Tag Archives: Naomi Klein

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.

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein

<em class="BookTitle">The Shock Doctrine</em>, Naomi Klein

Vintage, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 662 pages, C$22.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-676-97801-8

Some books want to make you laugh, and others want to make you think.  But Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine really wants to outrage you.  It is, after all, about how some very clever people have figured out how to take advantage of human suffering for profit.  It’s about how a class of entrepreneurs is deliberately taking advantage of crises to further their own agenda at the expense of the common good.  It about geopolitical crises can come to be used like forms of torture.  It’s about a more complete history of the past 35 years of geopolitical changes, one that adds an economic dimension to the various revolutions and catastrophes.  It makes Klein’s previous No Logo (which I finally read in a hurry after finishing this book) look like a checklist of benign corporate shenanigans.

The irony is that I left The Shock Doctrine alongside No Logo for years on my shelves, confident that I knew what it was about.  Disaster capitalism?  How businesses move in devastated zones to make money?  Tell me something new, Klein.  But it turns out that I didn’t fully understand the thesis of the book, because what Klein is after is really a history of the past 35 years in global politics, as influenced by graduates of the University of Chicago School of Economics.

If you don’t know about Chicago School Economics and their high guru Milton Friedman, you have a lot of catching up to do on free-market theory concepts.  But what Klein does is connect the dots until we’re looking at 35 years of intervention by Friedman-inspired “Chicago Boys” whenever there’s a traumatic political upheaval in the world.  The list of “shock doctrine” sites is long and terrible, going from Chile to Iraq but hitting destinations such as Bolivia, South Africa and Russia along the way.  Klein’s main thesis is that since voting populations does not like, want or accept right-wing economic policies, it’s best to put them in place during times of crises or panic when everyone is too terrified to protest.  If it sounds familiar, well, it should: As Klein suggests, the reforms implemented in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina were simply the homecoming party of techniques successfully field-tested elsewhere in the world.

The worst thing is that it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to support her claims: simply a list of people who think along the same lines, and who feel that it’s a good thing to send public dollars into private pockets.  Greed is a powerful thing, and it makes for excellent friends if ever some of the greedy get in positions of influence.  It all makes up for infuriating reading: by the time Klein ran down the list of links between the Bush administration and the oil industry, I was openly wondering how much more of this I could take before I had to stop reading the book and take a breath.

For intellectual honesty’s sake, I should probably note that there are a few annoying things about The Shock Doctrine.  The first is a feature of every left-leaning attempt to present another version of history (I’m looking at you, Howard Zinn): They tend to presume that you already know the conventional version of history.  If not, quite a few important details are left off, and trying to fit them in the narrative can take some research.  Second; Klein’s comparisons between economic shock therapy and psychiatric electroshocks is provocative and memorable, but it does sensationalize the issue and leaves it open to criticism of irrelevance.  Finally; it’s a big, big subject and the book does take a number of shortcuts.  This being said, I’m not going to insist on any of those issues as problems: Frankly, I had far too much fun reading a selection of one-star reviews of the book on Amazon (many of them personally offended than anyone would say something against Friedman; others simply reading off the same right-wing talking points) to give any comfort to those who are predisposed to hate the book.

Naaah; I’m going to assume my own biases and tell you that The Shock Doctrine is an important work.  It suggests a context for many seemingly disparate yet oddly congruent policies.  It shows how deeply anti-popular policies are now rooted in the US and, by influence, global policies.  It doesn’t offer a lot of hope, although the best it can do (“shock wears off”) is still inspiring.  But it also blows in the wind of the past decade, one that has seen obvious displays of policies that, until now, had been kept far away or couched in reassuring rhetoric.  The Shock Doctrine strips bare those excuses and, in doing so, give a bit of its own shock therapy to readers.  Read the book, blow a fuse, have all the outrage you want, then come back and do something about it.