Among the world’s most popular anti-globalisation activists is a woman who once idolized capitalism. SALT profiles an intellectual giant.
In December 1989, a 25-year-old man was denied admission to École Polytechnique in Montreal, took a firearm into one of its engineering classrooms, shouted: “You’re all a bunch of feminists,” and killed 14 female students before turning the gun on himself. His suicide note outlined his rage regarding women’s occupation of traditional male roles. He claimed feminists had ruined his life.
A student 300 miles away at the University of Toronto, the Montreal-born Naomi Klein, heard the news and resolved to follow in her activist parents’ footsteps. “There was nothing like that incident in Canadian history,” she has said. “It was a hate crime against women. It was a cataclysmic moment. It politicized us enormously. Of course, after that, you call yourself a feminist.”
Born in 1970, to physician professor Michael Klein and activist filmmaker Bonnie Sherr, Klein consciously avoided her parents’ politics throughout her youth. As a child, she idolized brands and advertising, stitching fake logos onto her clothing to emulate corporations. The shooting at École Polytechnique, now known as the Montreal Massacre, was one of two life-changing incidents that propelled her into progressive social commentary. The other was her mother’s disability following a stroke at the age of 46.
Klein’s first work as an activist was an article she wrote the year after the Montreal Massacre for the University of Toronto’s newspaper, The Varsity, entitled Victim To Victimizer. In it, she identified herself as a “self-hating Jew” and Israel as having “racism and misogyny at the core of its being”, in reference to its conflict with Palestine. The reaction was vicious and immediate; she received bomb threats on her university campus and experienced widespread criticism from fellow Jewish students.
She spoke to The Guardian years later about the fallout. “After the article came out, the Jewish students’ union – who were staunch Zionists – called a meeting to discuss what they were going to do about my article – and I went along, because nobody knew what I looked like. And the woman sitting next to me said: “If I ever meet Naomi Klein, I’m going to kill her.” So I just stood up and said, “I’m Naomi Klein, I wrote Victim To Victimizer, and I’m as much a Jew as every single one of you. I’ve never felt anything like the silence in that room after that. I was 19 and it made me tough.”
‘We are in times of global, serial crises, layering on top of each other.’
Klein left university soon after for an internship at the Toronto Globe And Mail, which led to her becoming editor of This Magazine, a publication dedicated to radical politics and alternative media, and a journalist and columnist for The Nation and The Guardian. Her beliefs, honed by her work and experiences, became steadfastly opposed to those of her younger, brand-obsessed self.
“There was not a left,” she said, in reference to narrowness of the political spectrum. “We had to kind of invent it as we went along. Left-wing voices were very negative and regressive. But at the exact same time, all these ideas that I had thought were the left – feminism and diversity and gay and lesbian rights – were suddenly very chic. So, on the one hand, you’re politically disempowered, and on the other hand, all the imagery is pseudo-feminist, Benetton is an anti-racism organization, Starbucks does this third-world chic thing.”
Klein was horrified by the increasing sophistication of capitalism, and the shift to “brand management” from simply selling products triggered her first book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. It was a direct response to the commercialization of her own politics, and was received as an anti-capitalist manifesto. Translated into 28 languages, it becoming a worldwide bestseller.
Since that first publication in 2000, Klein has become so integral to the ongoing debate about privatized profits that criticisms levelled against her are often, by definition, celebrations of capitalism. The Economist, in 2002, accused her of writing “page after page of engaging blather, totally devoid of substance”, with “all the incoherence and self-righteous disgust of an alienated adolescent”, whilst giving capitalism “no credit for the extraordinary progress seen in recent decades in reducing poverty and other measures of deprivation – notably child mortality – in the world’s poorest countries”.
Other critics cite hypocrisy as a major flaw. Klein is frequently asked where she buys her clothes and coffee from, and she has had to defend her decision to publish some of her work with HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s media giant NewsCorp. There are further claims that Klein is in danger of becoming a monolithic brand herself, thus completely negating her calls for change.
Still, Klein’s popularity remains undeniable, and her massive book sales and sell-out appearances vouch for the continuing relevance of her arguments. Her most recent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism proposes that communities in the aftermath of major disasters are particularly vulnerable to being exploited by the implementation of free market policies, under the guise of acting quickly to mend society and help the populace. Occasionally, the book suggests that these disasters – natural, economic, military, or monetary – may have been encouraged, or even manufactured, by those who benefit the most from the outcome.
Her new book, This Changes Everything, is released next month, and argues that climate change has less to do with carbon than it does with capitalism. As consumer demands increase, so too do the strains on the planet we draw our resources from, and Klein suggests that the need to alter this economically disastrous strategy also presents us with a wonderful opportunity to break the mould of those demands. She lists specific points that need addressing – the reversal of privatization, more taxation, stricter regulation of business, higher government spending – and prioritizes wealth distribution to win “the war our economic model is waging against life on earth”.
‘If we do not demand the kind of change that we want, it will not happen.’
Klein’s goal is radical change that turns the political tide. By illustrating social inequalities, the worsening environmental crisis, and the financial agendas of those making decisions, she clarifies the parameters of the battlefields, and calls the powerless to action. At the Media Reform Conference in 2008, she spoke about the impending US presidential election in terms of what a nation can demand from its leader.
“The market crash of 1929 was the moment that created the New Deal. It didn’t happen because Franklin Roosevelt was a great guy – it happened because people in this country were so radicalized, so determined, so organized, that the alternative was revolution. History is made in the space that opens up when those in power realise that they are more vulnerable than they think – and when those who have been told again and again that they are powerless find new reserves of power.”