Naomi Klein: We must look for answers to capitalism’s disasters

Naomi Klein speaks at the Flood Wall Street rally in 2014. Photo Gili Getz
Friday, October 13, 2017

Canadian activist and writer Naomi Klein is the author of books that have helped define the thinking of the left for the past several decades, such as No Logo (about corporate branding), Shock Doctrine (about how capitalists exploit disasters for profit) and This Changes Everything (about how the capitalist system is responsible for climate change, and unable to solve it).

Her latest book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, is a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award in nonfiction.

Last month, Klein talked to US Socialist Worker’s Alan Maass about the whiplash pace of natural disasters and the unnatural factors that make them worse — and how we can fight back while working toward an alternative. It is abridged from SocialistWorker.org.

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Can you talk about the connecting threads of what you've been writing about [different aspects of corporate power and its consequences] over these years?

I think that the strongest connecting thread is really the rise of corporate power and the increasing role of corporations in every aspect of life.

That’s really the story of the rise of branded people that Trump embodies — these lifestyle brands and companies that are building identity around a corporation, as opposed to selling a product and marketing it.

Another one of the things I look at is clear from how Trump has already used shocks and crisis to further advance an extreme pro-corporate agenda that is about eliminating the last vestiges of the public sphere. We’re seeing some examples of that now in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

You can see how Irma knocked out the electricity, and that then becomes the pretext for a further push for privatisation.

Then there’s the centrality of climate change denial within the Trump administration, which has been such a defining feature of what this administration has prioritised.

I don’t think this has anything to do with denying the science of climate change. It has everything to do with them understanding that if humanity is, indeed, confronted with an existential threat — which is what climate change represents —then the entire corporate project they stand for falls to pieces, and we need a very different way to organise society and make public policy decisions.

On hurricanes, you've mentioned the issue of climate change, which has made these storms more intense. But there are other ways that the disasters become unnatural and human-made.

This is what we need to understand about climate change. It isn’t just about the planet getting stormier and hotter. It’s also about society getting meaner and more divided.

Climate change intensifies this pre-existing inequality. If you already have populations being treated as disposable, that goes into fast-forward during a disaster. Like prison populations abandoned during a disaster like Harvey. We’ve heard some horrifying stories, just as we did during Katrina, about prisoners being left with no water and being forced to drink toilet water.

In the same way, we have to think about what it means to be a society that discards the elderly during a disaster, which compounds the problems caused by a lack of regulation in nursing homes.

This is what you find in the rubble of neoliberalism: this brutal collision between heavy weather and a weak and neglected public sphere, with the politics of division and racism overlaying it all. This is what's so truly toxic.

Is what you term “disaster capitalism” exceptional or a more intensified example of the operations of regular capitalism?

When I started using the term “disaster capitalism”, I was speaking about a particular industry that emerges in the aftermath of disaster. So I’m not saying regular capitalism isn't a disaster — certainly, the argument I make in This Changes Everything is that we have an economic model that's at war with life on Earth.

When I talk about disaster capitalism, I’m really talking about the industries that have emerged specifically to capitalize on disaster. For example, the homeland security industry — the privatising of police in the aftermath of 9/11 — and the explosion of the private security industry.

We’re seeing more and more areas that used to be largely nonprofits or government agencies now being outsourced to private companies that see huge money in responding to disasters and reconstruction. And there’s often a huge amount of graft involved.

The title of your latest book is No Is Not Enough, but I’m sure that in Trump times, the feeling for a lot of people is that we have our hands full with all the things we have to say “no” to — all the issues where we're on the defensive. What would you say about why it’s still important to think beyond the "no"?

The book isn’t arguing that “no” isn’t necessary. There are very courageous examples of people drawing the line and saying we won’t let this pass.

But the argument I’m making is that if we only hold the line, then in the best-case scenario, we end up back where we were before Trump. That was a very dangerous world, and it created the conditions where Trump could emerge.

We have to learn from that. We have to be able to somehow say “no” and “yes” at the same time — to also have a picture of the world we want in the future world without Trump or whoever follows him.

I don’t think that that posture of resistance alone is going to sustain people in the long haul. Every transformative movement has had a vision of the world after we win that sustains people in these very long and difficult struggles.

I sometimes hear that idea that we have too much resisting to do to focus on what we want instead. But it’s worth remembering that people under far more dire conditions did manage to have that picture of the “yes” as they fought the “no”.

One example that comes to mind would be the anti-Apartheid struggle and the Freedom Charter that was written [by the liberation movement] during Apartheid, with pieces of paper smuggled out of the townships. That document was the beacon through decades of resistance against Apartheid.

I don’t think the problem is that there’s too much to resist. I think the problem is that political imaginations have atrophied during the neoliberal era. But that’s starting to shift.

I think we see examples like “A Vision for Black Lives” that was released last year — which is a truly bold, even utopian, document about the “yes”.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t keep saying “no” to police violence. But one of the things I draw hope from is that we’re seeing more movements saying explicitly: We’re going to defend this, but don’t mistake us defending the status quo in the face of Trump's attacks for our belief that this is enough.

For example, I saw many interviews with young people covered by DACA [which allowed some people who entered the US as minors without permits to stay] that they were defending DACA against Trump, but they’re tired of being pitted against their parents and everybody should have full status.

I think the push for Medicare for All is another part of this — of going beyond the Obama-era reforms that the Republicans are trying to dismantle.

Another reason this is so crucial is that Trump didn’t win this election, the Democrats lost it. They lost the election because they weren’t able to energise their base — because they didn’t have something to offer that spoke to the emergency in so many people’s lives.

That’s something that I think Jeremy Corbyn showed is possible. The lesson from the recent British election is how many people voted who weren’t expected to participate at all —mostly young people who had been written off.

In the US, where 90 million people didn’t vote in the last election, the ground is fertile for bold policies and non-traditional political figures to energise that base.

In No is Not Enough, you make the case for utopian thinking, where people start from what our communities need, rather than what’s “realistic” according to the powers that be. Where do you think that discussion about imagining our future begin?

I think one of the great takeaways from the Bernie Sanders campaign and what’s happening right now with Medicare for All is that what the professional political class claims is realistic no longer meshes with reality for most people. What we’re finding out is that there’s a lot more that’s possible than we were told.

This is something we also saw with the Corbyn campaign. What really turned things around there was when Corbyn came out with a manifesto that excited people because it was bold.

No one should wait for some great political leader to show the way and tell people how it’s going to be. We already have some of the building blocks of a truly transformative politics.

Unfortunately, though, it's very siloed. There’s a discussion going on about Medicare for All in one corner, and in another corner, the climate justice movement is talking about 100% renewable energy. The two don’t necessarily connect.

I would add that we can’t just talk about 100% renewable energy — we need to have public control of renewable energy that stays in communities, and the profits don’t leech away to private players.

We need a vision that isn’t just a list of policies, but is an alternative world view. I think this kind of thing is going to emerge at the grassroots level.

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