It would be a fair criticism that I enjoy gnawing on the hand that feeds me. Commerce as an arena for human interaction is fascinating; commerce qua commerce gets a little dull. It’s the dullards who typically draw my attention. That should not be interpreted as a free pass for the other side. If the great blind spot of free marketers is the belief that the market is always right the equally-blind, countervailing belief is that profit is always evil.
Naomi Klein, alas, seems to belong squarely in that latter camp. While I often seek out disparate points of view, in this case the book literally showed up in the lunchroom and I grabbed it. Four hundred plus pages later I wonder what I was thinking.
Klein has a point of view: trans-national corporations have too much power and they are using it to dupe people into accepting various forms of servitude, recognized and unrecognized, while giving up their democratic rights. She thinks that stinks. She also think there is a growing backlash against this oppressive fact.
Here’s where my confusion starts: I can’t tell whether Klein is functioning as a journalist, a propagandist, a researcher or some postmodern admixture of them all. She’s all over the place: At a late-night covert meeting with union organizers in southeast Asia. Meeting with the Philippine government official in charge of economic empowerment zones. Taking back the mean streets of Toronto from the brand-obsessed corporations plastering ads everywhere. No Logo is a polemic and suffers all the weaknesses of that form.
Published at the end of the 1990s, No Logo seems as dated as a dotcom sock puppet. (There is a 10th anniversary, updated edition available. I didn’t read it and so have no basis for comparison. This is about the original.) One example: a favorite trope of Klein’s is the “growing movement,” “growing backlash” and the “thousands of people” worldwide striking back. Trouble is, it’s more than 10 years on and the crowds never materialized so as predictions go, it failed. (If you want an example of how a rigorous analytical framework can aid prediction read Eric Hobsbawm’s On the Edge of the New Century, also published in 1999, it’s short.)
I’m sure the poor working conditions Klein reports actually exist. I’m sure that troubles some people who benefit from buying those products. It might even bother a few shareholders of corporations that maximize ‘value add’ by outsourcing all production on a contract basis. Most people just don’t care. Much as it might be be fascinating to sit and discuss false consciousness among inner city youth with Ms. Klein, something else appears to be going on.
I go back to the question of why people consume beyond basic needs. The best answer remains to achieve a desired state of social relationships. To try and remove that from the equation and lay the onus of all that is bad in capitalism on brands strikes me as more than a bit of a stretch.
It’s also not fair. Like most non-practitioners, Klein presumes marketing is all powerful. If it was, we’d have a handful of superbrands with close to 100% market share. Last I checked, the only 100% sure share was owned by death. Some of us go to work every day to help grind out changes that have lasting incremental impact. Life isn’t all iTunes (and the highest share figure I’ve seen for iTunes is 66% music share). A
25 33% increase in share for a product at 3% is huge and it still only brings you to 4%. (Even I blow the simple arithmetic at times.)
Folks who think this is simple manipulation rather than hard work really ought to try it.