An in-depth interview about Trump, mass manipulation and building for a brighter future:
Tragedies can be a gateway for radical neoliberal agendas, says award-winning writer Naomi Klein, and that’s why we need to knuckle down and get real about the future.
Naomi Klein can pinpoint the day something inside her switched. It was 6 December, 1989: the day 25-year-old Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the École Polytechnique in Montreal and, separating the female students from the males, shot all the women in a row.
“You’re all a bunch of feminists,” he shouted, before turning the gun on himself. For Klein, a student at the University of Toronto, the shock was a call to action.
“That was my wake-up call,” she says. “It was just the most blatant hate crime.”
Klein was no stranger to activism. She’d grown up surrounded by the language of social justice – her parents moved from the US to Montreal in protest of the war in Vietnam – but had never felt the need to get involved.
As a teen, she was too busy being a mall rat. Like any child of the ’80s, Klein was more interested in designer labels than deep debate and admits being “vaguely embarrassed” by the kind of “hippiedom” that her family home represented.
But when Marc Lépine declared his mass shooting a “war on feminism”, blaming affirmative action for his rejection from engineering school, she understood that political actions have consequences: that politics is about real lives.
This was not a political time on campus, says Klein. “But because I had grown up among feminists I sort of had some tools to help my friends talk about this, even though I had never used them myself.” She put up flyers, inviting people to come together and talk about what had happened.
“Around 500 people showed up,” she says, “and I found myself having to chair a meeting for the first time in my life, so it was a bit of a trial by fire.”
For the next 40 minutes, Klein will speak non-stop – about the system that gave rise to Trump, and the conditions that could finally defeat his type – without ever sounding lofty or verbose.
She’s in London to talk about her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, and a lot of people want to hear what she has to say.
In a few days she’ll stand in front of an audience at London’s Royal Festival Hall and explain that Trump’s “man-babyness” is a tactic in itself. She’ll also call the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 80 people and could have been prevented, another case of “lovelessness in public”.
“Every decision that contributed to that epic crime was rounded in a brutal calculus that systematically discounted the lives of poor people,” she’ll say, drawing parallels with how the US government not only failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina but pushed through a wave of privatisation in its wake, all in the name of ‘progress’.
Offering a counter-narrative to this particular brand of BS is Naomi Klein’s greatest strength. The celebrated writer – who fired shots at “brand bullies” in 1999’s No Logo and has been cutting through the jargon of neoliberalism ever since – has made it her life’s work to debunk the myth that private wealth and infinite growth will save us all.
But there’s another truth that desperately needs outing. Donald Trump as POTUS is no shock. He’s the inevitable spawn of a failed system, says Klein, that’s been screwing us our entire lives.
“If you wrote a sci-fi book years ago and cast Trump as president, your editor would have said it’s way too obvious,” she says, laughing.
It took Klein three months to write No Is Not Enough. She normally blocks out five years for a book. But time is of the essence, she says, and the planet’s future is at stake.
“When the politics of climate change go wrong – and they are very, very, wrong right now – we don’t get to try again in four years.”
Things have gone from bad to worse since those words were written. Trump has pulled the plug on the Paris Accord, flicking a middle finger at all the work, however minimal, that had already been done to minimise global warming in the coming years. But securing bigger profits for his fossil fuel friends is just one item on Trump’s “toxic to-do list”.
Banning Muslims, deporting Mexicans, controlling women’s reproductive organs, making healthcare a privilege rather than a right, and fuelling racial hate: these are just the appetisers, says Klein, the amuse bouche of a noxious buffet being prepared by Trump’s “constellation of disaster capitalists”.
All they need is the slightest tremor, she says, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or a terror attack like 9/11, and they’ll serve it up hot and fast.
It’s crises like these that can then be exploited to push through their radical agenda. Just look at the war in Iraq.
“I’ve studied societies in states of shock,” says Klein. “This loss of collective orientation is what makes people vulnerable, so I wanted to very quickly get us oriented – to show Trump in a context we know. When people tell themselves they are in a state of disbelief, they are really open to being politically manipulated.
“So I just want to say, ‘Well, is he really that shocking?’ I think he’s actually an entirely predictable, even clichéd outcome of American culture.”
Which is why she wrote this book, and did it in a red-hot minute. The final pages conclude with the Leap Manifesto – an inspiring vision of tomorrow, co-written by 60 movements, where renewable energy creates jobs and fights inequality at the same time.
It’s an alarm bell for the future, a wake-up call for the here and now, and a reminder that the only thing that’s standing in our way is the failure of our own imagination.
Trump came as a shock to a lot of people, but you don’t quite see it that way. For those who aren’t familiar with your earlier book The Shock Doctrine, what do you mean when you refer to Trump’s ‘shock politics’? Or his plans to unleash pro-corporate ‘shock therapy’?
The shock doctrine is this phrase I came up with to describe a theory of power. I originally used it in the context of the Iraq War in 2003. It’s this idea that in moments of extreme national trauma, when the country you thought you lived in suddenly seems like a very different place, the narrative of who you are, of what your nation is, shifts dramatically.
Those moments of heightened disorientation and fear have been harnessed by elites to push through some of their most unpopular pro-corporate policies that systematically stratifies society between the haves and the have-nots.
The ultimate example was Hurricane Katrina. In the traumatic aftermath, there was this frenzy of privatisation and deregulation – and of course people can’t engage in economic debates when they have nowhere to live. New Orleans now has the most privatised school system in the US; public hospitals were closed and public housing demolished in the interest of gentrifying the city.
People weren’t prepared for Trump; they told themselves it would never happen. I want to negate this idea of seeing him as this bolt from the blue, because a true shock is a rupture in a narrative. It’s, ‘We thought we were one thing and suddenly we’re something else.’
And to me, there is a fundamental dishonesty in metabolising Trump in that way because Trump is as American as apple pie. His products may not be made in America but he is so ‘Made in America’. He is just beauty pageants, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and fighter jets – and the worship of wealth and endless consumption.
You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of storytelling, that we have to tell a different story to the one peddled by ‘shock doctors’. Why is it so important to have ownership over our own narrative?
Well, this is what we are: a collection of stories. I remember so vividly after 9/11, whenever there would be any critique of power, people would say, ‘That’s pre-9/11 thinking.’
There was this idea of blanking the slate and I think that’s quite deliberate. History, our shared narratives, how we ended up where we are today is what keeps us oriented.
It’s a classic tool of authoritarians to deny history, to deny those shared reference points, because a population without history is easy to control.
[History can be] a shock absorber for societies. I saw it in Argentina. After the 2001 financial crisis [and anti-austerity protests that led to President Fernando de la Rúa declaring a state of siege and ordering everyone to stay in their homes], there was this period of reinvention where the whole political class was kicked out.
The slogan in the streets was: ‘All of them must go.’ People remembered what had happened during the dictatorship 25 years earlier – how they had lost their rights because they had allowed appeals to national security to trump their freedoms. That ability to collectively learn from the mistakes of history is tremendously important.
That’s part of what I mean by story, but I also think the crises that we have now are stories that are failing us. Stories of infinite growth on a finite planet, of wealth as a key to happiness.
There are so many stories that I think Trump represents the epitome of – the logical conclusion of – and those stories are failing us as a species.
What do you make of what’s happening here in the UK with the resurgence of the left? Young people came out in their droves to support Jeremy Corbyn, the most socialist leader the Labour Party has seen for generations. What do you think is fuelling this turning point? For young people, it can’t be collective memory of a worse time…
I think the spell of neoliberalism is lifting around the world, and it’s been a slow process. This ideological project that began under Reagan and Thatcher of, ‘Let’s just leave everything to the market.’ This idea that anything public is sinister and anything you try to do collectively will inherently fail.
Milton Friedman famously said in a letter to Pinochet, when he was advising the Chilean dictator, that the major mistake happened when people thought they could do good with other people’s money.
The idea that by pooling resources, i.e. taxes, we could do something good, like have public healthcare or free education – that was the fundamental error in his view. So that’s been the project.
The flip-side of the project has been a war on the imagination. The most damage was encapsulated in that Thatcher phrase, ‘There is no alternative.’ But as neoliberalism has been slowly decomposing, faith in the policies has died.
People stopped believing that privatisation would lead to efficiency, that a rising tide would lift all boats. Those utopian promises of the neoliberal age that I grew up with, that your generation didn’t, started to fall away.
But even as people started to reject those policies after the 2008 financial crisis, the courage to pose alternatives to it – to propose a radically different way to allocate resources, live together and share the planet – seemed impossible.
So the first stage was finding the courage to say, ‘No!’ But the next phase is finding the courage to say, ‘Yes!’ And it turns out that that’s a lot harder.
What I’m tremendously inspired by is that, since 2008, there really aren’t any true believers in neoliberalism anymore. There aren’t people giving the same sales pitch that I grew up with: If we outsource everything it will run more efficiently.
I mean, say that after Grenfell Tower and you’ll be chased, right? So it’s been this zombie ideology – it’s still upright, it still staggers around, it has its own momentum – but it’s without a soul. It doesn’t have that animating force.
So when young people hear a politician like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn put forward bold ideas about redistribution of wealth, they think: ‘We do live in a time of unprecedented wealth, it’s just that the money is stuck at the top. So why don’t we get more of that and pay for things that improve people’s quality of life?’
Like, what a concept! [laughs] These ideas feel fresh and they haven’t been tarnished by that constant ideological assault that an older generation was subjected to.
It’s young people’s freedom from that sales pitch, post-2008, that is making it possible to say, ‘Yes!’ To go beyond the ‘no’, which is all my generation could really manage, this sort of ‘enough!’ That was the cry of the Zapatistas: ‘Basta! Enough!’ But drawing a line only goes so far.
Do you believe this generation is capable of providing that ‘yes’?
Younger people getting involved in politics have learned from the suspicion of institutions that my generation have. We made a fetish of not engaging in organised politics at all.
What I see now is a really healthy inside-outside strategy, maintaining independence and creativity on the outside of politics but still understanding that if there isn’t an association with a political project – with institutions that have enough heft to tether this very atomised, amazing, decentralised internet-based activism – then it’s going to just kind of float away.
There needs to be an interplay but it has to be one that protects that amazing fertile creativity that we saw in Momentum [the grassroots movement driving support for Jeremy Corbyn], that we saw in the Bernie campaign. It’s not about trying to centralise and control this energy.
The anti-free trade movement that you were part of in the early 2000s, which hit the mainstream with the ‘Battle of Seattle’ WTO protests in 1999 and again with Occupy Wall Street, was criticised for not offering an alternative. Do you look back at that as a failure?
I think that movement was part of this slow death of neoliberalism. It was such a hugely successful indoctrination process that it really took a long time for us to reawaken. I don’t believe we are fully there yet.
But I don’t see movements in this linear way that you can say, ‘That movement was a failure and this one was a success.’ I see continuities and strong through-currents.
Many of the founders of Occupy Wall Street went on to reincarnate as Occupy Sandy, this extraordinary people’s relief organisation, in response to the total failure of the state after Superstorm Sandy. They then became the backbone of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
So we can say that Occupy failed because it didn’t have demands, but I think it just shows a really short-term view of the way movements actually work.
There are periods when they are obvious to the media and then they go underground into a gestation period – a hibernation period where they learn from their mistakes – and then re-emerge as people who have a fully articulated political platform. Which is what the Sanders campaign had.
I tend to never believe a movement’s obituary because I don’t think our media understands social movements. They’re constantly declaring our movements dead and over – and are perennially surprised when they re-emerge.
You don’t shy away from saying how bad things could get. You also collaborated on a documentary with Alfonso Cuarón, whose dystopian film Children of Men is set in a near-future of authoritarian states where refugees are imprisoned in internment camps. Would it be naïve to dismiss that as science fiction?
Alfonso would say the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed. Which was a quote from William Gibson who also says, ‘I’m not writing future fiction.’
The idea of this future that white liberals try to scare themselves with is both the past and the present for people of colour on this planet.
In the book, when I say things could get worse, it’s almost exclusively things that have already happened, pushed forward by people in very powerful positions within Trump’s administration like Mike Pence, who played a central role in the looting of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
I’m just looking at that track record. What did Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary, do after the 2008 financial crisis? He was at the centre of the profiting from foreclosures.
Their credentials – as shock doctors, as disaster capitalists – are very clear and we should take them on their record.
That’s not conspiracy theory – that’s just fact. If you deregulate the markets, they’re going to have bubbles, they’re gonna bust, you’re going to have a market crash.
If you tell the whole Muslim world that you’re at war with them, you may just have some blowback on that, right? So I think it’s worth preparing for that because we do better when we’re prepared.
Our generation looks to people like you to help navigate the past so that we can learn from it. What would be your message to a young person who wants to take action, but is scared of failure?
I see movements as this flowing river – it sort of ebbs and flows and we learn from our failures. But we don’t have a lot of time to fail right now.
It is just one of these moments. There’s this quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’ But I don’t think we’re in a fail better moment. I actually think we’re in a win moment. That’s what we have to try and do.
No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need is published by Allen Lane.