quintessentially South African as it appears. Perhaps it appears so in the aftermath of trauma, as we seek something to hold onto, while we exchange our stories of life, death and near-death, united by the borders within which we roam and the history we share as South Africans. But all the conditions abhorred by South Africans exist to different degrees elsewhere in the world: crime, poverty, wrenching hopelessness, brute viciousness of agents of the state, the vast divides between poor and wealthy and the haves and have-nots. This is at odds with, for example, Desai's accusation of hypocrisy on the part of academics and intellectuals: “many of us (are) seen as hypocrites, (you) don’t raise your voices, but you want us to get angry about Mugabe!” Well, why should we not look beyond our borders? Does struggling against neo-liberalism at home preclude us from recognising those selfsame struggles in Zimbabwe?

It is clear that these voices of the left are coming from fundamentally different places. If the metaphor of fences is used, Klein represents the politics of pushing down the barriers between and amongst each other while Desai is about erecting yet more virtual fences. These barriers are insiduous because he does so in the name of 'local struggles against neo-liberalism'. Klein is no less confrontational and direct than Desai, but she is able to inspire and empower rather than simply aggressively polarise.

Clearly, we need to move our debates into more substantive and less oppositional terms. For one, there needs to be a substantial rethink of the politics of representation and the ways in which academics function in relation to communities. What entitles some people to the right to speak on behalf of or "with" or "for" the poor? Are we idealising or underplaying community struggles? But I am not speaking merely about initiating debate, but rather the way in which we frame and contextualise the debates and dialogue amongst those of us genuinely working for change. It is not something we can do in email debates or in public lectures. We need to expand our mental horizons by looking inside ourselves, and not just the people into whose lives we tread. This is big stuff. This is not easy, nor is it comfortable. It is ambitious and frightening, because we are offering ourselves as resources in achieving the changes we would like to effect. How many of us are willing to do this?


















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