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Naomi Klein and the Path Not Taken

by JEFF BALLINGER


As we think about reaching this other possible world, I want to be very clear that I don’t believe the problem is a lack of ideas. I think we’re swimming in ideas …

August 16, 2007 by Democracy Now!
Lost Worlds: Is Another World Possible? by Naomi Klein

It’s hard not to come away from NK’s latest analysis without a profound sense of discouragement. It seems that she intends the speech as a pep talk – assuring us lefties that we hadn’t lost the war of ideas – we were, rather, "crushed" by tanks. The tanks that shoot got us at Tiananmen and Santiago; the ones that "spin" thwarted our demands in Poland and S. Africa (I’d add that we got it both ways in Seoul). Furthermore, the post-9/11 fear-mongering has led to a "shock and disorientation" that puts us on some existential enemies list (since we’re all for peace, presumably).

We’re not passionate enough, either. Those energized by greed and venality can get those in political control to do their bidding. She doesn’t think we want social justice or clean air as much as Dick Cheney wants slam-dunk oil deals for his friends. I don’t know. I have the feeling that there are many among us who get really juiced by the struggle: doing agit-prop, organizing protests, ferreting out corporate malfeasance, connecting the disenfranchised, etc.

OK, my main point is that sometimes we’re not blasted by water cannon or smacked down by Jeff Sachs’ shock-therapy. Often we "lose" for the most banal reasons, such as bad analysis or "Oops, missed that!" NK goes on for some length about The World Social Forum and how the kick-off conference in Porto Alegre wasn’t even covered in the U.S. media. Such hopeful and resistance-inspiring messages unable to connect with poorly-informed Americans, what a shame! But, hold on a minute. The WSF launch was just around the time of Seattle WTO protests and the publication of No Logo. Add to this the continuing press attention to anti-sweatshop uprisings across Asia and Central America and you’ll see a target-rich environment for progressive activists. For some reason, however, she insists on a hyperbolic tableau: just prior to 9/11"our movement…was already facing extreme repression." I don’t see it that way. Some of us were enthusiastically reporting the class-war klaxon calls we were hearing from export-processing zones across the developing world and the commercial media hungrily scarfed it up. No one tried to muzzle us, really. I could even travel back to Indonesia (a place where there actually was repression) even though they’d thrown me out a couple of years earlier. Globalization meant opportunities for lefties to connect across borders and autocrats generally put up with us pesky agitators.

I know what many of you are thinking as you read this. "You were tolerated because you were a manageable irritant. You didn’t actually change the way these Gaps and Nikes and Mattels operate, did you?" Fair enough. I have to say that I was utterly disconsolate when I saw a Hartford Courant story on how UCONN sweatshirts were being made about two years ago. This was "college-logo" apparel (where we would, in theory, see the best in wages and conditions) and that university has a vibrant chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops. How could it be that workers were still earning only 18 cents for a $38 product? Had all our efforts been such a miserable failure? Yes, that’s the inescapable conclusion. But it didn’t have to be that way.

What could have been …

NK gave a pretty fair exposition of anti-sweat organizing in No Logo – both from the factory-level and amongst European and N. American activists. The ultimate conclusion which she arrived at, however, was that it was "roving and random" – shining a spotlight on this or that corner of the global economy but offering "no system of universal enforcement." (Unwittingly she was reinforcing characterizations of "gotcha" and "gadfly" – favorite dismissive snarls of corporate PR hacks.) I felt that this was a shallow and unfair reading of what had transpired in the eight years since I’d had an Indonesian Nike-worker’s wage stub printed as the "Annotation" feature in Harper’s. With a sole focus on Nike’s shoe contract-suppliers in Indonesia, we had five years of meticulous research on file when Charlie Kernaghan dragged Kathie Lee Gifford onto the world stage and the sweatshop issue really took off in the U.S. In addition, NGOs from Australia, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, Holland, France, the UK and Germany had all done sport-shoe manufacturing studies in S-E Asia in the period 1990-95. In other words, very focused and reliable information about workers’ legitimate protests (and illegitimate sackings) was already disseminated through multiple channels, years before NK went to Asia.

This is not just "sour grapes" on my part. There is a serious cross-border organizing lesson to be learned here. Timelines for real change can be extraordinarily long and social forces (North and South) take a while to get in synch.

NK speaks about "paths not taken" because of the forces of reaction and global capital. Let’s just imagine that she took a different path in her years-long speaking tour after No Logo was published. She could have told those audiences (who were eager for change-agent tips) that one thing seemed to be working: intense scrutiny of a single brand, combined with "street heat" (the sainted Trim Bissell at the helm of the Campaign for Labor Rights) could dramatically affect sales. In fact, Nike’s U.S. sales declined for over 5 years, while the default "conscious consumer" choice – New Balance – increased sales by over 400%. (Then, as now, NB made about 15% of its shoes in the U.S.) At the same time, she could have ridiculed the grotesque "corporate social responsibility" machinations of garment/shoe/toy/electronics companies and their NGO enablers. (I’m a fan of "militant abstentionism" – stay away from that "stakeholder" nonsense.)

Another misreading of the consumer-pressure opportunity came from that other tribune of corporate wrong-doing, Bill Greider. In "One World, Ready or Not" he wrote: "In the course of my reporting, I accumulated many ugly facts about Nike [and others]…I chose not to elaborate on these facts because I think focusing on the moral values of particular companies invites a self-righteous response among readers that is too easy and undeserved." (What does he mean by, "undeserved" ­ that consumers cannot act on info that they themselves have not gathered?) He caught his tactical error later, writing in The Nation, soon after the WTO protests: "The campaign for authentic reform will be a long and uphill struggle, but it may already be time to open a new front. The next target for protest, I suggest, ought to be the major multinationals themselves, at least those that claim America as home base."

It’s probably too late to achieve justice for those two million workers who stood up so courageously; the culprits "solved" the problem with bogus "codes of conduct" – greatly assisted by Clinton lieutenants Reich and Sperling – while mainstream media fell into line. Workers are afraid to strike now and places where their unions make some progress toward bargaining are soon shuttered. The window’s closed. As Samuel Gompers – first president of the AFL – told the "factory girls" assembled in lower Manhattan’s Cooper Union on the eve of the great shirtwaist strike in 1910: "This is the time and the opportunity, and I doubt if you let it pass whether it can be created again in five or ten years or a generation."

Note: Sport shoe billionaires pre-No Logo: Phil Knight
After-No Logo: add Jim Davis and Paul Fireman

From one of NK’s web pages promoting No Logo: "You might not see things yet on the surface, but underground, it’s already on fire." -Indonesian writer Y.B. Mangunwijaya, July 16, 1998

JEFF BALLINGER’s book, "Protests and the Corporate Response; Tiananmen to Seattle" will be published by the University of Pisa this Winter. He is a co-founder of No Sweat Apparel. He can be reached at: jeffreyd@mindspring.com


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