Naomi Klein: People Are Ready to Vote For Something, Not Just Against It
On the Success of Jeremy Corbyn and the Failings of the Democratic Party
Author, activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein talks to Christopher Lydon about the recent UK elections, Donald Trump and potential change to come. This interview originally appeared at Radio Open Source.
Among book-writers on the left, from Michelle Alexander to Bill McKibben to Michael Moore, the line on Naomi Klein is that nobody faster is better, and nobody better is faster. No Is Not Enough is her quick handbook for the Trump era. Her stance since No Logo in 2000 has been that corporate and consumer culture are hazardous for both people and the planet. Donald Trump should be seen not as cause of the problem but as evidence of it. I asked her this week to take note of a near-tie in the UK election.
Naomi Klein: Well, the way I read that election is that people are ready to vote for something, not just against something. The real turning point for Jeremy Corbyn was putting out this manifesto that spoke to people’s better selves, that had tangible and bold ideas about making people’s lives better: like free public education, like tackling student debt, like really funding the NHS, like getting at the root causes of why we are seeing more and more terrorist threats, the failure of foreign intervention and the whole “war on terror” model. It was a generous vision for the many not the few. I think that second part is very important because it wasn’t just this kind of mushy, “We’re going to fix everything for everyone.” It was also saying, “Look, we’re going to have to go where the money is.”
We live in a time of unprecedented private wealth. It is stuck at the top. More and more of it is being courted at the top every year, and we need bold policies and a bold political project that is willing to engage in some redistribution of wealth . . . you know, scary words like that. And it turned out that it was tremendously appealing, particularly to young people. Many have really come-of-age since the 2008 economic crisis, which is what began the breaking of the spell of the neoliberal project—because we all witnessed that you can intervene in the market to save the rich. And if that’s true, well, maybe you can do it for everybody else too.
Christopher Lydon: Several things: first, the press in England, as in this country last year, was the last to find out about the surge for Corbyn. Second, a very striking thing: two serious terrorist incidents, first in Manchester then in London. We dread the possibility of an incident in this country that could trigger a horrendous assault on Raqqa say, or some other extreme thing. But in England, Jeremy Corbyn said the war against terror has got to stop, and the people supported him. Third thing, the election was openly a sort of class war. It’s the poor people against the rich—and not much less polite than our campaign last year.
But stitch these things together. Where are we going? And what are the possibilities for American politics here?
NK: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I was at the People’s Summit in Chicago, which was a gathering of 4,000 essentially Bernie supporters. Bernie Sanders gave the keynote speech. It was organized by a coalition of groups. The anchor of that was National Nurses United, a trade union representing nurses across the country that has been fighting for single-payer for many years and was very strong for Bernie. And there was definitely a feeling of excitement after having seen that Corbyn upset in the UK and a feeling that these ideas are popular. We just need some political mechanism through which to put it on the ballot, you know?
I’ll be honest with you, there was a lot of debate about whether or not it was possible to stage a successful insurgency within the Democratic Party of the kind that Jeremy Corbyn did stage in the Labor Party. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been sabotaged by the elites at absolutely every stage. They tried to keep him from being leader. They tried to repel this wave of youth engagement that led to him winning. He was then sabotaged by his own MPs. So I think that there was a real live debate about whether or not that kind of insurgency is possible or whether the Democratic Party establishment will successfully repel it. In which case, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is definitely going to be a third party that will split the vote. That’s the real concern.
CL: Again, the media doesn’t help. The New York Times referred to the Bernie people in Chicago as the “militant wing” of the Democratic Party rather than, should we say, “the rising common sense,” or something. That spell has got to be broken. The voters don’t seem to have that problem, but the conversation still needs a kind of confirmation of these returns.
NK: I mean, it is quite extraordinary, and I think that New York Times piece reflected the way a lot of powerful people within the Democratic Party sees the 13 million people who voted for Bernie, the 22 states that went for Bernie in the primaries—which is as interlopers. It’s just incredibly unwise when you think about the energy, right? I mean, the biggest problem that Democrats had in 2016 was a failure to energize their base. They had low voter turnout. That’s why I think Bernie Sanders is absolutely right in saying Trump did not win that election, the Democrats lost it. So, imagine dissing that youthful energy, that activist energy, at a moment like this, if you are the Democratic Party and in as weak position as they are. It’s extraordinary.
CL: Right. It’s millions of votes. It’s also a kind of common sense on the street: “This war on terror is not working. Hello? This economy does not serve any kind of distributional justice or good feeling in the country.”
NK: And Trump ran on a message not that far from that, right? It was a message that resonated because it came closer to reflecting a lot of people’s reality than the message that the Democrats had, which was sort of “All is well,” and Trump’s saying, “No, all is hell.” And that resonated with more people’s experience in a time of deepening crisis. And so, there has to be a political expression that is open to the world, that is internationalist not hyper-nationalist, that is generous but that is not afraid to say that there is a war going on in this country and there are sides in this battle. And people are going to need to stand up.
CL: Naomi, you speak of a “crisis of imagination” especially in our political culture. Cut through it if you can.
NK: Right. So this past 40 years, since what we call the neoliberal project began—which accelerated so much under Reagan in this country and Thatcher in the UK—was a set of policies: privatization, deregulation, low taxes paid for with cuts to social services. As more and more people were excluded from participating in this economy, there was an explosion of mass incarceration, of criminalization. This is the neoliberal project, but the flipside of it was always to say that there is no alternative to this project, as Margaret Thatcher famously argued. Sure, you know, these policies may hurt in the short term, or in the medium term, or now in the long term, but the alternative to them is apocalypse.
And so a huge part of that neoliberal project that we have been living for 40 years, those of us who have been alive that long, has been about constraining the imagination and creating all of these borders around what people will even put on the political table for fear of being condemned as communists or socialists or whatever the smear of the day is.
And that is what’s falling away, and you see that so clearly in this millennial generation that has been powering the insurgent campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. They know they were lied to because they remember the 2008 financial crisis, when trillions of dollars were marshaled to bail out the banks, so they know that it is possible to intervene in the market. They’ve now seen Donald Trump talking about renegotiating trade deals that we had all been told could never be changed once they’ve been signed. This is a malleable moment for better and for worse, right? Progressive ideas are surging in popularity as the Trump administration savages people’s health care policies. You know, the state of California, stepping up in the California Senate, just got one step closer to introducing single-payer healthcare in the state of California, a massive economy.
So, Trump is creating a situation because he is himself a system failure, and people are seeing this. They’re seeing not just the election of Donald Trump but that the market cheered on his election, that the media cheered as he launched missiles on Syria over chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago.
People are seeing this as a need to get at the underlying causes, and we’re seeing this in the boldness of the progressive agenda, the willingness to go deep. But at the same time we have to be cognizant of the fact that these are not the only ideas that are gaining popularity. White supremacy, misogyny—these are surging to the surface. They are playing out on people’s bodies and people’s lives in blood and violence. So, it’s really a race against time because that vacuum left by the neoliberal project collapsing—and it has been in a state of collapse since 2008—is allowing other ideas to bubble up to the surface, and some of them are very, very dangerous indeed.
CL: You speak very personally about killing the Trump within. The Trump within maybe inhabits guys even more than you, but speak about it. What is that we have to purge?
NK: I challenged readers at the end of the book to look inside themselves and see if there isn’t anything a little bit Trumpish that they might want to confront. Maybe an attention span fractured down to 140 characters. You know, now that there is a Tweeter-in-Chief fracturing all of our attention spans, a president who apparently can’t read anything longer than one page, it makes me look at what our age of social media has done to my own attention span and the state of our debate.
I think there’s lots of ways in which we need to see Trump as a mirror that’s being held up to the world and certainly to the country. He’s this kind of dystopian figure. All roads lead to Trump, and this is not just something that can be off-loaded onto the Republican Party. He is a product of the culture. None of his products are made in the USA, but I think Trump is very much a made-in-the-USA character, a product of the culture. My hope is that as people see this and as many many people are horrified by it he can become a wake up call.
We are seeing this. There was this assumption after he was elected that Europe for instance was going to surge to the right and these far right figures were going to you know run away with elections in the Netherlands and even possibly France and in the UK and in fact we’ve seen the opposite that that in looking at what is happening to the US is part of what is motivating other countries to try to get at some of those underlying causes.
CL: I love it. You know who else is hooked on the delusional fantasies of ultra-wealth: vast apartments overlooking the Statue of Liberty, or something? Not Donald Trump, but readers the New York Times magazine. They live off that revenue, which used to come from the clothing industry and unionized manufacturers in the city itself. Now what sustains the advertising culture is this kind of totally Trumpian fantasy.
NK: The penthouse fantasy—a different kind of penthouse fantasy. It’s an interesting one because it is it is a relationship with the world that is entirely apart. You know, what worries me most in this in this moment is this idea that the way to beat Trump is to find one’s own liberal billionaire. That we need to just sort of draft Oprah, or Mark Zuckerberg; that we need a billionaire who cares about climate change and girls’ empowerment. A brand themselves and a celebrity themselves. And that’s the way to beat Donald Trump.
To me, it’s really the opposite route that we need to be looking at. This is what gave us Trump. That is the logic that gave us Trump, and we need to examine the whole process by which we treat politicians as celebrities and the whole way in which politics has been taken over by the logic of corporate branding, which is not something Trump started. Trump was just better at it than anyone else because he is himself a fully commercialized brand. I mean, before he came along, we already had politicians that were appropriating the tools of corporate branding in the way they were communicating with the public. Obama was a very powerful brand. George W. Bush was a brand. You know, he basically was play-acting being the Marlboro man on his Crawford ranch in Texas. So this was creeping in, and we had coverage of election campaigns that treated politics like a reality show. So the table was set for Trump. He just showed up and said, well, I know this game better than you jokers. I’m the real thing. I’m a reality TV star, and I’m a make a brand. Step aside.
CL: So this is the wisdom of No Logo. Find your inner Trump and smash it. Do we have it right?
NK: You know, I am not interested in looking at Trump as just an aberrant personality and all the psychoanalyzing of him. He is a symptom. I see him as dystopian fiction come to life, and when you read dystopian fiction—whether it’s 1984 or the Handmaid’s Tale or whether you go see a film like The Hunger Games—inevitably you see a story of a bubble of ultra-rich big winners and hordes of locked-out losers. What this entire genre is doing and has always done its taking the trends and the culture, following them to their logical conclusion, holding up a mirror and saying: Do you like what you see? It’s telling us to get off that road. So I want to look at the roads that lead to Trump much more than I want to look at.Trump himself. I want to look at the roads that led to Trump, and and I want to help people swerve.
CL: You’re writing that what has been unsayable can now be said, was said by Jeremy Corbyn out loud and got millions of votes. For example: free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as the technology allows, demilitarize the police, prisons are no place for young people. Refugees are welcome here. War makes us all less safe. And as Corbyn said, the war on terror is a failure. How will it happen and how will it happen in the United States? You say it that it’s going to be three parties or more.
NK: I’m saying it is happening. It started with happening with Bernie’s campaign, but it is continuing. The more Trump goes rogue at the federal level, and the more that Republicans go rogue, states are stepping up with these bold policies—under pressure from below. Look at what happened when Trump announced that he was pulling out of the Paris accord. Hundreds of cities stepped forward and said, No, we are going to stay true to to the commitments made under Paris. The mayor of Pittsburgh is a fantastic example of the sort of spirit we need to see. Trump said he was elected by the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris; the mayor of Pittsburgh steps forward and says well, actually, Pittsburgh voted for Hillary Clinton, and as mayor I’m going to commit the city to get to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035—which is the boldest target in the entire country. It is precisely the kind of ambition that we need to see in this country and countries around the world. If we are going to meet the targets set in the Paris accord—we weren’t doing that by the way, before. But now in response to Trump’s intransigence and recklessness and destructiveness, the ambition that we need is starting to manifest. We just need to see more of it.
For the rest of the show on which this interview appears, check out this week’s show “Something’s Happening Here” For more conversations like this and discussions on arts, ideas, and politics, check out radioopensource.org. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and join us every week!