Learning to say Yes: a reflection on Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough
Let’s be honest. Almost 10 years on from the financial crisis – and the ensuing assault on the public sector it provoked – we’re all exhausted, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. “When they say cut back, we say fight back”. “No cuts”. “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out”. By this stage, I think we were all hoping things would have gotten better, somehow. And yet the cuts and the austerity continues.
Part of the problem, Naomi Klein argues in her new book, No Is Not Enough, is that we’ve been forgetting a crucial part of the process. That in addition to rejecting and protesting and arguing against stuff, we need a radically different vision to be fighting for. She regards herself as equally culpable for such a misguided approach. When she wrote the Shock Doctrine, she said she thought just describing the ugly tactic of exploiting a manufactured crisis to advance corporate interests would be enough to stop it. It’s part of the process, for sure, but it’s not enough.
To be fair, she is partly arguing that we have perhaps not been saying No in quite the right way. In all our left-wing campaigns, it’s often been unclear if we’re fighting against neoliberalism – the de-regulated form of capitalism we currently live under – or against capitalism itself. She says we should remind ourselves of a key historical lesson, that reforms were only granted as a concession against more radical change: “The New Deal, it’s always worth remembering, was adopted by President Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and Left militancy that its programs – radical by today’s standards – appeared at the time to be the only way to prevent full-scale revolution.”
Part of the problem, for me, is that many of the radical ideas around at the moment just don’t cut the mustard. Things like the (real) Living Wage and rent controls and free university tuition and public ownership of the railways. It’s all good, it all constitutes progress. But it’s not threatening enough. And even the more radical ideas around – like the Universal Basic Income and a Maximum Wage – just don’t cut it. Perhaps we need to take our demands to a new level, and start calling for ideas which challenge the logic of capitalism itself. De-growth. Expropriation. Nationalization. Co-operatives.
Of course, many people on the Left will argue that they are already saying Yes to something – Yes to socialism. Yet Naomi Klein is part of a category of left-wing thinker who – although they criticise capitalism structurally and systemically – do not take the leap to call themselves socialists. Indeed, when once asked “what system works”, she said “mixed economies” along Scandinavian lines.
I share this view. Although I’ve long recognised the violent, impossible and dehumanizing logic of capitalism, I don’t call myself a socialist. There are several reasons. One is that is something which constantly comes up under centrally-planned economies is the problem of scarcity. Second is that, though capitalism has a tendency towards monopoly and duopoly, capitalism offers a level of consumer choice which I like, as do many others. And how would it work? How could we go about publicly providing every possible service with no income stream to fund it?
The first section of the book itself is, of course, about the Trump Presidency, arguing that Trump is the logical conclusion of many of the cultural trends from the past 30 years. She argues that it would be a huge mistake to feel too defeatist at this moment – this “corporate coup d’etat” has happened precisely as a reaction against the strength of our growing movements, rather than their weakness. She argues, too, that he is the ultimate brand. Part of the problem with brand culture is that it leaves the brand without moral responsibility for the underlying product, and allows you to turn vices into virtues: Trump is a brand bully. As a result, no scandal touches him.
It’s at this point that we’re reminded of something crucial in the fight against neoliberalism. That we’re not just fighting against a set of economic policies or even an economic system – but a system of morality, as well. Neoliberalism is underpinned by a morality of ruthless individualism and competitiveness. In seeking to fight against it, we should be saying Yes to a different type of morality, one that values reciprocity, solidarity and collaboration.
If you’ll forgive me a parochial moment, allow me to focus on the question of Scottish Independence. Because what’s interesting about the movement for Scottish independence is that it’s structured around a word, Yes, and supported by a “Yes movement” – the antithesis of a No-focused campaign. And it’s precisely because the offer of Scottish independence has become so hollow that is has begun to flag. In 2014, activists were propelled to an unprecedented degree by the promise of a new, vibrant democracy – with an economy, democracy and society structured along more egalitarian lines. But at the moment, the offer of Independence seems lousy, an offer of more of the same. Only by rediscovering its sense of radical promise will Scottish independence have much of a future.
Here’s something I’ve always wanted to say Yes to: a National Climate Service, with public transport and social housing at its centre. A massive, unprecedented programme of green job creation – operated primarily at the municipal level – which seeks to transform and rebuild our housing stock and transport infrastructure, solving multiple problems at once. Seemingly peripheral campaigns could become signatories to a National Climate Service. Campaigns to decriminalize and legalize drugs, for example – which needs to happen for its own sake – could sign up as a way of providing the necessary tax revenue to fund such a service.
It was such a huge source of disappointment to me that This Changes Everything didn’t quite light the spark that No Logo and The Shock Doctrine did before it. Its thesis didn’t quite sink in across the spectrum of the Left. Klein’s point is that climate change is a catalyst for progressive change. The Left’s ideological coup de grace. A crisis which reinforces the need to do what the Left has long wanted – bring utilities in public ownership, reign in the super-rich, re-localize our economies. And we can demand it all with existential urgency. “System change on a deadline”, was the tagline.
One part of the thesis that did sink in, however, was the growing importance of intersectionality in our campaigns. Oppressions overlap. Someone who is a victim of sexist discrimination or racism is more likely to be poor and the victim of poor working conditions, to pick a very obvious example. And so campaigns which seek to redress these injustices should seek to address both simultaneously. Campaigns like Sisters Uncut and Black Lives Matter offer some of the best examples already around. Klein writes: “Trump and his cohorts are intent on pushing the world back on every front, all at once. Only a competing vision is that is pushing us forward on multiple fronts has a chance against forces like that.”
One of the most refreshing things about the book is the way in which Klein talks with raw emotional honesty about the problems confronting us. Talking about the experience of taking her young son to see the Great Barrier Reef (slowly dying from a warming sea), she says she “burst into tears, some mixture of joy and heartbreak at the knowledge that, just as he is becoming aware of the beauty of this world, all this magic, it is being drained away”. Indeed, she has talked in the past about the importance of progressives finding places to “grieve together”. Sometimes I feel like I’m crazy for being overwhelmed with rage and despair when I see sights like Grenfell Tower, of yet another boat of drowned, desperate refugees, or a benefit claimants who has killed themselves in despair.
But there is only one answer to ongoing stories of despair and loss: providing some glimmers of hope and optimism. So here’s a proposal for a series of articles and posts on Bright Green: “What We’re Saying Yes To”. We’ve had enough of the despair and horror and problems. We don’t need another bad news story. What are you getting up to fight for? What are your solutions?
If you want to contribute to an ongoing series on what you want to say ‘YES’ to, email Bright Green at firstname.lastname@example.org