Guest Contribution: “Naomi Klein’s Brand”

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.

  1. 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 shopfor 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 permitsInternational 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.

  1. 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.

27 thoughts on “Guest Contribution: “Naomi Klein’s Brand”

  1. joseph

    Regarding her Doppleganger, Mark Popham writes:

    if the Naomi be Klein
    you’re doing just fine
    if the Naomi be Wolf
    oh, buddy. Ooooof.

  2. New Deal democrat

    I won’t comment on Klein’s new book, but I did read The Shock Doctrine, and I had no problem understanding what she was critiquing or the nature of the critique.

    To begin with, “neoliberalism” is not vague or undefined. Rather, it has two separate and distinct definitions, which I will outsource to Brad DeLong in the linked article below from which I will quote him at length:

    Definition #1: “let me start with the bad neoliberalism, and in many ways the bad neoliberalism, basically it’s the market giveth, the market taketh away, blessed be the name of the market. That is, it’s the belief that if property rights are cut at the joints properly, the market economy then crowdsources the problem of increasing production and so effectively mobilizes human brain power to making a richer world in a way that no other system can.”

    Definition #2: “I would say that [the above] is right neoliberalism and I will also say that there was a left neoliberalism as well, because the same word was used more or less in the 1970s to say that … a properly constructed market economy crowdsources the solution to an enormous amounts of human problems, that you’re not having some bureaucrat at the center or some central planner who has next to no information setting out what has to be done. You’re creating a flexible system in which the people on the spot with the information are empowered to act and to act for the common good as long as you can properly tweak things so that individual incentives are to act for the common good. And that [is] good neoliberalism, that left neoliberalism, of which I was once a card-carrying member….”

    Naomi Klein specifically identified Milton Friedman as the proponent of the neoliberalism she was critiquing. Does anyone doubt that is the 1st definition above? She also quotes him and disciples quite specifically saying that those who share his ideology should be prepared to enact maximalist parts of that style of 19th century laissez-faire economics when a crisis renders opposition off-balance. And she specifically discusses 1970s Chile and 1990s Russia as examples.

    I don’t think that anyone is surprised that, e.g., Lenin was a similar proponent of a left-wing shock doctrine. But it beggars belief to include the New Deal as such a pre-packaged left wing maximalist playbook. Roosevelt was far too much of a pragmatist for that. Rather, with the country in dire straits, it was more of a “throw everything at the problem and see what works” strategy.

    More to the point, I do not believe there is any present-day similar left wing shock doctrine program extant anywhere in the world. To the contrary, while “ The proposition that big policy shifts are more possible at a time of crisis is true, but applies regardless of political affiliation” may be tritely true, that is a straw man, because Klein’s main point was not that such “shifts are possible,” but that there was a deliberate pre-packaged plan on the right to take advantage of such possibilities.

  3. joseph

    Criminy, I’ve come across a lot of “both-sides-ism” but none as disgusting as equating George Bush’s War on Terror with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

    What got up your butt today that you create a post attacking Naomi Klein out of the blue? There’s absolutely nothing else more important in the news to pontificate about?

    One thing I have learned is that there is nothing more that gets up the hackles of economists than pointing out their neoliberal tendencies even as they simultaneously defend neoliberalism against the filthy hippies.

    1. ltr

      Criminy, I’ve come across a lot of “both-sides-ism” but none as disgusting as equating George Bush’s War on Terror with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal….

      [ Perfect. ]

    2. Jeffrey A Frankel

      I am very surprised to see what I wrote described as “both-sides-ism” ! When Obama responded to the Great Recession of 2007-09 by successfully enacting such reforms (long-sought by Democrats) as the Dodd-Frank legislation and Obamacare, that was an extremely good thing. When Bush responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001, by enacting such policies (long-sought by his team) as the invasion of Iraq and tax cuts, that was an extremely bad thing. I would have thought my positions on those issues were clear. That doesn’t mean that one can’t make the analytical point that all were examples of seizing on a crisis to enact reforms that had previously been politically impossible. For good or bad.

    3. ltr

      Oh, importantly, in trying to undermine the work of Naomi Klein in “Shock Doctrine,” the analogy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was used. That analogy was used in 2007 and again in 2010, from Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowen. The analogy to the New Deal of Roosevelt was supposedly the shock doctrine “reforms” in Chile of General Pinochet.

      “Shock Doctrine” was selected as a Nonfiction Book of the Year by New York Times critics.

  4. Moses Herzog

    I love this blog post so much!!!! Because it makes me feel good about myself, why else would I love a blog post?? Uhm. seriously, Professor Frankel is a very positive person. He (unlike me) rarely talks bad about other people. He is the type person “OK, I do my work, I show my work, my work talks for me. I stay in my lane, and I garner respect for just doing my work”. So I kind of hate Naomi Klein. I think she is an insincere disingenuous phony. So When a guy as kind and neutral as Professor Frankel takes Naomi Klein out to the woodshed, I think “Yeah, I really was right about her, it’s not ‘just me’ ” and it kinda makes me feel good about myself.

    1. pgl

      It seems ltr has resurfaced from her imprisonment by Xi to blast Dr. Frankel’s post and to write something like:

      “on writing “Shock Doctrine” as a criticism of the development work of Milton Friedman, Klein was literally cursed by Brad DeLong in a deceptive review of “Shock Doctrine.” DeLong even repeated the profane criticism of “Shock Doctrine.” DeLong drew for support on the sneeringly intolerant review of “Shock Doctrine” by Tyler Cowen.”

      She provided no links which got called out by Dr. Chinn. Now I did my best to find links to what Cowen and DeLong wrote. Feel free to read for yourself as this charge of cursing and “a deceptive review” is hyperbole in my view.

      1. ltr

        It seems — has resurfaced from her imprisonment by Xi to blast Dr. Frankel’s post…
        It seems — has resurfaced from her imprisonment by Xi to blast Dr. Frankel’s post…
        It seems — has resurfaced from her imprisonment by Xi to blast Dr. Frankel’s post…

        [ Always but always crazed prejudice.
        Always the need to foster prejudice against a benign 5,000 year old civilization of 1.4 billion. ]

        1. pgl

          Criticize me? I took the time to provide the links that you failed to provide. You need to shape up if you want to continue to post on this blog.

  5. ltr

    Since Naomi Klein is right now being broadly recognized as the superb sociologist she has long been, it is important to point out that on writing “Shock Doctrine” as a criticism of the development work of Milton Friedman, Klein was literally cursed by Brad DeLong in a deceptive review of “Shock Doctrine.”

    DeLong even repeated the profane criticism of “Shock Doctrine.”  DeLong drew for support on the sneeringly intolerant review of “Shock Doctrine” by Tyler Cowen.

      1. ltr——grasping-reality-with-tractor-beams.html

        April 8, 2010

        Hoisted from the Archives: Tyler Cowen Thinks Naomi Klein Believes Her Own Bulls—

        He reads her book. He doesn’t think it meets minimum intellectual standards. I think he is right: now I can borrow Tyler’s ideas and have an informed view…. *


        — Brad DeLong

        1. pgl

          If you had been paying attention you would have known the NYSUN link does not work. We didn’t need you to provide the links after I did this for you. Now you have decided to attack me? You have lost it.

          Learn to provide actual contributions or just go away.

      2. ltr

        “Link please.”

        Only because the necessary decency of a “please” was now added, after all the past indecency.

        Of course, the prejudiced indecency immediately continues:

        “It seems — has resurfaced from her imprisonment by Xi to blast Dr. Frankel’s post…”

        1. pgl

          Lord – you are pathetic. Please for someone who attacks the person who did your work for you? I have tried to be patient with you but no more.

  6. Macroduck

    The underlying criticism here is that Klein is a shallow thinker, one who builds an argument from a point of view rather than from facts, one who draws strained connections and the builds argume to on those connections.

    Um, yeah? My own casual empiricism, based on u disciplined reading, is that many, many works of popular scholarship suffer these faults.

    It’s interesting that when Klien finds herself aligned with rightness, she’s able to identify behavior on the left that she previously had identified on the right. Self-examination only goes so far.

  7. pgl

    I have not read No Logo so I have to go with your review. When I think of multinationals, my concern is less than they pay wages lower than domestic companies and more that they take their profits and shift them to tax havens. Now she picks on companies like Gap, McDonald’s, Nike, and Shell as you note. Neither Gap nor McDonald’s do a lot of transfer pricing manipulation but Nike and Shell do.

    Now her complaint seems to be that these companies make a lot of brand profits even after their rather expensive marketing budgets. That applies to her first 3 but not so much to Shell. And if one really wants to go after this issue – why not mention companies like Big Pharma? And yes Big Pharma does more to put profits in tax havens than the companies she picks on.

  8. pgl

    Listening to one of the Freedom Caucus members, here is what they propose:

    (1) Cut nonmilitary spending lot

    (2) Fund the aid Zelensky sought as something separate from defense spending

    (3) Increase the remaining portion of defense spending even more

    Yes boys and girls – more guns and no butter. And with no tax increases – forget about reducing the deficit.

    The member was Ken Buck who I used to think was the only sane member of the Freedom Caucus. I’m sorry – they are all freaking insane!

  9. pgl

    I recommend your Snake-Oil Tax Cuts. I also agree that Bush-Cheney abused 9/11 for that tax cuts as well as its 2003 invasion of Iraq – which was a disaster but did help the 2004 reelection campaign.

    I can remember Republicans campaigning for tax cuts for the rich by saying “do it for the troops”. Shameless as it gets.

  10. joseph

    Every once in a while economists feel compelled to do a little gratuitous hippy punching to bolster their cred with the priesthood.

    I remember in the 1990s and 2000s the gnashing of teeth, the wringing of hands, the name-calling directed at the dirty hippies who were too unsophisticated to appreciate the mathematical beauty and self-evident rightness of neoliberal globalization.

    Except it turned out the economists were wrong and the hippies were right. The disruptions to wage earners and effects on inequality were vastly greater than those beautiful models predicted. Paul Krugman had the graciousness to admit the error. The rest of the academic tribe, not so much.

    Credibility is earned not bestowed. Your track record isn’t so great. So please spare us your sanctimonious BS. You’re not as smart as you think you are.

    1. pgl

      I’ve been reading up on the criticisms of her writing. Not that I would ever defend Tyler Cowen but Brad’s criticisms are more than hippy punching.

  11. Macroduck

    I would remind you that glibness in the defense of equity is no vice? And let me remind you also that careful analysis in the pursuit of social justice is no virtue?

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