I’m always interested to read books hastily written to respond to a crisis a year or two after they are published. How are they dated? How well do they hold up? Was the analysis fairly strong given the speed of writing? Naomi Klein’s 2017 response to Trump mostly holds up well, though it does reflect some of her slight weaknesses as an analyst at times.
It’s been an interesting journey for Klein. After she wrote The Shock Doctrine, which was an excellent book even if it was probably too long (maybe we don’t need the 14th example of this told in detail), she notoriously refused to offer any alternatives to the neoliberal takeover of the global economy. In a long profile in The New Yorker, she defended this basically by defining herself against the era of her activist parents, saying (as I recall) more or less that she didn’t think her generation needed to come up with all the answers. She was wrong about this. In fact, I wrote up the last of chapter of Out of Sight, where I start laying out the Corporate Accountability Act stuff that I have expanded upon in Dissent and Boston Review, precisely by defining myself against Klein’s decision in her famous book. It’s my belief that it’s actually pretty easy to chronicle how everything is terrible and we as writers have a moral responsibility to try and provide a path forward. Klein has come around on this and while I am somewhat skeptical of the answers she provides in No is Not Enough, the title itself is a sign of how far she has evolved.
It’s probably not surprising for a book written as rapidly as this that the major points are basically summaries of her previous books. We are living in a period of shock in the U.S., the power of advertising and how Trump won by self-advertising for years (from No Logo), etc. And that’s fine, although I’m usually a bigger proponent of moving ahead with new ideas than repeating the old. It’s not as if she is wrong, even if I might sometimes see it from a slightly different angle. She argues that Trump is “less an aberration than a logical conclusion–a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past half century” (9). I think this is absolutely right. He’s everything that is wrong with America wrapped up into one horrible human being. Her focus on Trump the corporate hack is useful, because ultimately the victory of any Republican administration is the unabashed triumph of corporations, which sometimes gets downplayed in this administration thanks to Trump’s other antics.
Much of the book focuses on Klein’s biggest passion, fighting climate change. The election of Trump was a disaster for climate. She points to Rex Tillerson’s appointment at State as a prime example. No question about that. And she also discusses how the rise of neoliberalism really undermines the kind of collective solutions necessary to fight climate change. Given the Republican Party’s complete embrace of privatized corporate solutions to whatever ails the world and how that simply cannot work as a tool to combat climate change, it’s a sobering message. That’s also a really important point–the profit motive is what created this crisis and it will not save us.
That said, Klein’s analysis does want to downplay the role of flat out racism and misogyny in Trump’s rise. It’s not as if she refuses to talk about race at all, but she moves beyond it very quickly to return to economics. She is more than happy to talk about Native Americans especially, which I will get to later. She certainly has no problem calling Trump a racist and a misogynist and provides some examples of that. But it’s a quick pivot from that to economics. No one is more disturbed by the impact of neoliberalism on the American working class than I am. But, as I’ve stated several times, the real impact of so-called economic anxiety voters on the election is more at the point of critical margins–Erie County, Pennsylvania for instance–than in the Trump electorate as a whole, which remained pretty traditionally Republican. But those Erie County voters matter more because of the distorted ridiculous state of American politics. To be fair, Klein does not minimize identity politics like the Jacobin bros. She completely rejects any idea that Americans should distance themselves from identity politics, as if that is even possible. She’s a lot smarter and more honest than those guys. But fundamentally, for Klein this is story about trade policy, economic inequality, the destruction of unions, etc. She goes back to the WTO protests in Seattle, noting how Teamsters and turtles worked together, as the saying went back in the day. But she probably puts too much weight on the actions of the 1990s. Maybe no 9/11 and Iraq War keeps our attention on economic crises and stops them from getting so bad today, but probably not, even as the left’s attention completely drifted from nearly all economic questions between 9/11 and 2008. For Klein, Obama and the Democrats blew it in 2009 by not prosecuting the bankers and engaging in a far more massive jobs program. May be true, but the political realities of the Democratic Senate coalition are what they are.
Klein says that a solution was given to us in 2016. His name was Bernie Sanders. She’s entirely honest about Bernie’s troubles with voters of color and white women. So she’s not letting him off the hook entirely. She approvingly mentions Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article where he noted that Bernie’s fiery economic populism sure quieted down when it came to the legacy of racism, including the economic legacy. She thinks he would have won the primary and the general election if he was able to address those concerns. Maybe he would have! But who knows. There’s so much projection in the “Bernie Would’ve Won!” statements that completely ignore what the Republican hate machine turned on him for six months would have done. And even if he had won, is the world that different today, or at least that much different than a Hillary victory would have seen? In some ways, yeah, probably, but not in a drastic change of the fundamentals that Klein herself sees as defining our society.
Klein’s solution–the “no is not enough” part of the book–revolves around a growing left that engages in both economic and environmental justice. Klein may well blame Obama for not doing enough, but she also rightfully says that liberals in 2009 thought that electing Obama was going to solve all our problems and by the time people realized that was wrong, it was too late. This is quite true and I think in many ways is really important to the resurgence of an active and meaningful left in the last decade. So instead, she grounds her change not in an election but in Standing Rock and the battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline. That was a complicated moment of Native activists working with non-Native (mostly white) activists. Klein simplifies that picture because, frankly, she romanticizes Native spirituality and relationships to the land. At Standing Rock, in this account, all the white people were learning better ways to live while Native people were happy to teach them. In reality there were lots of tensions, in no small part because the whites came in and basically made the protest their own. But for Klein, listening to Native people is a big part of the solution. And hey, maybe it is, but probably not in quite the way that Klein thinks.
To Klein’s credit, she’s been heavily involved in trying to bring groups together to have tough conversations and move forward with a positive agenda, mostly in her native Canada. She ends the book by listing tough questions about issues as disparate as property ownership, security, work, migrants at the center of the climate crisis, and engaging in “The Leap,” a big step forward toward a more inclusive political project that centers inequality and climate. I have a lot of respect for all of this. I think some of this might be a bit less than fully thought out. But in terms of a quickly put together manifesto to respond to Trump, Klein does a pretty good job in a book that we could all learn something from.