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How to Escape the Present

The desire to radically challenge capitalism is widespread and growing. Naomi Klein’s new book is an important contribution to that project.

Naomi Klein. Columbia GSAPP / Flickr

Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw, Poland, just before this year’s G20 summit, was equal parts pandering and proselytizing, but altogether unsettling. At a moment when cooperation on global warming matters more than ever, the leader of the world’s most powerful country appeared more interested in weaponizing Samuel Huntington than saving the planet.

Trump’s position on climate change has set him apart from other world leaders. In her closing remarks, Angela Merkel said she “deplored” the United States’ decision to abandon the Paris climate accords. But for many, polite rebukes have passed their sell-by date. Amid fierce police repression, protests rocked the meeting.

Naomi Klein understands this furious cry — “No to the global elite!” “No to empty promises!” “No to the status quo!” — better than most. She’s been traveling the world, writing about struggles for peace and justice for decades. But Klein has a message for these protesters and for the millions more who are horrified by Trump and the landscape of greed, hate, and despair that brought him to power.

Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, responds to the kind of anger and frustration on display in Hamburg. It insists that fighting Trump requires more than negation: it requires perspective and organization, because Trump “is less an aberration than a logical conclusion — a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past half century.”

Our Dystopia

Some authors are uncannily prolific. You can pull one of their books off the shelf and wonder if you’ve read it already. Naomi Klein is not one of those authors. Each of her books comes after years of careful thought and research — at least until this one. Klein wrote the full-length book, out now with Haymarket Books, in a just few months, suggesting that she has something extremely urgent to say.

And she does: Donald Trump’s victory has compounded an already desperate situation of climate degradation. If we — the Left and our progressive-minded allies — don’t get our act together immediately, we’ll be facing not only a climate crisis of nightmarish proportions but also a potentially worldwide conflagration of war and political unrest.

Klein’s bases her dire assessment on insights she has gleaned from years of reporting on voracious corporations, slimy politicians, and the social movements that stand up to them. In No Is Not Enough (NINE), Klein draws these experiences together in a multilayered analysis that, for the sake of expediency, we can parse into three nested stories.

The big story Klein tells covers our global economy — “a corrosive values system that places profit above the well-being of people and the planet” — that has created a deep, “underlying sickness” — a “dominance-based logic that treats so many people, and the earth itself, as disposable.”

Neoliberalism, “an extreme form of capitalism,” sits at the center of this disease, Klein argues. Thirty years of untrammeled corporate greed has produced both “the decline of communal institutions and the expansion of corporate brands,” hollowing out our culture and sense of belonging.

Materially we’re stuck in a world where the wealthiest 10 percent own nearly 90 percent of all global assets, and we have only a fifty-fifty chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe even if we meet the Paris accord targets.

Contrary to the delusions of free-market evangelists, the project and process of neoliberalism didn’t float down from the heavens — it came from the United States, from people like Milton Friedman, whom the White House feted on his ninetieth birthday. This is NINE’s medium-scale story.

Granted, the US government and big business have been cozy since the Founding Fathers relaxed on their plantations, and the “revolving door has been spinning ever since, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican was in the Oval Office.” But, as Klein and scholars like Mark Blyth emphasize, Friedman and his cohort’s ideas laid the groundwork for a new phase of capitalism. It was characterized by privatization and deregulation (“legalized bribery”), as embodied by Ronald Reagan’s mantra that “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

Decades after the neoliberal revolution, “divide” has become the watchword for American society: the divide between the Davos class and everyone else, the divide between working-class expectations and reality (Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s “deaths from despair”), and the issues that divide working people from each other. Klein says:

In truth, nothing has done more to help build our present corporate dystopia than the persistent and systematic pitting of working-class whites against blacks, citizens against migrants, and men against women.

These divisions have only worsened since the 2008 financial crisis. Bankers got bailouts and bonuses while working people got pink slips and foreclosure notices. Then we all got Donald Trump — “America’s first nuclear-armed reality TV president.”

Trump’s ascension is Klein’s small-scale story, and she presents it with great insight, drawing on her work on branding and shock to present a rich narrative of the real-estate tycoon’s rise to power. Klein explains that Trump

built his brand and amassed his wealth — by selling the promise that “you too could be Donald Trump” — at a time when life was becoming so much more precarious if you weren’t in the richest one percent. He then turned around and used that very same pitch to voters — that he would make America a country of winners again…

Combined with a tone-deaf Democratic Party and the near total lack of “issues coverage” from major television news networks and we’ve got a “US government as a for-profit family business.” “The presidency,” Klein says, is the “crowning extension of the Trump brand.”

But as much as Klein excoriates Trump — at one point she helpfully reminds readers that, after September 11, he gloated about owning the tallest building in downtown Manhattan — she doesn’t see him as an outlier. Instead, she argues that he is “the entirely predictable, indeed clichéd outcome of ubiquitous ideas and trends that should have been stopped long ago.”

In this respect Klein makes a much stronger argument than most mainstream liberals, who prefer to blame Trump’s victory on Russia or racism. We can hear echoes of the Communist Manifesto in Klein’s declaration that, “after decades of seeing the public sphere getting privatized in bits and pieces, Trump and his appointees have now seized control of the government itself. The takeover is complete.”

The billionaires in “the ExxonMobil subsidiary known as the Trump administration” have seized the reins and “they are determined to grab still more.” Building on her notion of shock, Klein says:

The goal is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of antipollution regulations or programs for the hungry; substituted in their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations.

Utopian Imagination

Klein pulls no punches when laying out her fears for the future. “Trump and his ilk are intent on pushing the world backward on every front, all at once.” We were already in the midst of a “social and ecological emergency,” but now we can look forward to “wave after wave of crises and shocks” in the economic, political, and social realms.

Lest we forget, these crises and shocks don’t hurt everyone. Military contractors, oil companies, and trough-level cronies profited handsomely from the man-made tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing nightmare of the war on terror.

Trump has surrounded himself with the same folks, creating a “disastrous cocktail.” Klein thinks there’s a distinct possibility that he will either use war to hide his domestic failures — he has already demonstrated “a level of military escalation that is both chilling and bizarrely haphazard” — and/or his billionaire friends will purposely start a war: “there is no faster or more effective way to drive up the price of oil.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Klein thinks we are hurtling toward “a world that confirms our most catastrophic nightmares.” Mercifully, she yanks us back before we step off the ledge.

Doomsday might be just over the next ridge, but Klein sees a way out: “the spell of neoliberalism has been broken, crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of evidence.” In fact, Klein thinks one of the things that propelled Trump to office was the Left’s newfound cohesion after being derailed by September 11:

The Trump administration, far from being the story of one dangerous and outrageous figure, should be understood partly … as a ferocious backlash against the rising power of overlapping social and political movements demanding a more just and safer world. Rather than risk the possibility of further progress (and further lost profits), the gang of predatory lenders, planet-destabilizing polluters, war and “security” profiteers joined forces to take over the government and protect their ill-gotten wealth.

Unfortunately, Klein argues, the Left hasn’t been doing a very sound job of making good on its growing momentum or the crisis of neoliberalism. Instead we have been doing what we do best — “turning inward and firing on each other in a circular hail of blame.”

NINE doesn’t pile on too much, but it does have a few things to tell the Left, like how it should stop spending so much damn time on Twitter. Klein also wants the Left to look critically at how it’s addressing racism and sexism. She says “without Bernie’s weaknesses on race and gender, he could have won, no matter how hard the Democratic Party establishment tried to hold him back.” She reiterates Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument that “the whole point of Sanders’s candidacy was to push the envelope of what is considered politically possible — so where was that same boldness when it came to racial inequality?”

“If we cannot become just a little bit curious about how all these elements — race, gender, class, economics, history, culture — have intersected with one another to produce the current crisis,” Klein argues, “we will, at best, be stuck where we were before Trump won.”

But this is not enough. We need something more, something bigger, something that’s been missing for a long time — we need a vision. Klein argues that the social gains won after the Civil War, the Great Depression, and in the 1960s and early ‘70s came directly from people “dream[ing] big, out loud in public”: “explosions of utopian imagination.”

The dull compulsion of capitalist life has swallowed up this “imaginative capacity, the ability to envision a world radically different from the present.” Klein thinks the time has come for us to break free and reclaim the utopian tradition. We don’t have a choice: the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Klein, along with her partner Avi Lewis and a cluster of Canadian leftists, worked on some utopian thinking of their own with the Leap Manifesto — a “people’s platform” that moves beyond siloed activism and presents

concrete ideas for how to radically bring down emissions while creating huge numbers of unionized jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been abused and excluded under the current extractive economy.

Klein envisions it as a model for other communities to take control over the planet’s trajectory.

NINE ends on a hopeful note. Klein says, “the left-wing almost-wins of the past two years are not defeats. They are the first tremors of a profound ideological realignment from which a progressive majority could well emerge … [if we] collectively, and carefully, [plant] the right poles from Day One.”

It's Capitalism

NINE makes numerous important contributions. It expertly weaves together Klein’s insights on topics that range from Hurricane Katrina to Standing Rock, from extraction to direct action. It also breathes fresh life into her earlier work, particularly No Logo.

But far and away NINE’s most important insight comes from situating Trump within the broader crisis of neoliberalism. Liberals and progressives — Klein’s primary interlocutors — often acknowledge this fact only to immediately resume obsessing over Trump’s most recent misstep, ignoring the urgent need to push forward a positive vision for change. NINE’s narrative makes it impossible to focus only on the small story of Trump and ignore the big picture of crisis and change.

Klein also makes useful arguments directed toward, and about, the more radical left. For example, she rightfully demands that leftists stop playing the “my crisis is more important than your crisis” game when debating strategy and vision.

But Klein presents some of her points in a way that feels too one-sided, particularly with regard to Sanders. Sure, he was a flawed candidate, not least for his foreign policy positions, but Klein’s assessment that his inattention to racism and sexism cost him the nomination doesn’t ring true.

To be sure, the Left needs to make concrete struggles against racism and sexism central to its vision if it’s going to erect the kind of big tent Klein envisions. But a more trenchant analysis of Hillary Clinton’s positions regarding women and people of color as well as the Democratic Party’s behavior is equally necessary. (As are the other reasons why Sanders fell short of the nomination — less his programmatic positions than voters’ unfamiliarity with him and dim views of his electability.)

NINE also stops short of really naming the system — capitalism. Klein talks a lot about neoliberalism and the “corrosive values system” that puts profits before people. This is important, and understandable given NINE’s audience, but it’s worth emphasizing that neoliberalism isn’t capitalism gone wrong — it is capitalism working perfectly.

The book’s arguments would have been strengthened by framing the present crisis in a way less focused on the ideas and actors undergirding the neoliberal turn and more focused on how the crises and shocks we’re witnessing stem directly from the relationships inscribed in capitalism. Doing so would also shine a light on how capitalism’s fundamental contradictions have created a ruling class that is much more united than it is divided.

That said, in this political moment it’s important to remain mindful of the purpose of NINE, and the role of Klein herself. As a scholar and an activist Klein occupies a fraught middle ground. Her approachable charisma and deep pool of knowledge and experience act as a powerful force, drawing people away from the Right and murky center toward the Left.

These qualities are admirable and unsurprisingly spur an impulse from socialists to drag Klein, albeit gently, toward more radical positions on capitalism. This impulse is understandable, but ultimately wrongheaded.

Socialists should build on the space Klein has opened up to develop their own vision — a vision that not only dissects global capitalism and the hierarchy of power that buttresses it, but also confronts organizational questions that go beyond figuring out how to share space under the big tent.

The Democratic Party — in the face of humiliating defeat and widespread demand for radical change — has proven itself incapable of fighting for anything that challenges the status quo. The Left needs its own vehicle for change. It needs a political party that both represents the needs and demands of working people and challenges the structures that destroy and immiserate working-class lives.

The desire to radically challenge capitalism is widespread and growing. Klein’s new book is an important contribution to that project. It’s also a challenge to socialists to take the lead.