Naomi Klein

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Capitalism Vs. The Climate

Lunch with the FT: Naomi Klein

James Harkin, Financial Times, September 28, 2007

Naomi Klein and I have only just met and already she is guilt-ridden. Her publisher told her that I grumbled about her choice of restaurant - the achingly healthy Neal’s Yard Salad Bar in Covent Garden. She’d thought, she tells me, that the FT might send its chief economics commentator Martin Wolf to interview her, and as he’s been critical of her work in the past she wanted the visceral pleasure of watching him drink a green organic smoothie. As she’s got me instead, she feels terrible.

We meet in the cobbled Neal’s Yard courtyard. It is a lukewarm September afternoon, and we both fancy lunch outside. The author of anti-globalisation activist manifesto No Logo blends in anonymously - her dress sense is casual-prim, jeans with a neat black blouse and black shoes, teamed with an unshowy blue necklace.

When it was published seven years ago, soon after the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, No Logo became a set text for the anti-globalisation movement, then riding a resurgent wave of anti-corporate activism. The book was translated into 27 languages, and Klein - a journalist and activist - became globally famous.

Since then, she has frequently left her native Toronto to report from just about every trouble spot and disaster zone - Iraq after the invasion, Sri Lanka after the tsunami, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Together with her husband, Avi Lewis, she made a vigorously partisan documentary about a group of Argentine workers who reopened a factory as a collective unit. In 2005, Klein was ranked 11th in a “Global Intellectuals” poll organised by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines.

Klein is in London to kick off a global promotional tour for her new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This works on a vast canvas to push an ambitious theory - that the modern economic “shock therapy” of the kind championed by some free-market economists is joined at the hip not only with brutal repression of the type which occurred in Pinochet’s Chile but also with military invasion (think of the “Shock and Awe” tactics of the Iraq invasion) and psychological torture techniques for inducing confessions which have been around since the 1950s.

The publicity blitzkrieg accompanying her book has brought with it a kind of shock and awe all of its own. She’s all over the papers and the airwaves. Before London, she was in Venice for the premiere of a short film by hip director Alfonso Cuar¢n, made to accompany her book, and next she is off to New York for the US leg of the tour.

Klein says that drinking smoothies keeps her going during punishing book tours, and so she starts by ordering one. Without even having to look at the menu, she goes for the apple, beetroot and carrot combination with added ginger, and I decide to join her. Klein says she is not very hungry, so we start by ordering vegetable soup. While we attempt to slurp our smoothies quietly (I am distracted by my attempts to drink thick gloop through a straw) I try to debate with her about the book.

I tell her I enjoyed reading it, but don’t agree with the central premise - that shock therapy, military “shock and awe” tactics and psychological torture techniques were all of a piece. The idea of shock is a slippery metaphor on which to hang a whole book, I say - aptly, as our soups arrive - and it doesn’t quite hold everything together.

Klein comes out on the offensive. “All I did,” she says without drawing breath (or soup), “was to take the metaphor that the economists used seriously. I am getting slammed for the use of the metaphor, but it’s not my metaphor.”

I’ve written sceptically about Klein’s work in the past. In the flesh I find myself admiring her ferocity and passion. A child of radical parents - her mother is a feminist film-maker, her father a political activist - I’m beginning to think that her astonishing energy has something to do with a wholesome progressive upbringing - and maybe a surfeit of “energising” smoothies.

Klein has barely stopped talking since she arrived, so I attempt to halt the barrage by interrupting to tell her that her soup is getting cold. “I knew this was a bad idea,” she says, “trying to drink soup while talking.” She’s right. But the soup is a disappointment - a “bit gluey”. I agree - it tastes like treacle and is ludicrously over-priced.

I don’t want to offend Klein over her choice of restaurant so I keep my mouth shut. I try to persuade her to have a salad, but Klein is more interested in talking than eating and we have now segued into Iraq. The narrative thrust of her book seems to imply that huge US security companies in what she calls the “disaster capitalism complex” were instrumental in precipitating the invasion of Iraq. Is that what she means? “Am I saying that weapons companies like wars?” she says, with a glint in her eye.

She doesn’t answer that one, but Iraq, Klein concedes, was not invaded solely at the behest of companies like Halliburton. There were a whole series of motivations, and the one Klein prefers to cite is the “one per cent doctrine” - the idea, attributed to Dick Cheney in a book by the journalist Ron Suskind, that if there was a one per cent chance that a threat was real, the US should act as if it were a racing certainty.

Isn’t there a danger that she attributes too much cunning to the workings of the political establishment, and forgets the possibility that much of it is simply a matter of incompetence? “I believe that people believe their own bullshit,” she says. “Ideology can be a great enabler for greed, particularly when your ideology tells you that by pursuing your greed you help as many people as possible.”

Klein says that we all need stories because they help to keep us oriented. But there are very dangerous narratives floating around at the moment - the clash of civilisations, for example, or the novel idea of “Islamofascism” - and part of the reason why they are taking root is that there aren’t enough stories to counter them. “If you’re going to give people a schema or a story, the one in my book is a fairly democratic one - it says keep your head when the next shock hits.”

Our soups are taken away and we revert to sucking on what remains of our smoothies. Mine is tasteless, but given Klein’s healthy glow and perfect teeth, I’m convinced it’s going to do me some good.

Surely the best example of a shock affecting a political movement, I say, is the devastating effect of the September 11 attacks on the nascent anti-globalisation campaigns? Klein doesn’t like the “anti-globalisation” label, and agrees that September 11 threw up huge problems for the left, but counters that “the infrastructure of the anti-globalisation movement became the backbone of the anti-war movement”.

She goes on: “All of the initial targets of the protesters - the IMF, the WTO, the World Bank - have now lost their credibility and are in crisis, and there are huge masses of people holding their governments to account. The movement was always wrongly portrayed as a movement of north American university students, because it was easier to dismiss that than to admit mass movements in Latin America and India.”

I don’t agree that the prospects for the global anti-capitalist movement are as rosy as she thinks, but it is difficult to head Klein off when she is in full flow. As she sips her cappuccino, we drift back to talking about the reception of her books and her image in the media. She’s grateful for the coverage, she says, as long as people focus on the substance rather than on the “side issues”. What kind of side issues? Klein has to think about it, and then delivers her first giggle: “Like my hairstyle, for example.” Now I notice it for the first time, and Klein’s hair is straight and carefully coiffed, but (of course) deliberately understated.

With her slick publicity machine (her website is awesome) and her expert eye for design - she is keen to know what I think of the British cover for The Shock Doctrine - Klein has become a global anti-capitalist brand. She is alive to the potential contradictions in all this for a No Logo author, and savvy enough to know how the system works.

“I found it pretty predictable that that would happen. Because it was a movement which was suspicious of hierarchies, a couple of people who wrote books were selected as spokespeople.”

But very few people, I say, want to think about the campaign against brands anymore. Neither does she. “I stopped talking about it two weeks after No Logo was published.” It was never just about brands, she says with another half giggle. “It’s about - once again - using brands as a metaphor for this whole economic system.” I tell her she is very good at telling stories, but I suggest that her narratives make it easy for people to latch onto her big ideas and say “Aha, she pays too much attention to brands,” or “Aha, she thinks everything has to do with the psychology of shock.”

“There would be an ’aha’ moment no matter what,” she replies, visibly wearying of all this. “If I didn’t do any of this, it would be ’aha, Naomi Klein is predictable’.”

She is rescued by her publicity manager, who comes up to the table to tell us it’s time for the Naomi Klein publicity juggernaut to roll on. As she gets up to leave for yet another interview Klein is feeling guilty that I didn’t get around to having a decent meal. To make her feel better I tell her I’m on a diet, even as I think about picking up a bag of chips on the way home.

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