Looking for answers to capitalism's disasters

Naomi Klein is the author of books that have helped define the thinking of the left for the last several decades: No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies; The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Her latest book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, is a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award in nonfiction. Earlier this month, Klein talked to Alan Maass about the whiplash pace of natural disasters and the unnatural factors that make them worse--and about how the resistance can fight back while working toward an alternative.

Marching for climate justice in New York City (Joe Brusky | flickr)Marching for climate justice in New York City (Joe Brusky | flickr)

SO READING the newspaper for you these days must be like seeing the subjects of your books running through the headlines: disaster capitalism, the shock doctrine, climate change, corporate brands...

I WAS actually just looking at the crawl on CNN, and there was something about Trump's UN speech where he plugged one of his buildings. I think his first sentence when he spoke at the UN was about one of the Trump Towers.

UNBELIEVABLE. BUT let me ask you about that--can you talk about the connecting threads of what you've been writing about over these years?

I THINK that the strongest connecting thread is really the rise of corporate power and the increasing role of corporations in every aspect of life.

That's really the story of the rise of branded people that Trump embodies--these lifestyle brands and companies that are building identity around a corporation, as opposed to selling a product and marketing it.

Another one of the things I look at is clear from how Trump has already used shocks and crisis to further advance an extreme pro-corporate agenda that is about eliminating the last vestiges of the public sphere. We're seeing some examples of that now in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

And to even say "aftermath" raises another question, because there's a new storm bearing down on Puerto Rico. But already, you can see how Irma knocked out the electricity, and that then becomes the pretext for a further push for privatization.

Then there's the centrality of climate change denial within the Trump administration, which has been such a defining feature of what this administration has prioritized.

I don't think this has anything to do with denying the science of climate change. It has everything to do with them understanding that if humanity is, indeed, confronted with an existential threat--which is what climate change represents--then the entire corporate project they stand for falls to pieces, and we need a very different way to organize society and make public policy decisions.

WHEN IT comes to the hurricanes, you've mentioned the issue of climate change, which has made these storms more intense. But there are other ways that the disasters become unnatural and man-made.

ABSOLUTELY. I think Houston is one of the least regulated cities around when it comes to development and where housing is built. It prided itself on this kind of Wild West idea, and that increased its vulnerability.

Houston would have been hit by Harvey, but this chaotic development and the failure to regulate polluters--allowing extremely toxic industries to locate right next to residential neighborhoods, which, as always, are more likely to be Black and Brown communities--all intensified the disaster.

This is what we need to understand about climate change. It isn't just about the planet getting stormier and hotter. It's also about society getting meaner and more divided.

Climate change intensifies this preexisting inequality. If you already have populations that are being treated as disposable, that goes into fast-forward during a disaster. Like prison populations that were abandoned during a disaster like Harvey. We've heard some horrifying stories, just as we did during Katrina, about prisoners being left with no water and being forced to drink toilet water.

In the same way, we have to think about what it means to be a society that discards the elderly during a disaster, which compounds the problems caused by a lack of regulation in nursing homes.

This is what you find in the rubble of neoliberalism: this brutal collision between heavy weather and a weak and neglected public sphere, with the politics of division and racism overlaying it all. This is what's so truly toxic.

AND NOW what you've called "disaster capitalism" is coming to Houston. Is disaster capitalism exceptional or a more intensified example of the operations of regular capitalism?

WHEN I started using the term "disaster capitalism," I was speaking about a particular industry that emerges in the aftermath of disaster. So I'm not saying regular capitalism isn't a disaster--certainly, the argument I make in This Changes Everything is that we have an economic model that's at war with life on earth.

When I talk about disaster capitalism, I'm really talking about the industries that have emerged specifically to capitalize on disaster. For example, the homeland security industry--the privatizing of police in the aftermath of 9/11 and the explosion of the private security industry.

We're seeing more and more areas that used to be largely nonprofits or government agencies now being outsourced to private companies that see huge money in responding to disasters and reconstruction. And there's often a huge amount of graft involved.

That's what I mean by "disaster capitalism." It's one of those terms that gets thrown around in a lot of different ways, but that's what I've always meant by it: direct profiting from disaster.

THE TITLE of your latest book is No Is Not Enough, but I'm sure that in Trump times, the feeling for a lot of people is that we have our hands full with all the things we have to say "no" to--all the issues where we're on the defensive. What would you say to someone about why it's still important to think beyond the "no"?

THE BOOK isn't arguing that "no" isn't necessary. It absolutely is. There are very courageous examples of people drawing the line and saying we won't let this pass, whether that means standing up to Nazis or flooding the airports when Trump instituted the Muslim travel ban.

This has to happen. But the argument I'm making is that if we only hold the line, then in the best-case scenario, we end up back where we were before Trump. That was a very dangerous world, and it created the conditions where a Trump could emerge.

We have to learn from that. We have to be able to somehow say "no" and "yes" at the same time--to also have a picture of the world we want in the future world Trump or whoever follows him.

The other reason why I make this argument is that I don't think that that posture of resistance alone is going to sustain people in the long haul. Every transformative movement has had a vision of the world after we win that sustains people in these very long and difficult struggles.

I sometimes hear that idea that we have too much resisting to do to focus on what we want instead. But it's worth remembering that people under far more dire conditions than the United States in 2017 did manage to have that picture of the "yes" as they fought the "no."

One example that comes to mind would be the anti-apartheid struggle and the Freedom Charter that was written during apartheid, with pieces of paper smuggled out of the townships. That document was the beacon through decades and decades of resistance against apartheid.

I don't think the problem is that there's too much to resist. I think the problem is that political imaginations have atrophied during the neoliberal era. But that's starting to shift. I think we see examples like "A Vision for Black Lives" that was released during the summer of 2016--which is a truly bold, even utopian, document about the "yes."

Of course, that doesn't mean you don't keep saying "no" to police violence, to mass deportations, to fascism, to anyone who wants to take away people's health care.

But one of the things I draw hope from is that we're seeing more and more movements saying explicitly: We're going to defend this, but don't mistake us defending the status quo in the face of Trump's attacks for our belief that this is enough.

For example, I saw many interviews with young people covered by DACA saying that wasn't good enough--that they were defending DACA against Trump, but they're tired of being pitted against their parents, and everybody should have full status.

I think the push for Medicare for All is another part of this--of going beyond the Obama-era reforms that the Republicans are trying to dismantle.

Another reason this is so crucial is that Trump didn't win this election, the Democrats lost it. They lost the election because they weren't able to energize their base--because they didn't have something to offer that spoke to the emergency in so many people's lives. To me, the answer is less about peeling away Trump voters--though I do think it's possible to peel away some Trump voters--but it's really about energizing non-voters.

That's something that I think Jeremy Corbyn showed is possible. The lesson to take away from what happened in the last British election is how many people voted who weren't expected to participate at all. The people who they voted for were stunned by this turnout from mostly young people who had been written off.

In the United States, where 90 million people didn't vote in the last election, the ground is so fertile for bold policies and non-traditional political figures who are going to energize that base.

ONE OF the themes in your book is that the backlash which Trump represents is in response to some grassroots movements starting to at least make progress, like the Fight for 15. Do you think that dynamic has continued into the first year of Trump?

I DO think it has.

This past week, we've been getting these mixed messages from the Trump administration about whether or not it's pulling out of the Paris agreement. I think they're deliberately sending mixed messages to dangle the possibility that the U.S. might be lured back into the agreement if the agreement is changed, if it's watered down, if the rest of the world makes more concessions.

I think that's an example of the fact that this administration is very preoccupied with what the climate movement has been able to accomplish, even though it's not enough. The same is true with what the fight for a fair living wage has been able to accomplish.

IN YOUR book, you make the case for utopian thinking, where people start from what our communities need, rather that what's realistic according to the powers that be. Where does think that discussion about imagining our future begin? What would you say to somebody who wants to embark on that project?

I THINK one of the great takeaways from the Bernie Sanders campaign and what's happening right now with Medicare for All is that what the professional political class claims is realistic no longer meshes with reality for most people. What we're finding out is that there's a lot more that' possible than we were told is possible.

This is something we saw with the Sanders campaign, and also with the Corbyn campaign. What really turned things around there was when Corbyn came out with a manifesto that excited people because it was bold.

I think the important thing to say right now is that no one should wait for some great political leader to show the way and tell people how it's going to be. Instead, we have to see that we already have some of the building blocks of a truly transformative politics.

Unfortunately, though, it's very siloed. There's a discussion going on about Medicare for All in one corner, and in another corner, the climate justice movement is talking about 100 percent renewable energy, and the two things don't necessarily connect.

And on that issue, I would add that we can't just talk about 100 percent renewable energy--we need to have public control of renewable energy that stays in communities, and the profits don't leech away to private players.

We need a vision that isn't just a list of policies, but is really an alternative worldview. I think this kind of thing is going to emerge at the grassroots level. Rather than a posture of waiting for leaders to come along and tell people how it's going to be, this is a moment for movements to come together and map the connection between these issues that so many of the world's people are already fighting for.

I think we've gotten a lot better at not just saying "no." I think that within movements, you have that vision of a world where no one is illegal, of a world where there are no more militarized police, where mass incarceration is ended, where the drug war is over, where everyone has health care, where everyone has housing.

But we still aren't talking about this enough as a coherent worldview, shared across movements and grounded in a different set of values--in a different way of valuing human beings and the planet itself.

Transcription by Ben Riley