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Naomi Klein: How to create transformative change

[BY KRAG UNSOELD]

Last night journalist and activist Naomi Klein spoke to a large and diverse crowd in the gymnasium at The Evergreen State College.

Klein is the author of the international bestsellers THIS Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)and No Logo (2000). She has just completed another book that will be released next month. It is entitled, NO Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

“Normally I take at least five years to research and write a book,” Klein informed her audience. “But this subject is so critical I feel it is important to put a book out immediately that puts Trump into the context of the ideas I have spent the past two decades researching.”

In order to have time to cover all of her subject, Klein said that she would skip the apocalyptic portions of what she usually says. She was sure that an Evergreen audience was well enough informed so that they did not have to hear talk about doomsday on the horizon.

“What do we need to do to get the job done?” Klein queried the audience. “What we need is nothing short of creating deep, transformative change on many levels.”

Klein laid out for her audience the basic content of her new book. Here is a summary.

Does a systemic shock lead to a reaction of fundamental change?

Not necessarily. Klein provided descriptions of two shocks that did result in some major changes. One is the Great Depression and the ensuing New Deal politics of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The other was the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, Earth Day and the passage of the environmental legislation that we still have today. In both cases a shock led to major legislative reforms that helped alleviate the problems that were apparent.

“But shock was not sufficient,” Klein told the audience. “There was also an important role played by what was happening politically. People had to be able to imagine another way to live.”

In both the 1930s and 1960s, there were already major movements for social change before the shock happened. In the first instance, it was calls for socialism, worker control of the economy, and equality. During the ‘60s, it was the back-to-the-earth, living collectively, and rethinking the fundamental institutions of our culture. So there were already major movements to change our culture. One way of understanding the major social programs and reforms that came about is that they were basically a compromise that maintained the fundamental fabric of our society.

A formula for fundamental social change

Klein projected her formula for fundamental social change at this point in her talk.

Radical Thought + Shock + Credible Revolutionary Threat = Deep Change

The big question that Klein then sought to shed light on was whether or not we have the radical thought and the credible revolutionary threat to make the shock of Trump to bring about the transformative change.

According to Klein, the best way to understand our world is that economic neoliberalism, a philosophy that has guided our policy makers, is now in a state of shock of its own. The 2008 recession was a wake-up call that neoliberalism is on the ropes. The recession provoked the Occupy Movement and other social uprisings. But these movements are more about saying, “NO!” and not offering an alternative.

“We’re pretty good at diagnosing the problem,” Klein informed her audience. “But we fail to offer a prescription for change.”

Part of this is that the conservatives have done a good job of developing and continuing to hammer home their agenda. They know that crises result in programmatic changes so they keep emphasizing their pet programs. Klein cited the example of a Republican Study Group that was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. It met, chaired by current vice president Mike Pence, after Hurricane Katrina. This had resulted in both devastation in New Orleans and an oil shortage due to damaged oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The study group came up with a list of 32 free market responses to this situation.

These included everything from waiving regulations, a flat-tax free-enterprise zone, school vouchers, waiving environmental regulations, Arctic and off-shore oil drilling, and a host of other tax breaks and other so-called incentives for growth and development. It was basically the Republican party election platform dressed up as disaster relief.

The Leap Manifesto

During the past election in Canada, progressives saw that none of the major parties had a platform that reflected the diverse needs of Canadians. A group of social leaders and activists came together representing all of the constituencies of the nation to hammer out a peoples’ platform. According to Klein, “It offered us a chance to get out of our silos and meet in intersectional spaces. This is what movements must do to succeed.”

The Leap Manifesto, as the document is named, calls for replacing a culture of extraction and disposal with a culture of caretaking. It recognized that it is not simply resources that are extracted and disposed. This is also the fate for humans in the system in which we live. If you can’t find a job there are streets upon which or prisons within which you can live until such time as you are once more able to work. Extraction and disposal relies upon using force to get compliance. Caretaking is based on deep consent.

Using “leap” in the title was a way of embodying the need to move quickly since the issues are so major. The manifesto has a companion volume called, We Can Afford to Leap. It lays out the taxes and fees that will be needed to pay for the costs of transitioning to a world where we stop contributing to climate change and social injustice.

How do we make it happen?

According to Klein, we must not expect a savior to offer us the solutions on a platter. Simply relying upon the right candidates is not sufficient. This can best be summed up by yard signs displayed during a Spanish election. These read, “Our dreams don’t fit on your ballot.”

Yes, people do need to vote. But much of voting comes down to being basic damage control. We have to bring together representatives of all our social and cultural groups to develop a statement of what our movement believes and what we need to bring about fundamental social and political changes.

Klein referred to Hillary Clinton’s words from the presidential campaign. “When they go low, we must go high.” But Klein said that this did not simply refer to the tone by which our struggle is made. It also refers to the actual deeds that we do and make happen.

Klein finished her talk by reminding us, “Crises do not always cause societies to have to give up and regress. There is another option and that is to build a movement based on resistance, love and hope. Let’s choose that second option. Let’s leap!”

During the questions and answers, Klein further elaborated on what she was encouraging activists to do. “The progressive majority is out there to be won over, but you must build it. This group cannot be an afterthought of the movement.”

Klein said that Canada was able to develop a leap manifesto at the national level since they have a relatively small population. In the U.S. she encouraged us to prepare our programs for change at a more local level.

A genuine challenge for progressive change that Klein warned the audience of is that “we have to take our inspiration from a vision of a future that we have never seen.” We need both a political movement, and a utopian vision of what we want the world to become.

The final question that Klein posed for the audience was, “How are you going to kill your inner Trump?”

This, she explained, does not mean that we are little Trumps, it signifies that Trump is a reflection of a lot of processes that have been taking place in our culture. Klein said that our Twitterer-In-Chief represents the fracturing of our attention span. We have to combat this by remaining focused as we develop our alternative to Trumpism.


Krag Unsoeld is a current board member and former president of South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse. The above image comes from a panel discussion sponsored by Haymarket Books

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