CRITICISM OR COMPROMISE? REVIEW OF NAOMI KLEIN, NO LOGO (WILLIAM MORROW, 1999)
Catholic New Times, 11 June 2000; on the web by permission, September 2002
I leapt at the chance to review this book. Critiques of global capitalism are my stock-in-trade. It has been a privilege to draw your attention to more than a dozen earlier critiques by thinkers like Gary Teeple, Robert Simons, Gregory Baum, Frances Moore Lappe, John McMurtry, Tony Clarke, Linda McQuaig and others.
The expansion of a single, corporation-dominated market into geographic and social domains heretofore left alone is the cardinal economic reality of our time. It is this we have to understand before all else if we are to act responsibly and effectively as historical beings in this new century. The critiques reviewed earlier were typically low-budget, softcover productions from small presses, not infrequently in novel formats designed to invite dialogue with readers.
No Logo, by contrast, is a thick, glossy, hardcover from a major multinational (Knopf is a division of Random House), with artsy photos and two colours on almost every page. An earlier title I reviewed comes to mind: Commodity Your Dissent. Naomi Klein is aware of the contradiction. Commenting on the international movement protesting globalization, she writes: "If we truly need the glittering presence of celebrity logos to build a sense of shared humanity and collective responsibility for the planet, then maybe brand-based activism is the ultimate achievement of branding."
No Logo, this is to say, shows a lot of attraction to the high-flying world of transnational capitalism. Is it a fatal attraction? No, it is charming, in a way. One gets the impression of a bright young Toronto journalist on her way up, and sensing that protest against the World Trade Organization and what it represents is where the action is. Shortly before the latest anti-WTO mobilization, Klein wrote in the Globe and Mail: "Look, I missed Seattle. There's no way I'm missing Washington."
How far must a critic compromise? Earlier this spring Charlie Angus wrote in CNT that he was turned off by Covenant House's glitzy ad campaign, even while admiring its effort to publicize the problem of poverty. A year or so ago in these pages Maggie Helwig gave a brilliant blast at the publisher who turned the late Dr. Seuss into a brand name for books the great children's author did not write and would not have written. I wonder what Angus or Helwig would say about Klein's book.
Klein is correct that major logos serve as rallying points for anger against the big corporations. Street demonstrators have taken to smashing windows of the local McDonald's outlet. Activists have organized boycotts against Shell, Nestle's, Nike, Mattel, Levi Strauss, Pepsi and Coke. Towns have tried to prevent Wal-Mart from moving in. No Logo does a good job of describing these protests and their complex, intricate, powerful and global targets.
Still, the focus on corporate logos may be misplaced. The objects of the game are profit and power. Dangling a single logo before consumers' eyes is just one means to these ends. Corporations regularly play down their logos or hide their identities altogether when it is in their interests to do so. Media barons who buy up newspapers, for instance, ordinarily keep a variety of mastheads to maintain the pretence of local control and allegiance. It is the same with funeral homes. Hundreds of them across North America still go by the names of their founding families, even while being owned and controlled by a handful of giant firms. A standard logo sometimes makes for good marketing, sometimes not.
Klein concludes by contrasting consumerism and citizenship, appropriately opting for the latter. "When I started this book," she writes, "I honestly didn't know whether I was covering marginal atomized scenes of resistance or the birth of a potentially broad-based movement. But as time went on, what I clearly saw was a movement forming before my eyes." As the Seattle and Washington protests demonstrate, the movement has continued to form. What effect it will have, and whether for good or ill, remains to be seen.