9.30.2008

naomi klein in toronto last night: become shock resistant

Allan and I went to hear Naomi Klein speak at Bloor Cinema last night. Thanks to a tip from friend of wmtc Lisa (yay!), I learned about the event before it sold out. The place was packed (850 people) and hundreds more were turned away.

Klein is a terrific speaker. She has such a beautifully relaxed, warm presence, she's so articulate, and her knowledge is truly impressive. Not every writer is also a good speaker and organizer, but she is all three.

The event was a fundraiser for the native communities of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake. Some Toronto activists spoke about that, but Klein addressed our current social shock: the crisis of capitalism that is unfolding in North America right now.

Klein began by noting that in this famously ahistorical, even anti-historical society we here in North America live in, the US Congress saying "NO" to the massive transfer of funds means we actually managed to remember something. 95% of the US public opposed this so-called bailout, and Congress actually acted on their wishes. A democracy moment.

Klein then gave a historical perspective on what's happening, which is exactly what we all need.

In 1929, the stock market collapses. Massive unemployment, poverty, starvation, hopelessness. The political left - quite strong at that time - correctly sees this as an indictment of capitalism. People's movements rise up and clamour for change. They clamour for revolution. (If you don't know this, please read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.)

Roosevelt draws a compromise between socialism and corporatism, displeasing both sides - Klein quotes from Upton Sinclair's angry letter to FDR - but saving capitalism's bacon by restraining it. By regulating it.

In our era, said Klein, we have been living through a massive liberation movement: capital liberating itself from those restraints. Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney went about dismantling those barriers to unchecked profit-making - those regulations that protect people, labour, the environment.

Remember, corporations are designed to create profit. That's their sole raison d'etre. It's not the corporation's job to say, we shouldn't gamble with people's life savings, we shouldn't destroy the environment. Its only function, its mandate, is to create profit. The more profit a corporation creates, the more successful it is.

It's government's job to restrain those profit-making corporations, to create limits and protections, so that they cannot trammel over what is not theirs. These limits and protections ultimately end up helping corporations, too. Nobody was buying cars during the Great Depression. Society needs to be healthy if people are going to be good consumers.

So, Klein says, this massive liberation movement that began under Reagan, went unchecked through Clinton (I appreciated that!), and of course picked up renewed speed under the Bush junta, has been enormously successful. For 35 years we have been living through a counter-revolution, a "great unmaking" of all those gains that were so painstakingly fought for before and after the Great Depression.

I really appreciated this perspective, because too many progressive people don't seem to realize it. Too many USians and Canadians imagine that this era of unchecked capitalism began with Bush II and Harper in Canada. They imagine that during a Democrat administration or Liberal Government, there was increased regulation and protection. Check your history.

Klein's central metaphor - the shock doctrine - says that one of the most powerful tools of this capitalist counter-revolution is to create (or at least exploit) a crisis. A crisis exists when we suddenly find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. We have no narrative to explain and guide us through the difficult and scary times. We panic. Our panic is their opportunity. The counter-revolutionaries swoop in with their own narrative, and they tell us what needs to be done.

It's crisis as a giant democracy-avoidance tool.

The crisis of 9/11 brought us the USA Patriot Act. It was hundreds of pages long, and written mostly under Clinton. (Not "conspiracy theory". Fact.) The crisis of 9/11 let an unelected government bring in massive unconstitutional changes without discussion, debate or even public knowledge of what the changes were.

The crisis of 9/11 brought us the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Domestic surveillance, Guantanamo, the Military Commissions Act, and on and on.

Now they want to use this new manufactured crisis - itself caused by deregulation and unchecked capitalism - as a springboard to another great leap forward in this great unmaking.

[I haven't yet read The Shock Doctrine, although I will, but I have read long excerpts from it in places like Harper's, and I've quoted from it extensively in this blog. A good summary is this interview with Klein: "Why Capitalism Needs Terror". And it's now out in paperback, so read it!]

We are always told there is no alternative to capitalism. "It may not be perfect, but it's the only way that works." We have all heard this so many times that most people believe it, although they have little or no evidence to back up their belief. (The collapse of the Soviet Union is not evidence that unchecked capitalism is the only way!)

Klein related some of Linda McQuaig's excellent work, in her book Shooting the Hippo, when McQuaig interviewed the person responsible for Moody's credit ratings. Canada had always had a triple-A rating, A++. Canadians were scared into believing if they didn't have NAFTA, if they didn't merge their economic interests with those of the US, the country's credit rating would plummet and no country would want to do business with them.

In her research, McQuaig learned that Canada was the only country where corporate interests would beg Moody's to lower the country's credit rating. Business leaders in other countries would try to convince Moody's that their country's credit was better than it was, to get a higher rating. Canadian corporate interests wanted the credit rating lowered, so they could prove that regulation, social spending, and caring for the public trust (i.e., higher corporate taxes) were indeed scaring investors away, making Canada less stable economically. Too bad it doesn't work that way.

Now Harper will use this economic crisis as a way to frighten people into believing they need a "strong leader". (Klein compared this to post-9/11 Giuliani.) Harper, Klein said, will use this economic crisis to try to dismantle everything that's worth saving about Canada.

In the US, the crisis may be used for something even worse. Naomi Klein didn't say that. I did.

Klein often quotes libertarain/neocon economist Milton Friedman, to demonstrate how the system works. (All over the internet, you can find trickle-down supplier-siders pounding their keyboards over how the "crazy commie" Naomi Klein is "defaming" Friedman. They go nuts when their religion is challenged.)

The two bits of Friedman that Klein has made most famous are these. The quotes are Friedman according to Klein.

"Our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible" - radical deregulation, mass privatization, deep cuts to social spending - "becomes the politically inevitable."

And: "Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change, and when that crisis hits, the change that occurs depends on the ideas that are lying around.".

* * * *

Klein reminded us that an economic crisis caused by deregulated capitalism is a "naturally progressive moment". It's the time when our ideas shine the brightest - when the failure of unchecked capitalism is most apparent, and people need an alternative. There's a reason that socialism was so popular after the Great Depression, and why bits of socialist ideas became embedded in the capitalist system.

During this crisis - this moment of panic, when people lack a familiar narrative to ground them - is the time we most need to speak out: this didn't have to happen, and there is a better way.

We must become "shock resistant" by having our own ideas, our own narrative, on hand, lying around, ready to act.

A mere five years ago, no one running for political office in Canada or the US would have talked about climate change. It wasn't an issue. Now people vie for our votes with dueling climate-change plans. We did that. People in Canada, people the world over demanded that climate change and the environment become a political issue. Now it is.

Occasionally, Klein noted, we get a "weird outbreak of democracy". Let's use it.

9 comments:

West End Bob said...

Wow, L-Girl! How fortunate that you and Allan got to see Ms. Klein live!

Your post is so in-depth, it's almost like we were there with you, thanks.

As much as I admire Naomi's take on world events and writings, her claim of "95 of the US public" opposing the bailout is a bit of a stretch. Most polls I've seen on the topic were not nearly that conclusive.

The other points she makes, however, are spot on. Her skewering of Milton Friedman's philosophy is classic. Plus, she gives equal "credit" to the dems for their complicity in public policy, not placing all the blame on the repugs. (Much as a lot of progressives would have preferred her to!)

Looking forward to a future review from you after reading "Shock Doctrine" - you won't be disappointed . . . .

L-girl said...

Bob, thank you so much. I don't feel that I can do her justice, but I'm glad I've managed to convey some of what she said.

her claim of "95 of the US public" opposing the bailout is a bit of a stretch. Most polls I've seen on the topic were not nearly that conclusive.

I actually have seen polls showing that almost all of the US public opposed the massive transfer of wealth - but of course polls are always suspect.

Plus, she gives equal "credit" to the dems for their complicity in public policy, not placing all the blame on the repugs. (Much as a lot of progressives would have preferred her to!)

That's something I so appreciate about her. She does the same thing to the Liberals.

After she spoke, activists were invited up to exhort the crowd into action. My friend James Clark from the Canadian Peace Alliance was the best of the bunch. He's a really charismatic speaker. Everyone else droned on with buzzwords, but James went right to the punch.

He pointed out that Canada under Chretien was mere days away from joining the war in Iraq, when the huge global demos took place (Feb 13 2005 - we all remember that bitterly cold day!). The UN did not sanction the war, and the Liberals were able to use that as an excuse not to join. As if bombs with UN sanction are any less lethal!

But in that case, the Liberals would have brought Canada into the war, but the people were able to stop it. (Unlike in the US, where the people tried but failed to stop the invasion.)

Looking forward to a future review from you after reading "Shock Doctrine"

Thanks, you know it will be here! :)

redsock said...

Your post is so in-depth, it's almost like we were there with you

I agree -- and I was there! L did not seem to be writing furiously, but this post is pretty much the main points from her talk.

I imagine her book will be one we'll have to stop reading for a bit because we'll get so fucking furious, but it should be highly educational.

P.S.: I think the year of the Iraq protest was 2003, not 2005.

L-girl said...

P.S.: I think the year of the Iraq protest was 2003, not 2005.

Yes of course! Thank you.

Stephanie said...

Oh how I wish I had been there!

Thank you for this wonderful post. I find it somewhat uplifting while I watch a sort of micro-climate of "crisis" whirling around my federal riding. People here have it pretty damn good and yet what I perceive to be the fear of losing that appears to have them leaning to the Conservative party (unbridled capitalism is the only answer??)

I try to remain...well hopeful just doesn't work here, cautiously optimistic(??) that there are a large number of people who actually see beyond the manufactured message ("the Canadian economy is strong but can remain so only under Conservative rule") phooey!

Optimism becomes increasingly difficult as my Federal Riding (one of the battleground ridings identified by the CTV/G&M battlegrounds poll) goes conservative. For the projections see DemocraticSPACE, this projection, though often showing a narrow margin has not wavered since the beginning of the campaign.

This is a riding of very financially stable verging on affluent folk where the fear of more job losses in the manufacturing industry coupled with the projected economic downturns evidenced by yesterday's events on Wall street and Bay street seems to be resonating in a profound way with these voters (perceived crisis threatening YOUR middle class dream? Vote for Cap'n Stevie).

It seems they are looking to the Harper way, (we HAVE a strong economy BUT only if re-elected with a Majority can we maintain the dream of unbridled capitalism) as the best strategy to ensure their own security.

And then this our local newspaper today talks of how the LHSC (London Health Sciences Centre =4 teaching/research hospitals) is asking surrounding hospitals to send only the sickest to London as a bed shortage is on the horizon and then THIS!!

Of course this is not entirely the domain of the Federal Government, our fine provincial Liberals have a big fat hand in this but I would also argue that this is part of the longer history that includes the legacy of the Harris Conservatives push for privatisation of Health Care among many other industries and that this in turn goes back to the tone set by the Federal Conservatives of Mulroney linked to Reganomics and so on and so on...

And I am stupefied!??!

deang said...

Well put, Laura!

I got to see Klein several years ago on the University of Texas campus with a similar overflow crowd. She was exactly as you describe, warm and immensely informative, with a conversational style that drew the crowd in.

Example: During the audience QnA after the talk, a frat boy-looking college guy got up to the mic and asked her out for a "Texas steak dinner" while his friends nodded their approval. She laughed and said, "That's what the Argentineans were always doing. They're proud of their beef." Then she went on to talk about how the US/World Bank-imposed economic "shock therapy" Argentina suffered had affected ranchers and agribusiness. A seamless transition from the frivolous to the serious, and the audience stayed enthralled.

I've seen those 90+% figures showing USians opposing the bailout, but I question it, too. I know that, where I live, I've heard several people say they oppose it "because it's socialism," having been given the false impression by the US media that the bailout was intended to help the public, and many USians have been taught that government helping the public is a bad thing. As you say, polls are always suspect, especially when the questioning isn't very specific or in-depth.

I look forward to reading your review of The Shock Doctrine. I particularly liked the summaries it gives of the fall of the Soviet Union (Klein is the only popular English-language author I know who draws on the best summary of what happened, Stephen Cohen's The Failed Crusade) and of Thatcherism and China's recent anti-capitalism popular upheavals.

A good historical overview is so helpful. At the moment I'm reading a lot of historian Eric Hobsbawm's work and it really makes a lot of things we're experiencing now more understandable.

L-girl said...

Stephanie and Dean, thanks so much.

She laughed and said, "That's what the Argentineans were always doing. They're proud of their beef." Then she went on to talk about how the US/World Bank-imposed economic "shock therapy" Argentina suffered had affected ranchers and agribusiness. A seamless transition from the frivolous to the serious, and the audience stayed enthralled.

Exactly! She did a fair bit of that last night, too, which I didn't include.

At one point, she compared capitalism to a relationship. In the early days, it woos you with flowers and chocolates - returns on your investment, short-term prosperity, home ownership.

These days, in the deregulation tailspin, we're in "the boorish phase". Capitalism won't move from the couch. It sits around in a dirty t-shirt, eating chips, saying, "Whadda ya gonna do, leave me? Yeah, right".

Ronkwe tsi Tyendinaga said...

If this is a fundraising event on behalf of the people of Tyendinaga when will they be able to see the efforts of this event? How do you expect the funds to be used?

L-girl said...

Hi, thanks for your comment. I only attended the event. I had nothing to do with organizing it, and don't know the people who did organize it. Sorry.