THEY ARE TWO very different polemicists, Naomi Klein and Stephen Clarkson. The student and the professor. From different generations, backgrounds, writing styles, free-trade debates. Also from adjacent points on the intellectual compass. Only the truly perverse, like editors at a national magazine, would try to lump their latest books together in one thematic bundle. Yet there may well be something lumpable here. For both Klein and Clarkson have drunk deeply from the confounding well of globalization, the buzzword for all that is wrong and greedy in the world. And both are trying to make sense of what they’ve imbibed—while not neglecting to spit out the sour bits.
Of the two, Klein’s was almost an accidental tipple. Three years ago, her first book, No Logo, a university thesis that laid
bare the sweatshop culture behind the superbrands, turned her into the Princess Leia of the anti-globalization movement. What started off as a two-week book tour ended up as a 30-month odyssey through 22 countries and the ground zeros of generational protest: Seattle, Prague, Washington, Quebec City. All the tear-gassed high spots of a new world order in conflict with its young, and plenty of Third World barrios to boot.
The result is Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (Vintage Canda), a compendium of her articles from the Globe and Mail and other outlets. And if your first reaction is—hey, she’s only 32,
that’s too young to throw all your weekly jottings together in a book—the second is, well, this actually works. From Seattle to Chiapas to the fenced-in factories of the Philippines (with their armed guards, ostensibly to keep workers from stealing), there is a natural rhythm to her perambulations, the unconscious fly-past of contemporary history. As well, the growth of a writer.
Klein has always been a nice styliststraightforward, observant, non-preachy. She has a natural voice that seems to get more confident as the book progresses. And while you can argue with some of her conclusions or assumptions, that’s the point: you can argue; they are too cogent just to be dismissed out of hand.
Klein’s thesis is straightforward. Thirteen years after the Berlin Wall was torn down, a new series of oppressive barriers have been erected in its place. Some are obvious and patently symbolic, like the gated factories or the police-backed steel fences that shielded international trade bureaucrats from protesters in Quebec City a year ago. Some are more subtle, like user fees, gene patents or World Bankmandated policies that keep Third World farmers enslaved to export crops when they can’t feed their own families. The biggest export of the United States right now, Klein points out, is copyrighted patents on drugs, foodstuffs, software, even ideas. To her, they are fences around the human spirit.
More compelling than the thesis, though, are the insights. Klein has such an easy way of riffing off other people’s ideas, you almost miss some of her own observations. For instance, how the business pundits on CNN began using the freighted word “capitalism” to try to make sense of the street protests whirling around them. Or how security forces around the world methodically escalated their response from pepper spray to tear gas to rubber bullets to live ammunition. Or, my favourite, why America is disliked abroad. Not, Klein argues, because of its conspicuous consumption, but because it fails to deliver on its own advertising. If anything, says Klein, “America’s marketing of itself has been too effective. Schoolchildren can recite its claims to democracy, liberty and equal opportunity as readily as they can associate McDonald’s with family fun. And they expect the U.S. to live up to its promises.”
The U.S. is the foil here, of course. That is even more the case in Clarkson’s Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism and the Canadian State (University of Toronto Press). But the larger antagonist is the unseen hand of globalization and its alphabet soup of faceless henchmen: the IMF, the WTO, NAFTA and so on. Klein blames globalization for underfunded schools and contaminated water in developing nations. Clarkson would do the same for Mike Harris’s Ontario, and for all manner of domestic ills. His is a lament for the interventionist state, and a raised fist against a purposeless Canadian government after Brian Mulroney gave away the store with free trade and Jean Chrétien shrugged his acquiescence through three elections.
These are old battles, personal ones too. For this is Clarkson at 64, the University of Toronto political economist, former Liberal mayoralty candidate, renegade Trudeau-ite, and arch
Naomi Klein seems to have given up on the nation state as an agent for change. Stephen Clarkson is still hedging his bets.
free-trade opponent trying to look back and forward at the same time. The personal touches are are revealing. But reader beware, this is Clarkson at his most professorial: be prepared for the shoals of “transnationalized globalization,” “Keynesian superstructure” and repeated references to “the hegemon,” his term for the United States.
Clarkson’s argument is that international trade agreements, beginning with the Free Trade Agreement in 1989 and moving on through the ratification of the WTO rules next year, effectively bind the hands of government on a variety of social, environmental and cultural fronts. Though he is generous enough to note that most of our major businesses are
doing well under the new rules, and that we have unleashed Shania Twain and Celine Dion on an unsuspecting world. Not to mention a whole squadron of award-winning Canadian novelists.
My complaint with Clarkson is that for a book on Canada and the U.S., there is almost nothing that sees America as anything but a faceless, unidimensional hegemon, to use his ugly word. Also that, as with Klein, there is an element of wanting it both ways. Sure, Canada as a middling power with an elephantine neighbour can be whipsawed by global trade rules. But both would have us reach out to all manner of other multinational entities to extend the gospel of good things. That’s as Canadian as the UN. And that kind of global hand-holding, not to take power but to challenge it, is what Klein calls her “windows,” quiet conspiracies just a mouse click or a plane ride away to make global partners of people of like mind. She seems to have given up on the nation state as an agent for change. Clarkson, with grandchildren as hostage to the future, is still hedging his bets. 1?!
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