Klein in a Bottle.

November 6, 2017

Not so very long ago, Naomi Klein, former Wall Street journalist turned celebrity leftist, was the bright shining hope of the world. Her books The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, which revealed the horrifying truth (which had been kept secret for so long) that capitalism exploits workers and harms the environment, were on every leftist’s bookshelf, crowding out Marxist theory because her books were enormously expensive.

Not everybody quite believed this, of course. Alexander Cockburn’s review of The Shock Doctrine pointed out that what Klein was representing as her own brilliant idea was something which had been around since Marx at least, and probably since Rousseau and Blake (and some of it went back to Savonarola). Also, the revelations about the link between CIA torture, CIA mind control and capitalism had been traced in the 1960s when the facts about the CIA’s experiments with hallucinogens and sensory deprivation started coming out — and the political implications came as no great surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to what happened in any fascist or quasi-fascist seizure of power in the twentieth century.

Of course, said Cockburn, it was good that someone was saying all this stuff again given the terrible drought of leftists in the twenty-first century. However, Klein is particularly mistaken in claiming that this “shock doctrine” is something relatively new, most particularly on display in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, based on the CIA ideas of the 1960s fused with the neoliberal triumph of the late 1970s. In fact, argues Cockburn, to say this is to pretend that the disastrous twenty-first-century neoliberals, the Bushes and Blairs and Berlusconis and their descendants, were something novel and something which can therefore be fought against as dangerous innovators. Instead, he remarks, they are very much within a long continuum of capitalism stretching back at least to the eighteenth century, and to fight against them you have to fight against the system which created them; it isn’t enough to vote out Bush. The long dark Obama era demonstrated that Cockburn was right and Klein wrong.

Now Klein has come up with another book. Unlike its three major predecessors, and like her journalism, it is very short on research and is unreferenced. Her argument is that we are in a big big crisis, due to Trump, and therefore we must do everything that we can, as fast as possible, to challenge the rise of whatever it is that we are supposed to fight against in Trump, and Brexit, the two official foes of the official liberal ruling class of the Western world.

The book is called No Is Not Enough. This is a weird title. Who ever thought that no was enough? When, in politics or anywhere else, has rejection been the be-all and end-all of activity? Perhaps, though, this is a sign that Western political thought has really lost its sense of self-worth and become no more than a knee-jerk resistance to right-wing initiatives which in themselves are not properly understood.

Manifestly there must be something positive towards which any political movement must mobilise its adherents. This is true of every political movement which can ever aspire to have any adherents for any length of time. So, then, what is the positive thing which Klein has hitherto provided? In the main, she has complained about the misbehaviour of big business and of Republicans, contending that it would be nicer if there were fewer sweatshops and more non-franchised coffee shops, that it would be better if capitalism did not entail using the government to frighten people into pursuing policies which harm their interests, and that it would be good if someone would do something about global warming. Effectively, this is nebulous reformism. It is the politics of hipster liberalism, wishing to carry on with one’s current life without change, but also without guilt or unpleasant news on the television or the social media, and without right-wing propaganda blaring in one’s ears.

Does this new book represent anything different? Ninety-nine percent of the book’s critique is an attack on Donald Trump and some of his Cabinet. This is not exactly courageous stand-taking; everybody who would purport to be on the left obviously opposes Trump. He is a very easy target to attack, and in attacking him it is easy to ignore the extremely odious and terribly powerful people who oppose Trump in order to put themselves in power and implement policies which are as destructive as Trump’s, but perhaps more coherently assembled and more effectively propagandised, and hence more dangerous in the long run. Ignoring such people’s existence — or worse, effectively allying oneself with them, as in South Africa where the same kind of sand-in-the-eyes leftism has been used to legitimate support for the richest and most right wing people in the country under the pretense of saving the nation from Zuma — is a suicidal policy.

So if the book were simply a criticism of Trump then it would be (in effect) propaganda for the kind of system which Trump represents. By claiming that the only problem to be addressed is this nasty chancre weeping pus on your cheek, you are ignoring the fact that your big problem is actually that you have syphilis. Fortunately, there is a 1% of the book in which Klein does mention that the opposition to Trump, in the person of Hillary Clinton, was a corrupt liar campaigning for the special interests of gangster capitalists. Also, she mentions the existence of that gangster capitalism and points out that it essentially runs the socio-economic system of the United States by remote control.

These are points with which any leftist can fundamentally agree. These are also points, however, which direct attention to a far more important problem than the problem of having a preposterous ignorant sociopathic gasbag in the White House, or even the people who helped to put that gasbag there. The solutions to that problem — the control of the system by a corrupt and largely invisible ruling class which uses that control to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else — are different from the problem of the wrong guy winning an election.

But this is the problem which Klein complains about. She endorsed Bernie Sanders as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. Undeniably Sanders was a less odious candidate than Hillary Clinton; arguably, he was the least unpleasant prospect of all the figures who sought to stand for President in either the Democratic or Republican Party. However, Sanders is a right-wing figure, a military hawk, a Zionist and a supporter of most of the conservative policies pursued by the Democratic Party down the decades. His populist attacks on corrupt banks were unusual, but they also almost certainly led nowhere, since he had no mass base behind him and any attempt to implement an anti-trust law against the banks would certainly have been blocked by all parties. His claims to be a socialist are certainly as fraudulent as Hillary Clinton’s claims to be a feminist. Klein claims that the mere uttering of such terms is a good thing — but in both cases the term could be used safely because it had been drained of all practical meaning.

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton for the Presidency. Klein criticises Clinton, but it is clear that she preferred Clinton over Trump. Therefore she was prepared to vote for the system and to call on others to do the same. What is the point of criticising the system if in practice you refuse to challenge it? This seems like the same sort of ineffectual hipster politics characteristic of Klein. It also explains why Klein spends so much more time criticising Trump than criticising the system which allowed Trump to rise, or, for that matter, criticising representatives of the system like Obama and Clinton who happen to use rhetoric which resembles Klein’s own rhetoric, but whose agenda is essentially the same as that of Trump: the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and through the degradation of the planet and its resources.

So Klein’s “yes” is a very small one compared to her “NO”, and it is also a very unappealing one. She tries to gussy this up (whatever that phrase means) with references to the victories which have been attained over neoliberalism and “Trumpism”. These victories include a massive populist revolt in Argentina against corrupt neoliberalism which eventually led to a slightly less reactionary ruling-class family taking power and pursuing a slightly less corrupt version of neoliberalism. There is also the massive populist revolt in Greece against corrupt neoliberalism, in which the Greeks boldly voted for the party which pledged not to implement corrupt neoliberalism, after which the party implemented corrupt neoliberalism. On the whole, Klein’s poster boys for the New Politics are neither attractive nor credible.

Victories over “Trumpism” appear similar. Her thesis is that Trump’s victory has ushered in a series of extreme-right movement, such as UKIP in Britain, or the BJP in India, or Duterte’s Presidency in the Philippines. She fails to notice that Duterte, for all his violence and populism, is rather different from Trump and his agenda, that UKIP is an insignificant party (the anti-EU vote was essentially a Conservative victory) and the BJP has been around since the 1930s in various Hindu incarnations.

Meanwhile, her evidence of victories over this nonexistent fascistic united front include the stitched-up victory of the vicious reactionary neoliberal Macron in France and the victory of the xenophobic reactionary populists in Holland (where she praises a “Green” party which committed itself to supporting the European Union in its current neoliberal form). It seems obvious from this that Klein is trapped within the confines of the status quo, like a cockroach in a corked bottle waiting for the ammonia to be dripped in. Since that status quo is essentially neoliberal and reactionary, her campaigns against neoliberalism and reactionary politics appear wholly cosmetic.

Indeed, she went on a lot of marches in the United States to protest against Trump. Good for her; it is good for the legs and the lungs, assuming you don’t breathe too much of the city air. These marches, however, were mostly organised by the Democratic Party and were essentially calls for the installation of Hillary Clinton as President, so Klein was marching against her own professed principles and policies. The purposes of the marches were to mobilise specific interests, such as technology professionals and women, who normally tend to support the Democrats. Of course one may try to take advantage of such campaigns to challenge the system. There is little sign, however, that this happened, and Klein certainly did nothing to pursue that.

In the end she does come up with a call for the masses to rise up in what she calls the “Leap”, a call for a transformation of society on Utopian grounds. At last! Someone who will save us! Indeed, she says that this has happened before — when big oil spills happened in 1969, the people rose up and called for someone to do something about the environment, and lo, someone did and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the Clean Air Act passed. Klein says that this kind of triumph of the people can be done again. Erm, well perhaps, but shouldn’t we remember that the person who answered the call of the people was President Richard Nixon, saving the environment in his spare time when he wasn’t murdering hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese and overthrowing Latin American governments.

Her other inspiration is Standing Rock, where the evil government wanted to run a pipeline carrying Canadian tar-sands oil through an Indian reservation (this being government land the pipeline could travel free there). To further save money they wanted to run the pipeline slap through the local lake. And there the people rose up and said NO! Hurray for the people! Oh yes — except that the government rose up and said PISS OFF!, violently chased the Indians and their supporters away, and built the pipeline slap through the local lake. So she is celebrating the disastrous failure of weakly-supported single-interest campaigns to attain anything positive.

Her Leap is no leap. It’s a vague call for someone to do something, something nice, something like a higher minimum wage and more windmills and solar panels and child-minders and fewer police shooting black people. It has no political support worth mentioning¬† and no capacity to develop any. It is the feel-good politics of hipsterism, incapable of accomplishing anything and devoid of any potential to build the political analysis — the class analysis, especially — which it completely lacks.

And there we leave Klein in her bottle. A Klein bottle is a three-dimensional Moebius strip, a bottle with no actual inside or outside. As a result it’s difficult to see how to get out of the bottle. On the positive side, it cannot actually be build in the real world, any more than can Klein’s mythical politics.