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Naomi Klein

Wednesday November 28 2001

Guest: Naomi Klein, Canadian journalist and columnist

Host: Dragan Ambrozic, B92


Canadian journalist and columnist Naomi Klein is the unofficial spokeswoman of the anti-globalisation movement.

Her best-selling book, No Logo, documents the popular backlash against the increasing economic and cultural reach of multinational companies.

She claims that the anti-globalisation protesters represent a more democratic alternative to corporate domination of the world economy.

And she believes that this movement is becoming increasingly powerful. Politicians and big business ignore it at their peril.

She writes in the introduction to No Logo that the book is hinged on the simple hypothesis that, as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next great political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations, particularly those with very high-profile brand names.


In a recent interview, you referred to the anti-globalisation movement as a “movement of movements” aimed at reclaiming democracy on a global level.

Well, I’m not sure that democracy is going to be reclaimed at the global level, at first, at any rate – I think democracy is going to be reclaimed at the local level in a globally networked fashion. So I’m not talking about retreating into localism, dropping out of the international debate, but I think that what we’re seeing internationally is a trend to resist a further erosion of democratic rights globally and a reclaiming of participatory democracy locally - whether that means bus riders unions insisting that public transportation be accountable to the people who use it or a resurgence of interest in local politics and introduction of participatory budgets in Brazil, a local democracy movement all over Italy. So this is where I think we are reclaiming pockets of space but in an internationally networked way.

How is the anti-globalism movement functioning in the new post-September 11 social environment, particularly in the US and Canada?  Has this led to an increase of pressure on activists?

Well that’s kind of a big question. It’s not the same in the US and in Canada, I think there’s this incredible chill on activists in the US – and not just activists – I mean there’s a kind of McCarthyite atmosphere where criticizing the government is seen as unpatriotic. This is true for journalists, this is true for any critics of the government, and it’s also true of the global justice movement.

In Canada what we’ve seen is a propaganda campaign to try to associate our movements with terrorists. We’ve seen it all over Europe and we’ve seen it in North America. Clare Short, who is Tony Blair’s development minister, has said that the goals of our movement are the same as the goals of Al Qaida. We’ve seen Robert Selleck, who is US trade representative, saying that to fight for a new round of trade negotiations in Qatar is to fight against terrorism. He’s talked about intellectual connections between our movements and the terrorists, so it’s been a true propaganda campaign.

I don’t see that it’s been terrifically effective in the sense that I think we only hear this from politicians and right wing newspaper pundits, it’s not something that I hear from regular people in any way – it’s kind of a really clear opportunistic smear campaign. I think that there’s been so much political opportunism on the right, hash-grabs for handouts, attempts to ram through really regressive policies that have absolutely nothing to do with fighting terrorism, that the original chill that was felt after September 11 – there was a real sense that we can’t get out there and talk about the problems of big multinationals or capitalism right now, it’s a time of mourning, people aren’t going to be ready – in the face of this political opportunism a lot of people have realised that this is a unilateral retreat and we can’t afford to do it.

I remember getting an email a couple of days after September 11 from a group of farm workers in Florida who have been taking on Taco Bell because Taco Bell is the largest buyer of the tomatoes that they grow under obscene conditions in Florida – mostly Mexican migrant farm workers who don’t have the right to form unions who are living crammed into these tiny little trailers. They had this cross-country campaign that they were planning called the “Taco Bell Truth Tour” and they had asked me to speak at one of their stops. They sent me this email saying ‘we’ve decided to call off the tour because we don’t think it’s appropriate to target a large corporation.  So you see this empathy being expressed by some of the most vulnerable people in US society – migrant farm workers – but then on the other hand you see large US multinationals displaying none of this sensitivity, wasting absolutely no time to use this moment of mourning to get all they can.  So it’s clear this is not a time for timidity. If there was a time to step back – and I think at any time of mourning what we all want to do is mourn and that means to some extent pause – but clearly that’s a luxury that we can’t afford.

Have the issues brought to the public consciousness by the anti-globalise movement become more or less present in the media since September 11?

If anything September 11 has made it easier to talk about poverty and inequality and democracy, particularly in the US where it’s often so difficult and particularly during an economic boom, it was very difficult for American activists to try… to focus media attention on anything except for this kind of euphoric good-news story of the booming US economy.

The other thing is that post-September 11, the world is forced into these two choices – with us or against us, you’re an infidel or you’re on the side of the sacred and I think people hunger for more options and I think that the role of our movements at this point should be to send this really clear message that we’re against fundamentalism of all kinds, whether it’s the economic and market fundamentalism of neo-liberalism or the religious fundamentalism of an Al Qaida network and to say: “Okay, actually there are more than two options, there’s more than ‘with us or against us’ – as Arundhati Roy says: “All that is beautiful and wonderful in human civilization falls between these two poles”. I think people are ready to hear these ideas in a way they weren’t pre-September 11

On the other hand, we can’t ignore these incredible crackdowns on civil liberties represented by anti-terrorism bills being rammed through in the United States, Canada, all over Europe. So at the same time as I think there is a hunger to hear these ideas and an openness to the discussion, it becomes harder and harder to express these ideas in the ways that we’ve gotten used to. We’re seeing this really clearly in Canada, because Canada is hosting the next G8 summit and post-Genoa obviously the police are looking for a whole new set of tools to repress activists. The Canadian government is in the process of ramming through a set of legislation, which I call the Kananaskis Clause, because that’s where the G8 summit is going to be held, in Kananaskis Alberta. And what they have done is reclassified any international meeting as…  Any state representative attending any international meeting is now covered by diplomatic immunity, or will be covered by diplomatic immunity if this anti-terrorism law is passed. So the G8 summit will not only face the usual protections that any foreign dignitaries receive but it will take place behind a legal shield of diplomatic immunity.  And part of our new anti-terrorism legislation that is currently being rammed through our parliament says that any attacks on any people who enjoy diplomatic immunity – which means any official attending any international state conference – is an act of terrorism and it includes an attack on the means of transportation, which could clearly include roads. So that would mean that any group that sits down on a road… you know the act of blocking a road outside a summit, which has been a tactic used at all of the international meetings these past few years, would not only be a criminal act, it would be a terrorist act, subject to 14 years in prison.

We have certainly seen the forces of control joining hands on the global level in the past few months.  There are a great may young people among the activists out there on the streets.  Are you afraid that in the backlash some of them may become more emotional and therefore more radical?

Well I think what we’re facing is a clear, coordinated international campaign by police forces, internationally coordinated police forces, secret security agencies and states to recast activists as terrorists. And we know that this was happening before September 11 because we know the amount of surveillance that was going on, we’ve seen leaked FBI reports that talk about groups like Reclaim the Streets being terrorist groups and so on, my book has been quoted in secret security documents here in Canada. So we know there was already a campaign and we know there was this opportunism post-September 11 to feed on the security fear in order to further recast and criminalise protestors.  I think there is definitely a danger that some people will respond to this attempt to paint us as terrorists by, in a sense, acting more like terrorists.  That’s always the fear and I haven’t seen this happen yet, I think it would be a real mistake if it did happen. Because, as I said, I think that the space we need to occupy is all the space between being a living alternative between cell terror and state terror, between the logic that in order to change anything you need to destroy it.  I mean, this is what Bush and Bin Laden have in common, this is the logic of the bombing campaign on Afghanistan, it’s the logic of the sanctions campaign on Iraq, it’s the logic of the terror attacks on New York and Washington and if we absorb any of that logic then we’re not the alternative that we need to be, and we take away our most powerful weapon, which is the weapon to be the genuine third way, and I don’t mean Tony Blair’s third way, I mean the third way that says actually there is no one true way.

Our radio station is based in Serbia.  Civilians in this country have felt the worst part of NATO’s new strategy.  I must ask you why you think the problem of NATO’s recent strategic development has never been properly addressed by the anti-globalism movement?

I think there was discussion but there definitely wasn’t enough and it has been a limit, one of the limitations of what you’re calling the anti-globalisation movement – I think that’s a bad phrase to describe it, I think that means in fact that we’re protectionists and nationalists, and I don’t think that we are, I think we’re internationalists. It’s an international pro-democracy movement. But think that within this framework, within a movement that was developing a stronger critique of capitalism, militarism was somehow lost, there was a sense that corporations and markets were so powerful that we allowed ourselves to be convinced that states were no longer powerful. We’ve started to see that well of course states are still powerful and they’re most powerful as military and police forces and we’ve started to feel this ourselves within the movement. But I think it’s absolutely true that we didn’t make these connections clearly enough, and I think that that’s changing very quickly.

In one of your essays you drew a fine parallel between the present international situation and the 1930s.  Could you elaborate on that?

Well I think that whenever you see young people taking to the streets, as we’re seeing outside these international trade conferences, the tendency is to make the comparison with the sixties – it’s another youth movement – and I really don’t think that’s the proper parallel. Yes it is predominantly young people at the front lines in North America and some parts of Europe but it is a genuinely cross-generational movement, it isn’t even a movement, it’s a movement of movements, and its kind of a moment or a mood of impatience is what we’re seeing, It’s extraordinarily decentralised, and what we’re seeing is people coming to the same issues and infrastructure from many different directions at once.  And that’s where I think the parallel is best drawn with the 1930s when you had campaigns that drew together student movements, consumer movements, labour movements, women’s movements, and there was a sense, you know,  that there is no one group that on its own can genuinely challenge power but if in a decentralised way all these different groups and generations work in some sense in tandem then it can be extraordinarily powerful. So that’s all I was saying in making a parallel with the 1930s, because I think that having just a youth movement is actually a real source of weakness and was a source of weakness in the 60s, because you grow out of it, you grow out of youth movements. And youth movement are by their very nature deracinated – they don’t have roots because students move around, they live in sort of transient communities, and therefore it’s easy, in a sense, to uproot a youth movement.

Does the parallel with the 1930s have anything to do with your grandfather.  I gather he was one of the leaders of the first ever strike in the Disney company?

Well my grandfather, he didn’t work at Disney World, he was an animator for Walt Disney – he worked on films like Dumbo, and Fantasia, he was a Donald Duck specialist, actually, and they had their first animators’ strike in the early 1940s and he was one of the leaders of that strike and the core group of organisers were all fired and blacklisted, and my grandfather really was never able to work in animation again; he worked in the shipyards and then did some commercial fine-painting work, but it was impossible to get a job in Hollywood which is where they were, they were in Burbank where the strike was, so, yeah, my grandfather had a huge influence on me in terms of just kind of telling us these stories about how they were mistreated.  I mean, we heard this as kids and I guess as kids Disney’s your rock star when you’re six years old, you know, and it was always really cool for me to have a grandfather who could draw Disney characters, and they looked exactly like Disney characters because that was his job: he knew how to do it perfectly.  But then to hear these stories about who Walt Disney really was… I mean it sort of screwed with my brain, thinking about the contradictions of our branded culture.  And I say in my introduction to the book that he taught my to look for the dirt behind the shine, and I guess he really did.

Could you tell us some more about your family and background?

Well my grandparents were socialists.  They were socialists their whole lives – both of them are no longer alive – and my father was what was described as a red-diaper baby, he grew up with socialist meetings going on in his living room.  And my parents met at university, both of them were involved in the peace movement.  My mother was quite involved in independent media and early feminist film making.  And when my father was drafted, he had two choices: either go to Canada or convince the US military that he should be granted conscientious-objector status. But in order to be granted conscientious objector status, you have to prove that you are genuinely not fit for the military because you have this history of pacifism, and in order to convince the military that you have this history you essentially have to rat on your family.  You have to say well I really am a socialist and, you know, here’s  my family history to prove it.  And because, as a red-diaper baby, as somebody whose father was blacklisted, my father obviously was very reticent to talk to the military about our family history so we decided to go to Canada and that’s how we ended up here and that’s how I was born in Canada a couple of years after they emigrated.

How did you come to being researching branding as a separate phenomenon?

Honestly I really did grow up with this, I grew up with a critique of capitalism, from my grandfather, hearing the stories about the strike they were the first stories we heard, hearing the stories about why we lived in Canada.  We came here in the early 60s, I was born in 1970, and my earliest memories are hearing the explanation that the reason why we stayed in Canada is because in Canada you don’t have to be rich to get sick, that we have a social safety net, and that’s what makes us different from the United States, because we came here because of the war but we stayed here because its different from the United States, because we have genuine public education and health care, and public broadcasting and film making and so on.  So I guess I see branding as an assault on the public sphere.  And really I think that the sentiment that… that the strongest thread that runs through this movement of movements is a response to the many forms of privatisation: corporate branding is one form of privatisation, but its only one part of it.  So I guess I really did grow up with this and there isn’t one moment where I can say that’s when I realised that it was important to take on corporate power, I really did grow up with it.  But that said, when I was a teenager growing up in this very political household, you know, wanting to rebel like any teenager, you don’t rebel in a house like mine by smoking pot and things like that because that wasn’t seen as particularly rebellious – both my parents were hippies – so the most rebellious thing you could do was become materialistic.  So I would try to freak my parents out by hanging out at the mall after school.  They considered that a far worse offence than hard drugs.

Don’t you think that there is even more to it?  That branding in itself is something which becomes tied up with identity and possibly changes it?  It seems that this is a phenomenon which psychologists should thoroughly investigate.

In the book I really look at the corporate policy to sell lifestyle brands instead of products, and to look at how that is affecting our public spaces and the way it’s affecting our public institutions and also the way it’s affecting the type of work we get.  Because when companies decide to sell lifestyle brands instead of products, they see their act of production as the act of marketing and design, and that means that the people who make and sell their products are seen as extraordinarily unimportant.  We hear this over and over again.  And in my interviews with corporate CEOs, someone like Robert Louis-Dreyfus who I’ve interviewed recently, who owned Adidas, and reoriented that company from being a product company to a brand-driven company, sold off all the factories and so on… He openly says “ We are now a marketing and design company, we let other people produce our product, that’s not what we do”.  So I wasn’t looking at branding as the way it transforms our identities and why we need it to construct our identities, which is much more a sociological or psychological project, and I do agree its an area that needs much more research, because what’s become clear is that brands are simply opportunists, they fill a vacuum and they move into a desire that we have for more than products.  That’s the irony, that branding works, not because we so desperately want running shoes and laptop computers but because we so desperately want more than running shoes and laptop computers which is why running shoes and laptops are not sold as running shoes and laptops, but are sold as freedom, democracy, community, empowerment and the rest of it – that’s what branding does.  So the real question we need to ask is why are we as a society doing such a poor job of fulfilling these meaning needs and these identity needs, these basic needs that we have to be part of something larger than ourselves so that we end up getting our meaning from consumer products, and that a profound question and we’re not going to deal with branding until we answer that question.

The present global social conditions have been described as the beginning of a “post-civil society era”.  Clearly the basic concepts of the civil society as we know it and  the way these are represented on a global level are the key to understanding what the anti-globalisation movement is all about and what it will be about in the future.

I think we absolutely need to reclaim our public institutions and our notions of civil society, whether that means education or local governance or unions, and that our current constructions are definitely archaic so when we defend the public sphere we end up defending sort of remote bureaucracies that people don’t feel connected to and if we look at what is really driving people to the streets, I think what they’re responding to is a crisis in representative democracy where power is being delegated to points further and further from where they live. In rural communities the most common complaint is that resources are sucked out of the community raw, and the ability to actually manage resources no longer lies with the community because they lie with international corporations or with bureaucratic governments far away. So there is almost… there is as much suspicion in some communities of government as there is of corporate power and that’s what the Left has traditionally failed to address. And all of this kind of suspicion and rightful anger at the failure of representative democracy is left to the Right to harness and use in really populist forms and the way the Right usually does that is by saying, okay, democracy isn’t working: we’re going to give you a refund, we’ll give you a reform in the form of democracy.  So you end up with this really individualist response as opposed to any kind of collective response. And the truth is that in most communities there’s all kinds of expertise that is going completely untapped about how to mange resources, how to govern… how to govern ourselves. So the defence of the public sphere and I think what you’re calling civil society I think has to be about completely changing our understanding of what is public and what democracy is.  That’s why I don’t agree that it’s about globalising these institutions, I think its about globally networking them. But I think we’re facing such a profound crisis in faith in democracy that the idea that we can solve these problems globally before we address them locally, I find just way too optimistic. I mean I think the first thing we need to do is to rekindle a faith in the most basic ability to be authors of our own destiny and I think frankly that in order to do that you have to start small but like I said at the beginning I don’t think that means retreating into localism and abandoning the international sphere.  I think all of this needs to happen with an awareness that its happening internationally.


© B92, 2002