In 2016, there are a lot of corporations spending a lot of money convincing customers they're not evil. This is a product of the internet, surely, but also of the anti-globalization movement of the 90s and early 2000s. This was a period that praised anything by Michael Moore or Rage Against the Machine, while economic forums around the world attracted riots. And of all the people credited with solidifying the movement, it's Naomi Klein who stands out.
The Toronto-based author and activist has been documenting the shortfalls of neoliberalism for more than 20 years. She began with 1999's No Logo, which examined the way companies like Nike and GAP had cannibalized youth culture at a dire cost to foreign workers. She's since broadened her attack, arguing in 2014's This Changes Everything that capitalism is ostensibly incapable of curbing climate change.
In short, Naomi has spent her adult life arguing that many of the world's influencers are wrong. Not just wrong, but cruel, manipulative, and dangerous. So I got her on the phone to ask how she feels about them.
"When I started writing the belief was that if you privatize everything, good things will follow," she told VICE. Then she describes how events in the past decade—from the GFC to the recent slump in oil prices—have bared holes in neoliberal thinking. Those who believed in the free market in the 90s weren't idiots; they just hadn't been proven wrong yet. "And now this thinking is in crisis, which has led to equally the rise of Trump and Sanders."
I point out that although Trump and Sanders might represent frustrations, Trump stands for a lot more than right-wing economics. "Yes, but anger has to go somewhere," she responds. "When things don't work the left traditionally blames big power, while the right blames immigrants."
I should mention it's hard to talk to Naomi Klein on the phone without feeling nervous. Every question I asked her elicited a second-long pause before she delivered a perfectly phrased 100-word answer. It's clear she's spent a long time thinking and talking about the same ballpark of issues.
Of course, it's been a lifetime. Naomi was born from a long lineage of people concerned with equality and social justice. Her paternal grandfather was a committed communist in his youth, even organizing a strike over pay conditions where he worked as an illustrator at Disney. He and Naomi's grandmother lived in a tent outside the LA studio for several months of 1941, while her father, Michael, was still just a baby.
Michael grew up in New Jersey and became a doctor. He was a lively opponent to the Vietnam War, which is how he met a young activist and filmmaker named Bonnie Sherr. When Bonnie fell pregnant with Naomi's older brother, and Michael was drafted to the war, they immigrated to Montreal where Naomi was born in 1970.
Naomi and her brother Seth grew up watching their mother making films with a feminist collective at the National Film Board, while her father instituted the first birthing room at his hospital. It was household of lively debate and acoustic guitar, and on weekends the family crossed the border to a cabin in Vermont, listening to history shows on the car stereo. Naomi has since written that she found the family dynamic but a bit earnest, and actually embarrassing as a teenager. But as she put it, "Our fights were less about actual transgressions than about my silence, my sullenness, and—as my dad was always fond of putting it—my 'refusal to be part of this family.'"
But as a student in the mid-90s, Naomi began to see something that scared her. Universities had began making deals with soft drink corporations, which were funding consumer research under the pretext of health studies, while grabbing exclusive access to campus vending machines. And as ads for multinationals began to fill campus bathrooms, Naomi decided that the struggle had shifted. What, in the 1970s, had been a fight for equality, had became a battle over the free market in the 90s.
It's now been 17 years since the publication of No Logo, and while Naomi refuses to use the word "optimistic" she describes feeling a quiet sense of possibility. "If changing the system was simply about tackling climate change, I'd say no, capitalism will never change. But now it's about so much more than that." She describes the weight behind Black Lives Matter as an example, and explains how the burned, bankrupted oil fields around Fort McMurray have prompted a more personal, human approach from Canada's media. She harks back to something she told me earlier—faith in neoliberalism has taken some blows, and people are starting to respond.
I ask if she'd ever consider entering politics, and Naomi scoffs. "No, but I think I'm more happy about being called an activist." Her recent work The Leap Manifesto describes how Canada could transition to a 100 percent renewable economy by 2050. Along with this call to action, her work with climate change lobby group, 350.org, sees her fulfilling more of an organizer roll. "Maybe instead of politics I can continue this kind of work, and I feel very excited about that."
Naomi Klein has recently been awarded the 2016 Sydney Peace Prize. She will receive the prize at a ceremony in November.
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