All Business

NAOMI KLEIN’S TIRED TRICKS

When the celebrity socialist is on the case, accuracy takes a holiday

STEVE MAICH November 8 2004
All Business

NAOMI KLEIN’S TIRED TRICKS

When the celebrity socialist is on the case, accuracy takes a holiday

STEVE MAICH November 8 2004

NAOMI KLEIN’S TIRED TRICKS

All Business

When the celebrity socialist is on the case, accuracy takes a holiday

STEVE MAICH

ARE YOU DISGUSTED by the wide gap between the world’s richest and poorest people? Suspicious of the power wielded by international financial institutions? Well, Naomi Klein feels your pain. She shares your righteous indignation. She even has a solution to sell you. Simply close your eyes, wipe the lessons of history from your memory, and turn off your brain. Once you climb aboard Klein’s travelling road show of disinformation, you won’t be needing them.

It’s now easier than ever to hop on the bandwagon. No more waiting for her occasional ramblings in the Globe and Mail. No need to search out a week-old copy of the Guardian

newspaper. Klein and her ideological soulmate (and husband) Avi Lewis have produced a Marxist propaganda film that is landing in a theatre near you. It’s called The Take and it’s chock full of the historical distortions and smug oversimplifications that have made the filmmakers Canada’s foremost purveyors of silver-spoon socialism.

The Take purports to tell of a new economic model taking hold in Argentina following that country’s devastating fiscal collapse in late 2001. It follows a group of labourers as they seize, occupy and reopen the auto-parts factory where they’d worked before the economy crumbled. It’s a truly emotional story, and you quickly find yourself sympathizing with these people who’ve seen their lives turned upside down by forces far beyond their control.

Their story is so compelling, in fact, you can almost ignore the delusional political message that is at the movie’s heart—the same old shoddy critique of globalization and the International Monetary Fund that Klein has been spouting for her whole career as a leftwing-activist writer. Having read much of her work over the past few years, I wasn’t surprised that the movie dumped blame for the people’s misery on capitalist bogeymen lurking in every shadow. But I was unprepared for Klein’s utter disregard for the facts that led to Argentina’s collapse and her willingness to distort the role of globalization in it.

In Klein’s alternate reality, Argentina was a veritable utopia back in the ’50s and ’60s, marching toward prosperity under its own steam—until the IMF came along in the late

1980s and inserted puppet politicians to pry open its markets and ruin the lives of thousands of workers. The facts bear little resemblance to that fiction. In 1960, only half the population had access to safe drinking water. The infant mortality rate was 59 deaths per 1,000 live births—triple that of developed countries like Canada. And, before the IMF got heavily involved in funding the country’s development near the end of the 1980s, hyperinflation was driving the whole nation into poverty.

By 2002, thanks in large part to more than a decade of IMF support, infant mortality had dropped by 73 per cent. Through the ’90s, economic growth and exports surged, as did spending on education and health care, and inflation eased. Every-

thing from access to safe water to telephone service had improved by leaps. Argentine president Carlos Menem got much of the credit among the people, but the bill for that economic and social resurgence was funded almost entirely by IMF loans.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in rapidly developing nations, it was too much too soon. The Menem government privatized government assets and boosted trade through the boom years, but the IMF’s repeated pleas to clean up corruption, reform the labour laws and, above all, balance the budget fell on deaf ears. Between 1983 and 2001,

the agency pumped US$30 billion into Argentina, only to see much of it disappear into a black hole of government waste. When, in the late 1990s, Menem began campaigning for an unconstitutional third term, public spending accelerated further and the seeds of Argentina’s collapse began to grow— not because of the IMF, but in spite of it. Klein casts Menem as a vicious cost-cutter, but government spending in fact rose 15 per cent between 1996 and 2000, leading to a 32 per cent increase in the national debt.

According to The Take, Argentina was a “rich country made poor” by the greed of businessmen and their pet politicians. That central argument forms the justification for workers to defy court orders and seize businesses to which they have no legal right. Klein tells us they’ve been robbed of their livelihood, so that makes their theft okay.

In reality, Argentina was a developing country deluded into a sense of affluence by rampant government overspending. To re-enact Argentina’s economic collapse in your own household, follow these simple steps: Go to the bank and get a mortgage.

WATCHING The Take, it’s clear Klein is our very own Michael Moore. Like him, she is more interested in promoting herself than in accurately presenting ideas.

Buy a house. Then open a line of credit and max out your credit cards to hire as many of your friends as possible to be butlers, chauffeurs, or to do nothing at all. Then quit your job and loan what money you have left to your neighbours for their own business projects, but don’t charge interest. When the cash finally runs out, go to the bank and ask for more. Get the picture? Argentina wasn’t IMF’s “model student,” as Klein claims; it was the class clown.

But none of this can seep into the airtight ideological bubble Klein and Lewis have built around themselves. To them, it’s all just so simple: Privatization is bad. Profit is evil. The rule of law only needs to be respected when it feels right. And politicians are the puppets of multinational corporations.

The IMF’s failure in Argentina was that its officials didn’t intervene in the burgeoning

crisis sooner—a failing the organization has acknowledged. Yet, not surprisingly, when prominent economists argued that international agencies should take control of Argentina’s economy to alleviate people’s suffering, Klein mocked the idea in a Globe article because, she says, the country’s economic sovereignty ought to be sacrosanct.

Watching The Take, it’s clear that Klein is no longer interested in seeing facts that challenge her preconceived notions of global finance and social justice—and that should concern even those who sympathize with her politics. Klein is the most visible left-wing pundit this country has to offer—our very own Michael Moore. But, like the activist American filmmaker, she seems more interested in promoting herself than in accurately presenting ideas. No character in the film has as many lines as Klein and Lewis do, and they continually insinuate themselves into the story. Klein is seen running through a cloud of tear gas at a Buenos Aires protest rally, and both are shown debating nameless conservatives on TV news shows. At one point in the constant stream of voiceover, Lewis boasts that as “activist journalists” they travel the world “breathing in tear gas by day and hot air by night,” but The Take feels like they’ve been breathing in something else.

It’s too bad Klein and Lewis didn’t stick around to see how the situation in Argentina turned out. Since the directors didn’t bother, here’s the real postscript to The Take: of the roughly 170 Argentine factories that were occupied and restarted by protesting workers in the wake of the economy’s collapse, 82 per cent have failed or are failing. In 2003, the IMF gave in to public pressure and handed Argentina yet another round of emergency funding, on the promise that the government would balance the budget and reform the economy to make development sustainable. So far, none of the promises have been kept.

In Argentina, history is a skipping record. Yet Klein and Lewis claim, with straight faces, that factory seizures present a viable solution to some of the world’s intractable economic disparities. Once you put the old cerebral cortex in neutral and take a few hits of tear gas, you might even be inclined to believe that. [?!

steve.maich@macleans.rogers.com