Naomi Klein and the Quest for Environmental Justice
More than a program for economic and ecological renewal Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need is a thoughtful analysis of how we have arrived at this point in our politics. Both rigorous and readable it is hard to put down. It spares no one, not its readers, the media, nor even the author herself. This book can elicit the kind of self-reflective activism we desperately need.
Repellant as are Trump’s practices, he is not the cause of our maladies. He is a symptom of neoliberal capitalism at its worst. As is the case with Nike, Trump profits primarily by revenues from licensing his name to corporations around the globe thereby evading responsibility for their inhumane labor practices.
The value, both economic and political, has been enhanced by the major corporate media. During the primaries the media saw him as a great ratings maker, but these media had already made him a superstar through his own “Reality” shows.
Who is to blame for Trump’s triumph? Some have blamed the obsession with identity politics and suggested that an emphasis on inequality and insecurity would have been the best strategy. But as Klein recognizes, discrimination and even violence based on race and sexual orientation are real and just as important an aspect of many lives as economic issues. I would also argue that no Democrat is likely to prevail without substantial support from the African American and Latino communities. Thus Klein, who supported Sanders, also properly faults him for his rather limp comment, when asked about reparations for slavery, that this was too “divisive” an issue, as though much of his campaign was not divisive. What Sanders might have said by way of seeking to broaden the Democratic base would be to demand that those who had most benefited from slavery and racism primarily bear the burden of funding compensatory programs. Klein nicely summarizes the case for such intersectional thinking: “In Standing Rock, it was just so clear that it was all of it, a single system. It was ecocidal capitalism that was determined to ram that pipeline through the Missouri River—consent and climate change be damned. It was searing racism that made it possible to do in Standing Rock what was deemed impossible in Bismark… Modern capitalism, white supremacy, and fossil fuels were strands of the same braid, inseparable. And they were all woven together here on this patch of frozen land.”
Klein points out that capitalism in the U.S. began with the exploitation and expropriation of native Americans. Demonizing them provided a rationale for their expropriation and annihilation. I would add that causality also flowed in the opposite direction. Notions of the moral superiority of private property were enhanced by portraying those who held more communal ideals of land tenure as “savages.” Portraying any alternative to the private property/corporate market as foreign inspired and dangerous has been from the earliest days a tool to repress critiques of that market economy.
Neoliberalism was a major contributor to the social and economic condition of the working class. Klein recognizes neoliberalism’s importance but too easily equates it to simple greed. The neoliberal faith in markets, willingness to extend them to all areas of life and impose them when necessary, and confidence in a nature subordinate to human control have helped shape and been sustained by many of the practices of daily life. We see ourselves as walking resumes. But not only have our jobs and pensions become insecure, the social safety net was weakened and their traditional Democratic defenders have mostly deserted their cause. In such a climate some may choose to identify with the boss on The Apprentice or go it alone fantasies. The neoliberal agenda has aided media consolidation and wealth concentration, which in turn contribute to a sense by the wealthy that they can escape environmental problems.
Concerns about neoliberalism are not new. They provoked movements against trade and environmental exploitation in late nineties, but these were crushed in the bud by 9/11 and the demonization of anything radical in its wake. There is a lesson here. Klein argues that corporate interests will use or even manufacture shocks to impose policies that would otherwise not be acceptable to the electorate. As Klein herself recognizes in a recent article, Trump is already trying to use hurricanes Harvey and Irma as an occasion to accelerate enactment of deep tax cuts for the wealthy.
How urgent is the problem? We are already living under the reality of global warming and climate crisis. She might have made the point even stronger by treating environment as a dynamic and not fully predictable actor in its own right. This doesn’t mean humans don’t count but rather that the cosmos does not exist to serve our needs and that humility and restraint is even more necessary lest we set off these other unpredictable triggers.
No is not enough because the situation is urgent and because so much must be done on a constructive level to pose and implement alternatives to neoliberalism.
With respect to neoliberalism it is important to remember that there was a period when at least some workers had protection against the ups and downs of the market. Nonetheless, Klein, to her great credit, does not engage in nostalgic reminiscence of this period and acknowledges the race and gender exclusions of capitalism’s “Golden Age.”
If class, race, gender, exploitation have all interconnected in generating this crisis, a counter agenda must negotiate across multiple boundaries to build an egalitarian, ecological agenda. The end of the book includes the Leap Manifesto, the product of a grass roots democratic initiative. The manifesto reflects Klein’s well-taken advice that activists look outside their own pet issue silos and not demonize those who bring different concerns to the table. By way of friendly critique I would only add that the manifesto might include more in the way of banking regulation, given the role mega banks have played in destabilizing the economy and financing the petro giants. We can build a future that is not only safer but also more satisfying, unlike the rat cage in which many are currently trapped.