My question to Naomi Klein at the QEH (13th Sept 07) at the end of the night says a lot about how I felt about the event:
“Naomi, how do we take this, your message, out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, because I reckon that these thousand people here probably agreed with you before they came this evening, and my worry is that when we applaud you at the end we’ll partly be applauding ourselves for being here this evening, and afterwards we’ll just go away and talk about it at dinner parties and restaurants in North London, ‘I saw that Naomi Klein the other night, really? Yes, she’s great isn’t she, Yeah I love her’, and that’ll be it and we’ll get on with our lives. I’d like to see you talking about this in a market in Brixton or at Leyton Orient Football Club where people are experiencing these things on a more visceral level.”
That statement I suppose was delivered almost as stand-up and got good laughs and a generally good response, indicating, yes, recognition but also that a percentage of the audience were probably thinking exactly the same thing. That almost as soon as Klein had finished her introduction the evening became obsolete, her work here was done and this just going to be an event of self-congratulation and smug bourgeois chin-rubbing and head-nodding ticking off the things she says that we already knew and mentally correcting her mistakes.
And one mistake she made was to say that Thatcher exploited the Falklands War to gain a second term and launch the first neo-liberal project in a western democracy, that without the Falklands she would have lost in ’83 – this is nonsense, and nobody in British politics would accept that thesis, far more significant was the split in the Labour Party in 1981 with the formation of the SDP, and Labour Manifesto at the election that was so far away from public opinion.
Does this matter?
Well if she got this so wrong, what else is wrong? It’s not so much an error as an over-simplification and an ignorance of history. Milton Friedman didn’t just happen, neither is the use of shock new in pushing through radical reform. The NHS might not have happened without WWII, and the factory occupations in Argentina that Klein and people such as me celebrate wouldn’t have happened without the shock of that country’s economic collapse.
What can we take from it?
Well firstly that Naomi Klein is not about to lead us to the barricades. She doesn’t really have the answers and will not stick her head out because she is happy to operate within a comfort zone of the liberal left who will lap her ideas and spend £22 on a copy of her book. She’s not about to attack The Guardian for running a front page that very day reporting an IISS report telling us what a threat Al Qiada still poses. A report authored by a former head of MI6 – if that doesn’t scream ‘psy-ops’ I don’t know what does. The same report also said that global warming would have a worse effect that a nuclear war and yet this would relegated to the bottom of the page – surely that’s the headline.
It’s far more likely that Russell Brand will actually rouse people to revolt because he reaches that non-politicised audience and confronts them on their own level – his challenging of an audience member’s enthusiasm for a new branch of Zara opening in Cambridge with a brilliant and funny riff on how consumerism provides you with stuff but turns your soul into a graveyard. The message of ‘No Logo’ distilled into 3 minutes of stand-up comedy and delivered to an audience who have most likely never heard of Naomi Klein.
The second thing we can take from her thesis is that we are in a period of radical capitalism – about 30 years into it. The politics of today is not business as usual, this is not normal if you like, and you can already see that we are moving towards its endgame. The fact that Blair and Brown not only embraced but advanced this neo-liberal ideal is part of that endgame. And with the assault on civil liberties that has been an integral part of this programme, it has radicalised sections of the population, particularly the provincial middle class, who would normally not engage in political action. But now that we have members of the Countryside Alliance charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act and the National Trust considered as worthy of exclusion order from Heathrow (albeit a request denied by a High Court judge) – you can see how the slumbering masses are being awakened.
The interesting question, and the one we must be ready to answer, is what will replace this radical “shock doctrine”. The post-war consensus in Britain ran from 1945 until 1979, with the Tories abandoning it a few years before, say mid-1970’s when Keith Joseph embraced Friedman’s fringe ideas. Klein does well to highlight how what is now political authodoxy was in the 70’s considered beyond the pale, even by conservatives.
On a positive note, this has also happened to progressive ideas, whereby the ‘Loony Leftism’ of the 1980s (equal opportunities, gay rights, environmentalism, respect for ethnic diversity etc.) has been embraced by the political mainstream and it is opposition to these ideas that is now confined to the ‘lunatic fringe’.
This must encourage us to be radical now and to push forward ideas that may not be acceptable today but could become the next political authodoxy.
What would that be?