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What Happens Now?

Naomi Klein, No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

This was originally published by Review 31.
© Hay Market Books
It’s a year after the American Election Day that shook the world, and a new book that seeks to explain the disaster of Donald Trump’s victory drops every few weeks. We political historians are scrambling to keep up. Last month, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? hit the stands. How does it feel to be a smart and seasoned politician and lose to an uneducated novice? Not good! Not good at all! This month, it was Hacks, Donna Brazile’s account of the train wreck at the Democratic National Committee. Brazile, in grisly detail and in suspiciously naïve shock that there was ‘gambling in this establishment,’ confirms the first book out of the gate, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed CampaignShattered is a messy thriller that clearly had to be re-written in a matter of days to account for a campaign that wasn’t supposed to plank. By comparison, Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton reads like a mash up of all the angry Facebook posts written in defense of Clinton during the campaign, and you will learn nothing from it except that millennials suck.

It doesn’t stop there. There is Devil’s Bargain, by The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Green, a fascinating account of Steve Bannon’s rescue job on a floundering Trump campaign, and MSNBC reporter Katy Tur’s account of being gifted as raw meat to crazed Trump supporters who wanted to scream at Hillary but couldn’t get to her. For the academically-minded, Columbia political scientist Mark Lilla has kicked out a short, unhelpful volume, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, scolding liberal elites for being such narcissistic, identity-obsessed snobs that the working-classes had no choice but to stick it to us bigly by electing Trump.

Slightly lost in the shuffle has been Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Klein, an independent journalist and activist, is interested in how we got to this terrible place, but she is even more interested in how we will get out of it. Staring at the multi-vehicle accident of American politics has gothic entertainment value: as I am writing this, Roy Moore, an evangelical candidate for US Senate in Alabama is patiently explaining that as an officer of the court some 40 years ago, he never dated teenage girls without their mothers’ consent, and one of his helpful supporters has pointed out that the Virgin Mary was also a teenager when Joseph took her on as a project. But Klein asks us to get over the carnival aspect of the current moment and get serious. An intellectually meaty book that rejects sensationalism, No is Not Enough addresses the nodes of effective resistance to Trumpism that have emerged since the election, in the United States and around the globe, and assesses a way forward.

Klein’s great strength as a writer is her capacity to frame serious thoughts in everyday language. She thinks seriously about the everyday effects of capitalism, as well as how those who have freed the market to do damage around the globe do their work. So while Klein is as dismayed as the rest of us by the apparent retreat of democracy, she wasn’t surprised that Trump defeated Clinton, since his path to victory was paved with techniques typical of what she calls ‘disaster capitalism’. In two previous books, The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2010) and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2009), Klein has detailed how flexible capitalism is, how that flexibility makes it possible to privatize entire nations in the wake of catastrophe, and how ubiquitous branding renders that work invisible. Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything, brought this perspective to bear on global warming by addressing the ways that dangerous forms of extraction promote not just climate change, but also the destruction of local economies through exploitation (think: the Dakota Access Pipeline) and the suppression of green initiatives.

Like every other book written after Election Day 2016, Klein’s book was written quickly for the large audience of readers befuddled by Trump, by Brexit, and by what appears to be the more general rise of neo-fascist populism. But unlike other books about the 2016 presidential election, No Is Not Enough does not dwell on the ‘what happened’ question. A little Russian interference here, and some money laundering over there, make little difference to the story she has been telling for years about what capitalism does when the goal is to release it to do its work unfettered. For new readers, Klein usefully recapitulates that story and brings it to bear on the present moment. Shock doctrine, Klein reminds us, is the capacity to take advantage of the public’s disorientation ‘following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes, or natural disasters – to push through radical pro-corporate measures.’ Actually called ‘shock therapy’ by its practitioners, it is often introduced as a series of solutions to the crisis itself: for example, the destruction of the New Orleans public schools during Hurricane Katrina, and the displacement of thousands of teachers, became an opportunity to install for-profit solutions. It is also no accident that a war on terror that has employed unprecedented numbers of for-profit military contractors has, by the Trump administration, produced a proposal to outsource war to the private companies that have already been enriched by this practice.

Similarly, while some critics sputter about the emoluments clause in the United States constitution – which theoretically bars Trump from selling those silly MAGA hats or taking foreign visitors to his golf courses – that Trump has happily crossed this line makes complete sense to Klein. Indeed, there are those who argue that Trump never intended to win the Presidency in the first place, only enhance his brand and siphon Republican National Committee money into his enterprises. But now that Trump is president, capitalism happily identifies, not a limitation, but another branding opportunity. ‘The very idea that there could be – or should be – any distinction between the Trump brand and the Trump presidency,’ Klein writes, ‘is a concept the current occupant of the White House cannot begin to comprehend.’

Similarly, when Melania Trump sued the Daily Mail last spring for alleging that she had once worked as an escort, potentially damaging her ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to profit from her potential role as First Lady, it was a stunning moment for American politics on so many levels. Even though we all know that political office in the United States is now a stepping-stone to wealth, nobody ever says it. Furthermore, since it was not yet clear that Melania actually planned on adding the First Lady schtick to her twin occupations of raising her son and posting photos to Twitter from inside Trump Tower, she seemed, Klein writes, ‘to be trying to skip the stage of actually launching a serious brand and went straight to claiming the money.’ Trumpian branding strategies add new meaning to Oscar Wilde’s observation, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’

It seems that having a brand is better than having a reputation, particularly since no one named Trump – except perhaps the President’s youngest son Barron and his daughter Tiffany – appears to have a reputation to lose. Branding makes it pointless for liberals and leftists who declared that they were going into resistance the day after the election to ponder such questions as: is Trump a white supremacist? Who knows? The point is that branding, as a language for speaking about politics, made it possible for Trump to simultaneously disavow and embrace the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville last summer, all decked out in Trump gear. This too is shock politics: the creation of intellectual and symbolic gaps between ongoing events and our capacity to explain them: are those actually Nazis in the street? In America? Saying Heil Trump? Wearing hats sold to them by the President?

Yes.

But as Klein argues, we needn’t be paralyzed by such shocks, although it might arguably be said that many Democrats still bitterly disappointed, some by socialist Bernie Sanders’ being iced out of the general elections, and others by Clinton going down in flames, are profoundly paralyzed. The task is not just to resist in spirit, but also to analyze, organize, and patiently make coalition with others who have a stake in resisting capitalism’s unrelenting assault on public life. The task is to understand the story shock politics is telling, and why it is persuasive, and then tell a different story that can genuinely compete with it. The task is to understand, not that Clinton’s defeat was the work of an aberrant candidate willing to mobilize misogynistic rage, but that Trump was a historical inevitability, the logical endpoint of ‘the degradation of the whole idea of the public sphere, which has been unfolding over decades,’ a project the Clintons have themselves forwarded since the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985.

In this context, Hillary Clinton was also as much a brand as she was a politician, and unfortunately she turned out to be Pepsi, not Coke (or Koch, if you swing that way.) Bernie Sanders’s branding of Clinton as Wall Street, not Main Street, became a far more effective tool in the hands of the Trump campaign than it was for him. But the branding of Clinton as the inevitable first that the women’s liberation generation could swoon over, also opened the door to the question: why that woman? With that past? Clinton partisans were honestly committed to her as a standard bearer for liberalism and feminism, but too often they were uncritical fans that refused to see the limits of Clintonism. ‘Conservatives,’ Klein observes, pointing out that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is similarly bedazzling, ‘aren’t the only ones capable of confusing citizenship with brand loyalty.’ Paradoxically, the empty Clinton campaign slogan, ‘Stronger Together’, may have helped to occlude the policy positions that Clinton has repeatedly said she was so desperate to focus on. That’s how branding statements function: they fulfil our need for meaning without actually providing any.

Those readers familiar with Klein’s work will also be knowledgeable about the shocks that Klein believes transformed political life long before Trump became a candidate for office: 9/11, Enron, Hurricane Katrina, the waves of foreclosures triggered by the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble, and the 2007-8 global financial crisis. Not coincidentally, Vice President Mike Pence was crucially involved in planning the privatised solutions for New Orleans after Katrina that have dramatically shrunk that city’s public institutions; and Trump’s vaunted (but nonexistent) infrastructure plan relies heavily on private investment.

However, understanding where and why opportunities for opposing such policies were missed provide the basis for defeating shock politics. Coalition building, such as the Standing Rock Sioux used to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline, a story that Klein reported from the ground, is central to this. The American left needs to resist siloing, confront racism, make common cause with similar movements around the world on issues of global concern, seek direct confrontation without viewing demonstrations and mobilisation as an end in and of themselves, and retake an ‘economic-populist space’ currently being colonised by right-wing movements.

Klein resists the compulsion, still widespread on the American left, to fume about how the primary process disadvantaged the potentially transformative candidacy of Bernie Sanders. But she also does not believe that the lesson of Sanders’ defeat, or the disarray on the European left in the face of a resurgent right, is that we must defend ourselves from the far right by voting for centrist politicians who will at least acknowledge that there is a social contract. Economic boldness is necessary, but it must be matched with a commitment to confronting racism and class inequality far better than the Sanders campaign was willing or able to do. Furthermore, ‘The crucial lesson of Brexit and of Trump’s victory is that leaders who are seen as representing the failed neoliberal status quo are no match for the demagogues and fascists.’

Playing defense, or saying no as we were all urged in those heady first few months of demonstrations after the 2016 election, is not enough when Trump and his cronies are trying to actually push us backwards – not just politically, but as a moral community. As Klein emphasizes, there needs to be a competing vision to push us forward, ‘some big, bold yeses to rally around.’ These yeses require coalition building, a vision for what is possible, and the hard work of finding where common interests on the left lie. As political and financial elites literally wall themselves off into metaphorical safe, or ‘Green Zones’, detaching from a society that they see as increasingly undeserving, the only way of counterattacking is to think big and find allies. In this sense Trump, terrifying as he is, becomes an opportunity to say no, and make that no effective, but only if the left is willing to grow and evolve, seeking and granting forgiveness of each other, and learning to build success, brick by brick, no by no.

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  • Emmryss

    Trump’s actual victory, as distinct from his “historical inevitability” may have had less to do with branding, or even the degradation of the public sphere, than remarkably effective Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression aided and abetted by the Supreme Court. One has to remember that Clinton won the popular vote by some 3 million votes. The vote was, indeed, rigged, as Trump was poised to claim had he lost, but for him or any other Republican candidate (of whom, in the primaries, there were far too many of far too feeble stature) who might have run.

    • Tenured_Radical

      Yes Clinton won the popular vote — but you know, I think this is a foolish argument to keep pursuing, since it presumes that winning an election under the constitutional rules that currently govern elections is a form of rigging. I vote for Clinton, but without enthusiasm, as an utterly defensive gesture given the circumstances, and in a city where she won 98% of the vote. Clinton partisans consistently underestimate how a candidacy that appealed to slivers of the electorate failed depressed voter turnout in the states (not California or New York) that actually fucking mattered. Clinton knew the rules going in: to claim now that she only lost because of the electoral college system is idiotic.

  • N+2

    I wonder if you actually read Lilla’s book at all, given the silly, one sentence caricature of his argument you present here…

    • Tenured_Radical

      Superficial it may have been — silly it’s not. Yes I have read Lilla’s book, and since I mostly maintain a policy of not reviewing books that I don’t like, I will remain mostly silent about it — except that in its attempt to cover much ground in very few pages, there are outright errors in it and failures of interpretation that are fatal flaws, in my view.

      • N+2

        Alright, not so much silly, then, as dismissive. Well, it’s this sort of dismissive attitude to his argument that I suspect will leave liberals in much the same position as they are in now – i.e. largely powerless – for a long time to come. Hopefully I’m mistaken. By the way, how exactly can an interpretation ‘fail’, or contain ‘failures’? Unless I’m wrong, haven’t the humanities long ago given up on the idea of some final, immutable interpretation that mirrors the way things are, or reflects The Way the World Is? Hence the license to go on proliferating an unmanageable number of interpretations which cannot ever really fail, in some substantive sense, but which are simply incompatible with each other? And isn’t this exactly what one would expect in a society saturated with endless points of view? Isn’t this why, in the end, academia amplifies in epistemic terms a ‘rising tide of insignificance’, as Castoriadis points out?

        • Tenured_Radical

          That’s a lovely speech — but don’t put those ideas about the humanities on me. And as for dismissiveness, if you really want to push me on this, I don’t think Lilla is wrong about identity politics, but they are as much of a problem on the right and have been since the birth of grassroots “white rights” grievances in the 1960s. But I also read Lilla as snobbish and dismissive of a range of social movements, which he classifies as mere “identity politics,” as if such social movement s have nothing to do with serious economic and social justice politics. That’s just ignorant.

          • Tenured_Radical

            By the way, for anyone following this — Lilla’s book can easily be ready in one sitting, and I urge you to do so rather than import your views of it from this exchange.

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