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Your Heart's On The Left

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Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at www.yourheartsontheleft.blogspot.com, and tweets @HeartsOnTheLeft.

This Changes Everything, including Naomi Klein

| September 26, 2014
This Changes Everything, including Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate is a must-read guide to the climate justice movement. It summarizes the science of climate change, the extractivist industries driving it, the system to which they are connected, and the growing resistance. Through her dynamic style, Naomi Klein describes the changes in the climate, the changes in the movement, and inspires us to change ourselves as well -- just as her own politics have changed.

Climate change

This Changes Everything warns of the severe consequences of climate change, the industries (like tar sands, fracking, and mountaintop removal) that are pushing us to the precipice, and the racism and profiteering that accompany it. Klein shows that the proposed capitalist solutions -- from industries like nuclear power, market schemes like carbon offsets, technology like geoengineering, or faith in the 1% -- only compound the problem. As she explains, "The idea that capitalism and only capitalism can save the world from a crisis created by capitalism is no longer an abstract theory; it's a hypothesis that has been tested and retested in the real world. We are now able to set theory aside and take a hard look at the results."

Faced with a capitalist climate change, she debunks simplistic solutions -- whether it's calling for individual lifestyle changes while ignoring the socioeconomic conditions that constrain choice, claiming there aren't enough resources while billions have gone to corporate bailouts, or blaming China and India while ignoring Western corporations profiting from the exploitation of their workers. This is not only a critique of the system that produces climate change but of the record of the mainstream environmental movement in challenging it. Klein outlines the coopting of the earlier environmental movement, "what had been a rabble of hippies became a movement of lawyers, lobbyists, and UN summit hoppers" who presented climate change "as a narrow technical problem with no end of profitable solutions within the market system."

The failure of mainstream environmentalism has eliminated gradual and incremental options: "We are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us." This Changes Everything is an urgent call for mass action, connecting the increasing climate disasters to the radical transformation needed to stop them. As Klein explains in her poetic style, climate change is "a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message -- spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions -- telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet."


Movement change

This Changes Everything profiles the rising climate justice movements, introducing readers to campaigns and activists around the world, and showing concrete and inspiring examples of how people are organizing. "All of this has changed so rapidly as I have been writing that I had had to race to keep up. Yes, ice sheets are melting faster than the models projected, but resistance is beginning to boil."

Klein profiles the Indigenous communities leading the climate justice movement, from the Ogoni people in Nigeria to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at ground zero of the tar sands. Contrasting the lack of solidarity to the Mi’kmaq blockade at Burnt Church 15 years ago with the broad support for the Mi'kmaq blockade at Elsipogtog last year, she describes the sea change that the movement is producing: "The movements against extreme energy extraction are becoming more than just battles against specific oil, gas, an coal companies and more, even, than pro-democracy movements. They are opening up spaces for a historical reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Natives, who are finally understanding that, at a time when elected officials have open disdain for basic democratic principles, Indigenous rights are not a threat, but a tremendous gift."

Arguing that "exploited workers and an exploited planet are, it turn out, a package deal," Klein shares lessons from the Northern Cheyenne in building community-run solar panels, and explains how that the technology for renewables exists and provides an alternative both for front-line Indigenous communities defending their land and for non-Indigenous workers needing jobs:

"Manufacturing in North America is as battered as family farming, which means that well-paying union jobs are so scarce that people will fight for whatever jobs are on offer, no matter how dangerous, precarious, or polluting to themselves, their families, or their communities. The solution, as the more visionary sectors of the labor movement understand, is to fight for policies that do not force workers to make those kinds of choices....Today's climate movement does not have the luxury of simply saying no without simultaneously fighting for a series of transformative yeses -- the building blocks of our next economy that can provide good clean jobs, as well as a social safety net that cushions the hardships for those inevitably suffering losses...

There is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives. Just the glimpse of another kind of economy can be enough to energize the fight against the old one."

As a great theorist for the movements, Naomi Klein has both influenced and been influenced by them. This Changes Everything represents another change in Naomi Klein’s own politics, that have shaped and been shaped by movements against corporate globalization, war and climate change.


From brand bullies to state bullies

In No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies she explained the rise of multinationals as the result of a marketing idea in the 1980s, and wrote that the "virtual brick and mortar" of branding was replacing production. Taking aim at the "brand bullies" she praised a resistance "both focused and fragmented" that could subvert and hold the multinationals accountable by culture jamming and reclaiming the streets. Released in the wake of the 2001 Seattle protest against the WTO, No Logo reflected the emerging anti-globalization movement and provided activists with a global framework to understand corporations and the diverse threats they pose. But it left open the role of the state.

The Iraq War of 2003 and the historic movement against it showed that corporate profits don’t just derive from marketing strategies but from state violence -- whether it’s to steal Iraq’s oil or profit from disasters in New Orleans. The Shock Doctrine reflected this radicalization and deepened it. As Naomi Klein wrote,

"Most of us chose to oppose the way as an act of folly by a president who mistook himself for a king, and his British sidekick who wanted to be on the winning side of history. There was little interest in the idea that war was a rational policy choice, that the architects of the invasion had unleashed ferocious violence because they could not crack open the closed economies of the Middle East by peaceful means, that the level of terror was proportional to what was at stake."

The Shock Doctrine was released in 2007 just at the time of the economic crisis, and armed activists to confront the resulting austerity. As the moderator introducing her at the Climate Convergence last week explained, Chicago teachers had reading groups of her book during their successful strike.

Whereas the word "capitalism" did not even make the index of No Logo, it was on the front cover and throughout The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. But it was not capitalism itself that was the problem, but a particular “fundamentalist” “unfettered” and “deregulated” version. Rather than a bad marketing idea of the 1980s, Klein located the problem decades prior in Milton Friedman’s economic theories that led a “50 year campaign for total corporate liberation.” As she wrote, “I am not arguing that all forms of market systems are inherently violent…A free market in consumer products can coexist with free public health care, with public schools, with a large segment of the economy—like a national oil company—held in state hands…Markets need not be fundamentalist… Keynes proposed exactly that kind of mixed, regulated economy…that system of compromises, checks and balances.”


From disaster capitalism to capitalist disasters

The climate science and the indigenous-led climate justice movement have led to another exciting shift in politics. As she wrote in the introduction of This Changes Everything, "this is the hardest book I have ever written, precisely because the research has led me to search out such radical responses." Her search encourages us to do the same. Now the problem is not years of marketing or decades of neoliberalism but centuries of colonialism and capitalism: "the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming are no longer just in conflict with the particular strain of deregulated capitalism that triumphed in the 1980s. They are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die."

Rather than defending state-owned oil companies, she argues:

"These have never been safe or low-risk industries. Running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable."

As a result, she takes on the record of the "extractivist left" who have tried to make change without fighting for climate justice -- including trade unions "trying to freeze in place the dirtiest jobs, instead of fighting for the good clean jobs their members deserve," centre-left Keynesians obsessed with GDP growth regardless of how it's achieved, the former Soviet Union whose environmental record was just as bad as the capitalists, the Latin American government who have reduced economic inequality but not ecological injustice, and Greece’s left alternative Syriza that counterposed the environment with economic recovery.

Rather than calling for compromises, Naomi Klein denounces the "fetish of centrism" in the face of climate catastrophe: "What the 'moderates' constantly trying to reframe climate action as something more palatable are really asking is: How can we create change so that the people responsible for the crisis do not feel threatened by the solutions? How, they ask, do you reassure members of a panicked, megalomanical elite that they are still masters of the universe, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary? The answer is: you don't. You make sure you have enough people on your side to change the balance of power and take on those responsible."


Strategic debates

Shifting from subverting brands to calling for a climate revolution leads to a shift in strategy:

"I have, in the past, strongly defended the right of young movements to their amorphous structures -- whether that means rejecting identifiable leadership or eschewing programmatic demands....As many are coming to realize, the fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization, is not a luxury today's transformative movements can afford....Despite endless griping, tweeting, flash mobbing, and occupying, we collectively lack many of the tools that built and sustained the transformative movements of the past. Our public institutions are disintegrating, while the institutions of the traditional left -- progressive political parties, strong unions, membership-based community service organizations -- are fighting for their lives."

There's also the question of the ultimate aim of this fight. If the climate crisis is rooted in centuries of colonialism and capitalism, then we need to replace the corporations and states responsible. But while This Change Everything leads us in that direction, it constantly returns to the theme of The Shock Doctrine: that the problem is not capitalism itself but the "reigning ideology" of "market fundamentalism," created by the "free market counterrevolution" that has "infiltrated virtually every government" and "binds the imagination of our elites." This makes it seem like neoliberalism is a conspiratorial highjacking of a system that could otherwise be sustainable, leading to nostalgia for the Keynesianism of the 1930s and social programs after the Second World War.

But Keynesianism failed to solve the Great Depression, which only disappeared through the barbarism of the Second World War and a permanent arms economy that temporarily sustained a capitalist boom. This allowed states to develop health and education both under pressure from social movements but also in order to compete with other capitalist rivals. The re-emergence of economic crisis led to neoliberal ideology -- not the other way around -- and the limitations of its "corporate liberation strategy" was made clear when decades of deregulation and financialization failed to prevent the worst (and ongoing) economic crisis since the Great Depression. Economic crisis and war (whose ecological impacts are hardly mentioned) are both intrinsic features of capitalism, whether Keynesian or neoliberal. But because the democratic and revolutionary waves that ended the Second World War and inspired the world were first crushed and then buried in history, the only answer to her question "has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?" is some reformist version of capitalism.

This Changes Everything does not quite change everything. But released in the context of 400,000 marching for climate justice -- along with thousands of actions across the world -- it reflects and advances the hope that this new movement can change everything: "The climate movement offers an overarching narrative in which everything from the fight for good jobs to justice for migrants to reparations for historical wrongs like slavery and colonialism can all become part of the grand project of building a nontoxic, shockproof economy before it's too late."



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