Monday, January 19, 2015

Naomi Klein – Jekyll and Hyde

 An article on the New Inquiry website suggests that Naomi Klein has the luxury of sharing two positions at the same time and that eventually the environmentalist movement will have to make a choice.

The New York Times says “Klein is smart and pragmatic enough to shun the never-never land of capitalism’s global overthrow.” Even the Daily Telegraph was content to praise someone it clearly saw as “no advocate of socialism.” So if it is true when Klein her “research has led me to search out such radical responses,” why have they been received warmly by many in the centre, The author asks in the article. Klein’s ability to appeal to both direct-action radicals and conservative journalists at the same time reflects the polyvocal character of This Changes Everything—there’s something in there for everyone. Klein’s desire is for a broad populist politics which unites left and right, drawing on a social base of small local businesses, which can nonetheless form alliances with indigenous movements, trade unions, more affluent homeowners, campus activists, and others. But while a text can sustain such dissonance, movements face real tactical and strategic choices. This makes This Changes Everything a rich resource, but one from which the reader needs to pick out certain lines of argument in order to turn them against others.

Klein supports proposals to create millions of green jobs and liberate people from work. She advocates rapid fossil fuel abolition and a welfare state funded by taxes on fossil fuel profits. She takes aim at the profit motive and endorses small local businesses as the fabric of the community. Klein tends towards explanations of social phenomena in terms of moral failings: The reckless pursuit of profit is a result of “greed,” and so the economic crisis was “created by rampant greed and corruption.” Klein uses the word “reckless” a lot and rails far more against deregulated capitalism and market fundamentalism than against capitalism or markets per se. This Klein advocates “dignified work” and valorizes climate action as a “massive job creator” for “good clean jobs.” Climate change, here, even offers the opportunity to finish the “unfinished business” of civil rights and decolonial struggles at the level of their perceived demand for the right to work: It “could bring the jobs and homes that Martin Luther King dreamed of; it could bring jobs and clean water to Native communities.” And, unsurprisingly, “the resources for this just transition must ultimately come from the state,” she says, as part of a “Marshall Plan for the earth.” Klein differs from the “market fundamentalists” is in understanding that market mechanisms won’t create this transition without decisive state intervention. She endorses a call, therefore, for the state to “create the market for further investments.”

Klein sees that “there is plenty of room to make a profit in a zero-carbon economy; but the profit motive is not going to be the midwife for that great transformation.” Still, given a climate movement that challenges the endless drive for profit as the organizing principle of social life, why limit its ambition to capitalism minus the fossil fuels, plus some co-ops and a welfare state to complete its “human” face? But as the article then points out “…the hard part is generating such powerful and combative movements in the first place. Once that’s done, why throw real transformative power aside and stop at a greener shade of Keynes?...” Indeed, we may ask, why stop short and refuse to go forward all the way when people are prevailing in the class war? But once again, truth to be told, financing Klein’s redistribution programme through taxes on fossil fuel profits makes the state dependent on the continued burning of fossil fuels.

Naomi Klein correctly observes that “the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die ... a drive that goes much deeper than the trade history of the past few decades.” However, in her work, the source of this drive is underspecified. Klein’s focus on moral values leads her to propose that there are “sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits).” Yet her own evidence—such as the oil-drilling nonprofit The Nature Conservancy—somewhat undermines this claim. Klein identifies only one impersonal mechanism by which the drive for profits is enforced: the fiduciary obligation of corporate directors to maximize shareholder returns. Legislation requires to be expanded to include: investors requiring returns; requirements of debt servicing; the need to generate surplus to cover unforeseen costs/losses; the need to generate surplus to reinvest in productivity (which may even reduce short term profits/dividends); income growth as a means to other ends, with perverse outcomes (like conservationist oil wells); the need to achieve economies of scale through expansion; the pressure of competition, either to secure first-mover advantage or not be left behind. For states: GDP underwrites hard military/trade power and soft aid/opinion power; growth expands the tax base; growth allows the state to keep rolling over the national debt. In short, capitalism is a system of relations which produces certain behaviors regardless of individuals’ values. Indeed, to supporters of capitalism, this is precisely the virtue of the invisible hand. The impersonal weave of this system needs to be taken into account when considering whether local businesses, nonprofits, the public sector and co-operatives can transcend its logic.

Klein’s political theme is the need to “reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence,” “challenge corruption,” and “to demand (and create political leadership)” capable of “saying no to powerful corporations.” She expresses bitter disappointment with Obama’s failure to fulfill his climate promises, but hopes that if social movements mobilize, then “politicians interested in reelection won’t be able to ignore them forever.” Klein seems to accept that the free market right are “dismantlers of the state.” This is a common but totally erroneous conception that accepts the ideological claims of neoliberalism at face value. Economic liberalism is, and has always been, a project of state power. Klein sets out to “reclaim” the state for “the people,” but it is not clear to which pre-corroded, pre-corrupted state she refers, nor which people. The period she seems to have in mind is the populism of the New Deal, yet as she aptly notes, “social movement pressure created the conditions” for it. The corporate-capitalist character was still there, but other interests were able to force certain compromises. Klein acknowledges that “even in countries with enlightened laws as in Bolivia and Ecuador, the state still pushes ahead with extractive projects without the consent of the Indigenous people who rely on those lands.” She coolly observes that “the reason industry can get away with this has little to do with what is legal and everything to do with raw political power ... and anyway, the police are controlled by the state.”

 Here she also advocates a very different form of political organisation, replacing the “collusion between corporations and the state” which has reduced communities to “little more than … ‘waste earth’” with “new democratic processes, including neighborhood assemblies.” In the horizontalist practices of social movements we see nascent mass forms of non-coercive political organisation. But even more, the dynamics of the urban Aymara social movement in Bolivia and the recent Idle No More protests in Canada, the latter cited by Klein, suggest the strength of these struggles is inversely proportional to their coupling to the state. Klein underestimates the extent to which recognition and representation within the state is another of the techniques deployed, however consciously, by “hand-wringing liberals” in demobilizing indigenous, and by extension, migrant, anti-racist, feminist, and workers’ struggles. The two modes of politics cannot long coexist, which is why we only glimpse the egalitarian one in occupied squares and workplaces, in self-organized disaster relief, and on the barricades of the nascent climate movement Klein dubs “Blockadia.” But when we glimpse it, we glimpse a world beyond and against the state, which contrary to Klein’s suggestion, by no means requires structurelessness over institution-building.

There is a real gulf between a politics which seeks to back small local businesses against big global ones, and a politics which seeks to challenge whether business of any size is a desirable model of social organisation at all. Likewise, a politics which sees social movements as providing a potential constituency for election campaigns remains locked in the statist politics of representative democracy. By contrast, the kind of mass social movement practices evident in, for example, contemporary indigenous struggles, point to a rejection of recognition and representation within the state, which prefigures mass forms of non-coercive political power beyond and against it. The New Deal compromise Klein looks to as a precedent required not only powerful social movements, but also institutionalised representatives able to police them. The success of the trade union bureaucracies in turning the sit-down strikes of the 1930s into the orderly industrial relations of the 1950s also undermined the potency of workers’ struggle. In this sense, the New Deal reforms not only helped stabilize capitalism (and its endless drive for profits), but the compromise helped undermine the disruptive power which had forced the concessions in the first place. The problem with the major Klein’s program is therefore not that it “doesn’t go far enough” by some radical standard, but that in leaving central capitalist institutions in place, it’s ultimately self-defeating from an ecological point of view.

The article explains, contrary to Klein, capitalism is not, unfortunately, purely a logic of “short-term economic growth” that has been imposed by some middle-aged white men upon a separate, rich biotic world whose fundamental logic is long-term growth, circular regeneration, or life. In fact, in so many ways both capital and reactionary thought are premised on forms of “regeneration”; from razing public housing under the guise of “urban renewal,” to “right-to-life” activists opposing abortion, to the UN-led “carbon offset” forests that Klein critiques, where indigenous people are driven from their homes so that industrial activity elsewhere can be counted as “sustainable.” Capitalism is not something antithetical to nature but, a way of organizing nature. Nature cannot express, in any unsullied way, what we are fighting for. We cannot simply affirm life, but must always ask: What forms of life? For whom? The article questions that “This Changes Everything” when “everything” the state, work, generalized commodification, profits, the family, local businesses, settler colonialism, Keynesian economics, doesn’t change. It is, for the writers, the difference between reforming to preserve capitalism in the face of an existential threat, and reforming to overthrow it, where reforms are simply the concessions exacted along the way. Klein vacillates between the two modes of reform, , which ultimately reflect the respective antagonistic perspectives of capitalism’s (would-be) policymakers and the dispossessed on the barricades. Perhaps Klein throwing her lot in with small local businesses explains why she seems caught between the fairer management of capitalism and its overthrow, between a merely anti-corporate politics and a more thoroughgoing anti-capitalist one. In any case, aspects of a radical anti-capitalist, anti-statist politics sit uneasily alongside green Keynesianism and localist economics. Taken at face value, Klein’s apparent advocacy of both positions at once reads as contradictory, or even incoherent.


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