This Changes Very Little: Naomi Klein and the Left

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate has been greeted enthusiastically by the Left. The book garnered extravagant praise from major Left institutions, revealing her shortcomings are those of the Left.

People are more able to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But this lack of imagination is even a greater problem on the Left. Naomi Klein’s focus on changing governmental policy to ameliorate the worst effects of neoliberalism reflects deeper problems of the revolutionary movement, which can’t be attributed to her alone. If she alone held these views it would not be such a problem.

She exhibits a purely quantitative approach to change, endemic on the Left. What we need is the rejection and replacement of class society as a whole, an end to the commodity system and wage labor. The quantitative approach has whittled the limits of social change down to a slightly improved version of what we have now: better wages and less repression. The quantitative approach in fact changes very little. It would leave the institutions of capitalism, the corporations and their government, universities, etc., intact. This is the net result of the approach Klein takes in her book. (This is implicit in her other books, which I’m not dealing with here). It doesn’t “change everything.” Nor is it an isolated phenomenon.

Syriza, greeted with wild enthusiasm on the Left, talks only about the debt, imposed by the neoliberal order. Yet in Greece today a revolutionary crisis appears to be brewing, which might permit an assault on the foundations of the system as a whole. Syriza does not appear equipped even to consider such things. Syriza, in this sense, demonstrates the limitations of Klein’s approach.

Klein puts forth a partial criticism of capitalism, not a comprehensive analysis, much less a total critique. Throughout the book she describes one or another aspect of the system in order to condemn it. This could be a good start, but she never calls to end capitalism as a whole. The fact that the system is threatening all life on earth would seem sufficient reason to want to end it. A few phrases suggesting a wholesale rejection of the system – scattered through the book, most emphatically on pp. 461 & 462 – and a brave title are not enough.

More than partial or fragmentary criticism of the system, we need a critique that goes to the heart of the system, a critique of the extraction, not only of fossil fuels from the ground, but of surplus value from the exploitation of labor.

Today’s dominant worldview holds Mother Earth a dead pile of resources to be exploited for private gain. This is at the heart of the system’s operation; climate change cannot be stopped and reversed while this attitude remains in command. But the viewpoint cannot be changed while those who hold it retain power. As long as they dominate society, theirs are the society’s dominant views.

Klein’s suggestions about what to do are all policy changes which would leave in place the existing institutions. Nowhere does she call to end the class system nor does she articulate how the commodity system, not just neoliberal institutions, has brought the world’s ecological balance to collapse. She does nothing to reverse the pattern of thought I am criticizing.

From where does the intellectual impoverishment of the Left come? Klein properly rejects communism with a few broad strokes, but offers no alternative approach to supersede capitalism. Her approach does not suffice. A deeper look at the revolutionary movement’s history is necessary.

The legacy of the Third International is the inability to think. The Third International under Lenin subordinated all the world’s revolutionary parties to the dictates of the Bolsheviks. Revolutionary parties flocked to the Third International because the Second International had collapsed – and the Soviet Union seemed the incarnation of their hopes. Lenin diagnosed this fall as a product of the Second International parties’ support for “their own” bourgeoisie in pursuing the imperialist’s First World War. He memorably called the Second International “a stinking corpse.”

But by subordinating all the parties, the Bolsheviks caused revolutionaries around the world to forget how to think about making revolution, which Lenin once called an art. It allowed only one model of how a revolution can take place, the Bolshevik model. The Bolshevik approach to making revolution is that embraced by the Left (and by capitalist propagandists seeking to divert people from working to transform society).

In summary form: a vanguard party leads the masses to overthrow the capitalist state and to build a workers’ state (the dictatorship of the proletariat), over which the vanguard governs. The workers’ state redistributes the wealth of society more equitably to raise the standard of living of the laboring people. However, this wealth is still produced by exploited workers; the vanguard now controls the surplus derived from the workers’ efforts.

In effect, private capitalism has been replaced with state capitalism. Now the vanguard sits at the apex of this new class system. Bolsheviks abandoned the effort to eliminate exploitation, yet few are willing to criticize this method.

The refusal to criticize communism is particularly strong in the US Left where McCarthy cowed a generation into silence. The few who dared oppose him publicly were justly called heroes.

People also believe the rejection of communism can result only in the embrace of capitalism. All the anticommunist classics (The God That Failed, Darkness at Noon, Invisible Man, etc.) suggest that when you reject communism you cannot oppose capitalism any longer – you have no place else to go. This perspective serves the capitalists and the communists, another example of how both oppose genuine liberation. We need to create a new non-communist revolutionary trend.

The collapse of the Soviet Union may prove to be more of a blow to capitalism by freeing the revolutionary movement from communism’s constraints. Occupy Wall Street in the US and the many occupation movements across the globe show this. They share a disinterest in Leninism and are beginning to articulate an alternative vision of social transformation.

We might imagine a movement succeeds in largely occupying all the institutions of society using non-hierarchical, non-violent methods. If this occupations movement can withstand the inevitable repression by the police and army still in possession of society’s wealth and productive power, it would then face the most revolutionary task of all, rebuilding the economy. This reconstruction work would take place under entirely new terms – everyone owns everything. We can only guess what kind of society might grow up in these circumstances. But we can confidently say this approach would change everything.

It may be said that I am asking too much of Naomi Klein. She has been a consistent supporter of Occupy Wall Street, and this is, after all, a book about battling climate change. She can’t reasonably be asked to propose a revolutionary strategy.

I disagree on two counts. First, by igniting the hope of changing everything, she incurs an obligation to address these questions, at least cursorily. Second, if she is to promote a nonhierarchical change, she, like all of us, must think these problems through. Letting someone else to do our thinking for us is only waiting for a new vanguard.

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7 thoughts on “This Changes Very Little: Naomi Klein and the Left”

  1. Paul, I am one of those victims…of visualizing ‘the end of the anthropogenic planet’ more easily than the end of capitalism. Looking at the various reports (do you read Dahr Jamail in Truthout), it’s fairly obvious the question about “our” end is not if, but when. I’ve been trying to initiate an academic conversation that would lead to comprehensive planning on how to address the crises as they come, and the best options for communities of humans perhaps making it to the other side.

    I’m not a survivalist but a realist. Just for conjecture…150 years from now much of the previous farmlands will have been ravaged. Where will the most arable lands likely exist? How can small communities create sustainable energy….long after today’s tech. has broken down or fallen into disrepair due to lack of parts? What herbs will be the most important once medicine as we know it is gone? So many questions!

    I fear that the spiraling of the various feedback loops in motion today will only grow more numerous and stronger…like melting of the arctic leading to more sunshine penetrating the arctic ocean, thus faster melting! And now the gulf stream is weakening due to the colder, freshwater of the melting, and Europe’s winters will be getting colder. There are so many moving pieces the different guesses are just that. One thing is clear, all these climate change processes are moving faster than predicted.

    So, can communities survive? With the breakdown (coming in stages) will come calls for law and order and thus repression. How do alternative views survive? I see a neo-feudalism more likely than an overturn of capitalism. The repressive forces of the state will be having a field day in the chaos.

    I’m not gloomy…I just want the left to plan!!! Tom

    PS: Not only will the vested powers have incredible weaponry, they will have the most sophisticated intelligence systems ever created. We saw in the Occupy Movement.the level of infiltration and even potential assassination targets…and a little before that the ‘peace workers’ in Minnesota and Chicago getting rounded up. These examples of resistance were hardly a threat, and yet the state didn’t waste any time intervening. As the Black Lives Matter movt builds we’ll likely see more dirty tricks.

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  2. Thanks for this good case. I’ve always been frustrated by her positions. It may be folly to “read” someone just by a few sentences representing how they speak, but I always immediately read from her that she’s coming from a place where she realizes that the system isn’t as perfect as she used to believe, and we just need to make some adjustments to get it back to that perfection. Versus the reality, that the system is fundamentally flawed and will always produce the same problems. It’s still basically a position of believing that the propaganda you were raised on was true, that things just got a little messed up by some people.

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  3. Thanks for getting this blog off the ground, Paul. Given the mounting gravity of the world’s crisis, we need a lot more discussion of what can be done.

    Sing Chew is an American environmental sociologist who has written extensively on the whys and wherefores of civilization’s dark age collapses throughout history. In his view, we have entered the next dark age. I can agree, but, unlike Chew (who has only an intellectual, not an activist orientation), I do not think our entry already spells the kind of doom that, say, the Dark Age of Antiquity meant for post-Roman society in Europe. Civilization is far advanced since then, and it seems possible (theoretically, at least) that humanity could come to embrace a global program of crisis management that would mitigate the long-term social and ecological impacts of industrialism’s demise.

    Of course, only a revolutionary crisis management program could have such success; anything less, anything that leaves corporate power intact, will only accelerate our slide into the abyss.

    Today, as I read left analyses, I see a consensus on the seriousness of the present crisis (though, aside from Chew, I haven’t seen anyone call it an impinging dark age). A significant range of progressive voices embrace some blend of anti-capitalism, anti-corporatism, anti-imperialism and (to a lesser extent) class analysis. It’s an eclectic group, Naomi Klein, perhaps, included.

    Since everyone seems to appreciate the seriousness of our situation, I think this is the right time to discuss what can be done to address it. In this regard, perhaps, you’ve seen the video The Next System that is endorsed by a wide range of left progressives. It focuses precisely on this question, but offers no actual directional insight.

    So far, it appears to me that the most widely embraced strategy of the left is rooted in acknowledgement of the fact that today’s nation-states are immensely and powerfully entrenched, yet are completely under corporate (capitalist) control. No one thinks they can be reformed or overthrown. Inevitably, this is a dispiriting reality, and in revolutionary practice, it leads to excessive glorification of the potential of “community-based, participatory, problem-solving.” Frankly, IMO, it borders on a left survivalist strategy.

    But, I understand why this view is so pervasive, and I don’t disparage those who now articulate it. I just think a lot more is possible.

    I think there is a wide range of possibilities between vanguard-driven revolution and somewhat-orchestrated (via social media), yet largely spontaneous rebellion (such as we see so broadly in today’s world). The left needs to struggle over what we want in revolution and how it can be achieved.

    Though it’s an old song for many of us, I think political line is key. What do we want? What do we demand of capital at this juncture of history? How can we enforce our demands?

    Of course, I’d like to see the end of capitalist exploitation of labor and nature, but I don’t now see any present, potential way to enforce that outcome. I do not believe in the potential of reforming today’s states so I don’t see government reform as a means of negating such exploitation. Nor do I think the modern equivalent of the Sixties’ “back (escape) to the country” is an answer. Like you, I see salvation only in the capacity of the global masses to take direct, non-violent action against corporate and state power (best evidenced in OWS), but such action needs direction. It needs demands, and not demands (such as abandoning capitalist exploitation) that only the capitalists, themselves, could make happen (since we have no actual way to make them do it).

    In my mind (my vision), the direct action of the global mass rebellion would evermore sharply target the central banks of the big states whose currencies grease the global economy (especially, of course, the U.S. Federal Reserve). It would demand corporate accountability through imposition and routine collection of a fee on all corporate transactions (a Tobin Tax kind of thing) to fund a new, global, people’s authority whose mission is the as-rapid-as-possible achievement of full-employment in locally-based social and ecological (dark age averting) problem-solving. The authority would achieve this goal via a vast, sustained expansion of the NGO service economy worldwide. As commercial banks now do for the corporate economy, the people’s authority would be empowered (through capitulation of the central banks to social media-orchestrated, global actions of the masses) to issue its own currency on-account to non-profit employers with good plans to tackle problems and employ people (a variant of Modern Monetary Theory). While the crisis is everywhere, initial attention should focus powerfully on the humanitarian crisis that now ranges from Kiev through the Middle East into North Africa, using it as a laboratory and model of the new post-industrial, Service Age, full-employment economy. The authority would be run by the world’s people through the same (perhaps enhanced) networks that we develop to actually force a new social contract based on corporate accountability.

    I’ve been further sketching this vision as a Quest at http://www.LocalGlobalNexus.net. If political line is key, perhaps, my sketch could serve as a starting point for debate over the line. Please feel free to take a look and offer any feedback.

    My aim is to reach the left and progressive Boomers who, all over the world, led the consciousness raising and rebellions of our youth and who are still active among their family, social and political circles. Today, we are society’s elders and, if united, we have the capacity to marshal the GenXers and Millennials of our circles for this cause. But, if we elders have no vision, no direction, no meaningful yet practical demands on the system, how can we expect the youngsters to figure it out (despite the fact that their future really depends on it)?

    Not only do Boomers have a responsibility, we actually have the capacity – via social media – to get the job done.

    Thanks for the opportunity to engage and best wishes with the blog.

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  4. Nice caricature of “Bolshevism” – I can hardly tell Klein from Bermanzohn when it comes to perpetuating the myths that are essential for the rule of Capital over Labor.

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  5. I can’t read Klein…’ No Logo ‘ was like situationism for dummies done badly…she writes for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s ruling class newspaper for crying out loud…how outré can she be… the Leninist left just wants to plan the economy….I’m old school anarchist communist but seldom use the term anymore as it just scares people…I believe we need to just be people….in most natural disasters people don’t ask each other what particular political philosophy they hold…they just try to get things back together…help each other, food, shelter etc etc…I believe if we just start reaching out to people and talk, without the Marx said this, so and so said…I think most people are just plain scared shitless with what they see happening around them….I think most people believe politicians are corrupt, corporations are corrupt, religion, the police everything is in the black hole…if we could agree to just a few base concepts to base our decisions on I think people could start to see a way out TOGETHER…I think the sanest first principle should be DO NO HARM….if we can start there maybe there’s some hope ….

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  6. I did not finish the book yet (maybe some of you over-estimate what Klein could change with her book – 95% of people worldwide have no clue her book with the sub-title “capitalism vs climate” even exists. Some theatres give us short readings from the book, people stare into their smartphones meanwhile, which they get annually new thanks to their capitalist contract with vodafone or who ever selling androids and i-phones. Then they take a sip of their latte macchiato wrapped in plastic and talk about the latest new band. Please look around you.).

    So I can’t comment about what Naomi Klein really wants right now. That the denial of man-made global climate changes was and is a phenomenon also of the far left, is sadly enough true, in Germany one gets sick of all those postmodern-subversive-pop-discourse-“leftists” maybe quoting Lenin (5%^^) and indifferent philosophers useable for everything and the contrary (95%). At the same time these leftists live a life with manically flying cheaply over weekends because of “winter-depression”, to take just one example.

    So as long as all those can’t answer why they take part in this kind of new imperialism Naomi Klein describes again here (it is old news, known since at least 1988) – I am glad that Naomi Klein wrote her book. The capitalist winner-countries destroy, the very poor countries lose, people seeking asylum thanks to global climate changes are a reality even today, and this will get worse and worse.

    The “green” movement, neoliberal in Europe since 15 years at least, and all those posh pseudo-“subversive” people who more or less out of style-and-fashion-coolness denied this horrible problem – those are the problem. Not Naomi Klein.
    That we all had to think problems really through? Of course. From what I know without having finished her book, she wrote a good reminder about what anyone could have known since 25 years, and the far left will say in some 45 years or what do we know “of course we knew”, when in reality they slept for at least 25 years, reading Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and that “the private is the political” or how to deconstruct a CD by posh hyped musicians. Surely not a way of thinking something through, but of a horrible, if posh, indifference of snobs.

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