Naomi Klein, Who Shot to Fame after her First Book, is Withholding Judgment on Obama

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The Toronto Star

Naomi Klein, Who Shot to Fame after her First Book, is Withholding Judgment on Obama

by
Haroon Siddiqui

She fits the cliché of the Canadian who is a celebrity abroad but is mostly ignored at home.

Naomi Klein shot to international fame eight years ago with her book No Logo, which has since sold 1 million copies.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, published 15 months ago, has already sold 800,000 copies and been translated into 26 languages. Last week, a documentary based on the book was released at the Berlin Film Festival.

Her speaking engagements and political activism keep her on the road, around the world. Her newsletter goes to 30,000 subscribers.

No Logo charted the corporate commodification of youth pop culture and the casualization of labour (what's sold in the West are expensive brands, not products, which can be manufactured cheaply in the East).

The Shock Doctrine is about the globalization of the neo-conservative ideas pioneered by Chicago economist Milton Friedman and popularized by Ronald Reagan. There was the massive privatization - not only of public services at home but wars abroad (private security forces and contractors galore in Iraq and Afghanistan) and even disaster relief (post-tsunami and Katrina). There was the deregulation of the markets, which led, inevitably, to the current economic meltdown.

Critics attack her for seeing corporate conspiracies. They particularly sneer at her hypothesis, announced in the book's subtitle, that right-wing economic policies have faced such popular resistance that they can only be introduced in the jet stream of shock-and-awe wars and natural disasters (laying off tens of thousands of Iraqis in order to sell state enterprises; building tourist beach hotels in Southeast Asian fishing villages washed away by the tsunami).

Her admirers see the economic crisis as proof of her prescience.

The New Yorker magazine recently ran a 12-page profile: "She has become the most visible and influential figure on the American left - what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were 30 years ago."

She has campaigned against the University of Chicago's plan to build a $200 million Milton Friedman Institute to honour its former professor, who died in 2006. "The crash on Wall St. should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian communism, an indictment of an ideology," she has said.

In a twist of fate, the economic crisis has dried up funding for the institute, and it has been put on hold - much to her delight.

In an interview Tuesday, Klein, 38, said she welcomes the election of Barack Obama. But she has two problems: his refusal to insist on accountability for recent American misdemeanours abroad and at home; and his "narrative that everything went wrong only eight years ago" with the election of George W. Bush.

It was Bill Clinton who periodically bombed Iraq and tightened the economic sanctions that killed 1 million Iraqis, including 500,000 children, according to UNICEF. It was he who axed the Depression-era restrictions that had prevented investment banks from also being commercial banks. He and Alan Greenspan resisted the regulation of the huge derivatives industry.

If you develop amnesia about all that, "then you do exactly what Obama is doing. You resurrect the Clinton economic and foreign policy apparatus, and you appoint Larry Summers, the key architect of the economic policy that has imploded at this moment."

Obama's economic recovery plan, especially the bank bailout, is a disaster.

It is "layering complexity over complexity. What got us into this mess in the first place were these complex financial instruments that nobody understood. Now they have a bailout that nobody understands.

"The facts are easy to understand, namely, that these banks are bankrupt and they should be allowed to go under or be nationalized because there also needs to be a workable financial sector.

"The amount of money that's at stake in the bailout - if you include everything, the deposit guarantees, the loans, Fannie May and Freddie Mac and AIG - is now up to $9 trillion. The American GDP is only $14 trillion. So they've put more than half the American economy on the line to try to fix a mess that actually cannot be fixed in this way. Just look at what happened to Iceland. The debt that their three top banks held was 10 times their GDP. You can bankrupt the country this way."

Obama's stimulus package is not big enough. Almost 40 per cent goes to tax cuts. "And to pay for the cuts, they had to drastically scale back much more important and stimulative spending, on such things as public transit."

Among the many parallels to the 1930s, the one Klein finds most useful is that president Franklin Roosevelt was under constant public pressure to improve the New Deal. That "history of resistance, struggle and community organizing" needs to be replicated to keep Obama honest.

"Obama is an important change from Bush, and the reason why he is important is that he is susceptible to pressure from everyone. He is susceptible to pressure from Wall Street, to pressure from the weapons companies, from the Washington establishment. But unlike Bush and (Dick) Cheney, I don't think he'd ignore mass protest.

"The irony is that just at the very moment when that kind of grassroots organizing and mobilization could have an impact, we are demobilizing and waiting for the good acts to be handed down from on high, whether it is the withdrawal from Iraq or the perfect economic stimulus package."

It is equally important that America come to terms with its recent past.

"So much of this moment for me comes down to whether there's going to be any accountability for what happened - whether it's the illegal occupation of Iraq or torture or the economic crimes that led to this disaster.

"The FBI believes that there's a huge criminality at the heart of the economic meltdown but they've made a decision not to prosecute because they were afraid that might send panic through the market.

"All this argument for impunity, amnesia is really corrosive."

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