The Fight for the Global Commons

Naomi Klein No LogoISBN 0 00 653040 0. “No Logo” by Naomi Klein was published by Harper Collins in 2000 (this imprint with new Afterword by the Author by Flamingo in 2001). We picked this up in a charity shop for 50p just to complete my Klein collection. Before that I had no serious intention of ever reading it. It just didn’t fit somehow – this diatribe against brands and sweatshops. But that is judging a book by its cover. We did greatly enjoy Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” which was the first of hers that we read. This set us up neatly for “This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs Climate” which disappointed. All three books are delivered with the same passion but they sprawl like an endless series of inter-related essays. Some on target, some falling flat. What you really need are the best bits – an edited and abridged copy without the need to trawl through the entire epic. “No Logo” comes with such a reputation – it commands that you read it, but, 15 years later, is it really relevant? Did it ever deserve the endless accolades?

Reading this so long after original publication is fraught with difficulties. I had felt almost obliged to add “No Logo” to the collection but this is not a quick read. It is a very long book. I longed for it to be over. It is certainly a product of its time and it is hard not to jump to the conclusion that you have read it all before. Indeed you have. Elements of this seminal work have been endlessly recycled through the work of others. So we put aside any such criticism as it is hardly fair.

We return to the original reason why we had chosen not to read this – the book title. I simply could not give a damn about a book that was against logos. This is, in essence, what is wrong with this book. It is a polemic against the late twentieth century trend towards corporate branding; style over content. It is a windmill that we can all shake a good fist at every now and again but it is a futile gesture. Behind the fist waving Klein has created a theory-of-everything that joins together quite disparate threads. She links anti-road protests in the UK with the human-rights abuses of the regime in Burma. She ties in sweatshops to ad-busting. Corporate sponsorship in schools to zero hours contracts… and more.

Of course these elements are not directly linked. Instead Klein is chronicling the latest chapter of an on-going struggle: the private versus the public. Hence “No Logo” was never an apt title for the book. Maybe it hit a nerve back in 2000 but it was always an obstacle to me reading it all these years later. So if you want to know what this book is about simply think of it as a slice of history circa 1995 describing the on-going clash of cultures between those who wish to protect the global commons in the public sphere and those who wish to diminish it and absorb it into private ownership. It encompasses a vast range of different issues being picked up by campaigners all over the planet. For Klein it is all one battle with many different fronts. It is being fought against the Shell Oil Company in the Niger Delta and against Nike in the shopping malls of America. You may well struggle to accept the singular narrative that Klein impresses upon the reader but each battle is a genuine chapter in this cultural and economic war.

Klein’s grand theory is broken up into four sub-topics: in “No Space” she describes how globalisation and corporatisation has invaded every sphere of life such that is no where to run if you wish for solitude from its cacophony. In “No Choice” she shows how this revolution now so limits our options as the enormous economies of scale in this new economy have driven out the diversity that used to be so healthy. In “No Jobs” she covers trends in global employment away from secure manufacturing jobs in the rich northern countries towards insecure jobs everywhere and sweatshop conditions for all. Finally, in “No Logo” we learn about the alternatives to this global hegemony and how people are fighting for the return of locally-resilient economics in their own backyard.

The Corporations have their own vision for this brave new world. They call it a “global village”. If so it is a village that Klein describes as a place where:

“…the economic divide is widening and the cultural choices narrowing.”

If not inaccurate it does seem a tad melodramatic. This is certainly Klein’s style. You find it hard to question the substance but you can doubt the spin. Take this example:

“It would be naïve to believe that Western consumers haven’t profited from these global divisions since the earliest days of colonialism. The Third World, as they say, has always existed for the comfort of the First.”

Wealthy corporations hollowed themselves out in the pursuit of profit. No longer were they manufacturers of product. Now they just sold a brand. The brand was what people would buy. The problems of making what people wanted was, well… now somebody else’s problem. We now really only need the engineers in the loop for product development. It was a formula that was to prove incredibly successful in generating vast profits. In times of austerity we associate sweatshop labour with the cheap garments in the budget clothing shops or the low-price household items in the local supermarket. Whilst Klein does not neglect the budget market (Wal-Mart) her focus on branded apparel means that you will learn a lot about luxury clothing brands like Nike & Gap. Beyond there she dishes all the dirt on the Shell Oil Company, McDonalds, Microsoft, Disney, Starbucks and Monsanto. All the usual suspects – however they often have little in common other than being well-known and very big.

These big players now no longer simply supply commodities, they sell concepts, experiences and lifestyles. The modern corporation has freed itself from “the corporeal world of commodities, manufacturing and products“. The neoliberal experiment that started in the 1980s freed the big corporations of pesky things like regulations whilst vast public monopolies were transformed into vast private monopolies. Their taxes were lowered which undermined the funding of the public sector. Now schools, museums and broadcasters make up budget shortfalls by partnering with the private sector which, in turn, meant that taxpayer’s funding was used to bolster private profits. Writes Klein

“It also didn’t hurt that the political climate during this time ensured that there was almost no vocabulary to speak passionately about the value of a non-commercialized public sphere. This was the time of the Big Government bogeyman and deficit hysteria, when any political move that was not overtly designed to increase the freedom of corporations was vilified as an endorsement of national bankruptcy.”

Of course, as we now know, this approach lead directly TO national bankruptcy by 2008 but it made no difference. It became a one way street. No matter what evidence of failure there became “no alternative” since there was no other vocabulary to articulate a vision of different way. Soon US schools were divided up between Pepsi or Coke. High Schools had an annual “Coke Day” where all the kids wore Coke T-Shirts. In one school a senior was suspended for the offense of wearing a Pepsi T-Shirt on one of these days. No hypocrisy was too absurd as the modern corporation built its own myths in new markets. It could claim to have downed the Berlin Wall on the one hand whilst collaborating with dictatorships in China or Burma on the other. There is no vision, no higher calling, no honour – just profit. Money making is the new god and people come a poor second. And all become poorer as the public sphere was diminished.

Klein portrays all this with much implied horror although she leaves much of the judgement to the reader. No doubt many who picked this book up in 2000 were suitably horrified. Picking it up today can produce a different result. The more conservative amongst us can feel a little indifferent to the story. It is a familiar tale – told so many times. Klein illustrates it well with so many great anecdotes but they are just that – anecdotes designed to invoke a certain reaction in the readership who may well be uncritical. Klein actually is rare in her objectivity about the economics of all this. The hard critique from an economic or social equality angle were still years in the future when she wrote this book. But you can just tell that Klein has a great yearning to demonstrate self-evident injustice. She just knows it is bad so she lets the stories speak for themselves of the horrors of this new globalisation story. These days we may be excused for feeling compassion fatigue. A lot worse was to follow in this horror story. There were a few good angles too. China lifted itself out of poverty and created a middle-class, as did India. But Klein does not dally with the upsides. Not at all.

So what is this really all about? For me this is more a story about how the rich northern/western nations lost their way in the post-colonial era. Wealth was to be maintained through the permanent colonisation of markets. Yet the free-market dogma was to be followed to its logical conclusion. There would be a global village and everyone would be poor. The worker in Liverpool would earn as much as a worked in Beijing if they were to compete. The playing field for many, at the bottom, would be levelled. And there would be a lot of room at the bottom.

Grinding poverty would be the norm from Washington to Singapore. Only a select few would profit from this revolution of homogenisation. There would be a mass global underclass and a tiny global over-class. Inequality would be international and those at the top no longer cared if the consuming middle-classes existed or not. Since they held the reins of power they simply could organise affairs such that wealth could be transferred from the public purse to the private purse – theirs. There would be no trickle-down economics. Our economies became enormous vacuum cleaners sucking everything up into the pockets of these new colonists. The Third World would be everywhere – the play-thing of a global ruling elite. It will serve them well. There will be no public sphere, only the private, and it will belong to them. This was always the real road to Serfdom.

As the above illustrates – it is possible to build alternative narratives around world events. Somehow a focus on “logos” seems a little-off target. Branding pre-existed globalisation and neo-liberalism. We have had trans-national companies for years. There is a real battle for the heart of economies – this struggle of the public versus private for the global commons. Much of what Klein describes is semantics but buried within it are profound truths. You just need to find them and not take her central narrative too seriously. It is just a vehicle for describing events at the turn of the century. A valuable contribution and utterly original – if an odd spin.

So what should we be looking out for? Big companies use their huge cash reserves to force out local independent traders. Our public spaces, so essential for our democracy, have been slowly consumed by private space under the cover of retail consumption. Try standing up and making a political speech in a shopping mall and you will soon get moved on. It is private property dedicated to shopping. It cannot replace true public squares. Hence the world becomes endlessly cloned and privatised. Your genuine choices are narrowed and the bandwidth for opinion decreases.

But do most people really care? Indeed they don’t – otherwise it would never have gone as far as it has. Before World War II the hope for the economy was Government spending on re-armament – now it is consumer spending on electronic goods. Some would describe that as progress. Indeed it is… but it is not the sort of utopia that Klein and her ilk yearn for. The real problem is whether or not this is resilient and sustainable. As we saw, eight years after this book was written, the economy was set up to fail. Klein bemoans the loss of choice, interactivity and freedom. But what we lost too was diversity, resilience and pluralism.

Personally I found the hollowing out of product value disturbing. Brands were making enormous stacks of cash by slapping high price labels on good produced in the same sweatshops as budget goods. It became unfashionable to be a brand that was also into manufacturing. The pride in production vanished as Wall Street and the City rewarded the corporations that slashed jobs. Labour was getting a shrinking portion of the pie whilst advertising snowballed. The only way they could persuade us to buy this over-priced crap was by associating it with lifestyles.

The result is a perverse re-arrangement of the economy where corporate brand-advertising and sponsorship permeate our lives. Enormous sums of cash are spent trying to convince us that one cheap piece of tat is worth ten times the price of the next piece of tat. This utter reliance upon image over substance gives us the impression that our lives are a lie. Maybe, but Klein’s focus on this is probably an illusion. Most of our lives are probably touched by the budget brands. Personally I have not a single item of clothing by any of the brands Klein bangs on about. For many with intrinsic values who will be drawn to this book, these brands mean nothing. Klein may be more relevant for her target audience if she focussed more on the McDonalds and Microsofts of this world. However it is the big clothing brands that were making such a splash in the 1990’s. They were the target of campaigners hence Klein’s devotion to that story above the others.

So, in third world countries (that host the sweatshops) there was a desperate race-to-the-bottom as corporations were offered near-slave labour conditions in tax-free export zones cordoned off from the rest of the local economy. They employed people. That was it. Those people were paid so badly they could not send any money home. It contributed nothing to the economy of those poor nations. The only winners were the usual suspects – the elites who were well connected and profited from other people’s misery and desperation. As Klein aptly describes it the corporations were “economic tourists” not long-term investors. The host nations do not benefit from industrialisation. Without pressure to build equality and spread the benefits of globalisation via taxation the effect was to suck money away from the already poor. No technology or capital is transferred to the host nations. Trickle down doesn’t work, Standards fall. Welcome to serfdom. Of course the big brands deny all this and talk up their standards. However these all prove to be illusions. Yet another piece of marketing hype designed to assure worried western consumers that their cash is not being used to abuse third world workers.

With this globalisation shift the type of worker changed. Permanent employment vanished in an environment where everyone is a temporary worker. Temps don’t get the benefits of the formal sector. This happened globally, from posh western bookshops to Starbucks, from McDonalds to Microsoft. Employment was no longer secure and wages were driven down. Retail was hardest hit with students and the very young finding that there were no careers to be made. Time spent in work was just to fill gaps in the CV. Student loans could not be paid back. Jobs were dead-ends. In global terms this was just another race-to-the-bottom as workers in the rich northern/western nation were forced to compete with workers everywhere. Of course you cannot get your Starbucks coffee brewed in China. It is more sophisticated than that. It was more closely related to the new corporate attitude that told them that spending money on labour was wrong. If quality dropped they would just tell the punters that everything was OK by squirting more billions into the advertising budget. Expanding the corporate empire became everything. Workers became nothing.

So the new global corporation shed all responsibilities for employing workers on a living wage. This is clearly the free market at work. Of course it doesn’t seem fair and it leads to inequality. Does it lead to barriers in social mobility too? Probably. Does it make the economy inefficient? Probably not by current economic dogma. Is it sustainable? Well it is a trend that continues so – yes, to a point. Maybe our unskilled wage base is just bottoming out after many years of being inflated over those of the third world. This is not the sort of analysis the Klein indulges. Indeed she doesn’t engage any economists in these questions whatever their colour or shade of opinion. Her dominant thrust seems more to be the cultural aspects. It is implicit that this is a problem. However she does go on to describe the senior professional freelancer for whom this working revolution has been a boon (including her own profession – freelance writing). However, apart from being able to work in your pyjamas she remains dismissive. She moves quickly onto describe the slash and burn tactics of freelance executives who move into companies to destroy jobs. Surely these remain a minority? Companies are now simply wealth creators, not job creators. It is destroying the cosy romantic relationship between labour and capital that took a hundred years to build. The social contract has gone to be replaced with social-Darwinism.

Klein moves on to describe ad-busting which for many of us is little more than slightly-artistic graffiti. Yet she sees it as some monumental movement:

“Streets are public spaces, adbusters argue, and since most residents can’t afford to counter corporate messages by purchasing their own ads, they should have the right to talk back to images they never asked to see.”

Once again this entertains a wistful and romantic notion. The battle for the commons being played out with spray cans. Few of us really care. As Klein so rightly goes on to describe; what right do the ad-busters have to over-write one message with their own? Who gives them the right? Why is David always assumed to be right and Goliath wrong? Goliath is paying to display an opinion, they earned that right. Everything else is just patronising. The flip side of hating big corporations is deciding that the general public are all idiots who need to be lead to the sunlit uplands of enlightenment. Beyond this Klein enters the usual narrative about advertising making us buy things we don’t need.

“..making us buy things that are bad for us, pollute the planet or impoverish our souls.”

Impoverish our souls? Really? Any resistance movement must offer an alternative instead of narrow-minded ideology. Klein neatly sums up this dilemma when she goes onto describe the anti-roads movement known as ‘Reclaim the Streets’ (RTS):

“…anthierarchy anarchist organisers are unable or unwilling to communicate with the crowd [..] some jerk demanding the right to sit in the middle of the street for a loony reason known only to him…”

This is a topic we’ll return to in our following review of George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” – the way the vanguard of progressive radicals attract a bund of weirdoes who alienate the very people needed to make a movement mainstream and acceptable. Well, at least RTS are doing something. For that they earn credit. Writes London RTS:

“Road schemes, business “parks”, shopping developments – all add up to the disintegration of community and the flattening of locality. Everywhere becomes the same as everywhere else. Community becomes commodity – a shopping village, sedated and under constant surveillance.”

Aside the obvious paranoia of this sentiment it is hard not to feel sympathy. These are ideals that they share with the Transition Movement and no doubt there is a common constituency. However as we saw with the debacle of Totnes and Costa Coffee there is a very thin line between building alternatives and simply obstructing something that, in your opinion (and that of all your mates), is ‘bad’ for the community. It obscures an enormous sense of romanticism – a  desperate groping for the good-old-days as described in Enid Blyton adventure stories for kids written in the innocent days of the 1940s. But is it just a fantasy? Some theme-park ideal devoted to a world that once was and really wasn’t that nice if we were honest about it? Maybe it is not about global commons afterall? Maybe this is all about identity. Who we are. What we think we are, what we want to be.

What we do know is that corporations and Governments commit crimes against their people. They always have, they always will. With great power comes the will to abuse it. There is nothing new in corporations committing those crimes with the willing cooperation of the Government – and vice versa. The East India Trading Company set the model for that within the British Empire many years ago. “..all in the name of safeguarding the smooth flow of trade.” There is yet another thin line between corporations and Governments “stunting development rather than contributing to it“. Your glass is either half full or half empty… What has happened today is that the glass is just a lot bigger. The flow of trade is much quicker, its volume larger and the information about it more public. If a big brand corporation is abusing somebody somewhere there is a good chance that we’ll learn of it sooner or later. How we should be honest with ourselves is with the full knowledge that a lot of shit is going to happen. We must see through the marketing and look at what really happens. A lot of good work has been done in this area and it being done. This book is a testimony to that and Klein is smart enough to recognise that some causes have been cherry-picked for effect, whilst others have been ignored. Not every battle can be fought. But a stand must be made somewhere.

It was a revelation for us to learn that the US Government had killed off a United Nations trade regulatory body called the UN Commission on Transnational Corporations. Its attempt to draft a code of conduct was still-born and absorbed into the World Trade Organisation where the corporations were on control. The poachers became game-keepers. Attempts by local legislators to create fair trade purchasing policies fall foul of the WTO. Back when this book was written Klein writes of the battle against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (the “MAI”). It is amazing to think that 15 years later we are still fighting the same fight against its current incarnation – the TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They sound identical with the TTIP sounding like an even more aggressive version that protects corporate investor’s private right to profit over and above the rights of the public and the commons. Thankfully the NGOs pushed the MAI off the table of the OECD in April 1998 to the bewilderment of the establishment. But that war is not over. They are trying again and will keep trying.

Any requirement for the corporations to abide by some agreed common ground of “decent” behaviour towards its workers only meets with calls for adherence to some self-regulated standard. This ends up being whatever the corporations market it to be. Campaigners are unconvinced. Self-policed codes of practice end up being a licence to do nothing in example after example.

Codes of conduct are awfully slippery. Unlike laws, they are not enforceable. And unlike Union contracts, they were not drafted in cooperation with factory managers in response to demands and needs of employees. Without exception, they were drafted by public-relations departments in cities like New York and San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of an embarrassing media investigation…”

For example such codes of conduct were never originally translated into the languages read by the people who worked in the sweatshops. Obviously they were designed to impress nice white people with money. Not poor people abused in the third world. They are unpeople and they do not matter. Multinationals circumvent enforceable laws on labour rights and environmental responsibility by drafting their own voluntary codes. Klein is firm in her opinion that such global standards should be regulated as laws by governments. In this we absolutely agree. Yet with the transnational corporations pulling the strings of government it would take a revolution in our democratic process for this to happen. In short, rich people will have to care. And REALLY care. Care enough to pay a few pennies more for that plastic toy or t-shirt. Are we ready for this? We must no longer be consumers. We must be responsible citizens.

In this edition Klein adds a new Afterword to encompass the famous Battle of Seattle and 9/11. Despite the establishment attempts to link anti-capitalist good-citizenship with terrorism Klein is clear about the root causes:

“In understanding the mechanics of terrorism – north and south – one them is recurring: we pay a high price when we put the short-term demands of business (for lower taxes, less “red tape”, more investment opportunities) ahead of the needs of people. Post-September 11, clinging to laissez faire free-market solutions, despite over-whelming evidence of their failings, looks a lot like blind faith, as irrational as any belief system clung to by religious fanatics fighting a suicidal jihad.”

This could not be more clear yet the global capital collapse of 2008 still happened. We are the fanatics. Modern anti-corporate and pro-democracy activists are

“..instead challenging systems of centralized power on principle, as critical of left-wing, one-size-fits-all state solutions as of right-wing market ones.”

This is the future. A post-ideology future. One that, simply, works.

Despite our criticisms this is a good book. Good for the time in which it was written and a rallying cry for activists. It lacks objectivity and tries to make up for it in colourful anecdotes but its heart is in the right place. A stopped clock is always right twice a day. Klein’s writing style is sprawling covering an enormous array of topics inside a loosely fitting narrative about branding. Reading it fifteen years later it makes more sense to abandon the anti-logo dogma and just read it as a slice of history. A view across the battlefield of the global commons circa the turn of the century. In this it does a great service and delivers its own shock doctrine that has power even after all these years.

So… if you read one Klein book make it “The Shock Doctrine”. But if you want to read them all then you will find this a challenge. Better work has been done since. It is but a milestone on the road to today. Life is full of them. Klein remains a genius. Always on the boil, passionate, taking no prisoners, so often relaying the narrative seemingly without taking sides – she reviews several sides to an argument like a good historian. When she drifts off into polemic one feels the need to simply be polite, but when she is on form she is on fire. The world is a better place for her.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

Comments are closed.