Naomi Klein: Why the Revolution Must Be Led By Ordinary People, Not Celebrities

When they go low, we rise up.

Sarah Jaffe

Protesters gather in front of the White House during the People's Climate March on April 29, 2017. (Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same.

As they go low, rogue, and abandon the world, we all have to do more. We have to step up. We have to be more ambitious.

Naomi Klein: I am Naomi Klein. I am a writer and a little bit of an organizer, too.

Sarah Jaffe: You have a new book that, once again, has managed to both scare the shit out of me and also leave me with hope. This book is a synthesis of all of your prior work filtered through the lens of Trump. It is kind of scary how well Trump consolidates all your earlier work.

Naomi: I didn’t set out to do that. I was having a lot of people ask me to update The Shock Doctrine and add a chapter about Trump. I was like, Well, I am not going to do that, but maybe there is a way that I can write something to prepare people for what happens if there is a major crisis.”

These shocks are just the shocks that Trump is generating himself, whether by design or incompetence and corruption. But what really scares me is this: What happens when there is a major external shock to exploit? I worry when I look at who he has surrounded himself with, from Mike Pence, who played a central role in the looting of New Orleans, to vulture bankers like Steven Mnuchin to Betsy DeVos and her dreams of privatizing the school system. I wanted to do that, but then once I started writing about Trump I was like, Well, it does have some relevant stuff from No Logo, too.” He is first and foremost a brand who has spawned brands. He breeds brands, in his family.

Regarding his relationship to his voters and how he gets away with what he gets away with, I don’t think you can understand it without understanding the pact between a lifestyle brand and its consumer base and how that really transformed the global economy in the 1990s.

Then, there is climate change. I had to get that in. So, it turned into being a bit of a mixtape.

Sarah: It is interesting, because that shows us how shocking Trump isn’t. In the book, you point out that the term horror” might actually be more appropriate to apply to Trump because he is not that shocking.

Naomi: I think by naming him shocking” there is a way in which people absolve themselves. Shocking is like a bolt from the blue. It is something external that ruptures your world. That is why I think the most helpful way of understanding Trump as living dystopian fiction, in the sense that what dystopian art tries to do is just follow existing trends to their logical conclusions, in exaggerated form, and then reflect that back to people and say, Well, this is where all roads are leading. Do you want to get off this dangerous road?”

A lot of the emotion is being misnamed. It is not shock. It is the horror of recognition. It is actually really bad dystopian fiction because it is so predictable. Like, Of course America would elect Donald Trump as the corporate president.” I really do think we need to interrogate this idea of shock. Of course, there were many people in the United States who were not shocked by Trump’s election because they were very in touch with the racism and misogyny and xenophobia that elevated him and saw him as a fulfilment. There is this way of casting ourselves as innocents by saying, I am shocked! How could that happen?” It is almost like, How could this not have happened? Everything has been put into place for this to happen.”

Sarah: It is interesting to think back to the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s. It seems very far away, but you are talking about these questions of hollow brands, the way you described Trump, and then the fact that it would be impossible for Trump to divest from his brand because his brand is his name. But, that movement and that time actually sort of gives some opportunities for ways to challenge Trump and his family.

Naomi: My point in writing about that movement was not to say, We told you so,” but there is no doubt that the far right is entering into a vacuum left by neoliberal centrism and liberalism. It is worth remembering that, not so long ago, there was a very large, progressive, committedly internationalist movement that was taking on the whole logic of what was called free trade” or globalization” or corporate globalization.” We called it corporate rule” for the most part, because the problem was not trade, it was the writing of rules for the global economy in the interests of a small group of powerful corporations. Forget hollow brands. The center of that fight was about the hollowing out of democracy. Yes, sure, you can still vote, but the most important decisions about your life are being outsourced to institutions over which you have no control.

The fact that neoliberal centrist parties pushed those deals, signed those deals, negotiated those deals, and never aligned themselves with that grassroots progressive movement, left the space open for the Donald Trumps and the Nigel Farages and the Marine Le Pens of the world to come in and say, We know how out of control you are. We believe you should be authors of your own fate, of your own destiny.” We left these ideas unattended, let’s just say. There are lots of great groups that never stopped focusing on trade, like Public Citizen and Food and Water Watch and lots of groups in Europe. But it stopped being a mass movement in the global north after September 11. It is worth interrogating why that happened.

Sarah: As you mentioned, this is not just a U.S. phenomenon, which is another way that we could talk about Trump not being shocking. Can you talk about how that movement faded from the attention of people in the United States and other places and where we saw the rise of these nativist movements? It is also interesting to think about where we didn’t see those.

Naomi: It played out differently in different contexts. The turning point for us in North America, and also for Europeans, was September 11. I remember very, very vividly, because immediately we started to see leaders try to associate our movement with terrorism.

The July before the September 11 attack, there had been a huge demonstration in Genoa. I think there were 300,000 people on the streets. It was really all walks of Italian life. It was against the G8 Summit, but it was really a continuation of these mobilizations that had been happening outside summits such as the IMF and the World Bank. This was a movement against neoliberalism more than anything. Some people called themselves anti-capitalist. Not everybody did — there was diversity within the movement ideologically.

Immediately after September 11, Silvio Berlusconi said, These are the same forces that we were up against in Genoa.” And already the repression, the violence that demonstrators were facing was getting more intense. In Genoa, there was a young man who was killed by police. We started to see more live ammunition used against protestors.

But even the symbolism of it. We were taking on the World Trade Organization, which sounds a little bit like the World Trade Center. Obviously, it was very different, but there was such a desire to bury that movement. In the book, I quote a headline that appeared in a Canadian newspaper, a right-wing national newspaper that appeared just a few days after the September 11 attacks: Globalization Is So Yesterday.”

So, part of it was smearing the movement as being quasi-terrorist because people were fighting with police, they were breaking windows and it was not a neat, purely pacifist movement. There was property destruction. It was not violence against people, but there was property destruction.

There had been very broad coalitions bringing together people across political spectrums. You had coalitions that brought together big NGOs that were focused on trade, as well as big trade unions, as well as anti-capitalist anarchist groups and No One is Illegal and indigenous groups. It was difficult navigating that diversity, but it was happening. What happened overnight after September 11, to be perfectly honest, is that the anchors of that coalition [weakened]. These coalitions need anchor institutions, particularly institutions that have resources. Particularly because the kind of organizing that has happened in the neoliberal age has mostly not been attached to some sturdy institutions. So, we needed the trade unions to stay with us, and pretty notably large trade unions basically just decided that they couldn’t be associated with people who were being cast as quasi-terrorists. That broke apart the coalition.

People still continued to do the work, but it was the broadness of it that was where the power lied. I think there are important lessons to be learned from that. This is hard, but you can’t spook in the midst of crisis. That movement was important, and I think if we had managed to stay together, if it had become more diverse, because it was always too white in North America. It was a diverse movement, it was a deeply international movement, it was around the world, it was largest in countries like India. But, if it had become more diverse and not less, that space would never had been available to Donald Trump to exploit.

Sarah: In that space, you saw the terrorist-baiting of that movement and then these right-wing, nativist movements. The Trumps and the Marine Le Pens put together that fear of terrorism with the Also, trade is bad for you” and really weaponized that in a way that was interesting.

Naomi: Latin America wasn’t spooked by September 11. The Global South wasn’t, in general. Particularly in Latin America, what happened was that, in several countries, the left took power and was able to put policies in place that started to significantly take on some of the core institutions of neoliberalism. I don’t want to overly idealize it and say they had everything figured out by any means. In This Changes Everything, I am quite critical of the fact that a lot of these countries continued to be very extractive in where their incomes were coming from, which also made them extremely vulnerable. Venezuela and Bolivia, which are essentially petrol and gas states, awere doing very important income redistribution. But then, when the prices collapse, what have you got?

Sarah: Then the old-school, corporate right manages to slide back into power in some of these places.

Naomi: Yes.

Sarah: Since you completed this book, Trump is officially pulling out of the Paris Accord. He already had signaled that he wasn’t going to do anything, he was going to get rid of the Clean Power Plan. The immediate response to any sort of climate thing, as you have written about, is people are just like, We are doomed. We are all going to die. There is nothing you can do about it.” I would love for you to contextualize Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord and then talk about how we can fight that doom, what can still be done while Trump is still president.

Naomi: This decision was really a decision about the Trump brand, essentially a public-relations decision. I say that because the Trump administration had already decided that they were going to destroy the Paris Accord from their perspective, because the Paris Accord is just a target of what we want to accomplish. We want to keep warming below two degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5. But, in terms of achieving that goal, the Paris Accord is a kind of quilt where every country brings its own plans.

The centerpiece of the U.S. plan was Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Trump had already announced that [he was] abandoning that plan. So, the debate was whether or not they were going to officially pull out of the Paris Accord, or whether they were going to stay in the Paris Accord, but completely ignore it and break their commitments, defiantly. Both of those decisions have a huge moral hazard attached to them, because it means that other countries can respond by saying, Well, we are going to do the same thing.”

Arguably, staying in the Paris Accord and treating it like it is not worth the paper it is printed on, which was what Ivanka and Rex Tillerson wanted to do, would have been more damaging for other countries in terms of what that signaled they could get away with. Whereas now, when he is openly raising the middle finger and saying, We are walking away. I can get a better deal from this deal that was negotiated over a quarter of a century by almost 200 countries.” I think it is forcing countries to step up. If they are not going to walk away, then they kind of have to do more.

What has been really inspiring is watching mayors step up, particularly the mayor of Pittsburgh who has stepped forward. That is the ultimate repudiation, because Pittsburgh was held up in Trump’s speech. He said that he was elected by the people of Pittsburgh as opposed to the people of Paris, perhaps not knowing that Pittsburgh has a very progressive mayor at the moment who corrected the record that Pennsylvania may have voted Trump, but Pittsburgh did not. There was already a very live, very energetic campaign in Pittsburgh to try to get the mayor to adopt this really ambitious target of getting to 100% renewable energy by 2035, which is better than anything else in the country. The next day after Trump’s Paris withdrawal, the mayor adopted that target.

Now we have hundreds of cities that have committed themselves to the Paris goals. I think we are seeing more ambition from states like California and New York, because they are under pressure from the climate justice movement. It is similar to what we are seeing with healthcare, where we see how much damage they are willing to do, just the complete disregard for life on every level that this administration represents. It is starting to build momentum for state level deep change. We are seeing some really positive signs towards single-payer healthcare.

What I say at the end of the book is that in Michelle Obama’s famous line from the convention last summer when she said, When they go low, we go high,” she was talking about tone, and I am really not sure I agree with that. I am not so concerned about tone, but I do [embrace] that ethos of, as they go low, rogue, and abandon the world and so many millions of people, in every space where they are not in control — whether it is universities, cities, states, other countries, tribes, whatever it is — all of us as organizers, activists and people who can be powerful when we get together in groups, we all have to do more. We have to step up. We have to be more ambitious. I see people rising to that and that is so exciting.

Sarah: Your book is titled No Is Not Enough. A lot of the organizers that I have talked to for this series have stressed over and over again that resistance is not enough now — we need to be pushing for something different. Then, there is this other tendency that basically is like, We just need anyone but Trump. We just need to elect any Democrat.” Americans love the superficially shiny Justin Trudeau, but also the British election is happening right now. We are seeing Jeremy Corbyn put forward a legitimately left-wing platform, and it turns out it is really popular.

Naomi: Who knew? I mean, Jeremy Corbyn is the anti-Trudeau. He couldn’t be less slick. He has got some good social media folks working for him, but it is not about him (when this airs, we will know what the results are). Regardless of the results, he has done better than all predictions of the supposedly expert class who have gotten it wrong again and again. The beauty of it has been that I have never seen political messaging that is so varied. He is not putting himself front and center. You have whole ads where he is not even in them, and people are just hearing the message directly from teachers and pediatricians. There is the amazing video that Ken Loach made.

It is showing that maybe it is possible to reject this celebrity model for politicians, whether it is Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau or, frankly, Barack Obama. I hope to hell they prove that it is possible. What worries me is not just what you are saying, that it is just about getting rid of Trump and electing Democrats, but this talk of We need to get Oprah” or We need our own brand-based…” Or Mark Zuckerberg, god forbid. Or Bloomberg.

What I am trying to do with this book is point out that Trump is not the crisis. He is a symptom of the crisis. If we don’t get at the underlying trends that made his rise possible, there are worse versions of Trump out there. There are more racist versions of Trump out there. There are even more violent versions of Trump out there. There is this idea of treating him as this alien intervention in the American political psyche. Look, I want the Russia connections to be investigated, but there is a way in which it is reinforcing this idea of him as a foreign agent. I can tell you Donald Trump’s products may not be made in America, but Donald Trump was made in America. He is not an alien. He is the culmination of a great many dangerous ideas that were fostered in this country and there has to be some ownership over that.

Sarah: To wrap up, you end the book talking about the Leap Manifesto,” the platform that you worked on for Canadian politics, which immediately made me think of the Right2Change platform that the Irish left put together before its last election. You talk about the Vision for Black Lives platform. Tell us about the Leap Manifesto and why these people’s platforms, rather than personalities, are important right now.

Naomi: I think there is some utopianism in the air. The triumph of neoliberalism has expressed itself so much in this atrophying of the political imagination. Even when the ideological project of neoliberalism is sort of in tatters on the floor, the idea that there is no alternative remains.

The process of writing the Leap was so interesting in that way. It is hard. We had 60 people in a room together representing a very wide range of movements, all real anchors of social movements of the left were there. We realized that we had not done this before, or it had been generations. We had come together to oppose free trade deals. We had come together to oppose austerity agendas. We had come together to oppose some particularly vile politician. But, we had not come together to say, What is that we actually want?”

Just recognizing that, yes, this is an atrophied muscle. We need practice. You can feel almost like a child in this moment when you are actually doing something you are not good at. But it was really gratifying. We spent two days, and out of that came this brief document. It is only 1,400 words, and it has now been endorsed by hundreds of organizations spanning a very broad range. Groups that don’t agree on everything, but were able to come together around a vision that was much bolder than anything that was on offer in our last federal election.

It is continuing to be used to push politicians at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. We are seeing slates of Leap candidates emerge in municipal elections and there has been a lot of interest in just sharing information around the world. For us, this is not about, We are trying to colonize the world with the Leap.” But we want to trade information because this idea is in the air and there are many social movements. I think the Vision for Black Lives, the platform that emerged last summer in the midst, once again, of a federal election campaign, coming from the Movement for Black Lives, is such a visionary document. This is new to see this from social movements. Think about Occupy or even the criticism of the movement taking on free trade that we were talking about earlier. The criticism we always had was We know what you are against, but what are you for?” We weren’t really ready to step up and answer that question, but I think that is changing.

It is important on a lot of levels, but one of them is whoever the candidates turn out to be in the next election cycle, how great would it be for there to be a vision, or multiple visions, that are articulated? In the United States, I think it is going to be a process where it bubbles up from cities and states. There is some really interesting work going on in Michigan. You have been covering all kinds of examples of this, including Jackson. That could coalesce around a vision, where any candidate that wanted the progressive vote would have to follow this platform, as opposed to having this sort of celebrity savior relationship with a political figure.

Sarah: Where can people get the book and how can they follow up with your work?

Naomi: They can find out about the book at www​.NoIs​NotE​nough​.org. All my book tour dates are on there. It is available in bookstores soon. They can follow me on Twitter @NaomiAKlein, and they can find out about the Leap at www​.The​Leap​.org where we have got lots of examples of what we are calling the living Leap,” ways in which people are taking this broad-strokes vision and changing it and making it their own. 

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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