NAOMI and the Brand-New Left

Brian D. Johnson March 12 2001

NAOMI and the Brand-New Left

Brian D. Johnson March 12 2001

Naomi Klein is looking for a paper clip at 30,000 feet. On a flight to Boston—to address a conference called Change the World!—she has been scribbling revisions into a fresh speech, which lies spread across her tray table. Having left her laptop at home in Toronto, she’s cutting and pasting the old-fashioned way. Klein spends her life working literally on the fly. Only two days earlier, she was in Porto Alegre, Brazil, mingling with 10,000 fellow activists at a conference called Another World Is Possible. Right after Boston, there would be speeches in Toronto, then Victoria. And by the end of this week, she will have flown to Florida, Ottawa, New York City, France, Germany—and Mexico City, just in time to see masked Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos ride into the capital on horseback with his mass caravan of protest.

Welcome to the world of Naomi Klein, Wunderkind of the new New Left. At the age of 30, this Canadian author, journalist and activist is one of the brightest stars of a protest movement that has no name, and no leader, but represents the most dramatic development on the left since the Sixties. Most commonly, it’s called the anti-globalization movement (though it’s global in scale). And it had its coming-out party in Seattle, with mass demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in December, 1999—just weeks before the publication of Klein’s landmark book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Klein’s timing was uncanny. No Logo gave voice to a movement almost before it existed. Unlike the traditional left, this is not a movement fixated on seizing state power. Its target is transnational corporations—and global trade agreements that allow them to usurp local control over the environment, labour, health, education and agriculture. Equal parts memoir and exposé, handbook and manifesto, No Logo is a trenchant attack on the pervasiveness of corporate culture, exposing the sweatshop reality behind the gloss of superbrands such as Nike, IBM, Disney and Gap.

Over the past year, No Logo has been translated into nine languages. And it has had its greatest impact in England. The Observer called No Logo “the Das Kapital of the growing anti-corporate movement.” The Economist compared her to “that other Canadian scourge of capitalism, J. K. Galbraith,” a glowing insult if ever there was one. And with Fleet Street hyperbole, The Times of London heralded her as “probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world”—which may come as a disappointment to Britney Spears. Klein, however, has her own rock-star credentials: Radiohead, one of the world’s hottest bands, adopted No Logo as a rallying cry on their recent tour.

At home, Klein’s profile has been more muted. But her book, now in paperback, is a No. 1 Canadian best-seller as it catches fire on college campuses. And with protesters from around the world set to converge at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City on April 20—authorities are bracing for their arrival by emptying jail cells and erecting steel fences—the movement’s spotlight will be trained on her home turf.

Meanwhile, as the NDP struggles to reinvent itself, Klein and her generation of “anti-globalization kids” figure in a pivotal debate over the future of the Canadian left (page 32). And Klein's family pedigree gives her an intimate connection to its past. She is married to Avi Lewis, host of CBC Newsworld’s counterSpin, son of former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis and journalist Michele Landsberg, and grandson of the late David Lewis, who once led the national NDP Klein's own American-born parents, who now live in Victoria, were both Sixties peace activists. Her mother is Bonnie Sherr Klein, a feminist filmmaker notorious for her anti-pornography documentary, Not a Love Story (1981). Naomis father, Dr. Michael Klein, a former draft dodger and now professor of family practice medicine at the University of British Columbia, has been a prominent crusader for low-intervention childbirth and more humanized medicine. And his father, Philip Klein, was a Marxist Disney animator who worked on Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia—before getting blacklisted for his role in organizing an animators’ strike at Disney’s Burbank studio in 1941.

A third-generation activist, Naomi probably first heard We Shall Overcome in the womb. But she did not exactly rush to embrace her radical roots. As a teenager in Montreal, she was a delinquent mall rat, appalled by her parents’ values and infatuated with consumer culture. Only when her mother suffered a massive stroke did Klein, at 17, return to the fold. In university, she became a feminist. But after several years of campaigning for for the left that will move beyond the insular niche it’s famous for “politically correct” representation of gender and race, she felt she was just scratching the surface— and that image-conscious brands such as Nike and Benetton had hijacked the message of so-called identity politics. That was the genesis of No Logo.

The book offers a penetrating analysis of how the “brandscape” is invading our lives. With IKEA efficiency, Klein divides her polemic into four modules: “No Space,” “No Choice,” “No Jobs,” “No Logo.” She explains how superbrands such as Nike came to focus on marketing cool lifestyles while outsourcing the manufacture of products to Third World sweatshops. Doing field work in the Philippines, she interviews teenage girls who slave over sneakers in tax-exempt “free trade zones” patrolled by guards with machine guns. On the consumer side of the equation, she argues that superbrands homogenize culture, censor free expression and infect everything from education to rock ’n roll via corporate sponsorship. She also shows how the brands have become galvanizing targets for a protest movement that is as mercurial, and ubiquitous, as the World Wide Web.

By now, of course, Klein is becoming branded in her own right, as the glam gum of the anti-globalization movement. “I think it crossed a line in Britain,” she sighs. “It got really strange and celebrity-ish. I became the acceptable face of this movement that was getting a very hard time in the British press.” She was especially irked by a headline in the Irish Independent that called her “The pin-up revolutionary.” But on the whole, she adds, “I’m comfortable with all the contradictions involved in this project—publishing with a multinational corporation, writing a column for The Globe and Mail, flying all over the world talking about local democracy. The issue to me is: if you are made a token, what are you doing to push the envelope, to not be as acceptable as they think you are? I feel I’m able to control that.”

"What are you wearing?”

Klein has been asked that more often than she cares to remember. But for the author of a book that exposes the exploitation behind designer labels, it seems a fair question. On the plane to Boston, she’s smartly dressed in a navy jean jacket, red T-shirt, black flared pants and black high-heeled boots. A brown parka is stuffed in the overhead bin. “Most of what I’m wearing is made in Canada,” she says. “I don’t have any logos on me right now. I genuinely don’t like logos on clothes. But that’s more of a personal thing than thinking we’re going to change the world by banishing logos. Some logos are beautifully designed. I have a strange relationship to branded culture—I know that No Logo is a logo. People come up to me and say, ‘I read your book and burned all my Nike clothes.’ But I don’t care what you buy. We tend to boil everything down to a shopping issue. If I’m in an airport and need a coffee, it’s not like I’m not going to have Starbucks.”

Outside Boston, the Change the World! conference is serving organic coffee from a politically correct plantation. Held on the fringe of the Harvard campus, the event is hosted by a Japanese Buddhist organization called the Boston Research Center. Klein is a little dismayed by the crowd. They’re old, and almost exclusively white: a lot of natural fibres, pioneer beards and bald pates fringed by hippie-length grey hair. There is a smattering of youth, but the new generation of protest is not well represented. At one point, after hearing earnest questions about “reaching out” to the unconverted, Klein vents her impatience at the microphone. “This might sound impolite,” she says, “but I don’t think this room represents the movement.” The room, however, loves Klein. A seductive speaker, she looks her audience in the eye and smiles as she talks, betraying just enough vulnerability to maintain some tension. Her speech casts everything in an urbane light, including the charming chaos of the movement itself. “Is this a movement,” she asks, “or a collective hallucination that we now simply call ‘Seattle’? To most of us, Seattle means global resistance. To everyone else, Seattle still means frothy coffee, Asian-fusion cuisine, e-commerce billionaires and sappy Meg Ryan movies.”

Klein dishes up stories fresh from the Porto Alegre conference, where a thousand Brazilian protesters, led by French cheese farmer José Bové, marched into the countryside and burned a Monsanto plantation of genetically modified crops. But she doesn’t talk like a revolutionary firebrand; she’s softspoken and droll, imagining and deconstructing the movement all at once. “Maybe it’s not an anti-globalization movement at all,” she ventures. “It’s about democracy. Maybe it’s not even really about trade, but about using trade to enforce turbo capitalism—and the unacceptable trade-of democratic control in exchange for investment.”

Such a relief from the tired rhetoric of the left, Kleins writing bristles with metaphor and wit. In No Logo, she describes American prosperity as “a gold rush to poverty.” Copyright laws “form an airtight protective seal around the brand, allowing it to brand us, but prohibiting us from so much as scuffing it.” But Klein brings the same irreverence to her own ranks. Recently in The Nation, she questioned the ongoing quest for “the next Seattle” by summit-hopping protesters: “Is this really what we want—a movement of meeting-stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead?”

The left-wing academics sharing the bill with Klein at the conference are impressed. “She is developing a mode of discourse that’s original and non-dogmatic,” says Charles Derber, a sociology professor at Boston University. “Maybe she represents a new kind of voice for the left that will move beyond the narrow, insular niche it’s famous for.” And Walden Bello, a respected Filipino elder of the movement, says: “Many people in the left had a difficult time understanding what Seattle was all about until Naomi interpreted it for them.”

Bello is one of the reasons she has come to Boston. And you can see why. He unleashes his keynote address like a Marxist Rachmaninoff, tearing down the unholy trinity of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank with dizzying crescendos of data—including figures showing that America’s three richest tycoons earn more than the combined income of 600 million people living in the world’s 48 least developed countries. “We all have to go to Quebec!” Bello concludes, drawing cheers from the crowd. “The architecture of the place is not the most congenial for mass protest, but we’re confident our friends in Canada can help us.”

Klein is tickled to see a bunch of Americans in Boston planning a Quebec tea party. There is even a guerrilla theatre skit with a character dressed as a Quebec cop. She, meanwhile, has a visible effect on the men in the room. One of them shyly shows her a photograph he’s taken of her, frozen in the viewfinder of his digital camera. The next day, he flashes it again, now filling the screen of his laptop. Klein gets marriage proposals from strangers by e-mail. And a casual observer might assume she’s single—she doesn’t wear a ring. “No brands,” she laughs. “I just don’t like jewelry. And I don’t like the whole process of people looking at your hand. I think they should have to have a conversation with you before they know that much about you.”

Back in Toronto, Klein offers to meet at a Queen Street café a block from her house called the Tequila Bookworm, which is so unbranded it has no sign. Klein understands the media well enough that she has mixed feelings about being profiled. And she knows that being a young woman is part of her media value. “It helps make the message more palatable,” she allows. “And that’s something I am willing to exploit, or ignore. I’m aware that there’s a privilege. So I just think, ‘F-it. That’s good! There are all kinds of privileges I’ve been given my whole life that make it easier to do what I do.”

Klein was born in Montreal in 1970, the second of two children. Her parents tried to impart their political values, “but it completely backfired,” she says. “When I was 10, my mother took me to an anti-nuke march in New York and I came back and said I would never, ever go to a march with her again, and that I was not a political prop. I was like, ‘You guys are losers. I’m never talking to you again.’ ” When her father drove her to school in his beloved Citroen, she insisted he drop her off a block away, so her friends wouldn’t see her getting out of such a weird car. By contrast, her older brother, Seth, was the model child: at 15, he organized a peace group called Students Against Global Extermination, which staged a cross-country tour. (Now 32, he’s the B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-wing think-tank.)

“I didn’t talk to my parents for six years,” says Klein. “I had an eating disorder and every screwed-up relationship.” As her mother recalled in her stroke memoir, Slow Dance (1997): “Naomi had spent years locked in the bathroom... becoming an expert in hair colour and makeup. Her nagging feminist mother and doctor father managed to miss the fact that her bathroom hibernation also included long bouts of bulimia.” At school, Klein ran with a fearsome clique of eight girls who bonded through drugs, alcohol and designer fashions. And at 14, she was expelled for allegedly lighting a bonfire in the locker room. “I didn’t light it,” she says. “My friends lit it. We were completely out of control—outrageously bad influences on each other.”

The wild years ended abruptly at 17 with her mother’s life-threatening stroke. Naomi wrote her a desperate letter: “Dear Mommy, I am so very scared. I am so very weak with fright. I wish I had taken all the hugs and kisses that you offered me throughout my life. . . . You can’t go now. I’m still a little girl and I need you.” According to her father, Naomi’s reconciliation with the family happened “literally overnight.” She even took a year off school to care for her mother.

It took another shock to reshape Klein’s political views. She was 19, starting her first year as an English major at the University of Toronto, when she was jolted by the 1989 massacre of 14 female students at the University of Montreal. “It was dam-breaking, not just for me but for a lot of young women,” she recalls. “The night of the massacre, I remember watching the news in our dorm. All night we just sat around and told stories about every bad thing that had happened to us. That’s how I got involved in politics.”

Klein never graduated but spent her fourth year as full-time editor of The Varsity, the campus newspaper. “We put out a left-wing, feminist newspaper, and we felt under siege,” she says. “We were the most visible face of the political correctness movement. And people got really pissed off. They would break into the office and trash it and leave me rape threats.” But in the end, she became disillusioned with identity politics. “We were rearranging the furniture while the house burned down,” says Klein. “Our demands were turned into the ad slogans of the ’90s. Capitalism was so absorbent, it made us think there had to be another movement that would look at corporate power, not just the images corporations projected on the wall.” After The Varsity, Klein became an intern at The Globe and Mail, then spent two years as editor of This magazine. While she was at the Globe, during the 1993 federal election, CBC’s The National hired her to interview a hot young TV personality who was leading MuchMusic's first foray into election coverage— which is how she met future husband Avi Lewis. It was an odd way to meet. They both had their own TV crews, and held their first real conversation on camera. “The interview,” Lewis recalls, “was not relaxing. She was being CBC’d, typecast as a Gen Xer. And we were both having our experience with media institutions that wanted to commodify our youthful intelligence before we had found our voice.”

Both agree it was not love at first sound bite. “Life is too complicated for romantic clichés,” shrugs Lewis, 33. “But there was an instant intellectual engagement.” Well, did they flirt at least? “What are you talking about?” he laughs. “Of course we flirted—we were on television.” After three years of friendship, Lewis and Klein got together, then wed in 1998. Theirs appears to be a marriage made in media heaven. They both edit each other’s writing. Lewis supported her while she spent four years writing No Logo. And Klein unofficially coproduces counterSpin, pitching ideas and suggesting guests.

Lewis and Klein share a modest semi-detached house in Toronto. The living room is cluttered with reading material, the television hidden by a veil of fabric. Lewis’s guitar sits propped in a corner. Both partners have gruelling schedules, and dinner is usually a 10 p.m. takeout meal. They seem to be a good match: he crackles with speedy repartee, she is more circumspect—the difference, perhaps, between TV and print.

But they share a political vision-in-progress, one that lies beyond the parliamentary traditions of the NDP Despite his pedigree, Lewis has never joined the family dynasty. As an opinionated current affairs host, he says, “I’ve found a way to be in the family business without actually minding the store.” Meanwhile, he’s thrilled to see his wife surfing the anti-globalization movement: “She’s covering it, she’s driving it; she’s exhilarated, scared and overjoyed by it. Naomi’s a one-woman web. She connects with so many different constituencies. She speaks to CUPE and explains why they should get their asses to Quebec City; then she speaks to black-flag-waving anarchists and explains why it’s worth doing a CBC interview.”

A Sunday afternoon in Toronto. Klein is speaking to an auditorium of 350 activists at a meeting called by a coalition to protest the Quebec City summit. She delivers roughly the same speech she gave in Boston. But she puts more emphasis on a new idea that has just occurred to her: because the federal and provincial stages are so crowded, why not create a national party of municipal activists to campaign for local governments? Lewis, in the audience with his mother, says afterward: “Naomi keeps coming up with these ideas. I can’t keep up with her. Five years ago, when she said there was a movement coming, I said, ‘That’s nice, honey.’ But she was right.” The crowd is much younger than the one in Boston. In fact, one of the fans who lines up to get his No Logo autographed afterward looks about 12: “Great book,” he says gravely. Klein gets a kick out of her young fans, especially the Radiohead kids. She once got a letter saying, “You’re easier than Noam Chomsky,” referring to one of the left’s star theorists. Klein says she should get a T-shirt made up saying: “I’m easier than Noam Chomsky.” Although she wins respect from academics—No Logo is already showing up on university curricula—Klein revels in the freestyle wordplay of pop culture. No wonder she admires the media-sawy Subcomandante Marcos, the poet-revolutionary who has just published a book called Our Word is Our Weapon. Writing about Marcos recently in The Guardian magazine, she called him “a new kind of hero, who listens more than speaks, who preaches in riddles not in certainties, a leader who doesn’t show his face, who says his mask is a mirror.”

Marcos’s editor recently e-mailed Klein to tell her that the Zapatistas’ arrival in Mexico City on March 11 will be an event comparable to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Klein decided she had to be there. She also has a tentative offer to interview Marcos. “I’m from a generation that was told history had ended,” she says. “If there’s a capital-H history moment in my life, I want to be there to see it. They’re riding in on horseback, like conquistadores—Marcos has such an amazing sense of metaphor and symbolism and paradox.”

In her own way, so does Naomi Klein. And she, too, has a dream, one that would take her away from the grind of airports, speeches and interviews. It involves escaping to a Greek island and writing a novel. Science fiction. She already has the idea in her head. But that’s all she’s prepared to say: she’s not about to brand the future. E33