Workers" Liberty #68


Reclaiming our selves

Naomi Klein, author of "No Logo", spoke to Martin Thomas.

You can't just blame the media for presenting the new activism as 'anti-globalisation', because a lot of it did start that way, in the West particularly. In North America, when we fought against free trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, we were fighting against Americanisation. We were fighting for Canada, for Canadian values. It was a nationalist fight. And in the States many people were fighting against 'Mexicans stealing our jobs'. It was easy to form alliances with the right, because those were their issues, national sovereignty and so on.

But there has been a wonderful process since 1995, through so many gatherings and conferences and so much communication on the Internet. As Maude Barlow put it: 'When I started the struggle, I thought I was fighting for Canada. Now I realise that I'm fighting for democracy.' We're fighting for values that cross borders. Out of the cross-pollination of ideas has emerged an internationalist agenda.

The new generation of activists, in their late teens and early twenties, grew up taking globalisation entirely for granted. Most have no concept that there is even a possibility of saying that we want to stop the world and get off. They see this entirely as a war over whose vision of globalisation is going to triumph, and whether it can be combined with localism. They are rejecting the fact that globalisation has been suctioned onto neo-liberal economic policies, deregulation, tax cuts and privatisation. This is not a movement against globalisation. We need to reclaim the language of internationalism, which is ours in the first place.

In fact, we should just refuse to have a discussion about whether or not we are for globalisation, or for trade, and insist on a discussion about the kind of globalisation and the kind of trade that we have.

In 1995 a key turning point was the Zapatistas saying 'Ya Basta!' (Enough!). It was a global call - at once protection of their land, their rights, and their way of life, and also a tremendously inclusive call. That was the beginning of the globalisation of this movement. There were cross-border exchanges between the US and Canada and Mexico, where people went to meet the faceless people who were supposedly stealing their jobs and realised they were part of the same struggle.

Then the World Trade Organisation created our coalitions for us. Environmentalists and unions that were fighting bitterly over jobs versus the environment suddenly saw in black and white in the rules of the World Trade Organisation that it was the same drive towards short-term profit and creating a hospitable environment for investment that was clear-cutting forests and closing mill towns. We realised that we were fighting each other instead of the real enemy.

There were the shows of strength. Seattle was a big one, but it wasn't the first one and it wasn't the last one. Between 1997 and the first part of 2000, it was really about saying 'This movement exists. We have this common ground and recognise this common enemy'. Then the past few months, I think, has been a period of stepping back and saying 'Maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves'.

The Internet is an incredible tool to disseminate information, but it's lousy at synthesis. Now is the period when that synthesis is happening. I think it's great that the energy is less about building the mass demonstrations at the moment, and more about asking questions and building up bases of support in our own communities.

Everybody in the movement who is rejecting traditional hierarchical structures needs to take responsibility for what that means. If this is a movement with no followers, but only leaders, then everyone has to be a leader, and that means not being afraid to say what you believe and participate in this intellectual and outreach process in a constructive way.

In Britain, my book, No Logo, has been called a manifesto and compared to Das Kapital. It's not! When I talk to groups, I always say, don't look to me! Have enough faith in your principles that you're not looking for another saviour. And most people aren't.

The most important thing that the book has done is to reach younger readers who might not have felt that more academic books speak to them. The book is very consciously about using the language and imagery of pop culture against itself. A lot of young people feel scolded by cultural theory which says they're stupid because they buy the stuff and they're just mindless consumers. I guess the book strikes a chord with those younger people because it doesn't talk down to them. It's important to reach people who aren't part of the movement.

The book took me four years to write. When I started to write it, I really didn't think there was a movement - I thought there could be. I saw little glimpses of it, but that was all. So writing was about convincing people who did not agree with me. It wasn't preaching to the converted, because there were no converted, or none to speak of.

Now that there are some converted, we tend to forget that the most important thing we can do is to talk to the people who don't already agree with us.

What worries me with some Marxists is they seem to feel that new ideas are somehow unwelcome. It's almost a turf war. But I certainly am not rejecting Marx. All this activism is so informed by Marx - but it's also saying 'You know what, there are other ideas out there, too - older ideas and brand-new ideas. Maybe we can create something that is new and better than anything we've had before and deals with some of the failings of the past - that sees us as whole human beings'. The biggest weakness of the socialist and Marxist left has been to treat people only as workers, in the same way as capitalism treats us only as consumers. That isn't the way we see ourselves. We see ourselves as something more whole than that. We want more integration. We want a movement that has more room for our whole selves, for our creative selves, for joy and spirituality and all the rest of it.

I was speaking last night at the University of Toronto, and a young guy said: 'I've heard so much about what is bad, but I want to hear what is good.' Really simple questions are coming out, questions that speak to the human spirit. That is what the old-guard left has to listen to in this new generation of activists - the longing to be whole, the longing for joy and creativity and uncommodified space. And this movement has to offer that as well, not just resistance.

What I'd say to Marxists is, meet them half way. I don't see that happening. I see some groups co-operating with some of the street-level activists, but they're still waiting for them to see the light, and that's just co-optation, not co-operation.

The '60s were different in North America and in Europe, because there was such a clear split in North America with the labour movement over the Vietnam war. That stripped a lot of the activism of its economic base and its ties to workers. One of the most important victories of this movement in North America is that students are working with unions again.

Today's activism ties in with the '30s more than the '60s in how incredibly cross-generational this activism is, and in the art and the culture-jamming and adbusting, going after capitalism from many different directions at once.

In the '60s a lot of the young activists thought they knew what they wanted, but in the end many of them really didn't. Today many of the new activists may seem not to know what they want, but I would argue that they really do - there's a great deal of very grounded intuitive knowledge.

Part of the way that '60s culture was de-fanged was by taking all the superficial trappings of activism and making them mainstream culture. But how would you do that with that movement today? It is so suspicious of anything that seems trendy or style-driven.

Particularly among the younger activists, the new activism is really about rejecting the commodification and the commercialisation of everything. That activism isn't going to fetishise national businesses, or local businesses, as preferable to multinational corporations. Really what people are looking for is uncommodified, uncommercial spaces. That's what's so powerful about Reclaim The Streets, and the movements fighting the corporatisation of education and health care. I don't think the activism is about one form of commerce being better than other. It's against everything being for sale. It's a profound questioning of commodification.

'Anti-corporate' is just a useful catchphrase. You could say anti-capitalist, and I do in some contexts, but the problem is the assumption then that you are pro-Communist. Particularly in Eastern Europe, if you're anti-capitalist, you're seen as just being nostalgic for a statist, Communist regime. I think that explains why so many young people are calling themselves anarchists these days. There's a profound disillusionment with both systems and with the whole idea of these sweeping ideological-economic systems. There's a suspicion of centralisation, whether it is at the national level or at the international level.

That's where the divisions are going to show themselves, because there are a lot of people on the traditional left who are still not questioning the value of a strong nation-state and have allowed the right to corner the market in populist rhetoric about decentralisation, which goes over enormously well everywhere except in large urban centres. There's an incredible amount of anger about the idea of bureaucrats in cities making decisions about the land and natural resources.

Local control and self-determination and sustainability are key principles for a truly international movement. These are the issues we need to talk about. And there should be huge fights about them, because we don't all agree. Growing up in a left-wing family, being part of the traditional left that did not question centralisation in a national context, I have had to question a lot. In Canada most people unquestionably see central control as the key to protecting our health care and education. It's the right that does prairie populism and says that the provinces and local communities should have control, not central government.

We can reclaim internationalism and localism, and zero in on key principles of internationalism that protect self-determination. The most important principle in a labour context is the right to form unions, a right that we have already theoretically agreed to in all kinds of UN charters.

Rather than focusing on setting international labour standards to be enforced by some centralised bureaucracy, all the energy and outrage around sweatshops should be concentrated on the right to self-determination and free association for workers around the world so that they can negotiate directly with their employers. That focus can turn what was a consumer movement into a genuine labour movement.

That's a good example of how you balance international standards with local control. We need these rights protected internationally, and enforced with tremendous vigilance, but we need to concentrate on the genuine right to self-determination.

There are kinds of self-determination that infringe on other people's rights. You don't have a right to pollute. You don't have a right to destroy the environment for other people. Obviously we can set and enforce international standards. There is a danger of over-romanticising localism in and of itself, and not questioning inequalities and hierarchies which do occur at the local level, in the deep ecology movement and in some anarchist scenes, there is a profound distrust of anything that can be considered industrial. But I think localism and globalism can be woven together, if we understand the key principles and respect diversity.

The new anti-corporate activism is a matter of movements, rather than one movement, but movements converging into something that unites them in more than just resistance.

The threads connecting activists around the world are to do with watching control move to points further away from the communities where we live. The response to that will in part be about empowering local communities and local struggles, to enable people once again to control their own environments and workplaces. A structure has to develop that has roots in many movements, and genuine diversity within it. It's not about converging into one unified movement or political party structure, but that doesn't mean that there can't be co-operation and co-ordinated action and a process of developing and articulating shared beliefs and principles.

There are some difficult choices to be made, particularly in the US where coalitions have been made with the right, people who do not share these principles and are much more protectionist and nationalist. But I feel really hopeful. I've been travelling and meeting with activists all over the place, and there's a tremendous degree of consensus about the questions to be asked. I think this is a period of retrenchment. Part of activism is theory and communication, and there's a lot of that going on. Out of this intellectual ferment something is going to emerge.

* No Logo is published by Flamingo and is available to buy via this website.

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