Resistance in surreal times: an interview with Naomi Klein

We spoke to the passionate critic of contemporary capitalism about how to stand strong and fight for a better future than that offered by today’s political right.

Earlier this month Naomi Klein, the Canadian activist, journalist and essayist travelled across Europe to present and discuss various translations of her latest book No is Not Enough. Defeating the New Shock Politics. She participated in the Labour Party Convention in Brighton, with a vital intervention. Then she was in Holland, Italy and finally Barcelona on 9 November, with Ada Colau, discussing “how to face the politics of confusion and fear.”  She spoke to Political Critique about strategies for contemporary resistance, and how to build a future in dark times.

Your book was written for a North American audience, but the text has the notable merit of placing the phenomenon of ‘Trumpism’ in a wider global context. What relationship does it have with the growth of right-wing populism around the world?

Trump is just the tip of a global epidemic. Though of course, every political project is linked to its specific national context. Trump emerges from the unresolved ‘racial issue’ of American history, the refusal to deal with the slavery of the past, and the burden of discrimination in the present. It’s also a rejection of the experience of the first African-American president. But we must resist the idea of ​​an ‘American exceptionalism’ in all this. There are many Trumps around the world, each carrying their own specificity. Think of Marine Le Pen in France or Modi in India.

The way the new nationalist right comes about is to do with a widespread feeling of “loss of control” over our lives. Look, for example, at the slogan that characterized the campaign for Brexit. And the reality of increasing precarity in every sphere of life. In a historical period characterized by unprecedented wealth, the number of economically excluded people is growing. What unites all the personalities of the right all over the world is their ability to mystify and distort the legitimacy of this feeling of insecurity, organising a rebellion of oligarchies against the affirmation of any principle of equality. Racial equality, gender equality and social equality are the real enemies of the terrifying growth of the right-wing.

Your book seeks to combine two different temporalities, the first, which you explored in The Shock Doctrine, where the disaster economy was used to convey the neoliberal paradigm, and a second longer timeframe, which you use to explain how Trump succeeded seemingly out of nowhere. Can you explain this a little?

Of course, the results of the presidential election were a real trauma. But reading what has happened only in these terms is likely to be a consolatory and, sometimes, self-apologetic act for many Americans, a way of absolving themselves from their collective responsibility in creating this monster. His election is, in some ways, a new way to go through shocks. It is not like Hurricane Katrina, for example, but the production of a continuous “shock-show”: a spectacular way to advance and pursue a permanent destructive policy aimed at redistributing wealth towards the top. A policy of systematic destruction of welfare, attacks on small advancements in the field of public health care, a dismantling of the already fragile mechanisms of regulation in the financial system and more.

For this book I had to resume studies on marketing and business branding that I had undertaken in my first one No Logo: Trump reflects their worst features, fuelling his “superbrand” by using the form and the language of a reality show. War is also a part of the permanent wrestling match that is being staged. And it makes Trump very dangerous. But even superbrand bubbles have a point where if hit properly they will explode: we have to – and we can – find it for Trump.

Protest on US-Mexico border. Arizona, November 2017. Flickr/Peg Hunter. Some rights reserved

How exactly do we respond to this offensive? In Europe there are people on the left who propose an end to working alongside women’s movements, with migrant struggles, with the defence and the conquest of new civil rights, with ecology, arguing we must simply return to the ‘white working class’ and reclaim it from right-wing populists. Your proposals, on the contrary, begin from the extraordinary richness of struggles that animate North America. What role can these have in building an alternative?

Social resentment has been an important part of the consensus behind Trump. But it’s not something new: the permanent and systematic pitting of working-class whites against blacks, men against women, citizens against migrants, was crucial in building today’s corporate dystopia. It is a strategy of ‘divide and rule’, which has always been one of the elite’s most powerful weapons against real democracy. The writer and intellectual Cornel West once said that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Neoliberalism is politics without love, the incarnation of greed and indifference, like Trump himself. Unleashing hatred against the most vulnerable is an essential aspect of it.

For precisely this reason, it is vital we follow an “intersectional” approach as embraced by many American movements. This means understanding how multiple issues – race, gender, income, migrant status, climate crisis – intersect and overlap within an individual’s life experience. Even in the deep structures of power. We must be able to show the role played by the politics of division and separation, to overthrow such politics instead of following them.

In your book you insist on the need to grasp two particular concepts as guidelines driving the strategy. What do you mean by ‘protection’ and ‘taking care’?

I learned what it means to take the role of ‘protector’ during the time I spent at Standing Rock during the resistance to the devastating pipeline project. It means defending nature and the commons when they are threatened, because they are fundamental to ‘protecting’ our lives. At the same time we also need to ‘take care’ of others, because only in the reciprocity of relationships can we build a possible future for all. The systemic connections we face are becoming evident to everyone. But beyond shouting our strong “no” we must also be able to put forward a strategy: to articulate a convincing “yes” and develop a project capable of making tangible improvements in peoples’ daily lives, built on powerful concepts like ‘redistribution’ and ‘reparation.’

The Trump phenomenon wasn’t the only one to emerge from the 2016 Presidential election campaign. Something also took place that made me understand how the ideas for a progressive transformational change are much more widespread and popular than I had expected. I’m thinking of course of the Sanders campaign. We need to build a credible narrative in which the issues of race and migration, gender, labour and income, and climate justice are included in a proposal for a post-capitalist transformation of society. Bernie and so many other left-wing experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, with all their limits and contradictions, are showing that there is space to do it.

*Lead image: Mathias Wasik. Some rights reserved. 

** An Italian version of this interview is published by il manifesto