Seattle to Baghdad
Naomi Klein had already sent her first book, No Logo, to the printers when activists halted the November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. For the new author, it was a serendipitous turn of events. No Logo was a chronicle of the “anticorporate” movement, an analysis of a new wave of protests against the business control of media, politics, and culture. When Klein started the book, she was connecting the dots of a largely underground world of resistance: “global street parties,” protests outside Niketown, occupations of Shell stations in Nigeria. In Seattle, the movement burst into full view. For people stunned by the Seattle demonstrations, Klein’s book was a field guide; for people inspired by them, it was a bible.
Less than two years after Seattle, two planes flew into the World Trade Center: a symbol of global capital, the towering logo for Wall Street. Political leaders and pundits proclaimed the nascent anticorporate movement dead, and practically accused the sweatshop opponents of bombing the Twin Towers. “The antiglobalization movement . . . is, in part, a movement motivated by hatred of the United States,” scolded New Republic editor Peter Beinart in an editorial two days after the attacks. Clare Short, the British secretary of state for international development, commented in November 2001, “Since September 11, we haven’t heard from the protesters. I’m sure they’re reflecting on what their demands were because their demands turned out to be very similar to those of Bin Laden’s network.” This was slander, but still, many commentators accepted the twisted logic that one of Washington’s enemies (the protesters) must be the friend of another of its enemies (al Qaeda). It seemed, at first, as though the movement that had produced the Seattle protests could not possibly survive.
Even before September 11, many “antiglobalizers” felt that journalists and pundits had tagged them with the wrong name. Here was an international movement if there ever was one: the shared effort of French farmers, Amazonian Indians, American steelworkers, and landless Africans to win a decent and secure livelihood. They protested something that, outside of America, most people called “neoliberalism,” after the liberal economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Neoliberals revived the 19th-century faith in the free market as the final arbiter of human affairs, a utopian certainty that had been dampened by the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They insisted that only the invisible hand could distribute goods efficiently or allocate wealth justly, and that therefore all barriers to its perfect operation—such as labor unions, tariffs, or welfare states—needed to be swept aside. When, in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, the neoliberal ideology began to sweep the world, its proponents were able to identify it as “globalization,” making it sound like an inevitable trend, not a set of political choices. The result was that protesters could easily be painted as provincial xenophobes who yearned for an autarkic past and refused to accept economic reality. After September 11, it appeared that they might be branded traitors as well. Everything had changed, and it seemed that anticorporate activism—and with it, Naomi Klein—would simply fade away.
Instead, the opposite happened. The antiglobalization movement emerged—for a moment, at least—in a new, broader and deeper form, as the opposition to the war with Iraq. And Naomi Klein kept on writing, not only about the resistance to the war but also about the war itself. It is hard enough to write about politics in peace time. The stakes grow higher in a time of war. One must recognize how violence alters the most mundane aspects of our daily politics, yet also remain aware of the larger world—the political context—in which the fighting takes place. Klein, almost unique among political journalists, has struggled to make our post-9/11 moment continuous with the late 1990s. She has looked for the neoliberalism inside of neoconservatism. The degree to which she has succeeded tells us something about whether the movement for greater economic justice—under whatever name—can expect to have a future.
Naomi Klein was born in Montreal in 1970. Her parents, Americans, fled the United States during the Vietnam War to escape the draft. They mashed their own baby food and took the kids on regular pilgrimages into the Canadian wilderness. Her grandparents, American Marxists, were activists in the 1930s and 1940s; Disney fired and blacklisted her grandfather, an animator, for organizing the company’s first strike. In No Logo, Klein described her mother and father’s dumbfounded bewilderment when their children longed for McDonald’s, begged for Barbie, and memorized the Cocoa Puffs jingle. On the endless car trips through Canadian mountain ranges, Klein recalled, she would stare out the backseat window for hours on end, oblivious to the snowy peaks, waiting only to catch a glimpse of the colorful plastic of a franchise sign: “My favorite was the Shell sign, so bright and cartoon-like I was convinced if I could climb up and touch it, it would be like touching something from another dimension—from the world of TV.”
The late 1980s and early 1990s—years during which history was supposed to be ending—were hard times for young activists. From Prague to Beijing, it seemed that everyone was like the Klein children on their car trips: they wanted nothing more than to wear Levi’s and eat Big Macs. McDonald’s arches sprawled across the landscape and Wal-Mart went on a building spree. Ad campaigns, attuned to the politics of representation on the rise since the ’60s, co-opted an antiracist, feminist stance, and played off the hip diversity of the human race. Slender African women gazed out from Benetton ads, cute Korean kids pouted in Gap overalls, and the glorious Nike swoosh, promising freedom, power, and self-realization, symbolized the utopian longings once embodied in politics. Just do it!
Klein learned about the antiglobalization movement halfway through college, when she returned tothe University of Toronto after taking a couple of years off in the early 1990s to work journalism jobs.When she got back, she noticed something had changed in campus politics. She had been an outspoken feminist before taking her leave of absence. On her return, she found that the activist kids weren’t as interested in the race of people shown in ads for Coca-Cola as they were in the company’s history of suppressing trade unions. No longer content with more money for women’s sports, they were demanding decent wages for the women on the other side of the globe who stitched the shoes worn by the athletic team. Identity politics hadn’t been replaced, but activists were approaching it in a new way—seeing racial and sexual oppression in broader terms of economic inequality. Klein began to study this new politics, uncovering, along the way, all kinds of surreal ephemera about capitalism at the millennium: “cool hunter” consultants who promise to tell stodgy corporations how to appeal to the hipsters; the faculty chairs named for Kmart and Taco Bell; the practice of “bro-ing,” a neologism coined by Nike to describe marketers bringing the next season’s sneakers to inner-city playgrounds and testing them out: “Hey, bro, check out the shoes!”
Journalists often denigrated antiglobalization activists as bratty kids, utopian dreamers who didn’t understand how the real world works. But the key insight of No Logo, a sweeping book of cultural criticism, had to do with how a brand-besotted child might turn into a socially responsible adult. The utopian dreams embodied by the brand opened the corporate order up to mass disillusionment. Starbucks beckoned with a promise of elegant latte drinks and easy, relaxed conviviality—a vision of the Age of Aquarius that its exhausted baristas and pseudo-artsy decorations could not fail to disappoint. Young women on the other side of the globe sewed the magic sneakers that seemed to bound free of gravity; but the shoes, for them, were filled with concrete. In the new world of McJobs, temping, and outsourcing, the only thing tying an increasing number of young workers to the corporate order was their longing for the brand. It might only be a matter of time, Klein suggested, before their manic desire turned into contempt, in the way that only a frustrated fantasy can. The naked dominance of the market in the post-Cold War era made it easier for people to blame business for failing to live up to its implicit promise of a happier, brighter world.
For in the early 1990s, corporations and their boosters spoke like utopians—promising wealth and democracy for all, envisioning a new belle époque of global peace and prosperity. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman devised the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” according to which no two countries with McDonald’s franchises would ever go to war (true enough till 1999, when NATO began bombing Serbia). Many of the anticorporate movement’s goals, by contrast, seemed pragmatic, even defensive. They were well in line with the established traditions of the New Deal and European social democracy: winning decent wages, ending child labor, reducing corporate pollution, gaining the right to organize unions. Yet in the post-Thatcher, post-Reagan age, there was no longer anything conciliatory about defending the economic victories social movements had won earlier in the century. To demand a higher minimum wage was to throw down the gauntlet. Believing that governments could sometimes prosper by running large deficits—accepted wisdom twenty years earlier—meant placing oneself outside the spectrum of respectable debate. Ending sweatshop labor began to seem, as it had at the beginning of the 20th century, to require such a profound reordering of culture and society that it challenged the essential morality of capitalism itself. In the 1980s and 1990s, as demands for basic safeguards of material well-being began to run up against the logic of the market, people who might never have seen themselves as radicals were suddenly forced to make new and difficult choices. The mounting radicalism of the anticorporate movement, in other words, was a response to the acceleration of capitalism itself.
Naomi Klein doesn’t look like anyone’s stereotype of an antiglobalization activist: no dreadlocks, no piercings. It’s not that she doesn’t understand the impulse. Punks and anarchists articulate their rejection of brands and consumer society in their very appearance, and their styles reflect a subculture critical of middle-class aspirations to prosperity. “Sometimes I get strong urges to pierce everything in sight and stop looking so acceptable,” she told the Village Voice. But she also recognizes the importance of presenting herself as someone with an intimate knowledge of consumer longings: “I go to an event and there are 17-year-old girls there and I know it’s in part because they’ve seen me as someone they can relate to.” In a debate on globalization with a business correspondent from the Economist, she demolished her opponent—but pleasantly. Instead of making her readers feel guilty about wanting to buy stylish sweaters from the Gap, or Starbucks mocha lattes, she turns their attention to the corporations behind the commodities. She doesn’t wag a finger at the craving to go to the mall and shop (she gives you the feeling that she might even want to come with you) but she turns the oldest of all consumer slogans on its head: Caveat emptor.
Before September 11, there was some sign that people in North America were taking heed, peering behind the corporate logos, rejecting sweatshop products, and looking past the media clichés of the protesters as well. Sneering columnists typically dismissed the anticorporate movement as a nostalgic throwback to the 1960s. In response to such criticism, Klein always strived to distinguish her movement from that of her parents. True, the new movement shared the antiestablishment élan of the Yippies, adopted the direct-action tactics of the civil rights movement, and rejected a politics of compromise. But the political and economic context of the 1990s was different from that of the 1960s in ways that fundamentally shaped the anticorporate movement. “Members of the sixties youth culture vowed to be the first generation not to ‘sell out’: they just wouldn’t buy a ticket for the express train with the sign reading ‘lifelong employment,'”Klein wrote. The 1990s, by contrast, was an era of lean and mean production, widening economic inequality, and, despite the decade’s boom, stagnant wages until the last years before the millennium. Young people never had the luxury of turning their backs on an age of abundance. As Klein observed, radicals today have “never bought in” to the system, some through choice, but many more “because that lifelong-employment train has spent the past decade standing inthe station.” The economic stress of the 1990s, she argued, liberated a generation to criticize the corporate order. The New Left never saw the power of class and capital as the critical problem facing American society. In contrast, young people in the 1990s simply could not avoid the power of business: It was the great unmistakable fact of their lives.
Klein ended the first edition of No Logo with a description of a group of activists whispering about the resistance they sought to build. The movement erupted into public consciousness with Seattle—and she became its North American icon. Most of the media wanted you to believe that the protesters were black-clad teenage anarchists throwing rocks at Starbucks, aging hippies decked out in love beads, and Japan-bashing autoworkers. Patient and articulate, Naomi Klein made the press’s job more difficult. The movement grew throughout 2000 and 2001, with mass protests at the January 2001 meeting of the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, and the demonstration at the July G8 Summit, in Genoa, Italy. By now it was impossible to hold an economic summit in any free society without tens and even hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life showing up to protest. The World Trade Organization decided to hold its next meeting in the emirate of Qatar, where such assemblies are against the law. Then came September 11, and in the wave of panicked reaction that followed the disaster, suddenly it seemed that the movement might disappear once more.
Many writers, in the months after 9/11, acted as though the trauma had fundamentally transformed the world and therefore excused—indeed demanded—dramatic changes in their own politics. Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman imagined themselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with George Orwell in Catalonia, fighting the “war on terror” as they would have crusaded against fascism. Michael Ignatieff wistfully hoped that the drift toward war against Afghanistan and then Iraq could be folded into the liberal internationalist program of bringing humane social values to benighted parts of the globe. Yet not even in revolutions does history leap free of the past. All these writers interpreted the events of September 11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, through the political lenses they had been using for years before the World Trade Center collapsed.
Naomi Klein was no exception, but her worldview, forged in the anticorporate movement, was unique. Almost alone among political journalists, Klein has devoted herself to writing about the war against Iraq as a political project driven by neoliberal ideology and economic interest—a natural extension of the corporate dominance of the 1990s, instead of a radical break.
On one level, this insight into the continuities between pre- and post-9/11 politics has led her to do excellent muckraking on the privileged role that the Bush Administration has given to private companies during the Iraq War and reconstruction. She has written about the ReBuilding Iraq conferences, where businessmen advertise such surreal products as “bomb resistant waste receptacles” (sold in hunter green, fortuneberry purple, and windswept copper), and talk ghoulishly about how “the best time to invest is when there is still blood on the ground.” She has reported upon the war profiteering of former secretary of state James Baker III and the Carlyle Group, and noted that the reconstruction of Iraq has turned into a distant employment program for Americans, while unemployment in Iraq remains above 50 percent. “Rather than models of speed and efficiency, the contractors look more like overbilling, underperforming, lumbering beasts, barely able to move for fear of the hatred they have helped generate,” she wrote in the Nation.
Klein has also offered a unique interpretation of the role of free-market ideology in fueling the war. Contrary to the popular image of the United States’ bungling of postwar Iraq, the Bush Administration, she wrote, indeed had a plan for reconstruction when it went into the Middle East. The strategy was to privatize the country, selling off several hundred state-owned enterprises, especially oil assets, which would unleash a “boom so powerful the country would practically rebuild itself.” To quote L. Paul Bremer: “[G]etting inefficient state enterprises into private hands is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.” In order to create a hospitable climate for investment in postwar Iraq, the Bremer administration enacted a flat tax rate for corporations. It permitted companies to repatriate 100 percent of profits earned in Iraq: not a dime need be invested in the impoverished country. The one economic policy of Saddam Hussein’s that Bremer kept was a law that sharply limited the right of workers to organize unions or bargain collectively. According to the economic development theory of the Bush Administration, all these policies were actually for the good of the Iraqi people—they would attract investment and start an economic boom so vast that the recovery would easily pay for itself. As the Economist reported, Iraq became a “capitalist dream.”
Around the world, such plans have met with resistance. Iraq is no exception. In an article for Harper’s, Klein told the story of a soap factory that Bremer sought to privatize. “We were shocked” to hear about the plans to sell off the company, one young employee recalled. “If the private sector buys our company, the first thing they would do is reduce the staff to make more money. And we will be forced into a very hard destiny, because the factory is our only way of living.” Klein asked what would happen if the factory was sold anyway. The worker replied, “Either we will set the factory on fire and let the flames devour it to the ground, or we will blow ourselves up inside of it. But it will not be privatized.” By now, everyone has noticed the connection between Bremer’s disbanding of the Iraqi army and the rise of the insurgency. Klein alone has seemed to recognize a similar link between mass privatizing layoffs and a bottomless supply of desperate young men.
Just as the American plans for the reconstruction of Iraq echo the structural adjustment plans of the 1990s, Klein has also observed the continuities between the anticorporate movement and the worldwide mobilizations against the Iraq War. Anticorporate activists have not abandoned their economic concerns in their struggle against the war, but have pointed out the obvious connections between the starvation of the public sector and the billions of dollars going to the war. As Klein writes, they recognized the “familiar names of deregulation and privatization pushers Bechtel and Halliburton.” And the tremendous worldwide protest of February 15, 2003—the emergence of the “world’s other superpower”—reflected the organizational lessons learned in the global protests against neoliberalism. “Past movements have tried to fight wars without confronting the economic interests behind them,” Klein argues. “Today’s activists, already experts at following the money, aren’t making the same mistake.”
Other writers have sharply criticized Klein’s journalism on the war, claiming that she is soft on the militants in Iraq—that she assimilates them into a rosy vision of anti-sweatshop activists or union organizers in Bangalore. Doug Ireland has patronizingly called her a “smart cookie,” while dismissing her view of Muqtada al-Sadr as naive. Christopher Hitchens has smirked at the spectacle of a “socialist-feminist offering swooning support to theocratic fascists.” None of this is in the least bit fair (and without belaboring the point, would either of them write about a man that way?). Klein has repeatedly criticized American policy in Iraq for helping to fuel authoritarian religious fundamentalism, and she rejects the theocratic aspects of al-Sadr’s politics, even as she recognizes the moral legitimacy of opposition to the American occupation. The main difference between Klein and many American journalists is that she doesn’t seem to think that the foremost responsibility of Western intellectuals is to spend lots of time criticizing the very people the United States government is busy trying to kill. The point is to understand them, understanding that (for all their particular culture as adherents of one or another variety of Islam, and as victims and sometimes beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein’s rule) the Iraqis are the subjects of the same grand ideological experiment as are we.
Activists should not, Klein concluded, blame the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq on the “absence of a plan,” but rather, “on the plan itself, and the extraordinarily violent ideology upon which it is based.” This is the neoliberal ideology that has also led to the privatization of water in Bolivia and the denial of AIDS drugs to Africans. It is the ideology responsible for demanding that countries such as Mexico and Indonesia cut their health and education budgets to pay off their debts to wealthy First World investors, and for turning a country where it’s illegal for workers to organize independent unions—China—into the factory of choice for the globe. In a sense, Klein is suggesting that Iraq is simply the most violent of all the economic reorganizations that the United States has helped to sponsor over the past two decades. Economic historian Karl Polanyi, who described the rise of laissez-faire in the early years of the 19th century, argued that liberal economics demanded a millenarian conviction as radical as “any that ever inflamed the minds of sectarians.” Neoliberalism, too, requires the ceaseless subjugation of society to the rule of the market. Its adherents are capable of such great ruthlessness in part because they never have to present themselves as believers. Theirs is a faith all the more powerful for never having to say its name.
In the months leading up to the 2004 election, it seemed as though the antiglobalization movement was on the verge of disappearing altogether. One of the movement’s tenets had been that center-left political parties in the United States, Canada, and Europe, led by men such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, had ceased to advance meaningful alternatives to the hard right, and had instead become the architects of neoliberalism. In the 2004 election, even Naomi Klein offered her tepid endorsement of John Kerry. But after Bush won, she wasted no time in lambasting Kerry for his sloppy campaign, for his wholehearted concession and simpering call for healing, and for his stubborn support of the war, which allowed the president’s fantasies about events on the ground in Iraq to dominate public discussion through the summer and fall.
The sporadic, flickering nature of the opposition to the war makes it appear, in this winter moment after Bush’s reelection, as though resistance has vanished altogether. And yet Klein’s work, her patient documenting of the anticorporate movement of the 1990s, gives reason for hope. The war, like the spread of neoliberalism around the globe over the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been bloody and painful, yet the men and women in charge of our politics are sustained by their apocalyptic, evangelical faith that great good will come of it in the end. Living in the comfort of their homes far away from the conflict, they have an abiding confidence that over time, the violence, economic weakness, and hunger of the present will all be redeemed through the transporting force of economic growth. It is as though any pain in the present must be endured for the sake of the glorious hereafter.
Klein recognizes this nihilistic optimism from Davos, Miami, and Seattle: it is the arrogance of the advertisements, the brashness of the brands. The magical leap of Michael Jordan to the net is supposed to make people ignore the squalor of the Indonesian streets. The war in Iraq was as carefully staged as a public relations stunt: as the statue toppled, the violins were set to swell while the children rushed out bearing flowers. But the problem with logos, as Klein has shown, is that they can be used in ways their makers never intended. The image of the toppling statue has been seized by countless antiwar protesters, who have concluded their rallies by pushing over papier-mâché effigies of Bush. The American flag has been changed to a peace flag. The jingles about democracy and freedom are being sung back to us now in a different key. Just as Klein charted the development of a movement inspired by the frustrated promises capitalism made of utopia, so too she may someday in the future find herself the chronicler of a new movement in Iraq that fights in the name of the values that America supposedly went there to defend—once again turning the old symbols inside out.
Many other political writers have trembled before the onset of war, the entry of the United States into a new era of potentially endless military conflict. As in the early days of the Cold War—and even before that, during the march toward World War I—a certain class of liberal intellectuals has found himself ineluctably drawn to the state and to power. Naomi Klein, by contrast, has faced her historical moment bravely. She has worked to understand the war in its relation to the broader political questions of our day: the unrivaled power of business, the decline of social democracy. In so doing, she has done credit not only to herself but to the political movement her work initially described, and to the rebellions—past and future—to which her career is inextricably bound.