Author and activist Naomi Klein has long been a critic of consumer culture and its focus on individualism, arguing instead that we need to band together to deal with the world’s crises. “The tricky thing is that we are able to find our best selves in these moments of crisis, of high crisis, but within our economic system, the pressures of the market bear down pretty fast.” By Jonno Revanche.
Author and activist Naomi Klein
It’s not uncommon that, at any given moment, a single issue will escalate online, pulling in scores of participants to battle it out over who has the most “correct” opinion. I’m often searching, unconsciously, for the voice that can cut through the din and offer respite from the panicked chorus of media. Naomi Klein has often provided that voice.
Ever since the publication of her first book, No Logo, Klein’s precise, impassioned and buttery-smooth writing has been a salve for the varied crises of our present moment. Unlike the litany of new books advising readers on how to improve, or “green”, their consumer habits, she has continually identified the futility of individualism. “The very idea that we, as atomised individuals, could play a significant part in stabilising the planet’s climate system or changing the global economy is objectively nuts,” she writes in her newest book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. “We can only meet this tremendous challenge together.”
Klein asks how we can propose grand and urgently necessary political alternatives: rather than opting for ultimately unsatisfying personal lifestyle changes, she says, we must find ways to “act on the scale of the crisis”. What will it take for us to collectivise, to abandon the old systems, the old ideologies, and overhaul completely? She uses the metaphor of fire when we speak, to think about how to burn away the detritus we all have in our personal lives, and to do whatever it takes to be fully in the moment.
“What is it that holds me back?” she muses, her voice drifting through my MacBook speaker. “What is keeping me from being as strong as I need to be, as completely present as I need to be? I have all kinds of debris I need to clear away, and we need to do that individually and collectively.”
When we first speak, Klein is excited by her proximity to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. “I kind of decided to throw in for Bernie in a big way this time. I’ve asked not to be called a surrogate … but I do want to be telling people this is probably our best chance at a habitable future,” she says.
This is curtailed with a laugh, but the urgency of the sentiment is felt. “It’s almost like it could only happen in a situation of such institutional crisis that has produced Trump – but also one Trump has intensified, where all the institutions of trust have just broken down. They’re not able to hold the centre in the same way.”
Klein observes the way that campaigning provides an in-person remedy for young people to the “branding culture, the constant performance of self, the scarcity of the attention economy”, which is so inescapable. Organising has become the most immediate kind of self-care. In No Logo she made the argument that we don’t need much, as humans, to feel contentment and connection – if we have our basic needs met, a routine and stable communities, that is more than enough. Those things, however, are usually not fulfilled by consumer forces. Since the book was published in 1999, social media and online advertising have accelerated all the anxieties she called into question. Life has been gamified and publicised to such an extent that our time spent explicitly seeking out the approval of strangers is, in her words, “not really all that compatible with the force and power that we need to bring to this fight”. She acknowledges how Greta Thunberg subverts all of this – she rejects the social contract entirely, and the sort of “constant mirroring” to others that stops us from doing what’s necessary.
“We are in an emergency, but most of us don’t know how to act like we are in an emergency … and I think what’s striking about Greta is that she’s modelling that. This is how she’s declaring her own personal emergency, but we all need to figure out what that looks like.”
Many have seen parallels between the threat of the coronavirus and climate change, noting how both require action at a dramatic, global scale. But here Klein’s work gives nuance, too, her “shock doctrine” eerily applicable in a time when chaos provides cover for politicians. Just this week, the Victorian government announced it would be lifting the state’s moratorium on drilling for gas.
“In 2008, the last time we had a global financial meltdown, the same bad ideas for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts carried the day, and regular people around the world paid the price,” Klein said in a recent video for The Intercept. “We know what Trump’s plan is: a pandemic shock doctrine featuring all the most dangerous ideas lying around – from privatising social security, to locking down borders, to caging even more migrants. Hell, he might even try cancelling elections. But the end of this story hasn’t been written yet. It is an election year, and social movements and insurgent politicians are already mobilised.”
Klein and her contemporaries, writers such as Elaine Scarry and Rebecca Solnit, have observed how disaster or shock can create openings for a locale, a city or a country to transform for the better – but it can also go the opposite way, if the conditions are unbecoming, unequal. “We don’t have the conditions for this kind of [positive] shift,” she says. “We’re in an incredibly isolated, narcissistic, shattered landscape.”
Conversation turns to Australian politics – to the nature of our bushfire catastrophe and trying to make sense of the psychology behind Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response. Klein doesn’t obfuscate: “We dug up the depths of the Earth and we put it in the sky. We have fundamentally upset the order of our planet. And we took this amazing thing, which is fire, and we misused it. We should not have burned all of that coal and all that oil and all that gas… The kinds of fires we are seeing [are] not the regenerative fires, as you know, and come from the misuse of fire.”
She also hasn’t been shy about voicing her distaste for leaders such as Morrison and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who both tried to downplay the effect of record-breaking fires in their countries. Her rationale is like an antidote to the ambiguity of recent political leadership.
“I think they are used to the idea that they can just spin their way out of everything: ‘We have a crisis! Let’s just put out an ad telling everyone how great we’re doing!’ There is a kind of revenge of reality now, where it really is not possible to deny this much reality,” she says. “I think there were just too many people bearing witness who exposed that to be bullshit.”
The climate reckoning is still fresh, but in the wake of Covid-19 we now face economic upheaval at a scale that is perhaps unimaginable. With the system as it stands, casual workers, contract workers, sex workers and freelancers are most at risk; in the United States, a NPR poll shows one in five households has already lost work because of the pandemic, and all signs point to a similar fate playing out here.
Klein’s take on our leader’s response to catastrophe has a decidedly biblical bent. “I think it’s relevant that Morrison is the evangelical Protestant who has a world view that basically says that the world’s going to end, the chosen few will be taken to this gated golden city in the sky, and the sinners will perish,” she says. “What I think they’re doing is creating that narrative, down here on Earth. These are Rapture policies that they are introducing. How else can we see [American venture capitalist] Peter Thiel buying land in New Zealand?
“This narrative of the ‘deserving’ being saved, and the undeserving suffering… In On Fire, I make the argument that it isn’t a coincidence that in this moment that climate disruption becomes harder and harder to deny, we are seeing a rise of explicit ecofascism. If we aren’t challenging these underlying world views, these supremacist world views, then getting these guys to admit climate change is real isn’t going to bring about the world we want.”
It seems a prime moment to consider the relevance of a Green New Deal in Australia – to take disruption as an opportunity to emphasise the need for social safety nets that aren’t punitive but restorative, returning land to its original owners, paying our dues to our neighbours in the Pacific and following their lead as to how the future will be made.
“I think the tricky thing is that we are able to find our best selves in these moments of crisis, of high crisis, but within our economic system, the pressures of the market bear down pretty fast,” Klein says. “For most of us, our first impulse is incredibly open, and loving, and generous, and caring. But if you don’t have an infrastructure of care, if you don’t have mental health supports, right, if you don’t have a way to ban real estate profiteering in the midst of a disaster, if you don’t have enough affordable housing … if they don’t have the supports, it will manifest in the form of increased violence of every form, but particularly violence against women.”
Elsewhere, there is little leadership. Labor lags behind, the Greens are making token nods towards what a Green New Deal could look like, but the real efforts to structure solutions are mostly being established on a grassroots level.
“Australian politicians have tended to take a very technocratic action to climate action, to really focus on emission targets and carbon taxes. People’s eyes roll back in their head and all they hear is their electricity rates are going to go up … It has never been presented to the Australian people as a plan for the next economy, the post-extractive economy, for a different way of relating to each other and the land,” Klein says. “That requires leaders with a vision, which I don’t think you have had for a very long time, and I think it’s going to have to come from below, but eventually you will have leaders step up in the way [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Bernie have stepped up.”
Is there a possibility that we can build our own vision here – beyond “Stop Adani” – that makes, as Klein says, the “yes more possible”? Is it possible to create a tangible plan – a commitment – for workers in high-carbon sectors that no worker will be left behind? Klein’s view is optimistic, and she stresses that Australia’s “sense of a commons” in the existence of public broadcasting and healthcare and community life makes it more likely than in other countries.
“I think it’s really exciting that there is this deep discussion going on in Australia about Indigenous knowledge, about the life-giving and protective uses of fires. In the book, I talk about a culture of care and repair, and that’s a multilayered idea. Repairing our relationships with each other, our historical debts, our colonial debts, but also repairing the land, repairing our stuff. There’s a lot of jobs to be created once we move from a disposable culture where we just use things for a short while and toss them out.
“People are so hungry for that kind of vision. It’s not even just hope, it’s that we haven’t let ourselves dare that we could have something good, something that isn’t just not apocalyptic but actually better than what we have right now.”
The sentiment hangs in the air, and we both agree it’s difficult to know the perfect way to respond. But the energy is there, and we can’t afford to drop the ball. “The one thing that I would just say,” Klein adds, “is that I think people most understand – after watching their country burn – that capitalism is a fucking radical project. It will burn the entire world down for money.
“After that, some of these ideas don’t seem quite so radical.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Klein energy".
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