Nathan French shares his thoughts on Naomi Klein’s most recent publication addressing shock and the Trump administration
The eve of the 2016 election in November, while still on exchange in Paris and away from Berlin, I decide not to go to the viewing party that was set up by Sciences Po. Rather, I will stay in my roomy eleven square meter studio and wait for Hillary Clinton’s inevitable win with my Swedish friend. She, who normally studies in Glasgow, didn’t stay up late for the Brexit vote earlier that year in June, assuming like many of us that the sun would rise and the country would have voted to remain. As the November night unfolds and the results roll in, we get ahead of ourselves and figure it’s safe to take a little nap around 1am (Paris Time). The nap lasts longer than planned and we awake around four-thirty. Bleary-eyed, I walk over to the kitchen area of the apartment, a feat accomplished in two small, sleepy steps, and offer to make coffee.
Then, from my left, comes her voice: “Nathan, why are all of these states red?”
I respond: “What?”
Happy only that I chose not to go to the aforementioned viewing party, I Skype three friends at once — in Boston, Annandale-on-Hudson, and Berlin.
The five of us try to calm each other down, but this only serves to exacerbate the hysteria. We shouldn’t need calming down. This shouldn’t have happened.
My friend leaves the apartment after a few hours to go to the Sciences Po main building on Rue Saint-Guillaume where she finds weeping students scattered in various little nooks and crannies. I, feeling queasy, am unable to eat a full meal until the next day.
I share in the collective shock.
Naomi Klein’s recently published book, No is Not Enough (2017), sets out first and foremost to tackle this very feeling of shock. Klein, who normally takes several years compiling information for her books, rushed to get No is Not Enough out in just a few months, given the need she felt was present for a work of this kind. The book itself begins with her reflections of that memorable post-election day. She, abroad, just as my friends and I found ourselves, was in Australia for a conference at the time and therefore heard the news around mid-morning. Shock was setting in, maybe not for the Trump supporters, but for a large portion of Americans who weren’t on the bandwagon and for people in countries all over the world who looked on in horror. (I suspect some people who voted for Trump were also surprised, considering that all the predictions gave them little to no chance of victory.) While understandable, shock is a problem. Collective shock makes populations vulnerable, Klein argues, and, for that reason, one needs to become informed fast. Vulnerable in the sense that, when one is shocked, one can’t act against legislation and political actions that one might normally oppose, such as the privatization of public resources.
Klein is perhaps best known for her work with climate activism, advocating for the past years “to get the left more involved with climate.”1 Her work includes the best-selling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2011), and the documentary that followed. Through both of these, she argues that timid green politics will not be enough to draw us back from the brink of global climate catastrophe: They must be coupled with socialist economics rather than the profit motive. Taking this standpoint and pairing it with her understanding of how shock can function as a method of pushing through unsavory economic reforms that she explained in The Shock Doctrine (2007), now she tackles Trump’s new administration and band of people that she fondly refers to as “disaster capitalists.” For examples of shock or “exceptional circumstances,” Klein gives many. There is the situation in France where, in the wake of the 2015 attacks, a state of emergency has been called that, notably, limits certain freedoms of assembly and has been prolonged many times and still lasts today in a country with a substantial history of disruptive protest and strike-action; President Macron’s new government just recently approved the sixth extinction of the state of emergency which will last up until November 1, 2017.2 With regards to pushing forward brutal privatization following a shock, Klein points to the economic reforms after the (CIA-supported) coup which put Pinochet in power in Chile, as well as the wave of privatization witnessed in the United States following the devastation and shock in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That is only to pluck a few examples from her extensive synthesis.
In No is Not Enough, chapter by chapter, Klein goes through and looks at the major “talking points,” as they are now called, in the news, as well as the biggest debates following the election. In the first chapter, she looks at the creation of the Trump brand and how the results of this election could be related to the narrative of modern branding culture. This extends from the leasing of the “Trump” name for building developments all around the world to the creation of a TV personality through Celebrity Apprentice; Klein’s assessment of the show as televised class warfare is a particularly funny—although dark—section of her analysis. Also, this strikes me as perhaps one of the more original narratives she puts forward to explain the the rise of Trump — not just as a man, but as a brand in a century where brands play such a powerful role in the everyday lives of citizens.
Furthermore, Klein tackles the identity vs. class politics dichotomy, although perhaps going after low-hanging fruit by taking on Mark Lilla and his controversial op-ed in the New York Times.3 Basically, she rejects the line of thought on the basis that real redistributive politics require recognition of different identities and vice versa and that we shouldn’t be wasting time arguing whether or not we want bread or roses — redistribution or recognition. Real, substantive progress on issues of racial and sexual justice is made in relation to progress on economic inequality, not in opposition to it. It should be noted that she does not really engage with the more substantial critiques of “identity politics” that tackle issues such as identity reification—where systems of oppression are part and parcel of the formation of a group identity. An example of this is the racialisation of women as White in early feminist work. The most powerful women within the movement were white and were therefore able to shape a female identity that resembled them. This is just one example plucked from one movement for social justice, but these sorts of questions of intersectionality and the role of identity politics as a function of liberalism could have made this section of Klein’s more compelling. However, one gets the feeling that she is trying to deal with a simplified media narrative rather than big questions of political theory—a format that ultimately works well in her book and is perhaps more pertinent to the majority of people trying to understand what is going on.4
Most importantly, Klein explores the issue of climate change, which is perhaps one of the most relevant issues in an era when the United States sees it fit to install former oil profiteer Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the administration’s stance on this issue (contrary to many accusations of a lack of consistency) shows that there are certain issues that Trump and his goons are very consistent on:
“[Trump’s] position is very clear: climate change is not happening, we should increase the use of fossil fuels, including coal, the most destructive. We should eliminate environmental regulations and eliminate the agency that is responsible for them. We should abandon the Paris negotiations, COP21, which are just coming into effect, which are insufficient, but at least provide some kind of a basis from hope. We should withdraw from that. We should refuse to give any aid to poor countries… that are trying somehow to move to sustainable energy. And in general, we should race to the precipice as quickly as possible.”5
Sharing Chomsky’s perspective, Klein combines her analysis on this issue with personal notes, such as Klein’s thoughts after visiting a coral reef bleaching—a process by which rising ocean temperatures disrupts reef ecosystems—with her daughter. Anecdotal illustration is crucial to remind the reader of the tangible reality of global warming and the fact that climate policy affects everyday life for everyone.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the issues on which Klein touches. The importance of this work, however, is not directly in relation to any of those issues in particular, I would argue, but rather the book as a whole, as a work of synthesis. The first step is shock. The next step, before the administration has the chance to catch us with our pants down, is to put everything together, at least tentatively, and construct our narrative of what is going on. We can’t just stay shocked and scream no, as perhaps the Democratic Party seems to be doing. Lacking a real platform, one of the new Democratic slogans reads, “I mean, have you seen the other guys?.”6 In her speech on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Klein told a cheering crowd that “it is not enough to simply say no to these attacks, right? It’s not enough because we know that where we are now, before the attacks come, is entirely unacceptable—the levels of inequality, the levels of racism, and the climate chaos that we have unleashed. We need radical system change… so as we say no we also have the be proposing, we have to say yes.”7
There have been so many shocks since that inauguration. It seems like I can’t go a day without a New York Times notification informing me of something new and disturbing about this administration. No is Not Enough is a good aid in piecing everything together into a coherent narrative and then thinking about what that yes might look like.
I’ve left a copy in the BCB library.
6 Delk, Josh. Dems Try New Slogan: ‘Have you seen the other guys?’ The Hill. July 5, 2017.