Editor’s Note: Naomi Klein is the award-winning author of the international bestsellers The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. She writes a regular column for The Nation magazine and The Guardian newspaper that is syndicated internationally by The New York Times Syndicate. Her articles have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Globe and Mail and The New York Times. She wrote and co-produced “The Take,” an award-winning feature documentary about Argentina’s occupied factory movement.
As all the pieces of all the world’s economy started crashing around our heads, I realized that the person I most wanted to ask about it all was Naomi Klein, whom I had met briefly last year when Laurie Anderson put together a protest evening at St. Anne’s. Naomi Klein’s books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, examined the roots of what is happening now. Here’s what she had to say about the present crisis. -JJB
JOAN JULIET BUCK: You must be having some very intense reactions to everything that’s happening right now.
NAOMI KLEIN: It’s an adventure reading the paper every morning.
JOAN: Where does that leave the end of history?
NAOMI: So many of the debates that we were told are over are reemerging. That’s the good part of what’s going on right now. There were so many attempts to arbitrarily claim that ideas about social justice, about economic justice, were finished, and there’s only one model. In The Shock Doctrine I quote Larry Summers, from back in 1991 when he was a honcho at the World Bank. He was talking about the World Bank policies that used to be called The Washington Consensus. And he said, “Spread the truth — the laws of economics are like the laws of engineering. One set of laws works everywhere.” It was all about deregulation, privatization, the market is always best, the market’s always supreme. And there was the feeling of certainty — that we had figured everything out. Summers even said a couple of years later that there are many basic economic ideas that are “passé” — no longer worthy of debate. One of the issues that he listed as over was the idea that government could invest in programs to stimulate the economy. And here he is … right!
JOAN: What does the present moment mean?
NAOMI: It’s created space; there’s new oxygen to propose alternatives. One of the things that I try to show in my book is that these debates were not won on their own merits. They were often won using violence, by actually eliminating the left, in countries in Latin America, and then declaring ideological victory.
JOAN: In The New Yorker, you’re quoted as saying, “This is a progressive moment. It’s ours to lose.” What did you mean?
NAOMI: Capitalism is on trial. And you have an organic, grassroots, sort of spontaneous revolt against the elite – which is actually what we’re hearing with this rage at CEOs, and bonuses and government collusion with the elites. Rage is an opportunity. The rage is there, and the country is seething, the world is seething with rage. The question is, where is it going to be directed? I feel there’s a moral responsibility for the Left and for progressives to provide an alternative in this moment that is moral, that is principled, that is just, that is hopeful, because if we don’t, then that anger is so easily directed at “those damn Mexican immigrants,” at “the first African American president.” So I feel a tremendous sense of urgency. It’s not just, “Hey, our time has come.” It’s, “We’d better get our act together because this anger is going somewhere.”
JOAN: Now, who would the leaders of this Left be?
NAOMI: That is a very complicated question in the United States right now. Pretty much everywhere else in the world, besides maybe North Korea, there’s a really healthy distrust of those in power. You know, people are in the streets in this moment, as well they should be – whether it’s in France or whether it’s in Britain or Iceland. They may have a left-leaning government, like the government of Gordon Brown. But that doesn’t mean they’re giving him a pass. In Britain the choice is very clear. The anger is either going to be directed at the banks or it’s going to be directed at immigrants. I’m not afraid of it being directed at the banks. I’m appalled at news that there’s a 17-year-old girl who is facing jail time for having a few beers and breaking a window at the RBS Bank during the G-20 protests, when not a single banker is going to jail for burning down the global economy. What kind of a system is that? I think we should rally to this young woman’s defense. What you see again and again in Europe is that, in this critical moment, there is an opposition that is organizing with this healthy distrust of power. In the U.S., Obama mania complicates this.
JOAN: You said, talking about the Obama video “Yes We Can,” “Now, finally, a politician is making ads that are as good as Nike.”
NAOMI: In the ‘90s I wrote a lot about branding and how corporations were tapping into the deeply human need to be part of something bigger than just consumerism. “We’re not just selling sneakers. We’re not just selling laptops. We’re selling transcendence and a connection and community.” That trend actually made me feel hopeful that, actually, we don’t just want things, and all of this expensive market research was telling Microsoft and Starbucks and Nike that what we actually want is to be part of something larger. Even though I thought the phenomenon was culturally insidious, I felt, in many ways, the same sense of responsibility. Like, hey, they’ve done our market research for us, but they’re actually not offering community and political engagement. They’re offering lattes and laptops and running shoes. So it’s actually up to progressive movements to provide the real deal. I do believe that the Yes We Can movement started pretty empty, and it was really tapping into just the deep shame of the Bush years and the desire for something different, and using these very creative marketing techniques where you’re able to project your own longings onto this blank slate.
JOAN: And can Obama provide the real deal?
NAOMI: What gave me hope was that when the economic crisis hit, Obama got serious and his analysis became more concrete. It’s really worth remembering that he started winning the election when Lehman collapsed and he started putting the ideology of Reaganism on trial. He started saying, “This economic crisis is the result of the policies of deregulation and trickle-down economics that have dominated this country.” But he said, “for the last eight years.” That was wrong. And that was part of the problem.
JOAN: Because it’s the last 30.
NAOMI: It’s the last 30 and, you know, that was a piece of intellectual dishonesty that I think has cost us dearly. That was a good electoral line because we all wanted to be able to blame it all on Republicans, because that was a much more sellable election slogan. “Everything was fine in the ‘90s when you had Clinton and we just need to get back to that.” And what that did was gloss over the absolutely central role that Robert Rubin and Larry Summers played in creating this crisis. And lo and behold, they’re back with their protégés in tow. There’s really a shared responsibility, and it’s an argument for more intellectual honesty, more principled stands and fewer strategic calculations. What worries me so much is that it’s fine for politicians to be strategic. But social movements should be principled. They shouldn’t always be thinking about what’s the right strategy, what’s the sellable message, what’s the talking point, because then you end up in a situation like this. Larry Summers is back. Larry Summers was given a pass during the entire election.
JOAN: Is it effective what Obama’s doing? What do you think of it?
NAOMI: If you mean the bank bailout, I think it’s a disaster, crony capitalism at the absolute worst. I think the timing of the release of Larry Summers’s financial records from last year is really interesting. He worked at a hedge fund one day a week and was paid $5.2 million. He was paid $135,000 for one speech to one of the bailed-out banks. And when he got the post he was presented as an egghead academic, as if he wasn’t coming from Wall Street. In fact he wasn’t just working for one bank; he was working for all of them. He collected $8 million in these fees in one year. The question people have been asking about the bank bailout is, “Why is this happening?” And I think part of the answer is that in the United States, there’s so much mythology around the purity of American intentions. There’s always this desire to blame incompetence as opposed to greed. But sometimes things are just what they look like.
Larry Summers and Tim Geithner came up with a plan to bail out the banks that is actually a disguised bailout for the hedge funds — where the government is not bailing out the hedge funds directly because they can’t sell that, but hedging the hedge funds to buy the toxic assets of the banks — instead of nationalizing the banks and breaking them up, which is what needs to happen. This is very different from what FDR had the guts to do. He used that progressive movement, he used the rage at the banks, to pass Glass-Steagall. And there’s no excuse for the fact that there’s been no serious re-regulation of the financial sector. The idea that you would somehow hand out trillions of dollars to the banks and then regulate them months later is crazy. You have the leverage when you’re handing out the money. “You say you want a bailout? Well here are the new rules.” And somehow we’re supposed to believe that the plan is to hand out trillions of dollars to the banks, and then later, once they’ve taken and spent the money, impose new rules. That’s the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard in my life. And I don’t believe these guys are dumb. I think they’re corrupt.
JOAN: Which guys?
NAOMI: Summers. Geithner. It may be legal corruption but I still consider it corrupt. Wall Street funded Obama’s campaign. They funded his Inauguration. They paid huge speaking and consulting fees to some of his closest advisers. What I am calling corruption is better understood as “crony capitalism.” It’s the systematic trading of favors between corporate and political elites to secure wealth and power. And the truth is, most of the time the trading of favors doesn’t even need to be explicit. It’s more that this corporate-political nexus creates an impenetrable culture in Washington, so the hedge-fund managers and bank CEOs are the ones who are in the ears of the Washington policy makers — they are their constituency, their community, the ones saying whether or not a given policy will work. And, of course, the problem is that the voices of regular people are left out.
JOAN: Why is my perception that Obama was funded by the tiny donations?
NAOMI: Because both are true. His campaign was historic in the number of small donations and the grassroots campaigning that brought him to office. But it was also historic in the levels of Wall Street financing. The grassroots movement that brought Obama to power needs to understand that the fight is on, that Wall Street is pushing Obama hard behind the scenes because they feel they have a claim to him. And the appointment of Summers and Geithner were all messages to Wall Street – “Don’t worry, things are not going to change too much.” And the market cheered. For the people who sent the $100 donations and volunteered their time for the Obama campaign, the only way to respond to this is to push hard from the other direction. Because the dynamic where Obama’s grassroots support just cheers him and defends anything he does, while the Wall Street heavy hitters and the defense companies take the gloves and lobby hard for their agenda does not work. The grassroots will lose that battle because they aren’t actually fighting. What they’re saying to Obama is, “You can take us for granted.”
I’m not saying Obama is corrupt. But I’m saying that, so far, what he has actually done is go to great lengths to reassure Wall Street and it’s very much a top-down recovery model, which is the opposite of what he campaigned on. He campaigned on the idea of a bottom-up recovery. Reinvesting in Main Street, reinvesting in manufacturing. That can happen, but only if we demand it, because in Washington the momentum for the status quo is so tremendous. That’s the problem with the bailout. His stimulus package has some very, very good things in it. The news is not all bad. But the problem is that the bank bailout is so bad that it practically cancels everything else out, in the sense that taxpayers have taken on so much risk, so much debt in the interest of bailing out the banks, that they’ve created a crisis down the road which will then be used to justify cutting social security, cutting health care and not making good on those promises. That’s the real concern.
JOAN: You really think that’s going to happen?
NAOMI: I really believe that this bailout is not a bailout for the economy. The best writing about this has been done by Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs. These are very, very respected economists. Two of them with Nobel prizes. What’s really shocking to me is that they’re in the position of criticizing from the sidelines, as opposed to being in the administration. This administration is trapped in the kind of thinking that created the crisis and I think it should be just gloves-off criticism on this, because it’s very, very serious. It’s very serious that Joseph Stiglitz has not been invited to play a pivotal role in the administration, that Paul Krugman is seen as too extreme. That’s why Summers matters, because Summers is the gatekeeper. Summers appears to be keeping people away from Obama. He’s defining the terms of the debate, and they are outrageously narrow. I think we should take Stiglitz and Krugman and Sachs at their word on the bailout: It’s worse than we thought. The debts that these banks hold are enough to swallow the country’s entire GDP and then some, if we keep throwing money into that black hole. It happened in Iceland. We just saw a national economy be wiped out by the debts accumulated by private banks.
JOAN: Just start with the Icelandic protests. Why are there no protests in the streets in America?
NAOMI: This comes back to the problems of hero worship. It’s hard to protest your hero. But it’s more than that. It’s also that the virulence of the Right in the United States is so frightening and the problem is that it is the merger of the extreme far right and large corporations, in the form of media conglomerates. So Glenn Beck on Fox or Lou Dobbs on CNN have these unbelievable megaphones to attack Obama, and to spread fear, which makes reasonable people feel that their main political role is to defend the Obama administration against this very frightening right-wing onslaught. It’s understandable but it’s also hard to do that while being in the streets protesting that administration’s bailout – which is what’s happening in Britain, which is what’s happening in France, what’s happening in Italy. I think the problem in the U.S. is that many people who were part of the campaign to get Obama into power now see their role as being kind of an unofficial arm of the administration, with some groups even taking talking points from the White House. It’s a recipe for political failure, because what actually makes space for Obama to do more of what we want him to do is to make him look less radical, by being more radical ourselves.
JOAN: A very good point.
NAOMI: And that’s actually doing him a favor. That’s how political victories were won in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and it’s really the only route. Another obstacle we face are these wild theories about what Obama’s actually planning to do. During the campaign people forgave a lot that they disagreed with by saying, “Well, you know, he has to say that in order to get elected.” Or, “When he gets the power he’s going to change his position,” which I think is really problematic for progressives, because what you’re actually doing is hoping he’s lying. And we actually want politicians to tell the truth so that we can hold them to their promises on the campaign trail.
JOAN: And now?
NAOMI: Now you have this new level of theorizing where people think maybe Obama’s strategy is to try the free-market bailout model. You know, bailing out the banks, letting them stay private, doing this hedge-fund bailout, so that he can show that it failed, so that he can then do what he really wants to do.
NAOMI: Yeah, except for one problem: There’s not going to be any money left for the second stage of this supposedly ingenious plan. The bottom line is that we need to get out of trying to imagine what Obama might be thinking and all of his strategizing, and just stand on principle and make principled demands. I do have enough faith in Obama to believe that if he is faced with a mobilized population making clear, principled, radical demands, he will broker a pretty good compromise. But he’s not going to do it while he is just being cheered by his supporters.
JOAN: Given that many people consider that this moment is exposing the fundamental flaws of capitalism, is it a moment for a radical rethinking of capitalism, of economics, of the markets? For a whole new model?
NAOMI: I do think that. I do. That’s both the fear and the promise of this moment. Here’s something else that I thought was really exciting about the protest in London during the G-20 Summit: Most of those activists came out of the environmental movement. They were making connections between the financial crisis and the ecological crisis, the logic of “there’s no tomorrow,” and short-term thinking that underlies both the financial crisis and the climate crisis, and the perpetual-motion machine of economic growth above all else.
It is a real crisis that we’re facing and it goes well beyond the financial markets. The frightening part of this political moment has been watching how the crisis in the financial sector has just swept all of these other issues aside. Do we ever hear about the food crisis? Do we think it’s solved? Do we ever hear about the AIDS pandemic or are we talking about climate change anymore? It can go either way. This crisis can swallow us up in every way. The financial crisis can be the only thing we talk about. It can drink up all of our collective resources. On the other hand it does provide this opportunity because the failures of the economic logic are so clear. When you start making those connections and talking about solutions that are multitasking solutions that address the financial crisis, AND the climate crisis AND the health-care crisis, then people start getting really inspired. So much of what has paralyzed progressive movements over the past 20, 30 years has been this idea of a shrug from government. We can’t do anything collectively. Yeah, sure, that’s a big problem, but we have to leave things to the market, and government isn’t very good at doing anything. That notion of collective impotence has also shattered, along with so many of the other myths.
We’re seeing such incredible government effort that’s being marshaled in order to save the financial system. There’s a sense of possibility about anything right now. Why can’t we have universal health care? Why can’t we have an incredible mass-transit system across the country? You never know what this generation’s going to do with that, because they are not afflicted with what my generation was afflicted with, which was just total indoctrination and Reaganism and this idea that we can’t do anything collectively. That’s also what’s hopeful about what Obama unleashed in his campaign. People felt the tremendous sense of common purpose. And also they got a victory.
JOAN: They did.
NAOMI: When people start winning things, it can go either way. People can just get disillusioned and go, “Well I thought Obama was going to fix everything, and he didn’t. And now I’m never going to do anything ever again. I’m now officially cynical at, you know, 23.” Or, it can be, “Wait a minute. We’ve made history electing this guy who everyone said couldn’t get elected and let’s go make some more history.”
JOAN: Now, a little question about the whole idea of progressive movements that, of course, come out of our parents’ generation and are fueled by Communist ideals — and Communism in our lifetime was revealed to be an unworkable model. So you’re saying the only basis for progressive movements is justice itself?
NAOMI: Well, justice, democracy and also any major new progressive movement is going to have ecology at its very center, which necessarily questions the fundamentals of capitalism, which is based on endless growth. Young people understand that much better than we do, just in their bones — a sense of a feeling of real ecological limits. That, to me, was what was so insidious about the role that Sarah Palin played in the campaign — at this moment, when we’re suddenly, collectively getting in touch with the reality that the resources of the planet are not limitless, that we have a deep challenge to the American dream, to the frontier myth, which is the myth of abundance and wide-open spaces. And just when we’re starting to come to grips with the reality that we have to live within our means, along comes Sarah Palin who says, “Come up to Alaska. It’s the final frontier. We’ve got enough oil and gas and resources to fuel your way of life forever and ever. Drill, baby, drill.” I think it was such an extraordinary moment, the Republican convention of, “No, we don’t have to think about tomorrow.”
NAOMI: That aspect of the role that Sarah Palin played in revising the myth of the frontier hasn’t really been examined enough. What I try to show in the Shock Doctrine is that capitalism and its various spokespeople have always tried to create a false duality between free markets and free people on the one hand, and Communism and enslaved people on the other, as if those are the only two choices available to us. We see that even in the way that the Glenn Becks and the Sean Hannitys and the Bill O’Reillys are immediately casting Obama as a Communist for extremely moderate Keynesian policies. It serves them to pretend there is nothing between extremist market fundamentalism and Communism, to erase everything in the middle.
In tracking the history of this very dangerous right-wing ideology, what was so striking to me was that it was always more dangerous to these right-wing ideologues to have democratic socialism or Scandinavian-style social democracy, rather than iron-rule, Soviet-style totalitarianism. That’s an easy enemy. That’s fun. The Cold War was fun. What is much more challenging for the Right is when people start experimenting with combinations of democracy, socialism and markets. For instance, in Poland, the first Eastern-bloc country to have elections, the party that came to power was Solidarity. And Solidarity’s vision for an alternative was not Reaganism. It was the idea that the factories could be turned into workers’ co-ops. This was Upton Sinclair’s idea in 1934 when he ran for governor of California — all of these abandoned farmlands and factories that are closing should be given to workers to run democratically. And in the rare places where they have been tried — these are the so-called “third ways” — they usually turn out to be some of the best places in the world to live, like the Scandinavian countries, or parts of Northern Italy where you have a large portion of the economy run by co-ops.
NAOMI: It hasn’t abated. What enrages me more than anything is impunity. I am in a state of rage about the impunity of the elites at the moment. I’m very disturbed by this idea that we just have to keep looking forward, we can’t look backward. That is a declaration in favor of legal impunity for the elites, whether we’re talking about torture, whether we’re talking about the financial crimes that created this crisis, whether we’re talking about what happened under TARP and the first $700 billion. Elizabeth Warren has done such a fantastic job and has raised some very, very deep legal issues about what happened with that money, and there seems to be no desire to prosecute. This brings us back to that 17-year-old girl who broke a window. You can’t have a society where the elites enjoy this flagrant impunity and expect people to respect the rule of law.
That’s why I dwell on Summers. I think that somebody who played a key role in pushing shock therapy economic policy on Russia in the ‘90s, when 72 million people were thrown into poverty, should not be declared a genius. I’ve really been struck recently by the fact that this is such a boys’ club that we’re talking about. Men get sort of deified and their intelligence inflated beyond all reason and evidence — the “maestro” Alan Greenspan and the “oracle” Larry Summers, as he was recently declared in The New Republic — really projecting onto these guys otherworldly intelligence, otherworldly powers. And I’m calling this the “brain bubble” because I actually think it’s more dangerous than the real-estate bubble, and I think it’s more dangerous than the subprime mortgage crisis.
JOAN: It infantilizes the watcher.
NAOMI: It infantilizes all of us because these men are just too smart for us, so that we just have to trust them, no matter how spectacularly and repeatedly wrong they have been. I’ve also been struck by how spectacularly right a few key women have been in this process, and, interestingly, women never get the “brain bubble” treatment.
JOAN: OK, who?
NAOMI: Brooksley Born [chairwoman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission], who, during the Clinton administration, blew the whistle on the unregulated derivative industry and wanted to regulate it like any other banking sector. For her prescience she was bullied by Rubin and Greenspan and Summers, who’s actually the enforcer of the three. He was the one who called her. They argued that just by talking about the need to regulate derivatives, she was going to create market panic. So not only wouldn’t they consider it, they wouldn’t even let her talk about it. She saw this whole crisis coming. You often hear this: “Well, no one saw this coming.” And that is such a reflection on who these men believe is someone. But there are so many people who saw this coming, and they’re considered nobodies. The only way you get to be a somebody is if you agree with them. Brooksley Born saw it coming. Elizabeth Warren has been an incredible watchdog. Sheila Bair, chair of the FDIC, also had a much more principled and ethical vision of what the bailout should be, in arguing that they should be offering direct aid to homeowners, as opposed to this top-down bailout. I feel like this gender split is not coincidental. There’s a need for more of a feminist analysis in understanding how we got here.
JOAN: As a child you rejected feminism, which your mother supported. What was it about feminism that you initially found so distasteful?
NAOMI: I think it was a combination of just basic boring teenage rebellion and, really, these basic, aesthetic objections.
JOAN: Hairy legs?
NAOMI: Yes. And it’s not that my mom was hardcore in that way, but I didn’t like being policed in any way. I rejected feminism as something that I felt was getting in my way of, you know, wanting to wear what I wanted to wear and do what I wanted to do. I really didn’t like the idea that it would be assumed that I would agree with my parents. It was a combination of just wanting to wear tight jeans and also just not wanting to be bossed around. I was a bit of a brat about it. But when I was in first-year university at University of Toronto, there was a terrible crime against women that is really not known about outside of Canada. It was a massacre at the University of Montreal, the city where I was born and in which I grew up. A gunman went into an engineering school. At that time there were big debates about why there aren’t more women in engineering and in the hard sciences. And there were people arguing that it’s because women lack the certain intrinsic ability. As an aside, that’s what Larry Summers suggested when he was president of Harvard, which got him in so much trouble. There were other people who were arguing that it was the culture of the schools themselves, and that there needed to be more of an effort to bring women into the sciences. And affirmative action was being practiced at the engineering schools. The vitriol around this was so strong that this gunman, Mark Lepine, got it into his head that he had not gotten into this school because of feminists. He went to an engineering classroom at the University of Montreal and separated the men from the women. He turned to the women and said, “You’re all a bunch of fucking feminists,” and gunned them down. Fourteen women were killed. So it was a crime against women, a crime against feminism.
JOAN: You did a lot of feminist activism starting then, right?
NAOMI: Yes, right away. Because I had grown up with it, it was a bit like, “Oh, I know how to do this,” even though I had always rejected it. The connection between the way that this was being reported on in the media and the way this twisted man incorporated it in his mind was so clear that a whole generation of feminists was created in that moment. The media kept saying, “He’s just a madman. It’s not a crime against women. It’s not about politics.” And this is so familiar. It happens every time, right? We wanted to talk about the fact that we felt it was bigger than just one man, that we were all feeling vulnerable. So we put up some signs around campus saying that we were going to have a meeting to talk about the Montreal massacre. And 900 people showed up. I was asked to chair the meeting. I’d never done any public speaking or done anything like that before. And from then on I was just in this role of leadership. But I always was a writer. I was always writing for the campus newspaper, more than I was leading rallies. I’ve never been comfortable in that role.
JOAN: Is there anything good about globalization?
NAOMI: Yes. There are many good things about internationalism. I consider myself an internationalist, not a nationalist. Globalization is such a slippery term and that’s why I almost never use it. I always say the so-called anti-globalization movement. And in my first book, No Logo, I talk about how we were seeing a rise in anti-corporate activism, and anti-corporate globalization activism. I never just say anti-globalization, because what was exciting about the movement that I was writing about and that I was a part of, that came to world attention in Seattle, is precisely that it was global; that these new technologies, like the Internet, were allowing us to create connections that were absolutely unprecedented between producers and consumers on other sides of the world. What we opposed was the globalization of a specific ideology. It was about an ideology that Larry Summers talks about – privatization, deregulation.
JOAN: What do you think of the branding of social justice and causes like the Red Campaign, which has become a brand? It leaves me completely cold. Do you think it’s effective? Do you think it’s a good redirection of branding and consumerism? Or do you think it’s like a false idea wrapped around a good idea?
NAOMI: Every time I talk about this I get into trouble. What’s interesting about Red is it really hasn’t taken off. There was so much hype about it. And so much marketing. What was so scandalous was comparing the advertising budgets to the actual dollars that went into the Global Fund. Considering the paid and free advertising that this campaign got, I think it’s quite amazing how unsuccessful it was. And I think because a lot of people had that feeling that there was something wrong about the idea of shopping your way out a humanitarian crisis. The message of Red was: You don’t have to change anything about your lifestyle; in fact, we need to just buy more. Like, you’ve got a cell phone, but you don’t have a red cell phone! It was such a hyper-consumerist model, it didn’t resonate with the target market, which was young people, who actually do understand that this idea of limitless consumption is at the core of the problem of global inequality, not the solution.
And my other discomfort with not just Red, but the Make Poverty History branding, is that I really feel that it is — and was — a very real step backward from what was happening before September 11 in the global justice movement, not the anti-globalization movement, but the global justice movement that you saw not just in the protest in North America but in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with the huge World Social Forum, and the Africa Social Forum, and also the Durban World Conference against racism, the UN Conference that happened just before September 11, which was a tremendous forum for African nations and for people of African descent around the world, including in the U.S., to talk about the legacies of colonialism and slavery, to talk about real reparations, and what Africa actually deserves in terms of economic justice, not charity. And what was so exciting about these events is that Africans were actually speaking on their own behalf on the world stage and coming up with some pretty radical demands that actually challenged who owes who. They were talking about how much has been looted from that continent in terms of people and natural resources, and turning the tables on this idea of “we just want your aid, we just want your charity.” And when I think back to that time, and then I look to the Gleneagles G-8 Summit and Bob Geldof and Bono talking about saving Africa, it makes my stomach churn. So that’s why I get myself into trouble when I talk about this.
JOAN: Are you too left?
NAOMI: I think we’ve established that, surely! I think the question is too left for what? I mean, I’m not running for office.
JOAN: Shoshana Zuboff wrote about Wall Street’s economic crimes against humanity in BusinessWeek. Do you think these are crimes against humanity?
NAOMI: “Crimes against humanity” has a very specific legal connotation, and I think that some Wall Street firms have been complicit in specific crimes against humanity. But whether the financial crisis is itself a crime against humanity, according to the UN definition, I think we should really be careful with those terms — because they need to have meaning. But I do believe that the Wall Street bailout is the greatest heist in monetary history.
JOAN: Who profits from the heist? From the Wall Street bailout?
NAOMI: This is an unprecedented transfer of public wealth into private hands. And it has been done on completely false pretenses. We were told that when they announced the first $700 billion it was to get the banks to start lending again. And then the banks said, “Oh, actually we’re just going to keep it because it makes us comfortable.” It’s theft. And it’s not mysterious who profits from it.
Who profits from it is exactly who seems to be profiting from it. Who will pay for it are the most vulnerable people in the world. And that’s why, maybe, I wouldn’t call it a crime against humanity. I think it is, honestly, a class war. I think we are seeing a class war, before our eyes, of the wealthiest segment of the population saving themselves and having the most vulnerable, poorest people pay the price – because that’s what it really means to bankrupt the government to save the banks. It means you’re not going to have money for food stamps. You’re already hearing these tragic stories of scholarship programs being cut. I mean, the most vulnerable people are paying for the banks to save themselves from a crisis that they created, and that is so deeply immoral. People should be angry about it, and the anger should be directed where it belongs.
JOAN: One more question, Naomi. You suggested in The Nation a boycott of Israel to end the increasingly bloody occupation. Can you expand on that? You must have caused a shit storm by saying that.
NAOMI: I was actually much more surprised by the amount of support I got for that. Every time you write about Israel you get angry letters. But what surprised me was the number of supportive letters I got, including from Jewish Israelis. I think it was about people’s sense of rage and feelings of helplessness during the Israeli attack on Gaza, a sense that the old ways of putting pressure behind the scenes, lobbying and hoping for the best, and signing a petition weren’t working. I got so many letters from Israelis who had always opposed the idea of sanctions against the Israeli government saying, “Progressives in Israel are beside themselves, and the country is moving hard right on its own.” You have overt racism against Arabs becoming acceptable in public discourse in Israel.
And progressives are ready to try some new tactics because they’re losing this battle. Right now the Israeli government has a sense that no matter what they do in the occupied territories, they’re still going to receive financial support from the West, they’re still going to be able to increase trade with the West. And they’ve had one of the fastest-growing economies of the past decade. A boycott does put pressure on the business community in Israel and on the broader population to put pressure on their own government. That’s what happened in South Africa. Apartheid ended when South African businesses finally had had enough of the boycott, and they turned to de Klerk and said, “This isn’t working for us. We need to negotiate.” And it wasn’t because they opposed Apartheid on principle. It was because it was no longer profitable.
JOAN: I’m reading William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Have you read William Gibson? I think that this book is so profoundly influenced by No Logo.
NAOMI: But not enough people have read Pattern Recognition, so they don’t know what we’re talking about. The incredible main character in Pattern Recognition is allergic to logos.
JOAN: Particularly Mickey Mouse and the Michelin Man.
NAOMI: William Gibson didn’t read No Logo that I know of. He just saw the title in the bookstore and that’s where he came up with the idea of a main character who had an allergy to brands. I interviewed him at a literary festival when the book first came out and we talked about this.
JOAN: And he’s the person who brought your thinking into literature, into fiction, in an extraordinary way. And it shows me that the arts can be influenced by political thinking, new political thinking.
NAOMI: Everyone should read Pattern Recognition. It’s brilliant There’s another book that I think did a great job of looking at branding and I don’t think enough people have read it. It’s called Jennifer Government.
JOAN: Jennifer Government?
NAOMI: Yes. By Max Barry. He’s a young Australian writer and it’s a sort of sci-fi thriller set in the near future, where everyone has to take the last names of the corporation they work for. John Nike, things like that, unless you work for the government, in which case your last name is “Government.” So that main character is Jennifer Government. It’s really great. Apparently it was optioned by George Clooney’s company, so I’m hoping it will be made into a film.
JOAN: What are the three things that you see that are the real solid rays of hope now?
NAOMI: I talked about some of them. One of the most interesting meetings I had in recent months was with the workers from the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago, who occupied their factory in December. They were so smart. They had been fired without notice. And it turned out that this had happened because Bank of America had cut off credit to the factory — Bank of America who’d gotten all these bailout funds. They were so smart, the workers and their union, UE, because they went after Bank of America instead of just the owners of the factory. And they turned it into a story about the bailout. All great struggles have to involve storytelling. I thought that was a fantastic example. I’ve been hearing about a lot more cases of these kinds of workplace occupations.
JOAN: Like in Argentina.
NAOMI: This is what I made a documentary about a few years back with my husband. Factories were being closed down in the midst of the economic crisis. There were 200 of them where the workers turned them into democratically run co-ops. This is starting to happen in the economic crisis around the world. I’ve got a little file going of this and one thing that would give me a lot of hope is if we really started talking about this alternative in terms of the newspaper industry.
JOAN: I was just thinking that, and magazines.
NAOMI: We are facing a crisis in journalism and we’ve been talking about impunity, and I’ll tell that when you’ve already got a culture of impunity, the very worst thing that could happen is to lose all of the newspapers. But, you know, this crisis is twofold. The crisis that the industry is facing is a crisis of their corporate control, because many of these newspapers are profitable, they’re just not profitable enough for their owners. Having spent a lot of time in factories that are trying to turn themselves into co-ops and other workplaces, I can tell you that there are some workplaces that are harder to turn into co-ops than others. But having worked at newspapers and worked at magazines, it’s actually a pretty straightforward industry to run, and journalists are pretty good at running it. And once you take out the need to have huge profits, or really profits at all, and when the goal becomes the creation and protection of jobs, but also the providing of a much-needed service, a service that is crucial to democracy, then it actually becomes economically viable. You don’t have to pay the huge bonuses. This is an example of something where you can solve two problems at once because not only could you save newspapers, but I think you’d have better newspapers if newspapers were run by journalists again.
JOAN: But what about the fact that the advertising then vanishes because of the market?
NAOMI: This is why it’s become less profitable. But a lot of the newspapers could still run if their goal wasn’t to make a profit, but the goal was to put out a good newspaper and provide jobs. Because you know what? That’s enough.
JOAN: But there has to be money to run the thing and to pay everyone.
NAOMI: I don’t believe that the model has completely failed. There is still some ad revenue. People are still willing to buy newspapers, they’re just not willing to buy them in the same numbers and buy the number of ads that satisfy shareholders. Another ray of hope is looking forward to the Copenhagen summit on climate change. This is the next big climate summit to come up with what they call the post-Kyoto consensus. And at this point, I think there’s a lot of rightful cynicism about the Kyoto protocol because the whole question of “How are we going to respond to climate change?” was entirely infected by market fundamentalism. Bringing it back full circle to where we started, the ideas that have dominated for the past 30 years have utterly shaped the environmental debate during the Kyoto era. So the idea was to always find “market-based solutions” to climate change, which meant that we couldn’t really legislate, and everything had to be creating market incentives for the private sector to solve the problem for us. And I think that’s a much harder sell today in the context of people rightfully losing faith in the ability of the market to solve our most pressing problems. So I think you’re going to see a lot of very different, non-market-based solutions being proposed ahead of the Copenhagen Summit, which is in December 2009.
JOAN: What’s an example of a non-market solution?
NAOMI: A non-market solution is this idea that I’ve become really interested in. It’s been kicking around academic circles for a while but for the first time it’s being applied, which is the idea of “ecological debt” or “climate debt.” I’ll give you a concrete example. Where this issue is most alive is in Ecuador right now. Ecuador is an enormously resource-rich country, as we know. They have very large oil reserves. But they also have a very, very active environmental movement and a very, very strong indigenous movement, particularly — though not exclusively — in the Amazon. This is one of the most biodiverse parts of the world, quite pristine wilderness. But there’s a lot of oil under the ground, and there’s a huge push to take the oil out of the area I’m talking about, which is called the Yasuni National Park. And there’s a battle that’s been going on, which is really about the limits of growth-based economics. It’s not just about the Right, because in Ecuador there’s a left-wing president, part of what they call the Pink Tide in Latin America. His name is Rafael Correa and he calls himself a socialist. He was originally in favor of extracting the oil and reinvesting the profits in health care and education. He doesn’t want the profits to just fly out of the country, as they have so often in the past. He was going to negotiate a really good deal with the oil company, unlike his predecessors. That was his vision. What’s interesting is that he has come up against tremendous resistance from indigenous groups and from environmentalists in Ecuador saying, “That’s not good enough.” Their slogan is “Leave It in the Ground.” They don’t want the oil being extracted. But then you have this problem: Ecuador needs money for health care and education and has been held back by regressive economic policies.
So what’s the solution? They’ve come up with this idea of ecological debt, which basically argues that the rich world, the industrialized world that has created the problem of climate change, knowing full well the science that has been in for a long time, owes an ecological debt to developing countries like Ecuador. What they’re saying is they’re owed an ecological debt because they are living through climate changes, and this is an Andean nation that is already dealing with water scarcity and many of the issues associated with global warming. And so they are proposing to the world, and Rafael Correa has signed on to this idea in theory, that there should be some sort of global fund where we in the rich world are paying them to leave it in the ground and reduce their emissions, particularly because this is a world heritage site and we all need the Amazon. Developing countries shouldn’t have to choose between having money for health care and education and reducing emissions. So it’s a completely different logic. Once again, as with reparations for slavery and colonialism, it turns the world on its head and asks this fundamental question of “who owes who?” — who’s the real debtor and who’s the real creditor?
I think these are the ideas that are going to take off in the next 20 years. And I’ll tell you something. I’ve been thinking about this idea and it definitely ties in with who I’m talking to, because I wrote it down: Who Owes Who. The acronym is W.O.W. It’s a pretty great name for a movement challenging the underlying causes of global inequality. The WOW project, that’s what we need.