Naomi Klein On Corbyn, Trump & Learning To Log Off

Photo: Koroush Keshiri
In the aftermath of cataclysmic political upheaval or natural disaster, it's Naomi Klein to whom many people on the left will turn for astute commentary and critical analysis. The Canadian author, social activist and filmmaker is known around the world for her biting assessment of corporate globalisation and capitalism, and was once hailed as "the most visible and influential figure on the American left" by the New Yorker.
Her first book, No Logo, published in 1999, confronted consumer culture and the branding of public life by global corporations. It became a manifesto for the anti-corporate globalisation movement and an international bestseller – quite a feat. In 2007, Klein shifted her focus to "shock politics" in her second and perhaps even more influential book, The Shock Doctrine. Spanning four decades of history, the investigation highlighted the brutal "shock doctrine" tactics used by those in power to put radical pro-corporate measures in place following collective shock, such as disasters, terrorist attacks, wars, market crashes and coups. The public, left disoriented by calamitous change, cannot be expected to act in their own best interests when they don't even know what's going on, the theory goes.
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In 2014, Klein turned her attention to climate change, a cause about which she's particularly passionate, with the New York Times' bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein spent at least five years researching and writing each of the three books, but her latest was complete within just a few months – not because the process had gotten any easier (she admits to using internet-blocking apps to aid her focus) but because of the urgency of the political crises in which we currently find ourselves.
No Is Not Enough, published last month, takes on the Trump administration and is accessible enough that you won’t want to put it down. The two-part book – half analysis of the forces that have put him in power, half manifesto for action – argues that Trump is not an aberration but the logical conclusion of the cultural and corporate forces Klein has been studying for two decades. Branding, shock politics and climate change chaos, three of her specialist subjects, helped to get him into the Oval Office – a fact that gives her zero satisfaction. Refinery29 spoke to Klein about Trump, Corbynmania and the future of political activism.
Hi Naomi. In a recent interview you said you weren’t sure whether or not Trump was conscious of the shock doctrine tactics he was using. Do you think we’ll ever find out whether he's a calculating demagogue or just an idiot?
I think he thinks some of it intentionally and we know he's well aware of the benefits of distraction. He’s always been aware of that, so it’s been central to his MO. He’s a showman – he knows being a showman is helpful at distracting from things you don’t want people to look at, like how unsound your business project is. But I don’t think he wants to be under investigation over Russia or hacking the election. I’m quite sure that’s not part of a grand plan.
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Would you say it’s a happy coincidence for him that all of these terrible things are happening at once?
No, for the moment I think it's the Republican party that's benefiting from the whole festival of distractions around Trump. It means they’re getting minimal scrutiny for their radical tax plan, which is redistributing wealth upwards. They’ve gotten less scrutiny for their healthcare plans, their budget, and their infrastructure plans. Plus their dismantling of financial regulations and environmental regulations – none of that can compete with the Trump show. But from Trump’s perspective, what’s interesting is he has lost control of the plot. The press is addicted to Trump's reality show – a TV format that Trump exploited to win the election – but now he’s lost the script. Now they’re following the idea that he may be impeached.
What do you think the media should be doing differently? Are there any particular outlets you think are covering Trump and his administration well, that you'd recommend people read?
That’s a great question. Obviously, when the president is being investigated and his administration is being investigated for possible collusion with a foreign government to interfere with an American election, that has to be covered. But given that there may very well not be a smoking gun that proves what clearly some Democrats are hoping they’re going to be able to prove – that there were some backroom meeting when they plotted the whole thing out – I don’t know whether that was the case. I’m not going to offer an opinion on it one way or the other. It should be investigated, but the decision to make it the story that eats up 90% of the media oxygen is a decision about ratings. It’s also a political decision on the part of the Democrats – some powerful Democrats – who think their best political strategy is to build this case for impeachment and then run in 2018 when they have congressional elections on a platform of “Vote for us then we'll have a majority that can impeach Trump”. As long as the Republicans are in power, they’re not going to impeach him, but if the Democrats take back the House, then they could impeach Trump.
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Do you not think that would work? Is it not a worthwhile thing for the Democrats to be doing?
Look, I called my book No Is Not Enough [laughs]. I think the idea that you can just run a purely negative campaign of “Elect us because we’re going to impeach the bastard” is a really reckless strategy. What we saw in 2016 was Hillary banking on the idea that she could run a largely fear-based campaign of “Vote for me I’m not Donald Trump” and “Love trumps hate”, but not offer policies to the American public that were convincing enough in terms of meeting the crisis of under-employment, precarious employment and the decaying social safety net and all of these other incredibly pressing issues. So I really worry about them doubling down on this strategy that’s purely negative and purely anti-Trump. And I think within their echo chamber that may seem like a good strategy, but I worry that it’s not and a lot of people are still tuning out of the whole thing, or watching it like a reality show that is kind of interesting, but...
Are there any media organisations, then, that you think are striking the right balance in terms of their coverage?
Yeah, in terms of broadcasting, people who don’t know Democracy Now! should check it out as a good daily digest. Just read the headlines and watch its one-hour show that does cover the major developments in the Trump administration but that looks at his climate policies, looks at his economic policies, looks at his impact on the world. I think The Intercept, where I have a relationship, has done a really good job of focusing on the economic agenda that is being smuggled in under cover of all the drama. Lee Fang’s work in particular has been really great on that front. The Guardian is doing a good job, too. I think certain podcasts have been really terrific – Politically Re-Active in the US is a great podcast you should check out.
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If you could picture an ideal Democratic candidate to run against Trump, who would it be and how would they compare to the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn? What traits would they possess?
It’s a little complicated for me to get into this right now. I think it’s much more important – and this is why I finished the book with this – to highlight examples of people’s platforms that are emerging. Because I think it’s less about a perfect political candidate who ticks all of the boxes and more about there being a really clear intersectional agenda that connects the dots between economic inequality, racial injustice, gender injustice, climate change and has a coherent story – about war, about how all of these issues are interconnected, in terms of the roots of these crises, but also the solutions that would solve multiple problems at once. If the social movements that were mobilising before the Trump era can lead this process, then they can hold whoever it is who ends up running again to account – maybe it’ll be Bernie again, maybe it’ll be Elizabeth Warren, maybe it’ll be Nina Turner. There are a lot of different possibilities and configurations, but whoever it is has to represent a broader progressive coalition than Sanders was able to represent, because he wasn't able to win. This time we have to win. I’m not even saying it couldn’t be Sanders. But in terms of formulating their agenda, there has to be a different and more inclusive process because too many people felt excluded from it, and that’s one of the reasons why he didn’t win.
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In the book, you say we all need to rebuild our attention spans, which have been splintered by social media. Do you have any tips for people who recognise this in themselves?
I think we all recognise it in ourselves. I certainly recognise it in myself. We all have worries about what this is doing to our concentration. These are incredibly powerful tools, they’re amazing tools for organising, amazing tools for balancing out power imbalances between elite media and regular people who have never had a platform. So I’m not dismissing it, but I am saying we need to use the tools in our interests and not be ruled by the tools. I think we’re in a moment when we’re being overly ruled by the tools and I don’t put myself outside of that. I understand that I need to do things to force myself [to concentrate].
I read that you’ve used the internet-blocking app Freedom to help you write the book. It’s good, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s very important and it’s important to get into a discipline of being alone with your thoughts – what a concept, right? [laughs]. Think about Donald Trump with Fox News on at all times in the background, with probably three televisions on at once, plus he’s tweeting. We don't want to be that [laughs]. To the extent that Trump can hold up a mirror to some of the real sicknesses of the culture – that he doesn’t read, everything is handed to him in a listicle – that should challenge us to try to stretch our attention spans and battle all of these forces that are splintering our attention spans. It has real ramifications on our ability to put events in context and if we’re not able to do that, we’re not able to be strategic, we’re not able to be anything but reactive.
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What do you think about social media activism and clicktivism? Do you think they’re useful tools to resist a person like Trump and an administration like his, or is it just small fry and and we should all be taking to the streets instead?
We need a combination. As I said, there’s no doubt these are incredibly powerful tools for organising, for speaking back, for forcing dialogue where there used to be only monologue. But I don’t think anything can replace face-to-face presence and communication. We need to use these tools to get ourselves face-to-face, and they are really good at that, but then we need to put them down. We are seeing a generation of organisers who are learning how to do this; we saw this with the Sanders campaign – they used social media, Facebook groups and Slack groups to get people face-to-face in rooms, but it was in the rooms where they made the real commitment and the relationships about what they were going to do because nothing replaces looking someone in the eye and saying “I’m going to do this”, you never extract that kind of commitment from clicktivism. But don’t mistake a series of protests for a strategy because that’s not the same thing.
People still assume that young people as a whole are politically apathetic and too lazy to protest because they can’t comprehend the difference they could make. What do you make of that?
Maybe they are but on the other hand, when I look at how young people backed Jeremy Corbyn – and the recent electoral turnaround – it didn’t look lazy at all to me. It looked incredibly dedicated and difficult and it’s really inspiring. So I don’t buy the idea that young people are lazy.
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What do you think the recent general election result says about the state of British politics compared with that in America at the moment?
In general, I think it shows that you can’t trust your expert class. There’s a real crisis of legitimacy in all the people who claim to be experts, the pundits on TV and the pollsters and the people who interpret politics for the public, who got this so spectacularly wrong. They also got Brexit spectacularly wrong. In North America we saw something very similar with Trump, so it’s not just a British phenomenon.
It also showed there’s a deep appetite for a kind of change that hasn’t been on the ballot for a really long time, and it was really interesting to see Corbyn’s fortunes turn around when he issued the manifesto and people liked the ideas. That flew in the face of every political convention of the past 40 years, which has all been about messaging and image instead of substance. The idea that a platform or manifesto that takes a little while to read could matter at all [should be celebrated] – I think politicians and political parties have assumed that people don’t read their manifestos, but maybe that was because there wasn’t much of anything to read. So, the idea that you could lead with ideas, that you could lead with policy. And that what’s most important is that the person that represents those policies is seen as trustworthy and hasn’t spent their life flip-flopping, is not one of these politicians who just develops his opinion based on what advisors, focus groups and polls tell him, is what matters. The truth is that there aren’t many political figures that project that.
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We need people entering politics who aren’t the usual suspects, who haven’t been enmeshed in its culture for so long. People who come from trusted fields like nursing and teaching and are passionate. One of the things I loved about Corbyn’s campaign was the way it starred regular people. Sure, there is a bit of a cult around Corbyn right now – an anti-cult, in a way – but I was so moved by those commercials, the small films that Ken Loach made where we heard directly from the people on the front lines of the austerity crisis and it was revelatory. It pointed frankly at what a terrible job our media does at giving people a voice.
What is the future of activism? Are there any big trends that are going to emerge? Obviously we’ve had social media activism and political campaigns now reach people through those means. What’s next?
I think we’re going to see more of the people’s platforms that I write about, hopefully using technology to crowdsource ideas and to bring as many people as possible into the process, but ultimately doing that work face to face. I think we’re going to see a refusal to wait for messianic political figures to say, “Ok, this is the plan, this is the platform, this is the party, now we’re going to do it”. I don’t think people want it to be handed to them from on high, and I think we’ll see more of that.
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A lot of young people lack optimism and hope when it comes to politics. In the UK that’s changed a bit recently because of Jeremy Corbyn, but he didn’t win and we’ve now got a Tory government propped up by the socially conservative DUP.
Yeah, but you’ve got a Tory government that is poaching Labour policy left, right and centre...
True, and it’s certainly constrained by its slim majority, but how would you recommend young people stay optimistic? What examples of hope and positivity should we look towards?
I mean, frankly a lot of us are looking to you guys [laughs]. Specifically at the involvement of young people and the engagement of non-voters in the general election. When people get discouraged is when we think that this is going to be a quick fix. It’s not going to be a quick fix. If you’re feeling discouraged, it probably means you need to get away from your screen and get in rooms filled with other people who are doing the work, not just rooms full of people arguing, but building the alternative.
There needs to be a balance between the theory of politics and actually experiencing different models, whether that’s trying to bring community-controlled renewable energy projects to your school or neighbourhood. What nourishes us and sustains us is experiencing in miniature the different world that we actually want, including treating people differently.
Many people believe that if there were more women involved in the upper echelons of politics, then politics would be done differently and politicians would treat each other differently. Do you agree with that? Does it matter that there aren’t many women?
I think it matters what kind of experiences we value. If [a woman is] in a political project that isn’t committed to changing the balance of power in valuing different kinds of skills, different kinds of work and different kinds of labour, it can end up just replicating the same structures. I live in Canada where we’ve got a slick prime minister who announced that half his cabinet was going to be women and, I have to be honest with you, I think it’s important from a symbolic point of view, but it does not necessarily follow up from that that this has been a feminist government. I would say that it has not been in terms of policies, whether it’s dealing with the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls, whether it’s indigenous rights generally, which disproportionately impact women, whether it is pay equity in the public sector. Having 50% women in the cabinet has not translated. It [female representation in politics] needs to be a part of a holistic project that is about a shift in values and hoping that just having women at the top is going to bring that shift in values, I don’t think is enough.
No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein is out now.
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