No Logo, Naomi Klein

<em class="BookTitle">No Logo</em>, Naomi Klein

Vintage, 2009 reedition of 2000 original, 490 pages, C$24.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-307-39909-0

This is No Logo’s tenth anniversary, and I’m about ten years too late in reading it.  Not that it has missed me; Since 2000, Klein’s first book has become a reference in leftish literature.  It’s a coherent map to issues that came to the forefront during the nineties: The selling of public space (“no space”), the consolidation of corporate power (“no choice”), the drive to ever-cheaper overseas operations (“no jobs”) and the interactions between them.  For the turn-of-the-century activist generation, No Logo clearly states the issues and testifies on their behalf.

I took my time getting to this book even though a copy of the first edition has been sitting on my shelves for years in part because I thought I knew what it was about.  Feh: I was reading Adbusters in high school and spent a lot of time worrying about those same issues, especially when applied to digital media.  But it took a read of Klein’s follow-up book The Shock Doctrine to make me realize that I had to read No Logo, and that I still had quite a bit to learn from it.

Klein herself is, like most western-world activists, a curious mixture of willing outrage and involuntary complicity.  Most chapters in No Logo begin with memories of her years as a teenage mall rat, segueing into what she now knows about those issues.  It is a place-setting device, a way to remind her readers that she’s not holier than everyone else, and a way to quickly go from common personal experiences to the abstraction of her topics.  Criticizing consumerism is almost always like expressing doubts about the dangers of oxygen and water: although you can raise fair points about their dangers and how they can be limited (Fire brigades! Flotation devices!) the sad reality is that they’re not going away.

Nonetheless, there’s still a difference between having to live and having one’s mind conquered by orchestrated campaigns.  No Logo gives a few hints on how to move from the later to the former.  By showing how and why mega-corporations encroach on public property, Klein also teaches how to recognize emerging threats, and why they’re so problematic.  The tour of the sweatshop havens (oops, “export processing zones”) in which a good chunk of products are manufactured in miserable conditions may not be new… but it does detail how, exactly, the products we choose to buy are manufactured, and why things have ended this way.

Knowing anecdotes and disconnected facts is one thing (congratulations if you realize you’re literally surrounded, probably even clad, in products manufactured under conditions you would consider evil) but it’s another to be able to connect them in a semi-coherent fashion.  No Logo ties the anecdotes together and suggests a framework in which to see the issues.  It suggests ways to recognize our complicity with the brands, an essential step if we are to disengage with their more abhorrent practices.  In short, it lives up to its billing as “a bible of the anti-corporate movement.”

But ten years after publication, it’s worth pondering whether things are better or worse.  Branding certainly hasn’t fallen by the wayside.  It’s even more devious than ever, what with anti-brands and stealth branding vying for the activist dollar (a process better studied in The Rebel Sell, which I’ll be commenting shortly).  Sweatshops are still around, and they’re making beloved iPods.  Corporate power still runs rampant in a media narrative consumed with anti-terror rhetoric tuned to turn us into frightened automatons assuaging our paranoia by soothing shopping sprees.  Even Klein notes in a new foreword that Barack Obama has been the best-branded presidential candidate ever, and that many of his voters were seduced by the branding more than the substance. (Which isn’t knocking down Obama, because even the best candidate deserves the best branding he can get, but may explain why so many people are disappointed that a moderate running on a populist platform ended up behaving, once elected, as… a moderate)  At best, one can say that the citizen-versus-corporation battle outlined in No Logo remains ongoing: the memetic arms’ race between informed citizen and profit-hungry organization has grown more sophisticated but neither side is ceding ground.  Much.

I won’t claim that No Logo turned me in a better activist overnight: Despite silly personal boycotts and a strong personal aversion to marketing, I’m too far embedded in consumer culture to see a way out.  Still, reading No Logo is a useful reminder.  It was an experience to walk in Toronto’s ad-plastered Union Station halfway through the book.  And it brought me some comfort when I ended up paying an eye-watering amount of money for a winter coat designed and manufactured in Montréal rather than in some exploitative third-world sweatshop.  Neither of those realizations amount to much, but in questioning consumerism, success can only be measured in small victories.

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