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No is not enough—but we need more than ideas to change society

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
Naomi Klein’s vision of how to win change only gets half way there, argues Sadie Robinson
Issue 2570
Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough
Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough (Photo: TroyH/Truthout)

Naomi Klein wants a different sort of society. The author and activist helped put together the Leap manifesto in Canada—a set of radical demands activists want politicians to sign up to.

It says that “small steps will no longer get us where we need to go” and urges a bold leap instead.

Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough, builds on this idea and looks at how to make it happen.

As well as rejecting the things we don’t want, Klein argues that we must put forward a positive vision of how things could be different. We need “a plan for the future that is credible and captivating enough that a great many people will fight to see it realised”.

US president Donald Trump symbolises much of what is wrong with the world we live in. Klein argues that we need to take on people like Trump. But we also need to say “no to the system that has elevated them to such heights”.

Trump is “a logical conclusion” of the neoliberalism of the past few decades. So it’s a mistake to simply focus on fending off Trump’s attacks.

“If we accept the premise that the battles are all about holding our ground, then we will end up in a very dangerous place,” Klein writes. “Because the ground we were on before Trump was elected is the ground that produced Trump.”

Some on the left refuse to criticise Democratic politicians such as Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Klein refuses to let them off the hook.

She argues that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “blurring” of “ethical lines” helped allow “Trump to annihilate those lines altogether”.

She points out that Bill Clinton deregulated the banks while Obama “chose not to prosecute the bankers”. Klein insists the failings of the liberal establishment led to Trump’s victory.

We need to challenge the capitalist ideologies that have conquered the world since the 1980s

Naomi Klein

How was it that Trump, a billionaire, could appeal to ordinary people as a champion of workers’ rights? “A large part of the answer has to do with the fact that much of this political battleground has been ceded by liberals to the Right,” writes Klein.

So what’s the alternative?

Klein writes, “For two decades, elite liberals have been looking to the billionaire class to solve problems.” By contrast, she looks to the power of ordinary people organising collectively.

Sometimes it sounds like Klein is talking about revolution, although she never mentions the word. And revolutions that have occurred in recent times—those of the Arab Spring in 2011—receive just two sentences.

She describes the revolts in Argentina in 2002 which brought down several presidents. Ordinary people set up neighbourhood assemblies and began to organise for themselves.

She says debates rage about how more could have come of this “if the popular movements had been ready with their own plan for taking power and governing differently”.

Following the economic crash of 2008 Klein says, “We did not collectively seize that moment to grab the wheel of history and swerve.”

Instead, “Too many of us were waiting for change to be delivered from on high.”

Klein says mainstream liberals say “tweak the existing system here and there and everything will be fine. You can have Goldman Sachs capitalism plus solar panels.”

“But,” she adds, “the challenge is much more fundamental than that. We need to challenge the capitalist ideologies that have conquered the world since the 1980s.”

This phrase sounds more revolutionary than it is. For Klein it partly means electing left wingers such as Bernie Sanders as the key to confronting capitalism.

Klein backed Sanders to be the Democratic presidential candidate. She pointed out that Sanders’ radical policies “were wildly popular in the most capitalist country on earth”.

“He showed that transformational change was not a pipe dream.” So electing more left wing politicians may be more what Klein means by “transformational” or radical change.

Protesters in Seattle in 1999. Naomi Klein she says the anti-capitalist movement of the 1990s “came close to being the kind of broad-based coalition that is needed
Protesters in Seattle in 1999. Naomi Klein says the anti-capitalist movement of the 1990s “came close to being the kind of broad-based coalition that is needed” (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Klein rightly notes that the attacks of capitalism are structured into the system. And she is positive about people taking action outside electoral politics.

But she seems to want to win change within the existing structures. So she writes that it’s possible to get change “we just need governments with the guts to go after it”.

She raises the idea that what people really want is never on a ballot paper. “But the real trick is going to be to get those dreams on the ballot with a winning strategy as quickly as possible.”

Klein wants to “explode the box” of what is “considered politically possible”. As she says, “I don’t claim to know exactly what that vision looks like. I am figuring it out with everyone else.”

Klein argues there is “no one blueprint for how to fix things”.

But she says the anti-capitalist movement of the 1990s “came close to being the kind of broad-based coalition that is needed at the present moment”.

Klein focuses on ordinary people organising to make demands and “exert pressure on elected representatives”. There is little sense, except for brief references, of struggles that go beyond that—or of the power that organised workers can use to win change.

This may be because Klein thinks we should look at struggles in an “intersectional” way, recognising how different oppressions interact with others. Every division is seen as equal.

Klein does not see the unique nature of the class divide. Because our society is built on the exploitation of the working class, the working class has a power to transform it.

Oddly, there is at times little sense of the big class forces at work on the other side either.

She writes about the support the Obama administration initially had when it came to office. It failed to use this to make big changes because there wasn’t enough pressure from below on it to do so.

What if it had brought in sweeping changes? Klein says the “backlash would have been ferocious and difficult to bear”.

But for her this seems to be limited to ideology—that Obama would have been denounced as a Hugo Chavez-like figure, and so on. She makes no mention of the other ways the rich could react to any challenge to their position.

Capitalism generates repeated crises that throw the ruling class into disarray and push ordinary people to resist. People’s ideas can change dramatically very quickly

Klein is optimistic. She says the “left-wing almost-wins of the past two years are not defeats. They are the first tremors of a profound ideological realignment from which a progressive majority could emerge.”

“The people’s platforms are starting to lead—and the politicians will have to follow,” she writes. But unfortunately they won’t—unless there is a force strong enough to make them.

Without a strategy for winning change in the world, Klein looks to winning change in our heads and “killing the Trump within”.

According to Klein, “Many of us can do more to confront our inner Trump. To have a hope of changing the world, we’re going to have to be willing to change ourselves.”

Of course we should challenge sexist or racist ideas. But shifting ideas on a big scale isn’t about individuals focusing on their own heads. It comes from mass struggles that transform the world and therefore the way people see it—and what they think of as possible.

Klein says that many people today have never known any other way of living, and argues that this makes it hard to imagine a radically different world.

It’s true that people’s experience has a big impact on their ideas. As the revolutionary Karl Marx put it, “Being determines consciousness.”

But it would be dangerous to imply that change is impossible because many people can’t imagine it at this time.

Capitalism generates repeated crises that throw the ruling class into disarray and push ordinary people to resist. People’s ideas can change dramatically very quickly.

Klein quotes the English revolutionary Thomas Paine saying, “We have it in our power to begin this world over again.” She disagrees.

“The truth is we do not have this godlike power of reinvention, nor did we ever.” For Klein we need an “evolutionary leap”, not a revolutionary one.

For all the value of some of Klein’s insights, that’s a limitation that we will have to go beyond if we are to win.

No Is Not Enough, by Naomi Klein, £12.99. Available at Bookmarks the socialist bookshop 

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