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.

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