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Rights + Justice

In the Church of Naomi Klein

‘No Is Not Enough’ includes plenty of articles of faith for the radical remaking of public life.

Ian Gill 23 Jun

Ian Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. He is currently president of Discourse Media. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here.

Jesus, who once proclaimed himself to be “Alpha and Omega” (Revelation, 1:8), or the beginning and end of all things, is also known to God-botherers as the “author and finisher” of Christian faith (Hebrews, 12:2).

That Jesus. What a guy!

Naomi Klein, who chose Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul Centre earlier this month to release her latest incendiary device, No Is Not Enough, began her reading positioned before an ornate pipe organ, her lectern placed in front of the word “Alpha” in gold lettering above the stage. She finished the evening seated under the word “Omega,” fielding softball questions from a TV host. The congregation loved every bit of it.

Klein, as author of a different kind of faith than the Nazarene’s, has come to command a degree of adherence that is so rare in modern public life as to be nothing short of extraordinary. There is something almost soothing about having Klein at the pulpit, as a Vancouver audience will get to experience tomorrow night at St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church at a sold-out Vancouver Writers Fest event.

These times cry out for an antidote to the mayhem that has come to grip the world’s capitals, and empty its deserts and plains. Paradoxically, perhaps, it takes the world’s greatest chronicler of the evils of neoliberalism to bend the arc of our collective moral anxieties towards optimism — something that seems so counter-intuitive in an era of Donald Trump, Brexit and, locally, our homegrown disaster capitalist and, relievedly, soon-to-be-ex-premier Christy Clark.

Klein’s cry of No Is Not Enough should be self-evident, given how many Yanks said yes to Donald Trump and how many Brits said yes to leaving Europe. In Klein’s formulation, the subtitle of her book — Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need — is the “yes” that these times demand.

But, of course, no book by Naomi Klein is complete without, first, a seething declamation of the perfidy of the rich and powerful. Naturally Donald Trump is the perfect foil, the personification of every obscenity inherent in the rampant globalization of greed that has led to the despair of people as fated or fortuned as the populations of Mogadishu or Melbourne, Aleppo or Antwerp, Vanuatu or Vancouver, Ramallah or Rome.

This despair, like capital, is not equally distributed or equally felt, but all over the world now there is a sense — at least outside the communities sporting bunkers and high fences — that the jig is up. The inequities are too large, the seas are rising too fast, the winds are blowing too hard, the temperatures are rising too high for even the lucky among us to pretend any more that having an RRSP or, in the U.S., a 401(k), gives us immunity.

Klein’s new book, rushed to publication mere months after Trump’s election, presents convincing evidence that the time for conspiracy theories has past. The conspiracies are real. These are practices now, not theories: “the deconstruction of the regulatory state; a full-bore attack on the welfare state and social services (rationalized in part through bellicose racial fear-mongering and attacks on women for exercising their rights); the unleashing of a domestic fossil fuel frenzy (which requires the sweeping aside of climate science and the gagging of large parts of government bureaucracy); and a civilizational war against immigrants and ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ (with ever-expanding domestic and foreign theatres).”

The goal of neoliberals, Klein writes, “is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest... It’s a program so defiantly unjust and so manifestly corrupt that it can only be pulled off with the assistance of divide-and-conquer racial and sexual politics, as well as a nonstop spectacle of media distractions.” With “powers so vast and policies so reckless,” Trump’s war mongering — in rhetoric, in fact, all in plain sight — means that “everyone on this planet is potentially in the blast zone, the fallout zone, and certainly in the warming zone.”

Absolutely, these are dangerous times. Who doesn’t think that? Who doesn’t worry about the state of the world near and far? Who doesn’t wonder how all the pieces fit together? The wonder of Klein is that she does so much of that thinking and worrying for us, and pieces together a scenario that is the sum of all our fears — made manifest, but hardly monopolized by Donald Trump.

Klein draws expertly on first-hand experiences of modern flashpoints — South America after economic austerity there, New Orleans after Katrina, Baghdad during the Iraq war, Canada’s tar sands, even the dying corals of Great Barrier Reef during this period of “climate vandalism” — to fill a large canvas with battle scenes that have, as their root, the common curse of neoliberal economics.

No Is Not Enough does us many favours, but of all of them I most appreciated Klein’s explainer about “the word neoliberalism, and about who is a neoliberal.

Neoliberalism is an extreme form of capitalism that started to become dominant in the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but since the 1990s has been the reigning ideology of the world’s elites, regardless of partisan affiliation. Still, its strictest and most dogmatic adherents remain where the movement began: on the U.S. Right.

Neoliberalism is shorthand for an economic project that vilifies the public square and anything that’s not either the workings of the market or the decisions of individual consumers. It is probably best summarized by (one) of Reagan’s famous phrases, ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

As Thatcher famously declared, ‘There is no alternative.’ (Another way of thinking about this is that neoliberalism is simply capitalism without competition, or capitalism lying on the couch in its undershirt saying, ‘What are you going to do, leave me?’

Neoliberalism is a very profitable set of ideas, which is why I am always a little hesitant to describe it as an ideology. What it really is, at its core, is a rationale for greed.

For Klein, Exhibit A of the evils of neoliberalism is climate change denial, or worse, the flagrant aiding and abetting of fossil fuel profiteers by a president who is as morally bankrupt as he is intellectually impaired and economically conflicted.

Because climate change, especially at this late date, can only be dealt with through collective action that sharply curtails the behaviour of corporations such as ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs. It demands investment in the public sphere — in new energy grids, public transit and light rail, and energy efficiency — on a scale not seen since the Second World War. And that can only happen by raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, the very people that Trump is determined to shower with the most generous tax cuts, loopholes and regulatory breaks. Responding to climate change also means giving communities the freedom to prioritize local green industries — a process that often clashes directly with the corporate free trade deals that have been such an integral part of neoliberalism, and which bar ‘buy local’ rules as protectionist... In short, climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. To admit that the climate crisis is real is to admit the end of the neoliberal project...

The author and intellectual Cornel West has said that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ I often think that neoliberalism is what lovelessness looks like as policy. It looks like generations of children, overwhelmingly Black and brown, raised amidst an uncaring landscape. It looks like the rat-infested schools of Detroit. It looks like water pipes leaking lead and poisoning young minds in Flint. It looks like foreclosed mortgages on homes that were built to collapse. It looks like famished hospitals that feel more like jails — and overstuffed jails that look like humanity’s best approximation of hell. It looks like trashing the beauty of the planet as if it had no value at all. It is, much like Trump himself, greed and carelessness incarnate.

This is an incredibly important framing through which to view not just the Trump White House, but Theresa May’s Downing Street, Malcolm Turnbull’s Lodge, and Christy Clark’s dying days in Victoria — among many other loveless regimes.

Klein’s phrasing, however, doesn’t always succeed: the Clintons blur ethical lines but Trump “annihilates those lines altogether”; Trump towers aren’t just buildings but “giant phallic symbols” from Vancouver to Manila; and at one point we are asked “to understand in our bones how (various) forms of oppression intersect and prop each other up, creating the complex scaffolding that allowed a kleptocratic thug to grab the world’s most powerful job as if it were a hostess at a strip club.” Huh?

If Klein’s language borders on the pneumatic at times, numbing her ability to shock us with news of the shocks that are being perpetuated upon us, her framing of neoliberalism is unerring. I particularly like her comparison — again, from experience gathered at the scene — between Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2003 — “a little chunk of the United States rebuilt in Iraq” — and the Trump White House.

“From deep inside his Green Zone fortress, (U.S. envoy to Iraq Paul) Bremer issued decree after decree about how Iraq should be made into a model free-market economy. Come to think of it, it was a lot like Donald Trump’s White House.” Out in the Red Zone that was the rest of Iraq, the country spiralled into violence and its communities were reduced to rubble. Klein’s contention is not only that Trump’s White House (and his Florida holiday house) are our current-day Green Zones, but that pretty much everywhere else now is a Red Zone — or at dire risk of becoming one if a terrorist attack, say, takes place on U.S. soil while Trump’s Twitter-happy finger is hovering over the nuclear codes. “I’m not saying that a nuclear war is likely. But in Trump’s very short time in office, there has already been a level of military escalation that is both chilling and bizarrely haphazard.”

Trump’s Gatling-gun approach to governance is deliberately destabilizing, Klein says, because it sows doubt and confusion that are the handmaidens of shock-doctrine politics and militarism, the stock in trade of neoliberal governments that would rather bribe or bomb or burn their way to achieving their ends than actually govern for people who might care to live modest lives of meaning and shared purpose.

“It can be easy to forget, but before Trump’s election upset, regular people standing up to battle injustices represented by (banks and oil companies, and the ultra-rich generally)... were starting to win.” Hence Bernie Sanders’ surprising tilt at the Democratic nomination, Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, heightened recognition of race and state violence, sexual violence as a front-page issue, the climate movement’s victories against pipelines, fracking, Arctic drilling, a resurgence in Indigenous influence and, of course, the Paris accords of 2015.

Enter Trump and his cronies, who “should be understood partly in this context — as a ferocious backlash against the rising power of overlapping social movements demanding a more just and safer world. Rather than risk the possibility of further progress (and lost profits), this gang of predatory lenders, planet-destabilizing polluters, war and ‘security’ profiteers joined forces to take over the government and protect their ill-gotten wealth. After decades of seeing the public sphere privatized in bits and pieces, Trump and his appointees have now seized control of the government itself. The takeover is complete.”

Or is it?

Klein writes, “Politics hates a vacuum; if it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.” So the task ahead is simple. Flip the whole sordid thing on its head, drive out fear and restore hope to centre of our social, economic and political lives. Trump’s audacity demands an equal and opposite reaction, something that actually stirred immediately after his election and shows no sign of flagging — whether it is people marching, judges defying, strikes, sanctuaries, divestments, state policy makers making end runs around federal fiats...

“There is no choice but to resist,” Klein insists. Trump won’t, he cannot get his way because that way is the end of us all.

And so we’re not going to let him.

That’s the pivot that Klein makes from reading her charge sheet against neoliberalism to telling us what it’s going to take to win the world we need.

The question is not whether Klein succeeds as a polemicist against Trumpism (she does, brilliantly), but if she is equal to the task of an alchemist in the case she makes for the magic of mass resistance and, ultimately, the innate power of decency in the face of such depravity.

Early in No Is Not Enough, Klein posits that the hollowness, the “profound emptiness at the heart of the very culture that spawned Donald Trump,” came about in part because “the key institutions that used to provide individuals with sense of community and shared identity were in sharp decline: tightly knit neighbourhoods where people looked out for one another; large workplaces that held the promise of a job for life; space and time for ordinary people to make their own art, not just consume it; organized religion; political movements and trade unions that were grounded in face-to-face relationships; public-interest media that strove to knit nations together in a common conversation.”

“These institutions and traditions were and are imperfect, often deeply so,” Klein writes. “They left many people out, and very often enforced an unhealthy conformity. But they did offer something we humans need for our well-being, and for which we never cease to long: community, connection, a sense of a mission larger than our immediate, atomized desires.”

That “sense of a mission” is the kindling that Klein seeks to ignite in her unabashed rallying cry for a kind of Utopianism that cynics will write off as naïve, but that puts people at the centre of their own destinies in a way that capitalism and its institutions — governments chief among them — have so patently failed to do.

Klein’s championing of the kind of church-basement and street-level organizing that has overcome oppression and repression so many times in our history is what ultimately humanizes her message, by sizing it to actions that everyone can take. Her writings are, literally, articles of faith for the radical remaking of public life, in which everyone has a part to play. Here in Canada, some of those opportunities are more obvious than others: fighting climate vandalism, standing up for Indigenous rights, championing gender equity and inclusion, strengthening the social safety net, welcoming refugees and yes, even if it sounds self-serving, supporting public-interest journalism.

You can read Naomi Klein’s latest collection of public-interest journalism to confirm your worst fears, but actually its power is in affirming that there is a counter-cycle to the “siren song of mindless consumerism” and its political spawn, Donald Trump: “that very powerful force — the human longing for community and connection, which simply refuses to die.”

Klein is an Alpha female, author of a faith that speaks to the rootlessness of modern life, or at least that part of it played out on the world’s largest stages. So she invites us all to play on smaller stages. In speaking truth to power, Klein lends us her sharp mind and sharper elbows, but in seeking power in the truth that we are all better, so much better than this, Klein offers us her heart.

But there is only so much we can ask of Naomi Klein. She is the author, yes — a diviner of sorts. But a finisher? That’s demanding too much of one mere mortal. No, what happens next isn’t on her — it’s on us. All of us.  [Tyee]

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