|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 218 May 2018
Anti-capitalism is not enough
Naomi Klein’s latest book weighs the rise of Trump and the movements of the last two decades. At times insightful, always passionate and angry, it presents an ultimately pessimistic view. The alternative she puts forward just does not go far enough, as SARAH WRACK explains.
No Is Not Enough: defeating the new shock politics
By Naomi Klein
Published by Allen Lane, 2017, £12.99
Naomi Klein’s latest book is a searing exposé of Trumpism. She carefully examines why people voted for Donald Trump, his relative strength compared to the resistance against him, and the nature of the government he has built around himself. An even bigger strength is that Klein does not look at these questions as if history started on 8 November 2016.
Instead, she looks back at politics and movements over the past 20 years to ask, ‘how did we get here?’ This will be of interest to activists who were involved in those movements, as well as a new generation getting active in response to Trump and the other threats of our age. Klein’s contribution presents an opportunity to examine the lessons of past and contemporary movements to arm ourselves for success now.
Klein has lost none of her anger or passion, and clearly remains committed to opposing capitalism. Reading such ideas in a mainstream book will be inspiring to many. Ultimately, however, her conclusions on politics during her time as an activist and writer remain lacking. She rightly asserts throughout the book that tinkering with the system is not sufficient – that we need fundamental change. And her main argument, expressed in the title, is that it is not enough to just oppose attacks, that there have been too many defensive movements without putting forward a positive view of what we do want. We need "an alternative vision" for the way the world should be, she says.
Yet at the very beginning she admits: "I don’t claim to know exactly what that vision looks like". While her modesty may be noble, judging from the confused final sections outlining the types of ideas she thinks we need to look towards, this is an understatement. Moreover, this idea of needing to put forward an alternative is presented as a revelation that has occurred to Klein and which nobody else has thought of. Yet socialists have consistently argued that it is necessary to advance an alternative to capitalism – and unlike Klein we are clear on what that alternative is and what is necessary to win it.
The Trump brand
Klein argues that Trump represents the coming together of the ideas she put forward in two previous books: No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. Although both of these books were useful contributions to the anti-capitalist debate – as is No Is Not Enough – you can’t help but feel that wanting to fit the current situation into this schema colours the way that Klein approaches the issue.
No Logo looked at the changing nature of capitalism. It argued that brands rather than products were now the way big companies were making money, as well as through exploiting workers in the neo-colonial world. For example, the fact that Trump now mainly sells his name for buildings made by others rather than making anything himself. The Shock Doctrine explored how the aftermath of shocks such as war, environmental disaster or economic crash have been used in the recent period to force through extreme free-market neoliberal programmes in countries around the world.
Trump’s victory was in itself a shock to much of the US and world population, and has led to a certain disorientation. And he certainly wants to use this and whatever he can to drive through some extreme attacks on the working class – to eradicate the few public service provisions in the US, for example. His standing for the presidency, Klein argues, was the logical conclusion of the rise of brands.
For generations, big-business bosses tried to find reliable representatives to be politicians to carry out policies in their interests. Now, Klein says, we see a merging of big business (brands) and the politicians, "cutting out the middle man". In Trump’s case this has some farcical results. He has been in the forefront of the drive towards outsourcing for decades, using overseas factories, exploitative working practices, undermining trade unions and so on. Now he has managed to appeal to the anger of precisely the layer of workers who have been hardest hit by those practices to win the presidency, so that he can carry them through to their logical conclusion.
The book makes some interesting observations about what ‘qualities’ form Trump’s personal brand, and how this played into the election and aftermath. "His brand is being the ultimate boss, the guy who is so rich he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants (including grabbing whichever woman he wants, by whatever body parts he wants)". Trump’s biggest selling point, from his point of view, is that he is successful, powerful and rich, and will do whatever is necessary to stay that way. Why not then "merge your brand with the ultimate symbol of power and authority: the White House".
Klein has always overstated the importance of brands in general. As Hannah Sell wrote in Socialism in the 21st Century, "they use brand image to secure a bigger share of the market than rival products, but if McDonalds or Nike stopped selling burgers or trainers they would still go bust". However, it is true that Trump’s image as strong and rich – and not ashamed of it – was important in him winning.
There was certainly a feeling among a section of voters, even if they did not like his more reactionary statements, that at least he was honest. All US presidents have been rich. All have abused their power. All have lied. So why not choose the candidate who does all of that and is proud of it? "That’s why so many people have been happy to treat electoral politics as macabre entertainment. Once politics has reached such a debased state, why bother protecting it from a boor like Trump? It’s a cesspool anyway, so let the games begin".
Another element of this honesty, Klein points out, is that, unlike most politicians standing for election, Trump did not claim that his policies would help everyone. Most establishment politicians still try to peddle the lie that with their ‘economic sense’ the whole population will benefit. While this could sometimes wash in periods of economic boom, it is now nonsensical to the majority. Trump’s approach was different: ‘there are winners, like me, and there are losers. I’ll make you (if you’re a white, male, manual worker) a winner by trampling on the losers’.
Constraints on Trump
But how much has he really been able to trample? It is welcome that Klein examines the balance of forces between Trump and the anti-Trump movement. Too often the outcomes of such battles are presented as either foregone conclusions or a matter of chance. However, Klein’s conclusion is much too pessimistic about the state of our side. Her perspective is that, at the moment – or when the book was published in June 2017 – Trump is winning.
We should point out that Trump has carried out almost none of his big election pledges. There is no wall on the Mexican border, no repeal of Obamacare, no significant increase in deportations. This is not to underplay the danger of Trump or the damage he has already done. Indeed, his rhetoric alone has created fear and alienation, in particular among the most oppressed communities in the US, and given confidence to far-right groups which must be combated energetically.
Nonetheless, we must consider why, when he is generally not a think-before-he-acts president, Trump has not gone ahead with the programme that won him the position. Klein also points out how little of his programme has been implemented but says this only as a warning of how many attacks are still to come. In fact, a section of the book is titled ‘How It Could Get Worse’. In it Klein not only points out the proposals that have not been carried through but lists a number of worst-case scenarios. For example, a terror attack could be used to ramp up attacks on democratic rights and migrants, and Trump must know that his racist propaganda increases the chance of a terror attack. It is correct to look at what attacks may be launched against the working class so that we can prepare the resistance, but Klein’s view is not balanced.
That so little has yet been seriously attempted is a sign that Trump is being compelled to proceed more cautiously. He has to take account of the opposition that exists – made evident by the mass protests at airports against his Muslim travel ban, for example. We always pointed out the likelihood of mass struggles of organised workers under Trump too – and since the book was written there have been huge and inspiring struggles of teachers, first in West Virginia and now in a number of other states.
The opposition is not just from the working class but also from the capitalists. Trump is a maverick in many senses, and we cannot rule out him going into a reckless war or carrying out policies that most bosses would object to. Despite this, however, Trump is also a representative – an unreliable one – of the capitalist class and is certainly held back by its fear of the instability and mass movements that could be provoked by the most reactionary of his proposals.
A pessimistic outlook
What’s more, Klein is not only pessimistic in relation to the US. She places Trump’s victory in a wider context of gains for the right globally in the last period. Yet she fails to give the same attention to the gains of the left. In the US itself, four years before Trump’s victory, Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council – the first socialist to sit on that body for 100 years. This is not mentioned.
There is also little or no mention of the new left formations that have been built globally since the 2007/08 economic crisis, many of which have made significant electoral gains in a short space of time. This shows that Klein does not grasp the real significance of Trump’s victory. The anti-establishment rage that vote represents has another, polar-opposite side. With the correct ideas and leadership, it can be channelled into mass movements and working-class parties that can bring about radical, socialist change.
On why this has not generally happened in recent years, Klein says: "The breakthroughs won for workers and their families after the civil war and during the great depression, as well as for civil rights and the environment in the sixties and early seventies, were not just responses to crises. They were responses to crises that unfolded in times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public – explosions of utopian imagination". Meanwhile, "generations who had grown up under neo-liberalism struggle to picture something, anything, other than what they had known".
It is true that since the collapse of Stalinism there has been a throwing back of consciousness that there is an alternative to capitalism. Of course, the top-down, authoritarian Stalinist system was a grotesque distortion of socialism. Nonetheless, the planned economy represented an alternative model. Moreover, Klein fails to mention what the ‘big dream’ was: that millions of workers around the world were looking to the ideas of Marxism and socialism.
The Leap Manifesto
The conclusion for Klein was her participation in the Leap Manifesto in Canada, her home country. This was a list of demands drawn up by 60 activists from various fields, including trade unions, environmental groups and others. The demands are good, covering key issues like jobs, wages, migrant rights, environmental protection and war. Their aim, which Klein seems to think is very radical, was to have ‘frank’ discussions and come to compromises to ensure a result that worked for everyone, when sometimes there are competing interests.
She says, for example, that at one point an indigenous leader said to a union leader who had been talking about job losses if fossil fuel extraction is stopped: "Do you think you’re the only ones who’ve had to sacrifice?" This does not give much confidence that the precedent was to demand more for everyone rather than an equality of poverty.
Leap asked a team of economists to show where the money for their demands could come from. They pointed out what we all know: there is plenty of money in society. They suggested policies such as ending fossil fuel subsidies, a transaction tax, increasing corporation tax, a progressive carbon tax, cutting military spending and increasing royalties on fossil fuel extraction. These policies are good highlighting the lie that there is not enough money for jobs and services. Without more fundamental change, however, it would be virtually impossible to enforce them all.
The capitalists would hide their wealth, they would launch legal action to protect it, they would simply ignore the rules. While the levers of society are left in their hands, the power of the working class to extract wealth is limited. Klein hints at this, saying that there were a number of questions the Leap conference left unanswered for future discussion. These included: "If we don’t address ownership, how can we move toward equitable justice?" And: "How do we build the public sector so we, the public, feel part of it? We should all feel ownership over public housing, public resources?"
Nonetheless, the manifesto is broadly positive and received hundreds of thousands of signatories, including thousands of organisations and groups around the world as well as in Canada. A big unanswered question – in the minds of many people after reading the manifesto – is, how do we win these things? What type of movement do we need to build with what type of tactics and strategies?
Anti-capitalist and Occupy movements
Klein talks about the failures of past movements in two key periods: the anti-capitalist movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the first wave in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, including the Occupy movement. She points out that, had they been successful or even maintained, the space would not have existed for Trump to come to power – and she accepts her own portion of responsibility for the mistakes that were made.
The anti-capitalist movement failed, Klein argues, because of the disorientation that followed the 9/11 terror attacks. The establishment media and politicians began subtly (and sometimes less subtly) comparing protests to terror attacks and daring criticism of the government and Wall Street at a time when convention demanded ‘coming together’. It is true that 9/11 changed world politics and many on the left and in social movements were ideologically unprepared.
The capitalist establishment will always try to use a crisis like war and terror to suppress movements that threaten their interests by calling for ‘unity’ against a ‘common enemy’. But if there had been a strong leadership armed with socialist ideas this could have been cut across. The only answer to such attacks is to call for working-class unity against war, terror and capitalism. Such leadership did not exist, and the lack of organisation and structure at that time made way for its dissipation.
The movements from 2008 to 2011, Klein says, were defeated by a lack of putting forward an alternative. She laments the square occupations in Europe and the Occupy movement in the US for rejecting capitalism but not stating what should be put in its place – a crime that she unfortunately repeats while making this criticism. There is only one passing mention each of Tunisia and Egypt. So the fact that revolutionary change was achieved during this time, even though it did not lead to a fundamentally different, socialist system, is skipped over.
The most bizarre element of these points is the status Klein gives to Obama’s 2008 election. Although critical of him in other places, she seems to lose sight of what he represents when she says that the failure of the post-crisis movements was most stark in the US because there was the biggest opportunity for transformative change – through Barack Obama! She asks the reader to imagine ‘what if’ Obama had restructured the banks, created jobs and tackled inequality and climate change.
Completely ignoring the fact that Obama was as much a Wall Street candidate as anyone, she says that this did not come to pass purely because of the weakness of the movement. It did not compel Obama to implement these demands. Klein quotes left-wing historian Howard Zinn: "The really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating? Those are the things that determine what happens".
A serious political strategy
It is true that, whatever kind of politician is in power, mass movements can win victories. It is also true that even the most progressive president would need to be supported and pushed from outside by the working class to ensure their programme was implemented. But Klein severely underestimates the importance of the class character of politicians and their programme. A transformative economic programme is not likely to be won from a president committed to defending the interests of capitalism.
Instead, a movement would have to fight to remove such a president. That is why we need to build mass parties of and for the working class which fight for and, when elected, implement such programmes. What good is a manifesto alone, for example, when 20% of Conservatives in Canada agreed to it, even though the party is clearly fundamentally opposed to its principles?
One of Naomi Klein’s biggest weaknesses is that, although not hostile to electoral politics – she endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries – she continues to be resistant to the idea of building parties as one wing of the movements she is so supportive of. She says, for example, that when the Leap Manifesto was launched many people asked for it to be used to launch a party with its demands as a programme. She is proud that call was resisted, saying that it is much better for movements to be independent and set out an agenda which politicians have to sign up to.
This is not a serious strategy for the working class to take power from the capitalist class – the only way to fully and lastingly implement all the demands in the Leap Manifesto and the many others that are needed. Movements alone, without that challenge for power, will always come up against a ferocious battle from the economic, political and state forces of the capitalists.
This book should be read for the facts it exposes, and for prompting a discussion on where Trumpism has come from and what is needed to defeat it. However, although the final sections are clearly intended to be uplifting and positive, the reader is more likely to feel deflated, with no clear idea of how to overcome the difficulties and ideological failings in the leadership of the labour and social movements internationally.