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Outside Agitator: Naomi Klein and the New New Left

Larissa MacFarquhar, New Yorker
… Since her book “The Shock Doctrine” was published last year, Klein, now thirty-eight, has become the most visible and influential figure on the American left-what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were thirty years ago.

… The central thesis of the book is that capitalism and democracy, free markets and free people, do not, as we’ve been told, go hand in hand. On the contrary, capitalism-at least fundamentalist capitalism, of the type promoted by the late economist Milton Friedman and his “Chicago School” acolytes-is so unpopular, and so obviously harmful to everyone except the richest of the rich, that its establishment requires, at best, trickery and, at worst, terror and torture. Friedman believed that markets perform best when freed from government interference, so he advocated getting rid of tariffs, subsidies, minimum-wage laws, public housing, Social Security, financial regulation, and licensing requirements, including those for doctors-indeed, virtually every measure devised to protect people from the market’s harsh logic. Klein argues that the only circumstance in which a population would accept Friedman-style reforms is when it is in a state of shock, following a crisis of some sort-a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a war. A person in shock regresses to a childlike state in which he longs for a parental figure to take control; similarly, a population in a state of shock will hand exceptional powers to its leaders, permitting them to destroy the regulatory functions of government.

… Klein sat on a table, inside the MTV studios, in Manhattan. She swung her legs back and forth. She was wearing a long necklace and black high-heeled mini-boots. She may have made up with her parents, but in matters of style she stands firm against activism of the old school. She wears jeans, but she is groomed as flawlessly as an anchorwoman. She giggles, she makes jokes. She smiles a lot, especially onstage, though it is never clear whether she is smiling in amusement, politeness, irritation, or for some other reason.

Her demeanor is friendly but guarded.

… Klein dropped out of college again and started writing a book about the insidious new branding culture. She thought about how much she had loved shiny, plastic brand-name stuff when she was a kid-everyone had-and she concluded that a movement was doomed to hippies-only irrelevance if it condemned the longing and the pleasure that brands could create. “Soft drink and computer brands play the roles of deities in our culture,” she wrote later. “They are creating our most powerful iconography, they are the ones building our most utopian monuments.” She discovered that an anti-corporatist movement was brewing all over the world, in response to sweatshops abroad and brand encroachment at home. By 1999, she had finished “No Logo,” a book about brands and the new movement they had inspired. Then, in an extraordinary stroke of publishing luck, while “No Logo” was at the printer’s, enormous crowds of protesters suddenly materialized outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The protest seemed to come out of nowhere-or, at least, that was how it appeared to the bewildered old left-and there was “No Logo” and Klein herself to explain it.

… “Naomi takes the responsibility of young people listening to her and looking up to her really, really seriously,” Lewis says. “Which is precisely why she refuses to say, ‘Here’s the alternative, here’s what we all have to line up and fight for.’ Suspicion of people who know what the answer is-that’s very characteristic of our generation,…

… In “No Logo,” Klein celebrated the anarchic formlessness of the anti-corporate protests-what she wryly termed “laissez-faire organizing.” Her generation of activists was “challenging systems of centralized power on principle, as critical of left-wing, one-size-fits-all state solutions as of right-wing market ones,” she wrote. “It is often said disparagingly that this movement lacks ideology, an overarching message, a master plan. This is absolutely true, and we should be extraordinarily thankful.” These days, the movement long gone, she is not so sanguine about it. “What I was responding to at the time was people on the left who I thought were opportunistically trying to impose their solutions,” she says. “I was hoping that more of an articulation would emerge in a grass-roots way, but it’s not happening-I think because the entire discussion was severed on September 11th. The mainstream N.G.O.s became frightened of being associated with people who seemed quasi-terrorist, and then we started talking about war.” Lewis has never been as enamored as Klein of the movement’s lack of discipline, and she admits now that he may have been right. “Seeing how easy it was for everything to evaporate, without institutions taking that energy and nailing it down-we were too ephemeral,” she says. “It was that experience that made me feel like we need to be more tangible, whether it’s political parties or putting it in writing.”

… And in hunting down instances in which ideology has been used as a cover for enriching cronies and corporations, she slides into the position that politics is always and everywhere about enrichment. Her great strength-following the money; never taking ideology at face value but always questioning who benefits from it; helping to pull the left back to the economic analysis that it forgot during the era of “the personal is political”-is also a weakness.

… Klein believes that change comes about only when social movements become so large and disruptive that politicians can no longer ignore them.

… [Klein says] “… if people don’t like where Obama is they should move the center.” To this end, Klein has been taking every opportunity to call for the nationalization of the oil companies. “It’s the job of the left to move the center,” she says. “Get out there and say some crazy stuff! And then, suddenly, it’ll seem more reasonable for politicians to take riskier positions.”

… Klein never tempers her arguments in search of converts from the center; she rallies her base. She’s not interested in making the left part of the mainstream; she wants to convince the left that it doesn’t need the mainstream.

… Why does Klein place such emphasis on [economist Milton] Friedman? Perhaps because she wants to draw a parallel between capitalism and Communism, to make their two histories look as similar as possible, and for that she needs not the messy, pragmatic, ad-hoc capitalism of corporations but the purist, utopian capitalism of the Chicago School. Violent autocrats of the free-market persuasion, though there have been many, have not soiled Friedman’s name in the way that Stalin soiled Marx; somehow, the misdeeds of a Pinochet or a Suharto or a Yeltsin are attributed to these men as individuals-to their lust for power, their greed, their drinking. But Klein holds capitalism guilty of all their sins.

… Everywhere she went, she stuck to her theme. “The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology,” she says.
(2 December 2008)
Long profile of prominent leftist in the mainstream media – another sign of America’s leftward shift. There’s a good chance this shift will accelerate as the economic downturn continues. The new politics will have implications for energy policy (e.g. Klein’s call for nationalizing oil companies).

Reposted at Common Dreams.

How McDonald’s finally got green

Tony Juniper, Guardian
If the corporate world is embracing what its customers actually want, why aren’t governments getting the green message?

I never thought I would find a McDonald’s advert a source of optimism, but last week it happened.

… The debate was about sustainability in face of a downturn, and whether green issues have a future now that the economy is falling apart. As you might expect, I argued for a sustainability-led recovery, with economic activity kick-started through large-scale public and private investments in renewable power, energy efficiency and upgrading of the rail network.

… But now I get to the interesting bit, because in the audience were more than 300 marketing professionals, including the nice lady from McDonald’s. It is their job to pick up on trends, and to offer evidence-based strategic advice to their employers about where customer preferences will be going. Some of them get paid an awful lot of money, and it is their role to get things right, not to express political opinions. It was their collective judgment that I found very interesting.

At the end of the exchange about greenery in the downturn, the chair of the debate, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, asked people to raise their hands if they felt that sustainability would continue to be a major factor shaping customers’ relationships with companies during the coming recession. A sea of arms shot up — it seemed nearly everyone agreed that sustainability would indeed continue as a major driver. When asked who felt it would be less important, only one hand out of more than 300 was raised.

It was a non-representative survey, but to me it said a very great deal about the gut reaction of some of the country’s top communications professionals.
(30 November 2008)

Millennials: are you mad enough yet?

Christopher Ryan, AICP, The Localizer Blog
If I were a millennial, defined by as the generation born between roughly 1982 and 2002, I would be furious. Baby boomers like myself were also pretty upset with our “greatest generation” parents for leaving us with a mess to clean up that began with Vietnam and various forms of air and water pollution and issues that included racism, sexism, and countless others. But somewhere along the line, our anger and outrage became softened with age, our customs and dress framed as silly, and our causes cynically panned as naive and facilitated by comfort and the wealth of our parents. Even my cohort of the late 1970’s had a few chuckles at the expense of the aging hippies and began to view college as a means to get rich in the market. By the time I went to graduate school, the Reagan Revolution was in full swing and it was way cool to be a real estate developer or Gordon Gekko wannabe. Greed was in fashion again.

So any lessons learned by the oil crises of 1973 or 1979 or the burning of the Cuyahoga were put in the attic with the rest of the lace curtains, bell bottoms, and other remnants of quaint but irrelevant times gone by. Nearly 28 years have been wasted through both Republican and Democratic administrations that didn’t take climate change or dependence on foreign oil and now peak oil nearly seriously enough. And now you Millennials are set to inherit a vastly more degraded natural and human World. The resources that we are leaving you with are less pure, the ecosystems far less functional and diverse, and there are far more of you than many of us felt reasonable to occupy a sustainable planet. Good luck. I personally hope that you have more sense than my peers did as a whole and that you recognize the plight you are in. But even more than mere recognition of the situation that you’re left with, you should be incensed that we thought so little of you that we squandered the very essences of survival that you will need for a fulfilling, rich, and rewarding life. You will be lucky enough to have sufficient clean water, clean air, and arable land for feed yourselves and stay reasonably healthy. There is so much toxic contamination of the lands and buildings in our communities Worldwide that you will be fortunate not to contract cancer.

Sure, you were pampered and spoiled with electronic gadgets and private schools that helped institutionalize the very pathways that led to where we are today via Wall Street greed and corruption. But what we failed to do was be responsible enough stewards to leave you with a society that did not have an energy peak, climate crisis, ecological ruination, and a social and cultural wasteland. Worse still, we are denying that these problems even exist and frankly our political and economic institutions are working frantically to mask these realities so that profits do not suffer. You were not taught the important subjects that could have led you to understand how the natural world functions. You were not given an opportunity to learn the skills necessary to cope with hard times or an energy challenged future.

So you should be apoplectic with us. You should have the latest moral claim with the dominant culture as previous generations bore a responsibility to Native Americans and African Americans. Yet your claim is even more acute and the threat is to the very survival of the species. Consider the moral and political power you would have if these three groups banded together to demand a recognition of grievances and a course correction to a sustainable and socially just World. This may be the last best opportunity you have, that we have, all of us working in conjunction to make it right.
(1 December 2008)