The Common Good
March-April 2001

Just Stop It

by Julie Polter, Naomi Klein | March-April 2001

Daring to believe in a life without logos.

It might be going too far to say that Naomi Klein makes globalization fun. But the Canadian journalist does make highly engaging reading out of such nonsexy topics as how transnational corporations' marketing and money came to dominate our public life. Her 1999 book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies even dares to be hopeful. Klein sees a grassroots global movement forming-in the streets, yes, but also in shareholders' meetings, workplaces, universities, even sweatshops-to demand "a citizen-centered alternative to the international rule of the brands."

Klein is as careful to note the excesses and co-option of some anti-corporate activism as she is to detail the dire conditions of a sweatshop or deflate corporate image-mongering. But she is certain that anti-corporate efforts are a vital part of achieving human rights and just government around the world, and that such efforts are on the increase. She talked in December 2000 with Sojourners' Julie Polter about the challenges and potential in building a movement that refuses to be branded.

JULIE Polter: Some people dismiss anti-globalization protests such as those in Seattle in November 1999 as just kids breaking windows. Is part of your work to help build credibility for this movement?

NAOMI Klein: Everybody who's involved in this movement spends a lot of time just correcting misconceptions, not just about tactics but about why people are protesting. This is a much bigger concern to me-the fact that a lot of the media coverage presents the protests as narrowly protectionist and nostalgic.

The main challenge for the movement in general is to communicate the goals of the movement better. Not just to the media, but to friends, colleagues, in organizing in general. I've been trying to do my part.

Polter: What are ways to extend education about these issues further-to reach people who would never do any type of protest, but might get involved in other ways?

Klein: Nobody has the luxury not to see themselves as an activist. That's what I would say to those who may support the general goals of social justice and are very concerned about poverty around the world and the failures of this economic model, but don't see themselves as activists. That doesn't mean that everybody is going to be on the front lines, getting arrested. There's a reason why mostly it is young people who don't have families and maybe don't have jobs, who are able to take those risks.

Do we respond as consumers or do we respond as citizens, as activists? To me the common thread that runs through all the anti-corporate activism that I've covered for the past five years is this idea of reclaiming the public from the privatized. That can be physical space, resources, education, water, the public-the town square, the streets-but it's also within the individual. It's about reclaiming the part of ourselves that's a citizen and not a consumer. There's a dangerous mentality of out-sourcing activism to this younger generation-this idea that it's somehow a specialized field.

But it's not just young people. What to me is really exciting about this wave of activism is that it isn't vanguardist youth-orientated. There isn't a sense of "don't trust anyone over 30." The student anti-sweatshop organizers are working with unions like UNITE, with the AFL-CIO, with church groups. They don't see it as a youth movement. In fact, they give a lot of credit to people their parents' age. Groups like the National Labor Committee and the Campaign for Labor Rights.

Polter: Say more about the need to move from being consumers to being citizens: What does that mean in practice?

Klein: We're already seeing this shift. Look at the student anti-sweatshop movement, which has grown so dramatically just in the past couple of years. When it started it was very much based in the consumer mentality: We buy these clothes, we don't want to support these types of labor conditions. We're going to exercise our power as consumers, first individually but then en masse, as a school. At first almost all the talk was about [clothing manufacturer] codes of conduct-which code is better?

But now in the student anti-sweatshop movement, most of the talk is about the rights of workers around the world to form unions. The more exchange there is between students and the workers who produce the clothing that they're wearing, the more students hear directly that what workers want is not paternalism, but protection for their right to self-determination and free association. The students who I meet now are articulating how their movement has changed from being a consumer movement-taking that as a starting point because we all need to start somewhere-and has become a labor movement. That is a crucial shift.

The other thing this past year and a half is a wave of labor organizing on university campuses-among teaching assistants, contract faculty, janitors, maintenance staff, and food service workers. More important, coalitions between assistants' unions and food service unions and so on. Globalization is about solidarity with people in other parts of the world, but it's also about what's going on in your own backyard.

Polter: What is the role of satire, creativity, and art in anti-corporate activism?

Klein: For me, the transcendent moments-where you really feel transported by what you're a part of-have all involved that crossroads where politics and culture meet. Whether it's through humor and culture jamming or theater or music. One of the most powerful moments for me was the Rage Against the Machine concert outside the Staples Center in LA [during last summer's Democratic Convention].

It's about infusing art and creativity. One of the Situationists [Toni Cade Bambara] said that the role of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible. A lot of people are taking that idea very seriously.

An Italian anarchist group, Ya Basta!, came to Prague [the IMF and World Bank summit protests in September 2000] dressed in white jumpsuits and scooter helmets, filled with foam to protect themselves from the police. They looked like football players in white sanitation suits. They had this van with a sound system blasting techno music. They brought a great aesthetic and sense of play and theater.

David Solnit, the puppet guy, a co-founder of Art and Revolution, says that this wave of creativity, this merger of art, theater, and activism came out of necessity. In the mid '90s there was this sense that activism was dying from lack of imagination and failing to even keep the people who were most committed to the causes interested. So theater and puppets and a new kind of model were introduced-not "new" as in wholly original, but new at the time.

That urgency of needing to reach other people gets the creative juices flowing.

Polter: You've been immersed in this work for several years now. How do you stay motivated?

Klein: I made a choice out of necessity. The option of just cynicism is abhorrent. I know enough people who live that way, who think there are all these things wrong with the world, but that it's just absolutely impossible and worthless to try and do anything about them. So I see optimism as a really conscious choice.

There have been points where I've lost it and written critical things that have felt like a slap in the face to people who are involved on the ground. I'm not a propagandist. But on the other hand, I don't want to indulge too much in negativity, because I do believe that optimism is contagious. Just hearing about what other people are doing gives people permission to do things differently, to try and claim some space back.

One of the coolest things that's happened to me since No Logo came out is that [British band] Radiohead got in touch with me. The guys in the band read the book and decided to ban logos from their tour in Britain and to release [their latest] album completely differently-no videos, very few interviews unless they were able in some ways to make the interview about the issues they were concerned with. Radiohead had a number one album without a single video, by doing only a couple of interviews, and touring in a completely different way. So the next time a record company says to a band, "You have to turn yourself into a product in order to reach your fans, and you've got to use your music in a GAP ad," they can say, well, no you don't.

Polter: In No Logo you discuss both the limits and importance of identity politics-how it's been co-opted to sell products (diversity as just another way to sell shoes) and the risk of balkanization, disenfranchised groups turning on one another. Yet you don't reject the strengths of identity politics. What role can it play in this work?

Klein: The most important thing to remember is this movement against institutions-like the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank-started in countries such as India and the Philippines. In many ways, we're using their language, their analysis. Really this is about colonialism of various kinds, so it's important not to just look at it in a North American context. Obviously any movement in North America or Europe, because these are multicultural societies, has to be multicultural. If it's not, there's a problem. But that said, this also is a multicultural movement because it's global.

Part of the risk of spending so much time organizing these mass events is whether or not enough time is being spent talking to people in a way that makes globalization real to peoples' lives as opposed to a trendy issue on university campuses. That's hard work, it's leg work, but I think it's the key to the diversity of this movement. Because the people who are hurt most in this sort of economy of winners and losers, of included and excluded, are the same people who are always hurt most-women, people of color, particularly women of color, and migrant laborers.

It doesn't have to be a choice. You often hear "people of color and poor people are worried about bread and butter issues, they're worried about how to feed their kids, they're not worried about globalization." Well, sure. So how do you connect those two?

That's where it ties in with doing the work of decoding this jargon and saying, "What does this actually mean on the ground, what does this mean in people's lives?" When talking about globalization is talking about these pressing day-to-day economic issues and issues of discrimination and police harassment, where it's seen as all connected-that's when this movement is going to be as diverse as it needs to be and deserves to be.

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