Anti-globalisation celebrity Naomi Klein is all that is left of revolutionary socialism when it loses its intellectual and organisational discipline.by Martin Wolf / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: Fences and Windows
Author: Naomi Klein
Price: Flamingo, £8.99
Naomi Klein is a celebrity. The author of the bestseller, “No Logo”, is a pied piper to a generation of anti-globalisation protesters. In that book, she argued that corporate brandlords exploit the world’s poor to provide the products rich westerners have been trained to crave. She married Veblen’s views of conspicuous consumption to Marx’s analysis of capitalist exploitation, thereby connecting the dissatisfaction of the spoiled children of the west to the ills of global inequality, corporate power and environmental degradation. The argument was arrogant, paranoid and wrong. But it was also an intellectual coup.
Klein is a journalist by training, and this book consists almost entirely of newspaper columns written between 1999 and 2002. Any such book is likely to prove incoherent. But this one does have a theme. Klein tries to analyse, explain and justify what she calls “the movement.” It is, it appears, a messy blend of populism, anarchism and utopian socialism.
Somewhat newer is its organisational form. In Klein’s words, “while the movement’s web-like structure is, in part, a reflection of internet-based organising, it is also a response to the very political realities that sparked the protests… the utter failure of traditional party politics.” This then is a post-party political movement.
The bottle may be modestly new, but its contents are the oldest of anti-capitalist wine. The enemy, says Klein, is “neo-liberalism.” But what is a neo-liberal? I have never met one. People who believe in individual liberty and the merits of the market economy do exist. They are liberals. Theirs is, in its many variants, the shared creed of the west and intellectual victor of the cold war. Neo-liberalism is, to return the compliment, a neo-Marxist phantom.
If the target is liberalism, the critic must come up with a credible and compelling alternative. Instead, she revels in the movement’s vacuity, declaring, for example, that “when critics say that protesters lack vision, they are really objecting to a lack of an overarching revolutionary philosophy-like Marxism, democratic socialism, deep ecology or social anarchy. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily thankful.” Again, “rather than one solution, there are thousands, slowly coalescing into an alternative economic model.”
This is a call to replace capitalism-the most successful economic system in history-with something better. Does Klein give any indication of what that something might be? No. Instead, she proffers the ancient chestnut: “people before profits.” The market is indeed imperfect. Sometimes, political processes should override it. But the delusion that we can tell what is worth producing without the market-and so profitability-was the credo of Soviet communism. All it delivered was tyranny and poverty.
Klein admits that she arrived in the struggle “equipped with only a limited understanding of neo-liberal economics, mostly how they related to young people growing up… in North America and Europe.” But she believes that, since then, she has been “on a steep learning curve.” This is, to put it mildly, not evident.
Klein seems to think, for example, that budget constraints, intellectual property and multinationals are conspiracies against the public interest. But if governments fail to live within their means, they are forced to default, with devastating consequences for those who trust them; if there is no intellectual property, there is no pharmaceutical industry; and if there is no multinational enterprise, the developing world has little access to the advanced economies’ technological and organisational know-how.
If economics is not Klein’s forte, maybe we can learn from her politics. She believes that the world needs democracy, although not the sham of today’s party politics. She is, she says, “part of a network that is fighting not against globalisation but for deeper and more responsive democracies, locally, nationally and internationally.”
Democracy was, says Klein, the theme of the Porto Alegre social forum in Brazil. So, apparently, was admiration for Fidel Castro and his not exactly democratic Cuba. She seems to have no more idea how constitutional democracies balance the rights of individuals against those of collectives than she does how a sophisticated economy works. She gives no account of how democracy could work at all the levels she lists, nor how far economic life would-or should-be subordinated to political decisions.
What she is sure of, instead, is that democracy is in a bad way. Yet, as the latest Human Development Report pointed out, between 1985 and 2000, the number of regimes considered democratic jumped from 44 to 82, while the number of authoritarian regimes fell from 67 to 26. This huge progress is invisible to Klein and her friends. They sat in Porto Alegre and asked what happened to democracy-in a country recently emerged from military rule.
This is hard to tolerate. So is the remark that “democracy isn’t the work of the market’s invisible hand; it’s the work of real hands.” It is both. In undeveloped economies with mass illiteracy, democracy tends towards demagogy, clientelism and corruption. In advanced economies, with entrenched property rights, high levels of education and a sophisticated electorate, democracy has proved both stable and successful. South Korea and Taiwan are recent examples. No serious person imagines China as a working democracy without rapid development founded upon a dynamic market economy.
Klein’s concept of democracy is as immature as her view of the economy. For her, democracy is about rallies and marches, popular participation and direct action. Of the Quebec protests in 2001, she says, “whatever else the protesters were seeking, all were certainly looking for a taste of direct political participation. The result of these hundreds of miniature protests converging was chaotic, sometimes awful, but frequently inspiring.” What she seeks is a community born of struggle, typified by her hero, Subcomandante Marcos, leader of Mexico’s Zapatista insurgents.
This book contains no analysis worthy of the name. What it contains, instead, is an attitude that has returned repeatedly over the centuries. The movement is the latest in a long line of millennarian spasms. Over the past two centuries, revolutionary socialism has been the great utopian cause. In the form of communism, the revolutionary tradition embraced intellectual and organisational discipline. With its collapse, the dream remains, but the discipline has gone. Her movement is the grin on the Cheshire Cat of revolutionary socialism. It is what is left when the moralism and passion remain, but the intellect and the organisation have gone.