The pin-up revolutionary: Naomi Klein
Her book No Logo made her an icon of anti-capitalism. So why is she lounging with the louche lizards of the Groucho Club?
Thursday 09 November 2000
It's 9.15 on Wednesday morning, and two affluent Western women journalists are drinking frothy coffee in the Groucho Club while discussing the world anti-capitalist movement. Naomi Klein is in London to give a talk as part of the Victoria & Albert museum's Brand.New exhibition. Such a show would not be complete without her input, for she is the author of
No Logo, the influential book that came out earlier this year, which charts the rise of the brand. More importantly, it also charts the rise of the worldwide anti-capitalist protest movement which has consolidated its diverse grievances around its opposition to the corporations that sell us our lives.
It's 9.15 on Wednesday morning, and two affluent Western women journalists are drinking frothy coffee in the Groucho Club while discussing the world anti-capitalist movement. Naomi Klein is in London to give a talk as part of the Victoria & Albert museum's Brand.New exhibition. Such a show would not be complete without her input, for she is the author of No Logo, the influential book that came out earlier this year, which charts the rise of the brand. More importantly, it also charts the rise of the worldwide anti-capitalist protest movement which has consolidated its diverse grievances around its opposition to the corporations that sell us our lives.
In one small respect, the Groucho Club is the ideal place for Ms Klein to be staying while she's in town. While it does have a logo, that logo is a discreet irony: a duck, in tribute to Duck Soup, the classic film by the Marx Brothers, who also advised us not to be in any club that would have us as a member.
In every other respect though, it's wrong. It is a rich, affluent company, rakish, superficial and the social powerhouse behind a media which co-opts and marginalises all of Ms Klein's concerns. She is just passing through. I'm a fully paid-up member.
Not that these ironies are lost on Ms Klein. Her anti-capitalist book is published by HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Her television appearances in London are signed exclusively to Channel Four, a company that positioned itself by using logo and lifestyle in just the way Ms Klein criticises. Her high-ceilinged loft in Toronto, which she shares with her high-profile media-star husband, used to be an overcoat factory. In Jakarta, investigating the sweatshops that bring cheap, quality clothing to the West, she discovered that the label being sewn into the coats were none other than London Fog, the very same that used to be made in her apartment. Even the book itself is a matt-black object of covetable loveliness, with Ms Klein's name itself turned into a logo with the letters N and O picked out in red.
Ms Klein is 30 years old, attractive, intelligent, intellectual. She's well-groomed, well-dressed, unthreatening. She is hailed as a spokesperson for the movement she has written about, and it's a role she takes seriously. She knows that her success is due to her calm, unhectoring approach, her lack of extremism, and her acceptability to the mainstream. She is a bridge between the unacceptable face of protest and the media's fascination with it. It is absurd to imagine Ms Klein hurling bricks through the windows of McDonald's. But while she's constantly asked to "condemn the violence", she refuses to do so.
"I owe lots of the things I've achieved to tokenism," she says, "I've been a token woman, a token young person, a token dissenter. If a publishing company is willing to accept my work because I don't threaten them, well, all that means is that tokenism can be useful."
Further, Ms Klein is not a subscriber to the idea of tokenism in others - the idea that the way you shop and live your own life can necessarily change the world. She doesn't knock it for those who choose it, but says that "maybe too many people are having discussions about whether everyone should wear vegan shoes. I don't live in a squat, or protest on the street either. I think that ethical branding is fine, and that it could become a lucrative niche market itself. But when I visit the export zones abroad who are supplying this stuff, they find the idea of ethical shopping an indulgence, an irrelevance."
Instead, they are where the workers of the West were a century ago, organising unions and trying to raise consciousness in the fight for economic and human rights. It is these people for whom Ms Klein has the greatest sympathy, partly because her own introduction to the protest movement was made at the other end of this continuum. In her early teens Ms Klein's own rebellion against her left-wing parents (her mother is Bonnie Klein, maker of a seminal feminist film about the pornography industry, and her father is a doctor) involved a full embrace of logo culture and the kind of teenage excess that so many people in the West never let go of. She knows what it's like to be a total consumer, but she's also cottoned on to the human cost of it.
This may not seem to be a particularly visionary or unique discovery. Nor indeed is the hope that this can change. It's been the motor of protest and politics since feudal times. In a real sense, globalisation is simply about the arena in which feudal attitudes are played out, getting bigger and more comfortably distant for those who benefit from them.
Ms Klein believes that conventional politics may still be able to deliver a more equitable world. Today of all days, as we still wait to hear which economic-boom-coasting nonentity will become the leader of the free world, how can she believe this?
"Well, this is not a great day for believing that the world can change," she admits "but when I'm out there meeting a 22-year-old skateboarder who is passionate about dams in India, it's hard not to feel hopeful. I often feel that I was born six years too early to really be on the inside of this."
Indeed, in Ms Klein's account of her own political awakening, she is frank about her own frustrations with the feeling that it was impossible to rebel any more, as youth culture was incorporated ever more quickly into the corporate dream. In the protest movement, she has found somewhere to belong.
"Yes, I've found this, and it's important to my own identity, just as everything we do in our lives is. Early on in my research for this book, I met a women of about 60 who had been just like me when I was young. She had become bitter and twisted, negative about everything, cynical about everything, and I could see that it was possible for me to become like that. I didn't want it to happen to me."
Feeling myself to be rather more like the 60-year-old than Ms Klein, I suggest that this may yet happen. On the left, it is easy, especially when you're young, to live in a bubble, and believe that because all your friends are like-minded, that you are part of a consensus. It can be shocking to find that you're not.
I ask Ms Klein if she's been following the fuel protest story in Britain. Ms Klein looks pained. "It really upsets me that while I've been here, people have been suggesting that this is part of the same thing, when it's the opposite."
All the same, this misunderstanding is testament to how easy it is to hijack Seattle-style protest, and to how few people really do understand what the anti-capitalist movement is really about. Urgent issues are not yet being addressed. And for some in the movement - particularly those who are involved primarily for environmental reasons - change, if it does come, will be delivered far too slowly for the planet to survive. Doesn't Ms Klein feel concerned about the limits on time?
"I don't like to hector and scare people, or make them freak out. It is in my nature to be critical, to be negative - it is what I've been trained to do. But every day I do resist it.
"I know it sounds flaky," she says, "but I want to communicate a message of hope." I don't find it flaky. I find it touching, uplifting and humbling. Sadly, I don't think the brand-new leader of the free world will, though.
Naomi Klein is speaking tonight at the launch of the World Development Movement Campaign at the Institute of Education, London
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