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A conversation with Naomi Klein

A conversation with Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein reveals her thoughts on the current political landscape, and discusses how the emerging concept of brand purpose impacts the corporate space.
19th Mar 2019

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I went along to the Southbank Centre to hear renowned journalist, activist and author Naomi Klein discuss the current political landscape with WOW founder Jude Kelly.

Klein is the author of international bestselling books including No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We NeedThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The ClimateThe Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; and No Logo. This was her first major speaking engagement since being appointed the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

We are at an interesting juncture in corporate history. Businesses or ‘brands’ are now being forced to ask themselves what they are contributing to the world, about the role they play in society, and what their ‘purpose’ is. Inevitably, this has led to corporations fumbling around interpretations of the term ‘purpose,’ like a gaunt spotty teenager learning to drink.

“The journey to the perfect answer is going to be inevitably long and flawed.”

Some go straight to the unopened, dusty, Martini bottle, commissioning inauthentic adverts which appropriate real political movements (Gillette). Others cautiously stick to just the one Smirnoff Ice, while throwing in the odd mention of their modest CSR activities in the quarterly newsletter. The hangover from each scenario brings either repercussions, or a desire to further explore the space.

Either way, few leaders and organisations are addressing the underlying question of why it is that they exist. This is where things are going to get political. No longer can businesses pretend to remain ‘neutral,’ now that this sudden tsunami of introspection is forcing leaders to answer the existential questions of existence and purpose. How and why businesses should tackle politics is a tricky question in the outset, and the journey to the perfect answer is going to be inevitably long and flawed.

But what better way to start the conversation than on International Women’s Day, listening to Naomi Klein’s fiercely honest address on this very issue.

Personal Branding since No Logo

It has been 20 years since No Logo was published, and a lot has changed since then – the advent of the dotcom boom, for example. Back then, the idea of corporations regarding themselves as brands (while their job was simply to promote this) and not just producers was a completely new concept. Now, Klein notes, the spell of neoliberalism has been broken. We are experiencing the growing phenomena of individuals who think (and portray) themselves as distinct brands, enabled by the low cost of tools which were previously only the privilege of large corporations.

“When people proclaim ‘I AM a feminist’ rather than ‘I DO feminism’, feminism becomes a label rather than a worldly action which aims to counter sexism.”

Klein fears that the only people who will survive and succeed are those who can understand themselves as a marketable commodity. This is a problem, she believes, because branding primarily revolves around coming up with a fixed identity, and then repeating it. This is the opposite of being curious and porous to new ideas which may transform you, or in other words; what it means to be human.

Klein cites the language of feminism as an example. When people proclaim ‘I AM a feminist’ rather than ‘I DO feminism’, feminism becomes a label rather than a worldly action which aims to counter sexism. On the positive side, however, she points out that social movements can now also think of themselves as brands, and take advantage of the new tools which enable this process. This could spark interesting change in the world of both branding, social awareness, and social engagement.

The Role of the Young

Young people are calling out the behaviour of the previous generations, with voices such as Gretta Thunberg calling a people’s emergency and galvanising young people. And she sympathises — why should Gretta prepare for a future the adults are showing they don’t care about?

We’ve put off thinking we are on the front-line, but young people in North America and the EU are exclaiming to the adults in the room that a crisis is taking place which will destroy not only their own prime of life, but that of future generations. It will interfere with their ability to realise a career or a family. This reflects a sense of existential urgency in the Global North, that people in the Global South have been feeling for a long time. However, Klein warns, they are not saying ‘we’ve got this’ – they are saying, ‘join us’.

The Role of Politics and the Green New Deal

Driven by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the economic stimulus of the Green New Deal program sets out to tackle climate change and generate jobs. Its name is borrowed from FDR’s New Deal. Crucially, Roosevelt’s deal was not born of generosity, but aimed to deal with massive social unrest and unemployment.

For the Green New Deal program to be successful, Klein believes we need a combination of what she sees as the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’. Those with frontline experience need to influence its creation, while those outside of politics need to adopt the principles and move it forward. This is exciting because the framework is finally reaching the scale of transformation we need, paving the way to making the US a net zero emission economy within just 10 years.

“GND is the first legislation to be introduced which connects-the-dot activists have been talking about for a long time.”

She views this as a shift from an ‘offsetting’ narrative, to one which focuses on how to change how we live. Klein has always championed movements in her work, and her sentiment toward GND is much the same. Real social change happens when activists get involved. Initially, they are vilified for being too extreme, until others eventually recognise the logic behind them and they become more mainstream. GND is the first legislation to be introduced which connects-the-dot activists have been talking about for a long time.

The urgent measures necessary in tackling climate change, for example, will boil down to our willingness to adjust our lifestyles and stop seeking ‘growth’ in perpetuity. She wonders if we can get to the point of radically changing the way we live. She urges us not to wait for it to be understood perfectly at a national level, but to look for the changes and progress at a local level. “Change your lightbulb. Change to hybrid. Take out recycling. On your own.”

Women and the Economy

The audience is most eager to hear Klein’s thoughts on gender. What I love most about her is her candour. In a world that desperately lacks a pinch of brutal honesty, on this subject she does not hold back.

She sees attitudes towards the environment and attitudes towards women as two sides of the same coin. The culture that has pervaded history holds up the individual conqueror – the individual who has overcome all obstacles to succeed, at any or great cost. This narrative has devalued the “scaffolding of care” – the teacher, the mother, the carer, the earth. The care professions are overwhelmingly women-dominated, and they are “low or zero carbon professions.”

“To assume we can grab what we want, by who we want, by what body part, is the issue. We must shift to a culture in a completely different way. It is consent that is required.”

Yet they are the groups of society that don’t receive fiscal support. Klein points out that the necessity of birth and the dependencies associated with care is part of the counter-narrative. The fact of being a female or a mothers in a culture that lifts up the self-made, the individual, the person who did it all alone “is always a lie — there is always a connection, support and a reason — the women.”

Curtly, she says, “to assume we can grab what we want, by who we want, by what body part, is the issue. We must shift to a culture in a completely different way. It is consent that is required.”

She believes we need to shift to a culture of ‘radical consent,’ both in terms of gender and the environment. To illustrate her point she asks: is it really ‘consent,’ when indigenous populations are ‘asked’ to sell their land when they are struggling for money and food due to the system which devalues them? Complying under duress, she concludes, is not ‘consent’.

We need to reimagine a different framework, which celebrates both women and the environment and makes them both a part of one argument – a common narrative of ‘care and repair’. If sexual assault, violence, and abuse of the planet are products of the gratification of power — we have to find another method. And that, she points out, “that is beautiful.”

The Tech Giants

This section of her talk was clear, although quite brief. We actually need to plan our own economy. There should not be a sense of inevitability. And therefore tech giants need to be broken up and regulated.

She says we need to make decisions about what we want to protect. If we want access to tools that allow us to share information and connect with the world, then we have to get past the idea that we are passive to technology and how it changes us. But we also need to take control and decide how they should operate in society, and what positive role they can play.

In regards to how big tech affects jobs, she references Astra Taylor, pointing out it is not so much that no one is doing certain jobs (ie. self-service checkouts), it is that corporations have managed to pull off something quite extraordinary; their own customers are doing the work, all while passing over data used for further commodification by the company. This ‘surveillance capitalism’ needs to be managed.

If we value these tools, equality, and our data, then we have to figure a way to place technology under a similar scrutiny to other forms of commerce.

Brand Purpose and the SDGs

Klein was also asked about the connection between business and ‘brand purpose’. She takes a longer pause to consider her response to this one.

Breaking the silence she says: “I think that the there is a role for markets….but I am weary of the term ‘purpose’.” She explains that businesses should play their part, and certainly offer enormous resources and roadmaps in achieving the UNGC’s Sustainable Development Goals. And certainly, corporations will benefit from legislation such as the Green New Deal, especially solar and wind companies. However, she believes it is people who will ultimately lead this change, and that in order for this to happen we need a revival of the public sector first and foremost. She believes brands will follow the people, “and then find their purpose.”

“Misuse of the ‘purpose’ label, or avoidance of greater introspection, will be very damaging. And all of this isn’t just about climate change.”

There needs to be a greater connection between commercial products and public service, as well as greater consistency across big holding brands (such as P&G) to ensure truth and accountability. The SDGs offer a starting points and encourage more ethical behaviour, but Klein sees a need for more specific frameworks. The stark reality that “no one is talking about” is tax avoidance — which has created a vacuum where the private sector thinks it can lead, but where in reality they need an incentive to lose money, due to climate change. Otherwise, there remains an economic disincentive not to lead change.

She welcomes business engagement in this conversation, and encourages those in the room to try to place themselves both ‘outside of it,’ where criticism is strongest, as well as within it. “Some people will decide to run for office. Some will decide to change the corporations. Some people will volunteer. Some people will teach their kids. Some people will just try to influence their boss”.

But Klein makes one thing very clear. Misuse of the ‘purpose’ label, or avoidance of greater introspection, will be very damaging. And all of this isn’t just about climate change. This is about our values, what makes us happy, and why we should not simply seek to take and take.