Naomi Klein on How to Rebuild From the Disaster of Neoliberalism
Longtime leftist writer and activist Naomi Klein discusses her work from No Logo to On Fire, connecting the fight against climate change to the fight for good jobs, and how COVID-19 is showing the utter failure of the neoliberal model.
- Interview by
- Grace Blakeley
Naomi Klein is one of the world’s foremost left-wing writers. Her books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine became defining critiques of our social system in the consumerist 1990s and disaster-laden aftermath of the 2008 financial crash.
In recent years, Klein has been more associated with the fight against climate change. Her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate and 2019 On Fire: The Burning Case for the Green New Deal have sought to make the case for the urgency of the crisis facing the planet and the need for radical political solutions to rise to the challenge.
In this interview, she discusses both of these themes with Tribune’s Grace Blakeley, as well as giving insight into her path into left-wing politics, her views on the 2020 US presidential election — and the case for rebuilding the labor movement in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
Climate and the US Election
In CNBC News this week there was a story saying that the northern hemisphere is due for the hottest summer on record, the period from June through August was 2.11 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s about one degree Celsius, warmer than average in the northern hemisphere, which makes this the second hottest August since record keeping began in 1880. This is a pretty scary story, right?
It’s really scary, because we are losing Arctic ice at a startling rate. I think where it’s most disturbing, in terms of where it’s warm, is the farther north you go. We’re seeing just staggeringly warm temperatures in the Arctic. And obviously when we lose ice, the sea level rises and that has massive global impacts and we don’t get it back.
As my friend Bill McKibben says, we’ve broken one of the major features of the world, the Arctic. So yeah, it’s bad. And obviously, the wildfires are one symptom of it. The storms, this fist of simultaneous hurricanes that is battering the southern coast of North America is another sign of it, and the Caribbean as well. So we’re in it. We are definitely in it.
There was another part of the article, which showed that temperatures in Death Valley hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which was one of the highest temperatures ever recorded on the planet.
Yeah. I was in that region last summer, and it was just impossibly hot at 118 degrees. And we’re losing these really unique ecosystems. The Joshua trees, these other worldly landscapes, are going up in flames. That temperature record is the context in which we are seeing these massive wildfires. Just in the last few days, five of the largest wildfires in California’s history were burning simultaneously. So heat has a whole lot to do with it. It’s not the only factor. There are other factors to why this is as out of control as it is, including the way forests have been managed.
This is the strange thing about Donald Trump, he’s often a little bit right. So he went to California and said, it’s not about warmer temperatures. It’s not about climate change. It’s about forest management. It absolutely is about warmer temperatures and drier temperatures, but part of what makes it worse is that there has been a utter erasure and discounting of indigenous knowledge in California and in so many other parts of the world.
Indigenous people used to engage in what are called cultural burns or sometimes referred to as controlled burns — it’s a way of taking care of the forest, allowing there to be some fire is part of a healthy ecosystem. Environmentalism has tended to see the forest as a museum, just don’t change it at all. And there’s been a lot of fear of fire as well, as there’s been more out of control development. So if you’re afraid of losing homes, which should never have been built in fire zones in the first place, then you can’t tolerate any fire.
Then there’s this buildup of what’s called fuel. Which is just dead wood, debris. The way I think of it is, if you’re making a campfire, you want to have little pieces of kindling and maybe some paper, and then you have the smaller pieces of wood, and you get the fire going with a match, and then it all goes up and you get the big pieces of wood as well. And so there’s a failure to allow natural fire to clear away the debris.
Then you have climate change connected insects that don’t die in a cyclical way, that have been eating wood, have been eating trees and leaving death behind. And now we’ve just had a new infestation of moths, which do the same thing. So there’s just a lot of fuel. That’s the kindling, that if you imagine a campfire being set. And then the heat is the match, the heat comes along and just the whole thing blows. And that’s where we’re at right now.
How big do you think this issue is going to be in the presidential election campaign? Do you think that the scale of the disasters that we’re seeing this year, even as Trump dismisses the idea that it has anything to do with climate breakdown, is going to basically make people start paying attention to this and it influencing their voting behavior?
I think if Biden stays with the messaging that he’s been using just in the last few days, it could have a huge impact, because the polling does show that voters are very concerned about climate change.
The biggest shift in the past two years, but particularly the past year and a half is in when you ask even Democratic voters who said they cared about climate change to rank the issues that they care about. And it’s a weird kind of polling, right, to ask people, what do you care more about, health care or jobs, or jobs or climate? And so people make these ridiculous lists as if these issues aren’t all interconnected, but in this polling, when you ask Democratic Party voters who do care about climate change to rank it, they reliably put climate change at the bottom of the list, like nineteeth or twentieth. And this has been true now for a decade.
But in the past couple of years, it has been creeping up to the extent that going into the Democratic primaries, it was rivaling health care as the number one issue. And it’s also a very high-ranking issue among independents and many Republicans as well. So it’s a winning issue. There is definitely a sense of urgency, and particularly when people are dealing with what they know to be unprecedented.
I remember being in Mississippi, as red a state as red can be, after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast and meeting Republicans who said, “Of course this is climate change. We built our house here because we know where the high watermark is and the water has never come up this high before.”
So when people are living it, when they know that there’s never been a fire like this before, they know there’s never been a storm that has surged this high before, it’s impacting their lives, then sure they have a tremendous sense of urgency about it.
And I think that there’s been some smart messaging from the Biden camp where you’ve got Trump with this very targeted, suburban messaging: Antifa is coming for the suburbs, they want to destroy the suburbs. And meanwhile, what is actually destroying the suburbs is not Antifa, it is wildfires all around the Pacific Northwest. It is these unprecedented storm surges.
I think it’s smart messaging. I hope he sticks with it. Often you see some good climate messaging from centrist Democrats, and then they get scared off. They get told they’re politicizing disasters, and then they lose their nerve and back off. I really hope they don’t lose their nerve because I think it’s a winning message.
And so what about the actual policy? Biden’s got this $2 trillion headline-grabbing plan for the climate, and I’ve seen some positive coverage of it from progressive outlets and even from people who were supportive of Bernie and other candidates. Do you think that this is going to be as transformative as it appears?
I think short answer is no, not if left to their own devices. And to be honest with you, I haven’t really paid a ton of attention. Obviously I’m following what the Biden camp is saying, but I guess I’ve been around for enough election campaigns to know that there’s a really big difference between what a centrist Democrat will say on the election campaign trail, and what they will do in office.
They’re looking at the same polling I am. They understand that this is a winning issue that crosses partisan divides, that resonates in the wealthy suburbs, as well as in disadvantaged communities and cities. And they also understand that there’s a very mobilized youth wing of their party represented by the Sunrise Movement, among others, who are going to make their lives living hell if they don’t say some of the right things.
So, does that then mean that they are going to bring us the Green New Deal of our dreams? Absolutely not. It doesn’t mean that. It means that they understand that this is a winning electoral message, that it’s dangerous not to offer something to the progressive wing of the party, but they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth. Biden is also giving these speeches about how he absolutely will not ban fracking because they’ve convinced themselves that this is how to win in Pennsylvania.
And I think the real measure of what we can expect is who Biden surrounds himself with and who he ultimately appoints. I think one sign of hope I would say is that the climate justice movement is not taking a “wait and see” approach to that question, which was one of the big mistakes we made with Obama.
With Obama, there was a very strong, what I describe as “give the guy a chance” wing of the Democratic Party, where no matter what outrageous thing Obama did – where he runs this campaign talking about how he’s going to rescue Main Street from Wall Street and then it becomes clear that he is taking his economic advice from Larry Summers — there was still this kind of “Give the guy a chance. Maybe this three-dimensional chess game he’s playing, he’s trying to signal, ‘Keep Wall Street calm,’ but really he’s going to do this.”
And I think that we’ve learned this lesson the hard way; give the guy no chances. Keep the pressure up on all counts. And there’s been letters that have gone out signed by huge numbers of environmental leaders, warning the Biden administration not to make appointments to key energy jobs from people with ties to the fossil fuel sector, which is what Obama did.
So people are trying to get ahead of it and make it clear that we’re not just going to be satisfied with saying some nice things on the campaign trail, that it really is about who he appoints, who he surrounds himself with. And no matter what, it’s going to be about the pressure that he’s under. But I absolutely believe that it is imperative that we get rid of Trump, that we get to terrain where these debates matter.
We don’t even bother pressuring Trump because we know that it’s not possible to pressure him. And certainly not when it comes to something like a Green New Deal, it’s just a dead end. So we need to get to terrain where we can have some power and we need to learn from the mistakes of the Obama years, where, frankly, we wasted the first term of Obama’s presidency, giving the guy a chance on multiple fronts.
And it wasn’t until his second term that we started to see mass civil disobedience, whether it was in the climate movement with the Anti-Keystone XL campaign and Dakota Access Pipeline campaign at Standing Rock, the Black Lives Matter movement, or the movement of the Dreamers, the migrant rights’ movement.
People went into the streets and protested the Obama administration, engaged in civil disobedience and put forward strong alternatives. And it was then that we started to see some movement and get some half-decent policies. Obviously we don’t have that kind of time. So what we get from Biden will depend on what we demand in the transition period and from day one. And this is all assuming that we end up in what is now the best possible scenario, which is Biden winning.
A Life on the Left
Your book No Logo was like the oasis in the neoliberal desert that existed before the financial crisis, around the time of the alter-globalization movement. Then you made a documentary, The Take, about a worker factory takeover in Argentina. And there was The Shock Doctrine, which came out on the eve of the financial crisis, which proved its central thesis correct. Since then, you’ve had several more, including This Changes Everything and On Fire, your most recent book, “The Burning Case for the Green New Deal.”
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in all this? Where did your drive to want to start writing, to want to get involved in activism, came from?
Well, I always wrote. I saw myself as a writer or wanted to write before I saw myself as an activist. As a kid, I wrote a lot. Wrote a lot of bad poetry, filled many, many journals, loved writing, loved reading, and grew up in an activist family. My mother is a documentary filmmaker. She was part of the first women’s film studio I think in the world called “Studio D” in Canada. My parents are war resisters. We came to Canada because my father didn’t want to go to Vietnam. My grandfather was a blacklisted union organizer. He worked for Walt Disney as an animator, helped organize the first animator strike and then got fired and blacklisted.
So, I grew up with this. And my grandparents were part of a “back to the land” movement in New Jersey, where they were part of founding this kind of commune called Nature Friends, where Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie would perform. So we had a lot of this culture just growing up. And I was incredibly embarrassed by it because I grew up in the 1980s. Just thought it was all terrible, pretty much.
But somehow it entered in, through the family lore. And when I got to university, I started writing for the campus newspaper and getting involved in politics by events. My first year in university, there was a terrible massacre at a university in my hometown of Montreal. It was at the time, I think, the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, where a gunman went into an engineering school where he had believed that he had been discriminated against as a man. He was sort of like an early “incel.” This is 1989. And he went in and separated the men from the women in the engineering school, lined up the women up against the wall and said, “you’re all a bunch of fucking feminists,” and killed fourteen women and then shot himself.
And then in a state of shock, we turned on our televisions and radios and heard a sea of male commentators saying that it had nothing to do with feminism or women or misogyny. It was just mental illness. Sound familiar? And so that kind of thing kicks your butt, especially for me, because I had grown up in this context. And I had up until then, really tried to sit it out. My brother was the big activist. I was just trying to be a writer and not stick out too much. And I suddenly found myself chairing meetings and drawing on this set that I didn’t realize I had, but I did have because I grew up in a household where there were political meetings in the living room. So yeah, that’s how it all started for me.
Your career began as a critic of neoliberal globalization. Can you tell us a little bit about how your critique of what liberals would call the rule-based world order has developed since the 1990s. And in particular, do you think that we’re entering a phase of kind of de-globalization?
I don’t know exactly what this stage is that we are in. I don’t think anyone does. But we are in a new stage. And I think that Trump marked a different era where certainly a new kind of protectionism has emerged. But I don’t think it is nearly as much in conflict with that neoliberal trade order as he would like us to believe it is. In the same way that I think Johnson likes to position the Conservative Party as challenging the globalists, and so on.
I think they’ve learned to tap into the deeper critique of what that trade regime represented in terms of deindustrialisation, a hollowing out of economies and a casualization of labor. And they understand that their base cares about this. And so they’ve found ways to mostly perform, I would say, changes to that global economic order. That said, I think that there are real shifts going on in the conflicts with China. I don’t know that there necessarily is a rhyme or reason to it beyond Trump just wanting to hold onto power.
But, for me, in the 1990s, I came to it because I had a newspaper column in a paper in Canada, the Toronto Star, and I edited a left-wing magazine called This Magazine, and we were doing a lot of reporting about the impacts of this trade regime on labor. I was reporting both on the sweatshops where our goods were being made in Indonesia and in the Philippines and elsewhere, eventually China. And I was also reporting on the rise of the McJobs. This is all in No Logo.
It really came out of trying to understand how stuff was being made now, the stuff of our lives. And the rise of what I was calling these hollow brands, these brands that didn’t own their own factories. And understanding that it was not just about where things were being produced, it was a way that corporations were thinking of themselves not primarily as producers of stuff, but as producers of ideas, of identities, of tribes.
That was the Nike model, and it was a revolution in its time — that you would have a company that seemed to be a company that was primarily about manufacturing and selling trainers not own a single one of its factories. That was a new business model, because all of its competitors owned their whole supply chain, and it was so profitable that everybody started to imitate it.
But what I was trying to capture was the way that business model changed both labor and culture. Obviously it changes labor because it casualizes it, and it makes the people who make the stuff less important to the powerful players, because they’re employed through a web of contractors and subcontractors.
If there’s a problem at one factory, they just pull the contract and give it to someone else, so it reduces the power of labor. But it also changes culture, because if your product is your idea, your identity, then you produce through marketing. You produce through devouring those manifestations and expressions of those ideas in the real world through corporate sponsorships and so on.
And so as a young reporter, I was interested in how youth culture was being devoured in this period, and No Logo was both a labor book and a culture book, a book about how our culture was changing, and Trump is a product of that. This is something that I think that is important for us to understand; that Trump is the first hollow brand to be a head of state.
You could argue that [Silvio] Berlusconi was an early example of this, but Berlusconi wasn’t himself the brand, right? He owns this whole web of media properties and sports teams and so on. He was in that business, but the brand was not Berlusconi. In Trump’s case, the brand is Trump. And he pivoted on that. He translated that into his political career. I don’t think people spend enough time thinking about what it means to have a brand as a president. It’s quite extraordinary, really.
It’s incredible that you wrote The Shock Doctrine, and it came out in 2007, and then a year later all over Europe and the UK, you had governments making use of this massive crisis to impose the costs of a financial meltdown on working people through austerity…
Capitalism is a crisis creation, as you know, so it’s not that incredible that there was a crisis! Really this method had been workshopped all around the world after the Asian financial crisis, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peso crisis. This is what I was writing about in The Shock Doctrine. It finally came home to the center of power on Wall Street.
Obviously that had a huge impact on the movements that you’ve been involved in since then. A lot of the energy behind the [Jeremy] Corbyn and [Bernie] Sanders moments can, one way or another, be traced back to Occupy and the protests that came out in the wake of the financial crisis. What do you see as the lasting impact of that crisis on the Left?
In some ways I think there is a through-line that we can see from so many of these movements and the way they get reported on, and the process as if they are all separate. That there isn’t a connection between the alter-globalization movements of the early 2000s and late 1990s and Occupy, but of course there are, and there are connections between the climate justice movement and Occupy and Bernie and Corbyn.
With any luck, we learn from our mistakes, and I think that the limits of the movements of the squares, one of them was that a lot of them didn’t put forward alternatives to this failed system. There was a kind of fetish for not having demands — it was a no, but it wasn’t a strong yes for what we want instead.
There are exceptions to this, but I think that from people who were involved in Tahrir Square or massive uprisings in Greece and Occupy, there is an honest critique, self-critique of the failure to do more than say no. And you mentioned that I was involved in them. I was. I was supportive of them, and I went to Occupy a few times and met with activists and went to meetings, but the truth is that I made a decision after The Shock Doctrine came out and the global economy melted down that I was not going to just go around doing what I joked with my partner, Avi, was the “I told you so” tour, because I was getting invitations.
I was getting invitations, like, “Come to Spain. Come to Greece. Come here. Come here,” and tell us about The Shock Doctrine. I just thought, well, why? Because clearly people understand it. The shout in the streets was, “We won’t pay for your crisis,” and it was this incredible, powerful uprising of people naming what was happening. This was a crisis created by the elites. It was created by the banks. The cost of it was being systematically offloaded onto the people least responsible and most vulnerable. It was happening in country after country, and people were resisting and they were naming it. It was already clear that just “no” was not going to stop it.
It was happening anyway, and that’s when I decided to write This Changes Everything, because I made this concerted decision to keep my distance a little bit. I felt really strongly that we needed to have a sweeping “yes,” a really transformational vision of what kind of world we wanted. I don’t want to use the word “solution” because I don’t think that it’s that simple.
It would be a process of repair to these intersecting brokennesses, the brokenness of our physical world, what we’ve done to our physical world with climate change, with so many other ecological crises, the legacy of forty years of austerity and the brokenness of our infrastructures of care, and the simultaneous brokenness of the construction of the carceral state, which is intimately connected to all of that disinvestment into the parts of the state that actually help people.
That’s the way I see the Green New Deal. And it has gone by many names. When I wrote This Changes Everything, I quoted a Bolivian climate change negotiator named Angelica Navarro. She was also Bolivia’s WTO ambassador who called for a Marshall Plan for the Earth, and it was the same idea. Let’s create jobs and battle climate disruption at the same time. Let’s actually pay reparations for colonialism and slavery. These are the scary words. But this is what we need to do.
I remember being in Europe when I was researching This Changes Everything, and I met with Alexis Tsipras and Podemos folks. Literally, Tsipras said to me, “Nobody cares about the environment anymore. All they care about is the economy.” And I was like, “Your job is to make them care. They don’t care because they feel like they have to choose and they don’t have to choose. It is possible. We need a vision for how to create jobs and solve the climate crisis at the same time. This is the route out of crisis.” He dismissed it absolutely out of hand.
We heard similar discourse at the time, I remember Pablo Iglesias saying, “People can’t care about climate when they have to put food on the table,” and it’s like, don’t make them choose. As you know, Grace, the whole idea of a Green New Deal or whatever you want to call it is that it says to people, “We can create family-supporting jobs that heal our planet simultaneously and get us off fossil fuels.”
That was such a wasted opportunity, and it was a global wasted opportunity, but we need to be self-critical about it. And so I think there is a generation now of climate justice organizers and activists and insurgent politicians who get the depths of that error and are campaigning on that intersectional vision finally. So what I was doing in that period was working away on what ultimately became our blueprint, which we launched first in Canada, the Leap Manifesto, exactly five years ago.
The COVID Crisis
We’re now in the middle of this massive worldwide crisis generated by COVID-19. Do you think we’re about to be taught another lesson in the politics of The Shock Doctrine? Or are you more optimistic we’ll be able to use this moment to push for real change based on the fact that we have a politics that is formed more around the idea of what you might call a yes rather than just a no?
Could the Green New Deal be our “yes” in this moment that we can fight and push for in the wake of a crisis that is going to cause so much suffering and require so much of our economic and social systems to be completely rewired?
It should be, and I think that we need as expansive of a vision as we possibly can, one that really brings movements together, because we are also in the midst of what’s being called a racial reckoning, a racial justice uprising. Some people are starting to talk about Black and Red and Green New Deal. And I like that framing because I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to really weave these movements together, and taking the demands, the transformative demands from all the movements, including defunding police and challenging the carceral state and investing in the infrastructure of care.
We need to be informed by the feminist movement in this so that we have as expansive a Green New Deal as possible that really resonates with as many people who will fight for it as possible. This is not just about being politically correct and ticking off lots of boxes. It’s about, how do you build a winning coalition? How do you motivate people to fight for something? Because as we said at the beginning, we lost the fights where we might have had a chance to have governments that got this. Our best case scenarios are a centrist Labour Party and a centrist Democratic Party government.
So, the need is for social movements to be united in that “yes,” and really exciting a base, a population of people, to fight for it and implement it at a local level. We need to look at, where does Labour control cities? Why can’t we do a lot more of this in London, for instance? Or Manchester? And the same is true for New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles. These are areas where we can’t just blame Johnson and Trump.
We supposedly have some power in those places and not enough has happened — and that matters because most people live in cities. So if they can see that their quality of life improves when we get some of these policies passed, then the right-wing talking points, that pit jobs against the environment, start to fall apart because people’s lived experience tells them otherwise, that they don’t have to choose.
Now that we are seeing, as you say, centrist candidates take back the political parties in the United States and the UK, can you see a viable path to actually achieving the Green New Deal?
We’ve talked a little bit about the importance of movements to be more radical on these issues. Ultimately, we are going to need legislation. This is a massive collective action problem. Do you see a path to that level of both legislative change, but also the ability to marshal the scale of collective resources we’re going to need to tackle this issue now, that those left-wing insurgencies are defeated?
Well, it’s a lot harder. But it would’ve been hard anyway, because the truth is that what we experienced during the campaigns, in terms of these relentless smear campaigns against Corbyn against Sanders, and the reality that a significant portion of the Labour Party clearly would rather have Johnson than Corbyn, and a significant portion of centrist Democrats would rather risk Trump than a democratic socialist president, it means that what we got was just the smallest taste of how hard they would have fought if they’d won. So it wouldn’t have been easy, and it may not have been successful.
This is another route that we’re talking about that would require a massive mobilization. When we talk about social movement pressure, if you look at what happened during the 1930s when FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] was president, what was happening on the Left in the United States, it was just extraordinary. There were more strikes every year.
You would think that when you’re winning social security and unemployment insurance and breaking up the banks that people might think that they didn’t need to have a general strike — but that’s when they had a general strike.
My friend, Raj Patel, put together this graph of worker disruptions during the 1930s. And what you see is that as the New Deal went on, the number of strikes sharply increases. So the high point was 1937, the New Deal begins in 1933. That’s when they’re shutting down entire cities and ports and so on. It was not just a protest. It was mobilized populations. And this is why Howard Zinn would say, “Yeah, worry about who you vote for while you’re in the voting booth. But the rest of the time, build power.”
Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States is about that kind of power, which organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace, to build that muscle that could win something on the scale of the original New Deal, which as we know, left out women, left out many black workers because it didn’t include agricultural workers and domestic workers. And there was systemic discrimination in the labor movement. But it also had programs that brought more resources to African Americans and indigenous Americans than in any other program since.
They’re complicated legacies and we have to learn from both their failures and their successes. So yeah, I do think it’s possible. It is really hard. And it is about understanding that we have to rebuild from the wreckage of neoliberalism. In some ways, I think we may have been overly naïve in thinking that we could have done this from the top down. Because Corbyn and Sanders, if they had won, would not have had organized populations the way FDR did, because we can’t rebuild from fifty years of attacks on the labor movement that quickly. So it’s a different landscape and that’s work that we desperately need to do.
I think coming back to what you were asking about the pandemic and how would we potentially win it, one of the things that the pandemic has done is it has shown to millions of workers who have been treated as most disposable, whose work had been most degraded, who were told that they were unskilled, that they were so easily replaceable, that they are, in fact, the most essential workers in our economy. They were labelled essential workers.
And if you look at who the essential workers are, it’s the working class, it’s the people who keep the lights on it. It’s the people who deliver the mail. It’s the people who take care of the elderly. We know who we’re talking about. We’re talking about the people who make the world run.
I want to be careful about how I say this, because I think that many of those workers did know how important their work was. But look, neoliberal ideology is a powerful force. So now Amazon workers know how important they are to keeping people fed and keeping people clothed. I think that this is where it’s not going to look like the 1930s, what it means to exercise essential worker power. It’s being organized online and in-person, but these are new tools that are being organized.
I think there are different levers in a different era of capitalism, but that is our hope; it lies with the essential workers who have been so mistreated. Whether it’s nurses sent to care for patients with COVID-19, without what they needed to keep themselves and their family safe, there are so many enraged workers out there right now, rightfully and righteously enraged. And there is power in that if we can mobilize it.