To say I was a little intimidated to meet Naomi Klein would be something of an understatement. The author and filmmaker is an influential voice with a global audience and a cult-like following. I was met with teenage swoons when friends and colleagues found out I was going to interview her. “I saw the sister speak,” one friend wrote to me. “I believe her. She is brilliant.”
My respect comes perhaps from less evangelical corners and more professional ones. For 20 years, Klein has practised a type of journalism that feels rare in today’s world of misinformed internet rants and #fakenews. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News once said, “All good journalists are politically motivated… we want to help to change things” and this is absolutely true of Klein. Her best-selling books, such as No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, seek to expose, rally against, and change how we see and understand exploitative power structures in our lives.
And now she’s taking on Trump. Her new book, No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (written in mere months, with an urgency that steams off the pages), tries to explain how we got to the point where, in her own words, America has “had their politics taken over a by a nuclear-armed reality TV star”, and looks at what we can actually do about it. Klein argues that we’ve all been too all distracted by the shock of Trump and his behaviour – a deliberately manipulative tactic she has written about before – instead of working to offer a real alternative; a way to meaningfully resist and create and protect a kinder culture.
“I’ll do what I can. I’ll talk to a bunch of my friends…not to Jeremy himself, though…” Bernie, maybe? (At the end of the interview, as I’m walking out the door, she offers a more frank answer: “It’s fucked up all that shit.”)
A kinder culture is something she attributes to Jeremy Corbyn. When I meet her in the Penguin offices in central London she is quick to mention the Labour leader. “I like his ideas” she tells me and this is no secret. In the days before the interview, I’d seen Klein on TV saying that Mr Corbyn is going to be the UK’s next prime minster. “He’s the least highly-produced, focus-grouped, slick political leader we’re seen in a long time,” she tells me. He’s been walking on water, I say. “But he’s the least messianic leader ever!” she says. Either way, what is unquestionable is that with Corbyn’s miraculous success comes pressure: “It’s a heavy burden and a fearsome responsibility because if we know we can win, then we have to win.”
Of course, there is a slight snitch in Corbyn’s kindness crusade. Some of his most devout followers are routinely abusive towards women on the internet. So I ask Klein, what about young women on the left, like me, who are let down by his lacklustre response to the abuse, who feel disappointed that women are constantly not being given top jobs or that they will expect to deal with aggressive misogyny if they stray from the party line?
By way of response she begins to talk about Bernie Sanders: “I don’t want to be part of the ‘Bernie would have won’ echo chamber. The true Bernie believes are acting as if we’re still in the race. The race is over. He didn’t win so let’s talk about why he didn't win and let’s not just blame the media and the elites in the Democrats. Let’s also talk about the legitimate feelings of many women, particularly women of my age, who felt women’s rights were just tacked on.”
“And you know, when you’re in a campaign, it’s a battle mode and any critique is seen as an attack. It’s important to use this down period because you don’t know when you could find yourself in another election.” I’m not sure she’s answering my question. She smiles: “I’ll do what I can. I’ll talk to a bunch of my friends…not to Jeremy himself, though…” Bernie, maybe? (At the end of the interview, as I’m walking out the door, she offers a more frank answer: “It’s fucked up all that shit.”)
One of her friends, however, is absolutely not Barack Obama. In her book, Klein accuses Obama of failing to push for real change when he had the chance. As he came to power in 2008, Wall Street collapsed and, according to Klein, there was window of opportunity, much as she believes there is now, when people expressed real anger at the banks, at corporatism and capitalism, as thousands of Americans lost homes and jobs. “What I always feel about Obama is that since they are going to treat him like a communist and a black nationalist anyway, no matter how conservative he is, why not put forward bold ideas? He thought he could take a middle path and bring people along but he would have brought more people along had he implemented policy that created a huge numbers of jobs, a bolder health plan, as opposed to this lousy compromise… and Hillary Clinton was punished for it because people feel so betrayed by these centrist Democrats.”
So what can be done to bring more people along in this window of opportunity? Klein, along with others, including her filmmaker husband, Avi Lewis, have created The Leap: Caring for the Earth and One Another, an organisation that employs storytelling and community organising to create an “intersectional, non-incremental approach to addressing climate change”.
Knowing our collective history is another way, Klein tells me. “History is our best form of shock resistance and we need it badly. We saw after Manchester and the London Bridge attacks, that the Tories really thought that they would be able to respond to these attacks in a similar way they had to 9/11. So it was ‘fear, fear, fear’, and ‘just trust us, and we’re going to invade your privacy even more, and we’ll repeal some human rights laws because you want an Iron Lady, don't you?’
“And actually we’ve learned a little bit, from some of these last attempts to exploit shock, including Tony Blair’s use of 9/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq. When Jeremy Corbyn started talking about the foreign policy context in which terrorism is rising it was interesting to watch… how those smears had been effective in the past but now there is a historical memory.”
One of the other motivations behind the book, Klein says, was also the lack of historical memory around the rise of Trump: “I just wanted to remind people we know where this comes from, this is not as shocking as we’re claiming. The book is trying to get some people on firmer ground to organise because the constant state of shock and ‘Oh my God’ is destabilising. I think Trump is extraordinarily dangerous but he’s actually a cliche; he’s just a fulfilment of really dangerous trends.”
Trends that Klein has been writing her whole career – the hollow, vacuous, harmful work of branding and self-branding, the deadly consequences of commercialisation and extreme greed, the destruction of the planet, the rise of neoliberalism. And they can all now be wrapped up neatly in one man. Is it bittersweet to know she saw this coming? “It isn't honestly a feeling of ‘I told you so’. I think, if anything, we should have fought harder and done more to prevent this.”
But she’s not without hope. The book, for all of the impending doom, is littered with remarkable and often emotional stories of communities rejecting and overcoming authoritarian rule, no more so than the chapter devoted to Klein’s time at Standing Rock. “The good news is that there more people who understand these stakes, who are alive to the possibilities, who are working incredibly hard, more than any other point that I’ve been in politics.”