June 22 2017
Naomi Klein has written No Is Not Enough at near internet speed, a warning of the enormous toxic potential of the Donald Trump presidency and a call to oppose it. As the title suggests, Klein wants her readers to move from refusal to resistance, from a passive stance of opposition to engagement in a programme of action. If the convulsions of the last year have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t wait for the dust to settle and clarity to emerge. Turbulence is, at least for the foreseeable future, our new condition, and we must learn to function within it. We have to teach ourselves to stand upright on a moving deck.ately the pace of news has felt so fast and its volume so overwhelming that the very idea of a political book seems quaint, a relic of the gentler and more carefree time before we were all pinned to the floor by the social media firehose.
Klein emerged as a star of the 1990s social movements that were trying to frame a politics of opposition to capitalist globalisation. Was exchange value the only kind of value? What about the environmental, social and cultural formations that were being reorganised (and in some cases damaged or destroyed) by the logic of the market? Klein’s widely-read 2000 book No Logopackaged and synthesised ideas that had been circulating in anti-capitalist circles during the previous decade, helping a general readership to understand changes taking place in corporations, which had begun to outsource many of their functions and view themselves primarily as “brands”, deployers of intellectual property that did not need, for example, to do their own manufacturing or distribution. It was, as she puts it in No Is Not Enough, “a race toward weightlessness; whoever owned the least, had the fewest employees on the payroll and produced the most powerful images as opposed to things, won the race”.
Klein points out that Trump’s business has followed that trajectory. As a property developer, the future president was (by Manhattan standards) only moderately successful, his primary distinction being an above average appetite for seeing himself in the media. His innovation, helped by his position as host of The Apprentice, was to brand high-end real estate – not just hotels and resorts, but office towers, apartment buildings and golf courses. Klein dissects the values of the Trump brand, noting that it doesn’t stand for quality or innovation or taste, but for “richness” itself, associating the consumer with wealth in its most direct and uninflected form.
In Trumpworld there are only two existential categories: winners and losers. Trump stands for winning, and if you oppose him, you are a loser. His support is curiously immune to scandals and failings that would have sunk other politicians, a curious fact that Klein ascribes to the migration of branding into politics. Trump has shown that “you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created”. Trump’s brand is that he’s the boss and part of being the boss is that the rules don’t apply to him. One strategy for opposing him is to attack the brand. It’s why, for example, a red line for interviewers has always been any suggestion that his fortune is not as large as he claims.
The most consequential part of Klein’s analysis stems from personal experience. The social movements were gaining traction when 9/11 happened. “The era of the so-called War on Terror pretty much wiped our movement off the map in North America and Europe,” she writes. Intimidated (or seduced) by the rhetoric of the “clash of civilisations” and the harsh new security environment, many participants withdrew their support. “Antiglobalisation is so yesterday,” ran a headline in Canada’s National Post, a few days after the attacks. The shock of 9/11 was exploited by various actors to inaugurate a “security bubble”, in which police and security powers were extended and vast resources were diverted from other uses to fight the war on terror. In The Shock Doctrine (2007), Klein argued that there is a playbook for exploiting shock events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war. As she puts it in No Is Not Enough: “Wait for a crisis (or even, in some instances, as in Chile or Russia, help foment one), declare a moment of what is sometimes called ‘extraordinary politics’, suspend some or all democratic norms – and then ram the corporate wish list through as quickly as possible.”
This wish list may include the seizure of land and resources, increased military spending, privatisation of public goods and economic deregulation. The “shock doctrine” doesn’t require the machinery of conspiracy to function. It is a collection of political techniques and impulses, the dark underside of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” and the Silicon Valley injunction to “move fast and break things”. The result is “the decimation of the public sphere and the public interest”, and the tendency to move wealth rapidly upwards into the hands of a tiny minority.
Klein notes that Trump’s cabinet is packed with “masters of disaster”, men whose careers have been based on exploiting shock. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s Exxon profited handsomely from the spike in the oil price after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has done more or less everything in its power to ensure global inaction on climate change. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin is known as “the foreclosure king”. Vice-president Mike Pence played a particularly ignominious role in the aftermath of Katrina when, as chair of a group of conservative lawmakers called the Republican study committee, he promoted a slate of what Klein terms “pseudo relief policies”, including reduction of labour standards, “making the entire affected area a flat-tax free-enterprise zone” and (staggeringly) repealing environmental regulations along the Gulf Coast.