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Taking on the multinationals

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Issue 1704

Interview with anti-capitalist author

Taking on the multinationals

NAOMI KLEIN’S book No Logo exposes how multinationals stifle people’s lives. It became an instant hit after the protests in Seattle. She is flying in from Canada to speak at the opening rally of Marxism 2000 this weekend on Anti-capitalism after Seattle. She spoke to Socialist Worker.

WHY DID you write No Logo?

I STARTED on the book five years ago. It was a time of great hopelessness on the left. There was a powerful sense that all the old ways of achieving change were no longer working. I wrote the book because I believed that the only way the left was going to become powerful again was if it adapted to the transnational nature of capitalism and the growing power of multinational corporations.

I started noticing that there were these individual campaigns, particularly among younger people, who were just taking matters into their own hands and going after corporations and trade agreements directly. I felt the future of the left lay in this direction.

I didn’t know if I was right, but doing it made me feel more hopeful about the possibilities for social justice, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised as I have watched this movement emerge before my very eyes. The book went to the printers before Seattle.

In Britain I think the book would have been accepted with or without Seattle-because of things like the campaign against GM foods and the McLibel trial. But in North America the book would have got nowhere without Seattle. In Canada the book instantly went on the bestsellers list. It sparked a discussion but, more importantly, it landed in a movement that is building and growing.

Since the book came out I have been going from one university campus to another where there are vibrant campaigns against sweatshop labour and for kicking corporations off campus.

IN YOUR book you say the student activism of today is different from the student activism of the 1980s because it has moved on from individualised issues to a more general view of the whole system.

THAT’S ABSOLUTELY true. This is a big advance. When I was at university we were into staring at our navels and we didn’t have any kind of economic analysis. We were concerned about the representation of women, of people of colour, of gays and lesbians, in the media and by our professors.

What I see now is that the politics of identity are playing a role, but a much saner role. Things are much more focused on larger, broader, political goals and things are much more integrated. There is a much deeper understanding now of why there are the divisions that exist in our society.

SOME PEOPLE think global corporations are so mighty they are unbeatable. What do you say to them?

I DON’T think that is how people are feeling. The young activists I meet are getting a kick out of just how vulnerable these corporations are. They are really enjoying seeing how they can get a multi-billion dollar company like Nike or Gap on the run.

It started off being more concerned with a consumer perspective, but now these students are concerned about the right of workers in the factories in the developing world to form unions. This is not something Nike wants to talk about at all!

But the students have come to the conclusion that is the only solution. We can’t solve the problems of workers in the developing world from here. All we can do is help support workers who are already trying to help themselves. This is really about rejecting that feeling of paralysis in the face of the multinationals.

It is an international phenomena that started in the developing world when Ken Saro-Wiwa named Shell as the major force behind the repression of the Ogoni people. Now there are campaigns against big food corporations Cargill and Monsanto by farmers in India, against multinational water giants in Bolivia, and against Occidental oil in Colombia who want to drill an oil pipeline on tribal land.

ONE OF the most exciting things about Seattle was the unity between trade unionists and environmentalists.

YES. THERE was something that happened in Seattle that made it impossible to dismiss precisely because of the range of people who were there. All the campaigns came together, and people really learned from that and humanised one another where they were previously dehumanised. But in a sense that provides the illusion of unity-it’s unity for a day. There is also a long way to go.

Having a common enemy is not the same thing as having a genuinely shared agenda for the future. The unions, by and large, have definitely been radicalised by events. I work a lot with the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union. It is extraordinarily progressive.

At Windsor, Ontario, the union bailed a lot of young people when they were jailed. They also paid for buses for students to come down to the demonstration. That is real. That’s a union that is building this movement and creating all kinds of opportunities for dialogue.

The AFL/CIO did major damage, however, at Washington by pouring resources into trying to block China’s entry into the WTO. They made alliances with right winger Pat Buchanan and were associated with images and rhetoric that were borderline racist-“yellow peril” sort of stuff.

WHAT DO you think of Marx and socialism?

I THINK it is great that more people are reading Marx but I don’t think anyone has got all the answers. This is a decentralised grassroots movement that is getting more and more radical.

It has gone from being anti-globalisation to being anti-corporate, and is now largely becoming anti-capitalist. This has happened very quickly. Suddenly the word capitalism has re-emerged.

But just because it is anti-capitalist, it does not mean that it is a Marxist movement. Lots of activists are looking for a framework that can accommodate their critique of capitalism, their desire for environmental justice and their anarchist rejection of hierarchy.

I don’t think anybody has an agenda for the future. I don’t think the ideological framework exists yet to deal with the diversity of issues that we saw on the streets of Seattle. I’m wary of people who think they have got it all figured out. We need something new, and I think that’s great.

Logo of profit

“MORE AND more over the last four years, we in the West have been catching glimpses of another kind of global village, where the economic divide is widening and cultural choices narrowing. This is a village where some multinationals, far from levelling the global playing field with jobs and technology for all, are in the process of mining the planet’s poorest for unimaginable profits. 

This is the village where Bill Gates lives, amassing a fortune of 55 billion while a third of his workforce is classified as temporary workers, and where competitors are either incorporated into the Microsoft monolith or made obsolete by the latest feat in software bundling. 

In a single image, the brand name sweatshop tells the story of the obscene disparities of the global economy: corporate executives and celebrities raking in high salaries so high they defy comprehension, billions of dollars spent on branding and advertising-all propped up by a system of shanty towns, squalid factories and the misery and trampled expectations of young women like those I met in Cavite in the Philippines, struggling to survive.”

  • From No Logo by Naomi Klein (12.99 from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848).

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