Today, we present a guest post written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. A shorter version appeared at Project Syndicate.
September 21, 2023 — Naomi Klein has a new book, Doppleganger: A Trip into the Mirror World. It could offer some sorely needed insights into the bizarre tangle of political polarization, contested realities, and viral digital communication in which we find ourselves in the 21st century — the improbable dream from which we are evidently not going to wake up. The insights include a recognition that the far left and far right have some things in common and a candid critique of the personal brand that she had developed in her own past writings.
Klein, who holds the title of UBC Professor of Social Justice at the University of British Columbia, is an enviably prolific and successful author of books that have catchy titles and reach mass readerships.
This commentary is not a review of the new book. Rather, I have my own critique of her past work. It runs as follows.
Each of her best-selling books starts from a passionate viewpoint that is generally attractive to a liberal reader. Climate change is a severe threat. There is too much money in American politics. George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was perhaps the worst avoidable mistake in the history of US foreign policy. But each book fashions a successful brand by homing in on a core thesis that, while memorably formulated, seems to me off-target.
Consider her big three: No Logo, The Shock Doctrine, and This Changes Everything.
- Corporate brands
No Logo (1999) was Klein’s first book, published in 1999 at the time of 1999 anti-globalization protests against the WTO in Seattle. Its main targets were large multinational corporations — The Gap, McDonald’s, Nike, and Shell – who assiduously promote their respective brand names, while locating production in Third World countries where they employ low-wage workers. (She apparently sees a connection between manufacturing the product in developing countries and marketing it with an emphasis on brands.)
One can make a case that many US corporations have gotten too large and anti-competitive and merit more regulation than they have received in recent decades. Or that American business thrives on an excessively consumerist culture. One can further make a case that, when liberals campaign for social goals that are not adequately addressed by the marketplace, such as the environment or equality, they are more likely to be politically effective if they target a small number of large known corporations, rather than a large number of small unknown corporations.
But we economists, of course, see multinational corporations that produce in low-wage economies as typically offering poverty-struck workers a better standard of living than they would otherwise have. Just look at the economic growth rate in Bangladesh or Vietnam. Yes, the workers in developing countries are poor. But most are better off with the opportunity to work in a “sweat shop” for a multinational than without it. This is a familiar debate.
Less familiar is Klein’s identification of brands and logos as the crux of the problem. It is here that I see the focus as being precisely off-target. Small firms that participate in a non-brand world are at least as resistant to social goals like environmental quality as are large ones. Indeed, prominent corporations with widely recognized logos and brand names tend to care more about their reputations and are thus more susceptible to pressure from social movements. Within the supply chains that underlie such products as clothing, coffee, consumer electronics, and shoes, the internationally recognized multinationals are often the ones trying to raise environmental and labor standards, not the numerous anonymous small suppliers in the chain.
- Do shocks facilitate the right wing?
The Shock Doctrine (2007) is a critique of neoliberal economics. “Neoliberal” is one of those ambiguous terms that is used by its critics rather than its proponents. Is it defined as a belief in free-market laissez faire economics, without government regulation, what Klein more clearly calls free-market fundamentalism? If so, most economists don’t meet the definition. Nor do most politicians. Or is it defined as subscribing to textbook economics, as a belief in government regulation only when and only when it is well-targeted at market failures such as externalities (pollution), monopoly and information asymmetries? Again, the debate over the appropriate size and role of government is a familiar one.
More original is her thesis that American conservatives seize on traumatic national shocks to rally the public and successfully enact their agenda. A strong instance of this happened after the terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney seized on the psychological shock and the resulting rally-around the-flag surge in presidential popularity ratings, to launch military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq which the public otherwise never would have supported. Somehow, they also saw a strengthened case for tax cuts.
But there are at least as many historical examples of liberals seizing upon traumatic national shocks to rally the public and accomplish their agenda as conservatives. Franklin Roosevelt was able to capitalize on the political forces of the Great Depression to enact the sweeping economic reforms of the New Deal. The Obama White House followed the Great Recession of 2007-09 with the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Affordable Care Act, overcoming previously insurmountable Republican opposition, under the logic, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The proposition that big policy shifts are more possible at a time of crisis is true, but applies regardless of political affiliation.
- Markets and the environment
In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014), Klein argues that capitalism bears fundamental responsibility for global climate change, and that beating the environmental calamity requires sweeping reform of the global economic system. To be sure, industrialization and economic growth are essentially the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Regarding economic growth, few would countenance throwing out the prosperity baby with the polluted bathwater. As for using the capitalist system as the means to achieve the economic growth, socialist command economies like the former members of the Soviet bloc achieved their industrialization with far more pollution than western economies. Today, national oil companies (NOCs), like the state-run oil companies of Venezuela and the Gulf countries, produce about six times as much of the world’s crude as do large capitalist multinational oil corporations. Most of the latter, subject to public pressure, have stabilized or peaked their emissions.
We need not abandon the market system in order to address climate change with the required vigor and effectiveness. Indeed, the economic costs will be lower and the political acceptability will ultimately be higher if market mechanisms are used, namely a carbon tax or tradable emission permits. International trade can also be made to help.
Climate-change deniers have long claimed that the campaign against global warming is a Trojan horse that the left wing wants to use to expand the size and scope of government. In reality, the origins of the campaign are entirely in science, not in big-government social philosophy. But the claim gained a scintilla of credibility when Klein wrote that we must abandon capitalism to fight climate change. It gained a second scintilla of credibility when Democratics in Congress proposed Green New Deal legislation that included extraneous provisions like a federal jobs guarantee.
- Mirror images
Writing her new book, Doppleganger, Naomi Klein developed a self-awareness that was less evident in the earlier writings. The title refers to Naomi Wolf, who during the pandemic joined the right-wing vaccine-conspiracy loonies. Klein explores the mirror-image tactics of the other side. (“You can’t impeach me! I impeach you!”) But the reflections include insights into possible symmetric shortcomings of her own side. In reference to the “other Naomi,” with whom she is frequently confused, Naomi Klein writes: “For years I had told myself (and others) that I was opposed to branding, yet here I was, trying to assert my sovereign self in the face of an off-brand me.”
We need something more useful than telling each other (correctly) that the other side simply believes the wrong set of facts. This may be an important takeaway from Doppleganger. We could recognize and confront some limitations that we all share. We all commit sins like falling for click-bait, judging a book by its cover, judging an article by its headline, or attributing a group’s perceived tendencies to an individual member of the group. Left or right, author or reader, we all think too much in terms of brands, slogans, titles, generalizations, personalities, teams, memes, and schemes. By acknowledging our collective tendency toward tribal and even conspiratorial thinking, we could gain a better understanding of our current cultural moment.
This post written by Jeffrey Frankel.