The Naomi Klein Doctrine: Stick to the Surface, Avoid the Foundations

- by Macdonald Stainsby

Naomi Klein has done a lot of superb work over the years, giving people access to information that wasn't put all in the same place before and doing so in highly accessible and engaging fashion. For me, the best example of this took place with her work on corporate strategies for marketing and growing ventures like Starbucks coffee. No Logo1 , her breakthrough work on many different aspects of what "globalization" is, continues to be insightful some six-plus years after its release. Derek Seidman, one of the editors of the online journal Lefthook, recently penned this about Starbucks' workers and their unionization struggle:

Though Starbucks tries to posture as a socially conscious corporation that cares for its employees, the NYC workers' union struggle is exposing this as mostly lip service. "Behind the green aprons and smiles are individuals living in serious poverty," says [Daniel] Gross. "Starbucks cashes in on a community friendly image but it certainly doesn't extend to their workers or coffee farmers. That's why we went Union". 2

This story of the contradiction between the employees of Starbucks and the image corporately pursued is one of the many that you would take to heart reading through Klein's first book. In the book she describes how in certain Starbucks outlets, the employees used to have to use those little timers for more than getting you your coffee on time-- they were used to set the most efficient hours of scheduling. How it worked was beyond simple "chutzpah"; according to the research done by Klein, the timer would allow Starbucks headoffice to schedule the fastest shot providers for the biggest rush hours--only two of them in a row-- then take them off staff until the next blitz. So, according to the computerized mechanism for setting the work day, the better a worker you were the worse that your scheduling got. Small wonder then, that Seidman reports further:

[T]he struggle has taken on significance greater than its concrete demands. It is also about exposing a multi-billion dollar corporation which pays its workers poverty wages, and yet publicly operates under a veil of benevolence. As [Anthony] Polanco has said, "Starbucks has done a superb job misleading the public about the way the corporation treats their employees[...]"3

Naomi Klein has played no small part in making it so these union struggles, against the behemoth of the fast food franchise mega corporation, have more than simply a fighting chance. Workers and their allies owe a debt to such service provided. However, since her notoriety has escalated, Klein has felt it necessary to delve into all manner of political writing, and her scribblings on international relations and the "War on Terror"-- well, they aren't No Logo, that's for sure.

Klein has written some phrases and pieces that seem oddly misplaced, and in other cases, very poorly timed. Take her April 25,Guardian Newspaper article of 2002. It is a generalized analysis of how the social justice movement is "soft" on anti-Semitism, a heady charge. The date is note-worthy, because it was immediately after the IMF/World Bank demonstration that mushroomed into the largest ever pro-Palestinian human rights demonstration in United States history-- itself a reflection of the massacre in Jenin refugee camp. Klein notes this, in fact: "Why bother with such subtleties while bodies are still being pulled out of the wreckage in Jenin?"4, she asks. Her answer leaves me wanting a little more.

Of course one needs to deal with anti-Semitism, and the city of Montreal where I live-- with a large ethnic Jewish population-- certainly is no exception. The first day I arrived in this city I was on a walk near downtown and I found an individual who is almost a self-parody, were he not for real. He wanders, almost daily, holding a sign calling the Montreal Jewish community corrupt, says Jewish women in hospitals are seducing non-Jewish men and Judaism itself is a "false religion". On this particular day he was only across the street from where the LaRouche cult has set up one of their little tables. Anti-Semitism is a real issue, and we can not simply turn away. Klein makes a point, however, that deeply bothers me, one she has continued to cling to in several articles since. Her arguments seem based entirely on the "big man" [sic] theory of history-- from the fact that France fascist Jean Marie le Pen's ideas were able to get on a run-off ballot and get wiped out by an overwhelming Chirac victory, we are supposed to glean this is partially our fault on the left when we hold demonstrations against the ethnic cleansing and destruction of Palestinian society:

"[...]Ariel Sharon deservedly blasted, but no mention was made of attacks on Jewish synagogues, cemeteries and community centres."5 Well, Naomi, I must tell you: no Jewish people have been killed by such European anti-Semitic hysteria yet, but Zionism-- that word you refuse to utter-- has continued to make life unlivable for Palestine and the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism, even in small isolated form, she would like to see condemned, and fine enough, so far as that goes - but the notion of Zionism as even a descriptor of Israel must not be spoken of. Why do we need to condemn the racist ideology that underpins scattered, small & ugly racist attacks on Jewish symbolism and history in places like France, but not the racist ideology that has destroyed thousands of lives, made millions more homeless and is now locking the Palestinians in a giant open air cage it will eventually call "a viable state"? Ariel Sharon is spoken of as the problem, and ideology the issue ("The Likud Doctrine"), but not Zionism-- that which built the settler state itself. How can we condemn one ideological racism and not the other? Should we understand that to not be accused of a double standard, we must first practice one? And what of her recent works on the United States...

Naomi Klein recently crossed a bridge too far, in my view. However, she wrote her coming out piece for the Nation so it was unfortunately unsurprising: She joined the "ABB" camp dedicated to electing pro-war, anti-worker, pro-Patriot act, pro-Israel John F Kerry of the Democratic Party. Her arguments for this one entirely rest on the heels of her "big man" theory of how political processes in the United States works. Witness: "Only with a bore like Kerry at the helm will we finally be able to put an end to the presidential pathologizing and focus on the issues again."6 However, though seemingly a screed against Bush because Bush is a "big man" we need to remove from our sights, she counter poses another big man theory in the following passage for oddly misplaced reasons:

We'll also have to let go of the archaic idea that toppling a single man, or a Romanesque "empire," will solve all, let alone any, of our problems. Yes, it will make for more complicated politics, but it has the added benefit of being true. With Bush out of the picture, we lose the galvanizing enemy, but we get to take on the actual policies that are transforming all of our countries.7
So, to recap, since we know the real issues are not the personalities of Bush (or Kerry) and company, we must get rid of their presidency because it has such a rancid personality at the helm that unites people for the "wrong reasons". Getting rid of Bush solves nothing, so then we will be able to start solving things because we'll talk about real issues after we put in the Vietnam war criminal. Or something like that.

This entire logic, if I were to have accepted it, would have been decimated by her own more recent piece, "The Likud doctrine". In this article she writes:

"If we want to see where the Likud doctrine leads, we need only follow the guru home, to Israel, a country paralysed by fear, embracing policies of extrajudicial assassination and illegal settlement, and in denial about the brutality it commits daily."8

One would get the impression from this line, if they had no other background information, that the Occupation started under the Likud when Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister. However, a cursory glance at history shows something else. The 1948 ethnic cleansing that gave birth the Israel was led by the Mapai Party, the socialist named, racialist constructed precursor to the modern "dove" party in perpetual opposition, Labour. The invasion of the remaining territories of Palestine (as well as the Sinai and Golan Heights) was launched under the watch of another "left wing" Mapai government, Levi Eshkol, in tandem with Menachim Begin and Moshe Dayan. And the settlements so derided by Klein as correctly illegal? They were doubled during the Oslo Peace process by Labour PM Ehud Barak, under the time frame of what must now be called "the Labour Doctrine" of false compromise. This time was also the time used by Israel to steal nearly every water aquifer in 1967 Palestine.

Surfing through just these three mediocre at best forays into international relations by anti-corporate globalization writer Klein, I began to wonder what unites her weakness in analytical terms, and what is driving it. In fact, it is the very same biases that gave us all her indispensable work in the past, her strengths: an uncanny ability to go over material, stick to the surface issues and not get "bogged down" in structural analysis. It's not like No Logo goes much into capitalism itself, it merely describes capitalism in the modern age, in the first and third world and on anabolic steroids. And this is great for explaining Starbucks, but when she writes for us that: "[I]t was under Bill Clinton that progressive movements in the West began to turn our attention to systems again: corporate globalization, even--gasp--capitalism and colonialism."9 I'd have to find that oddly misplaced. The truth is, that during the Clinton Presidency the UN was destroyed in the launching of war on Yugoslavia's existence as a viable state-- that was done while Clinton threw many families on the street and passed the first anti-terror bills-- the ones that make fund raising for groups like FARC-EP in Colombia a Federal offense in the same vein as Al-Qaeda. Since that time, more and more people have become aware of concepts like international law, and also have gained much in the way of understanding the root causes of the conflict over the land of Palestine.

However, to understand the root causes of the conflict in Palestine, one needs to see not racism in the utterances of Sharon, or even in the Labour Party, but in, "gasp" colonialism and settler states as a structurally racist entity that cannot be undone via strong personalities. A state that is based on the legal separation of Jews and non-Jews is a racist state; one that denies people citizenship or even marriage rights based on racial or ethnic characteristics is a racist state; one founded upon ethnic cleansing and the denial of the repatriation of refugees home is clearly a racist state. Zionism is indeed the political structural underwriting of all that is Israeli today, where ever the illegal borders are drawn up.

It is simply false to attribute the racist attitudes of leaders of a racist state structure to anything other than the racist state structures themselves. "Sharon" didn't come up with a "doctrine"-- he is simply a PM leading a failed experiment in structural racism, and the kind of dysfunctionality inherent in that is what builds walls, divides families and bulldozes houses. Not bad attitudes. It is frighteningly rational, not irrational.

How then, can we condemn anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish Cemeteries but limit ourselves to "Sharon's policies", without discussing what caused them in the first place? Perhaps when Klein writes: "We are not allowed to point out that fundamentalism breeds in failed states, where warfare has systematically targeted civilian infrastructure, allowing the mosques to start taking responsibility for everything from education to garbage collection,"10 she might want to take notes from herself. We must be prepared to discuss the viability of a state-- not elected party within that state-- that needs to cause this kind of total dispossession as its raison d'etre. If we condemn one racist ideology without the other-- i.e., anti-Semitism without Zionism-- we fail at our intended goal and actually reinvigorate racist attitudes in their totality: the inequality of all peoples. It's not as if biting her tongue on this question has saved her from vitriolic attacks and accusations of being a terrorist lover, judging by the letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail (a national daily in Canada) the day following "The Likud Doctrine". Why does she seek to limit her investigation into the state itself?

And then we get to the "Distraction in Chief": do people around the world get mesmerized by Bush because he's a latter day Alfred E. Neumann? Perhaps, but the oil Junta are not going anywhere, certainly not while Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution marches forward and the peak of oil gets ever nearer. But "the war", Klein notes, does not disappear with Bush should he be dethroned. So why her "distraction"? Because we need to get past the situation where we focus on "big men": men like Bush and Sharon. Yet when it comes to imperialism, let's focus on this or that policy; when it comes to Israel, let's focus on the Bulldozer himself; when it comes to building an anti-war movement, let's focus on those very "big men" and their policies:

"[O]n September 11, George Bush went looking for a political philosophy to guide him in his role as "war president". He found that philosophy in the Likud doctrine [...]" 11

However, one again would come away with the notion that imperialism is being mishandled.

The state structures that are so carefully avoided by the left's anti-corporate "gurus" must be exposed, detailed and studied, in order that we may begin coming up with real strategies to transform this world we live in. Imperialism, both as a state structure and economic imperative for the United States, is driving us all into the abyss-- not George Bush or any "Likud Doctrine". Klein states that before 9-11,

"We began to understand modern empire not as the purview of a single nation, no matter how powerful, but a global system of interlocking states, international institutions and corporations, an understanding that allowed us to build global networks in response [...]" 12

But is that true? Is it not fairer to say that because we were learning about corporate globalization as something that was wrong with this or that institutional body, company or governmental policy, that when imperialism roared back as the largest, most vicious and strong state entity in history, it left us intellectually unprepared for such an assault? Does not minimizing our analysis of the structures that inform the state play a role in getting us to the mess we are in, far more so than having George W Bush looked at as stupid, or having Israel looked at as a leadership with an ulcer?

Naomi Klein continues to be one of the strongest voices of the "new" activists, representing the social justice movements emerging around the globe. She's earned it. But the weaknesses inherent in the movement after 9-11 continue to show up in the Klein Doctrine, wedded to surface issues and divorced from the roots of how we got here in the first place.

Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance writer from Vancouver, now living in Montreal and studying at Concordia University. He can be reached at:

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