The voice of an 'anticapitalist manifesto'

Talk about branding.

A Times of London interviewer calls Naomi Klein "probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world."

The National Post calls her the "wunderkind of the new New Left" and the "New Noam Chomsky."

Hyperbole, perhaps.

But Ms. Klein's blast against international corporate power, "No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies," is now a bestseller in Britain, Sweden, and on college campuses across Canada.

The author and newspaper columnist will take center stage today as co-chair of the "People's Summit," a countercultural alternative to the official Summit of the Americas, opening in Quebec City on Friday (President Bush and the free-trade summit, page 2).

Klein is emerging as the leading voice of the antiglobalization movement, and it's tempting to call her the spokeswoman.

But Klein is as hard to label as the "movement of movements" she writes and lectures about. "I'm less a spokesperson for the movement than its most devoted follower," she demurs. "Antiglobalization," she adds is not the best term, either. She prefers to call it "the pro-democracy" movement.

It is precisely the amorphousness and leaderlessness of free-trade opponents that has helped focus attention on the articulate, mediagenic Klein and her work.

And she certainly was in the right place at the right time with the right text. "No Logo" came out just after the 1999 street battles in Seattle. The protests confirmed free trade, once a topic that only a policy wonk could love, as an issue that could galvanize a new generation of political activists as civil rights and nuclear disarmament had inspired earlier generations. The book "gave voice to a movement almost before it existed," Maclean's magazine said in a cover-story profile last month.

Klein's "anticapitalist manifesto," as it has been described, is a polemic against corporate power - the power to invade public space (ads and placement of brand-name products everywhere, including schoolbooks) to limit consumer options (as when big-box retailers drive out local players), and to cut jobs (when work is moved to cheap-labor locations overseas).

In her book, Klein rails mostly against consumer-goods brand names. In today's economy, "brands" have replaced "products." Companies are selling mere image and lifestyle. In this equation, the ratio of corporate substance to corporate power is wildly out of whack.

Klein describes the movement as "a response to the privatization of life - natural resources, health, education" and as "attempts to reclaim democracy from trade agreements." She adds, "What creates the coalitions [against trade pacts] is the ambitiousness of the agreements." Free trade is being put ahead of other social goods, such as local control over environmental protection and labor regulation. She's not opposed to free trade per se, but she suggests that there are other models for it than the current US-led push for a hemisphere-wide trade zone.

She's also skeptical of free trade as an economic panacea: "Like NAFTA before it, the creation of the largest free-trade zone in the world is being sold based on the cure-all powers of trickle-down economics," she wrote in last week's column in the Globe and Mail.

"There's been a dumbing down of politics," she says. "But there's a tremendous hunger to be part of the discussion." She speaks of students and others crowding into university lecture halls on Sunday afternoons to hear policy activists explain water issues or trade-law arcana.

"People want to understand. I think that's really hopeful and exciting," she says.

"It's hard to think of another person writing more colorfully and creatively on these issues," says Boston College sociologist Charles Derber. "She's a fresh voice." While cautioning against granting her "celebrity status," he calls her "part of the emerging class of global public intellectuals," adding that he distinguishes between "public intellectuals" - those "whose writing and thinking is shaping the public view" - and mere "talk-show pundits."

Her work is also informed by a lot of her own on-the-ground reporting on issues like sweatshops in the third world.

Professor Derber compares her to the student leaders of the early 1960s, who, in the early days of the "New Left" movement in the United States, breathed new energy into progressive politics.

"No Logo" has sold nearly 20,000 hardcover copies in Canada since its release in January 2000. Also out in paperback this January, the book has been on the bestseller list here every week. It's been translated into nine languages. Klein's work is less well known in the US, where her column appears in The Nation. But she's enjoyed major success in Britain, where the prestigious Guardian newspaper carries her column and "No Logo" is No. 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list.

Her book is "obviously touching a nerve," says Nicholas Paschley, trade-book buyer for the University of Toronto bookstore. The book is selling well, he says, despite the fact that this university is "about as tame and politically disengaged ... as you'll find."

That charge is not leveled against Concordia University in Montreal. Rob Green, outgoing president of the student union, reports, "We have 90 buses confirmed filled for the trip to Quebec City."

The police presence at the official summit is being described as the largest in Canadian history, however, and Klein and others are concerned about limits on civil liberties during the summit.

She and other activists have petitioned Prime Minister Jean Chretien to remove the four-kilometer-long chain-link fence erected in Quebec City to keep protesters out.

Mr. Green, the student leader, suggests that under Canada's Constitution, the level of curtailment of free speech and freedom of assembly anticipated this week would be legal only if the War Measures Act, a provision for a sort of martial law, were invoked.

"The whole movement has been criminalized and presumed guilty," he says.

Klein, too, worries that the extreme elements are becoming the public persona of the movement. But she also sees the movement expanding beyond street protests at summits.

"Recently, police have taken to patting themselves on the back for learning to 'control' mass demonstrations," she wrote last week. "But how will they adapt to a global movement that is already transforming itself into thousands of local mini-movements, all internationally linked? They're going to need a pretty big fence."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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