Naomi Klein on Iraq, the movement and living without fear
by Nancy Sartor
Looking at her lineage, it's no wonder that Naomi Klein found her calling in political activism. Her grandparents were radicals and her parents ditched the United States for Canada during the Vietnam War. Her mother was active in the anti-pornography movement, earning the title “Bourgeois Feminist Fascist” from the Toronto Globe after releasing the seminal anti-porn film “This is Not a Love Story.”
still in her 20s, Klein published “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies,”
a bestseller that challenged the growing power of international corporations.
The book was dubbed the “movement Bible” by the New York Times,
and Klein gained notoriety as a journalist and activist.
She has traveled extensively throughout North America, Latin America, Asia and
Europe, tracking the rise of anti-corporate activism. She spent a year in Argentina,
researching the plight of factory workers in Buenos Aires after the country’s
economy collapsed in 2001. The resulting documentary, “The Take,”
written by Klein and directed by fellow Canadian and outspoken journalist Avi
Lewis, was released last year.
Klein writes internationally syndicated columns that appear in Canada’s
Globe and Mail and the Guardian of London. A frequent media commentator (catch
her on “Democracy Now”) and university guest lecturer, Klein is
the keynote speaker at the University of Minnesota’s upcoming conference
entitled “Globalization, Modernities and Violence,” a free and open
public forum which takes place April 15 and 16.
Klein recently spoke to Pulse of the Twin Cities from her Toronto home about
the state of the anti-globalization movement, neo-liberal shock policies, the
Bush administration’s corporate branding of governance, and media reform.
PULSE: Your writings were and continue to be an inspiration to many people
who are standing up to corporations around the world. More than five years after
the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, how do you think the movement
KLEIN: I think it’s changed a lot. The significance of the Seattle
protest was not that the movement was beginning, but that it was landing very
decisively in North America because of opposition to the policies of globalization,
or what most of the world calls neo-liberalism, which is a package of policies
that is based on privatizing essential central services. It’s a belief
that the role of government is essentially to facilitate investment for multinational
corporations and create new investment opportunities—which is where privatization
comes in—but also deregulation and downsizing of the state. There was
certainly opposition to those policies in many forms pre-Seattle, which is what
I wrote “No Logo” about.
many parts of the world that opposition has gotten much stronger in recent years
and has translated into political change, which you can see most clearly in
Latin America. In the five years since Seattle, there has been a wave of electoral
victories for progressive candidates and political parties who ran on election
campaigns that opposed this particular development model—standing up to
the International Monetary Fund, standing up to the World Trade Organization,
standing up to the United States. I’m thinking of Argentina and Brazil.
You also see it happening in Bolivia, Uruguay and India.
PULSE: How do you think September 11 affected political activism in
KLEIN: I think the opposition to neo-liberalism is much, much stronger
than it was in 1999. But I think activism in general, and in the United States
in particular since September 11, has been very timid.
I think that there’s a climate of fear in the United States around being
perceived as anti-government. There’s a fear of being in the streets.
I saw this very clearly when I was in New York during the Republican convention.
Certainly the opposition to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq and
the sort of corporate takeover of politics was very, very clear; but in terms
of the opposition, the way it was expressed was very timid and controlled. I
think that’s a broader social issue that people in the U.S. really need
to grapple with: what is the role of dissent in a democracy?
PULSE: Many people in the U.S. are concerned about outsourcing of jobs,
falling wages and the lack of community, but relatively few people will protest,
and not everyone can shop at co-ops or small businesses. What are some strategies
people can employ to address these issues and change the course of policy?
KLEIN: There is more and more concern about outsourcing, about the effect
of these policies on people’s jobs. There’s tremendous opposition
to privatization of social security, which is the local manifestation of these
I think political mass demonstrations are only one very small part of activism.
The real work of political change is community-based and unglamorous—small
meetings and organizing. And I think that’s happening more and more in
this country. You see it in campaigns for a living wage, living wage amendments
or increasingly in the national campaign against Wal-Mart and its effects on
a living wage.
There’s also an interesting wave of activism going on now on university
campuses and in high schools against military recruiting, which I think does
show that people are shaking off some of that fear, particularly young people.
PULSE: Can you talk more about public fear and how that is and has been
manipulated by the government in the U.S. and abroad?
KLEIN: That ties in with what I’m going to be talking about at
the conference: how different kinds of shock are used and the role of shock
in imposing economic policies—policies that I believe are tremendously
unpopular and generally opposed when people are given a chance to have their
say. These policies are very often imposed through various forms of violence
and different kinds of shock.
written a lot about this subject as it relates to Iraq and how the military
campaign was described as “shock and awe.” If you read the theory
behind calling it “shock and awe,” it was psychological, less of
a military strategy than a psychological strategy.
What shock and awe was supposed to do was break down the desire of the Iraqis
to resist [the occupation] because they would be so in awe of the sheer firepower
that was descending upon them. That very clearly laid the ground for [implementing]
this extremely radical form of shock—which is called economic shock therapy—laying
off 500,000 people, plans to privatize 200 state-owned companies, cuts to food
subsidies. The theorists of so-called shock therapy are very open about the
fact that it is easiest to impose these policies on people who are already shocked,
who are already destabilized.
One of the things that Americans need to admit is that since September 11 this
country has been in a state of shock. Not, perhaps, as severe a state of shock
as a country that’s facing a military bombardment or a tsunami, but Americans
are also much less used to this feeling. And I think that there’s no doubt
that the political leadership in the United States seized upon that state of
shock in a very similarly opportunistic way that you see in Iraq and Afghanistan
and post-tsunami Indonesia and Thailand, where you have these massive land grabs
by real estate developers.
You see this in the United States, in the pushing through of very unpopular
economic policies, [federal officials] governing with total impunity and crackdowns
on dissent under the guise of security. But I also think that shock is slowly
PULSE: If the shock is indeed wearing off here in America, why do you
think the Bush administration has been so successful with their political agenda?
KLEIN: One thing that the Bush administration is tremendously good at
is applying the rules of corporate branding to governance. What I mean by branding
is a rejection of traditional advertising of a product and a move to selling
an identity. But more than just selling an idea, the real breakthrough in corporate
branding is selling a customer’s aspirational identity back to themselves.
Not selling the reality of yourself, but a dream of yourself. You buy into that
identity and sort of merge with the brand. The idea is to create a tribe around
I think it explains a lot about how successful their election campaign was.
I think Democrats and progressives in the United States didn’t even realize
what was happening. The Republicans have been doing this very, very steadily—and
under the radar as far as Democrats are concerned—with the idea of Republicanism.
And it isn’t something they launched during the election campaign, they’ve
been doing it for years and brought in the most expert corporate marketers to
They are selling Republicans back to themselves, so that being a Republican
is not about whether or not to support a particular policy, it’s one of
your core identities. That makes it much, much harder to challenge from a political
think Karl Rove has engineered this massive, co-branding campaign among [people]
who they’ve identified as their core market. And what’s important
to them are the church going, Nascar-driving, proud-to-be-a-redneck—or,
you know, maybe not so educated but maybe not embarrassed about it—core.
They’ve sort of embedded Republicanism deep in that core, which in many
ways protects [the core] from traditional understandings of politics.
That’s the deepest way in which they’re corporatized, and we see
the rest of it with their politics. I think that’s why you do have people
voting against their direct economic interests—because [the administration]
has successfully launched a false advertising campaign. These are not down-home
folks, they are the corporate elite, but they are such expert marketers that
they have presented themselves in this way. And so people are voting for losing
their health care and other services.
PULSE: So how do you convince people that they are being manipulated—politically
KLEIN: Well part of it is having some historical context. In places
where people have not allowed themselves to be scared into reactionary responses,
it’s because there is some sense of history.
I lived in Argentina for a year making this film [“The Take”] about
what happened in Argentina after their economy crashed. Argentina lived through
a very brutal military dictatorship, so they know how to identify the beginnings
of fascism before it’s really in place. Because they lived through it,
they learned the hard way.
So when their people took to the streets against the government, the first thing
the government did was declared a state of siege—a state of emergency
and a curfew—and told everybody that they had to go home. And people spontaneously
had this reaction that was, “We know what they’re doing. They’re
using fear to try to prevent us from expressing our political opposition,”
and they knew that because they had experienced it—very brutally, in that
they lost 30,000 people to a military dictatorship.
So they just, en masse, poured into the streets in 2001. When I was in Argentina
talking to people, that was the most significant thing—that they had stood
up to fear and there was this moment for the country.
I’ve also heard very similar descriptions from friends in Spain about
their reaction to the Madrid bombing. Where you had a very reactionary government
wanting to use the attack to justify their very unpopular presence in Iraq and
to win the upcoming elections. To say, “I’m the father figure, everybody
go home and be scared, I’ll take care of everything,” and people
responded the way Argentineans responded.
In Spain you also have this history of fascism, and people could see it starting
to arise and they just rejected it. They poured into the streets and had these
marches against terror, which were really marches against being terrorized,
against being afraid. Then they proceeded to elect a government that was proposing
a completely different approach to the war on terrorism—you know, bring
the troops back from Iraq and so on.
There isn’t the same history in the United States and I think that’s
why people are much more easily manipulated. But I think knowing that history
does help a little, and making those parallels to other parts of the world where
you can see how terror is used as a political weapon. It’s easier to see
it happening somewhere else than it is to see it happening to you.
But I also think it takes some political leadership, and unfortunately the United
States doesn’t really have that right now.
PULSE: What do you think it means to be a leader?
[Indian economist] Vandana Shiva is speaking at the conference, too, and one
of the things she says is that every political leader worth their salt in history—from
Gandhi to Martin Luther King—has expressed the same message, which is
courage. Don’t be afraid, be courageous in the face of fear.
Real leaders don’t tell people to be frightened. They help people find
a place of courage, even in the face of very real threats. The world’s
a treacherous place, nobody’s kidding about that.
PULSE: Yes, to convey a message of empowerment and solidarity. Do you
see anyone who might fulfill that leadership role in the United States?
KLEIN: Well, I don’t think it even necessarily has to be a figure.
And I think this is important when I say “leadership.” I don’t
think it’s that we all should wait at home until Martin Luther King shows
up, you know? [laughs] I think that’s actually a really dangerous and
also dis-empowering idea, that we need a sort of evangelical figure.
And it’s interesting — in the two examples I gave you of Argentina
and Spain, there was no figure. It was a national mood. It was a moment more
than it was a person. There was no one who told people not to be afraid; it
was a collective click.
PULSE: Given our relatively short history as a country, and the lack
of a fascist history at that, what do you think it will take for people in the
United States to have a kind of organic movement of empowerment?
KLEIN: I think that the connection with the military is an important
one, where there are some of the most powerful voices in the United States.
Unfortunately they’re not being amplified, but they’re there. Mothers
who lost their sons in Iraq are speaking out against the war, and soldiers who
came home are saying this is an unfair trade.
I hear them at small conferences and teach-ins and I believe that if I were
hearing them on CNN every night, which I should, it would make a difference.
I think it’s newsworthy when you have soldiers who come home with an absolutely
righteous core of moral indignation saying, “I was there and this is what
happened.” Or a mother who says, “My son died while he was protecting
inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction that everybody knew didn’t
even exist.” These are extremely powerful voices—chilling and emotional—and
when people hear them it’s incredible.
I think it’s also about class, which raises all kinds of questions—uncomfortable
questions—about class systems in the United States. Why is it that a certain
sector of American society is considered so disposable that they have to make
this ultimate sacrifice in order to get a university education? I mean, that’s
why most of those people signed up.
PULSE: Independent media is growing in this country—Democracy
Now adds radio and television affiliates daily. But how do we address the problem
of getting dissenting voices heard in the mainstream media?
I think it’s a balance because we do need to build these alternatives,
but we also need to maintain the demand for broader access. I think that’s
why the media reform movement is interesting, because it’s bridging alternative
media projects, independent media projects and legislative demands to break
up media consolidation, and I think some important policy demands are coming
out of it.
But I also think that people need to get angry at the media and really identify
it for what it is—which is a huge piece of the puzzle in terms of keeping
us afraid and distracted.
PULSE: The New York Times had a front-page story a few weeks ago about
“video news releases” that are distributed by the administration
and picked up by television networks and local affiliates, often without attributing
the source of the so-called news item. What is your reaction to this practice?
Isn’t it just propaganda?
KLEIN: Well what’s the difference between that and most major
television networks’ Iraq coverage? I mean, they were embedded in the
war from the beginning, and I don’t just mean having reporters embedded
with troops. From the beginning they were just signing on and beating the drums
of war, not asking the questions about weapons of mass destruction—handing
over huge amounts of airtime to generals and not including anti-war critics.
In Iraq, the people don’t understand the difference between what they’re
seeing from American journalists dressing up like soldiers, embedding themselves
in the occupation, and what they had under Saddam, which were embedded journalists
with the dictatorship.
PULSE: Talk about your journey through Iraq and your upcoming book.
KLEIN: When the war in Iraq began I was in Argentina, which is a country
with an intense history of terror. I really learned to understand what was happening
in Iraq by learning what had happened in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, where
you had a CIA-supported military coup. And during this incredibly brutal military
dictatorship, a really sadistic regime, they imposed economic shock therapy
on Argentina, using the opportunity of being able to terrorize the population
to attack unions, to roll back wages, to start selling off fake assets and to
run up huge bills with the International Monetary Fund.
Talking to Argentineans, I learned that this was a very clear strategy and I
think a lot of the way we talk about human-rights violations now in the U.S.
is completely de-politicized. You have big NGOs [non-governmental organizations]
like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that issue reports about torture
and disappearances, but it’s really de-politicized, it’s really
taken out of the context of what else is going on—what political goals
this kind of brutality serves. It’s like we get these catalogs of human
rights abuses taken totally out of context.
And it was really interesting to be in Argentina and learn that context, and
hear that most Argentineans blame the economic hardships they have today on
the fact that these policies were imposed with so much violence in the ’70s.
So when I started to see the first contracts being handed out [in Iraq] to Bechtel
and other companies, I knew from my work on globalization issues that these
companies have been pushing privatization on Latin America very, very aggressively.
If they’re rebuilding the water system in Iraq, I know that they have
a political agenda because that’s what they do everywhere in the world.
very similar to what happened in Argentina is happening in Iraq: the shock of
war serves as cover for economic theft, which in the end, makes democracy—when
you finally get it—this sort of hollow promise. You get the vote, but
all the power has already been zapped away—your country’s already
been sold off and you’re locked into these deals with the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank that shackle your government for decades to
I lived in Argentina at the end of that process, where people were really realizing
what had happened and were saying, “We don’t have democracy in this
country even though we have the vote,” and, “We don’t have
control of our economic destiny, our lives are being controlled elsewhere. They’re
being controlled by French water companies and Spanish telephone companies and
the IMF and the World Bank.” There was this feeling of being tenants in
their own country.
So that’s how I got interested in the economic side of the war in Iraq.
Part of the mistakes that have been made by liberation movements in the past
is not paying attention to these economic deals in moments of transition and
shock—just concentrating on the violence and not asking what the violence
serving, and whom it is serving. Violence is designed to blind.
PULSE: What do you think about Paul Wolfowitz being appointed leader
of the World Bank, despite his unpopularity in Europe?
KLEIN: Honestly, I think that it’s fitting. I think that Americans
are starting to have unrealistic expectations of Europe. I think that the conflict
between Europe and the U.S. over the war in Iraq was less a conflict over ends
than over means, which I believe are the imposition of these economic policies
and very violently opening up new markets.
The World Bank has always had shared support by Europe and the United States
toward these economic ends. The World Bank is a major promoter of really lethal
economic policies around the world and I don’t believe it is a poverty
alleviation organization. I think it’s always been a tremendously ideological
What my research shows is that the World Bank has been working from the earliest
days, in terms of planning the economic restructuring—even though you
had this reticence from European leaders on the tactics used to invade Iraq
and the timing. As soon as they [the U.S. and allied forces] decided to invade,
the hemming and hawing stopped and the World Bank came in to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
has also been this silent handover that we haven’t heard about. We hear
about the handover from the U.S.-appointed administration to an elected government
both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course the elected government looks very
much like the appointed government. But there has also been this other handover,
which has been a handover from the direct U.S. economic control to proxy economic
control through the World Bank.
In some ways I think that Wolfowitz is the perfect man for the job because I
really believe there is a very clear connection between these economic policies
and war—that so-called reconstruction from war and natural disasters.
Civil war has really become the frontier now, the new frontier for the imposition
of these policies, precisely because people are rejecting them when they have
the freedom and the lack of fear to do so. All over Latin American they’re
In many ways, these institutions are extremely predatory and are really looking
for more prone subjects. I think it’s tremendously disturbing what they’ve
done—like embedding privatization policies. The World Bank has embedded
privatization policies in emergency relief in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they’ll
have a grant about emergency health relief, which just gets pushed through without
any debate because it’s an emergency grant. But in it are conditions for
I believe these projects are really two sides to the same coin and this is what
I wrote about from Iraq. The World Bank has been very much involved since the
beginning, so in many ways this isn’t a new job for him. It’s kind
of a lateral shift within the same project.
PULSE: How did you prepare for your trip to Iraq and what did you do
KLEIN: I started doing economic research and the more I saw the contracts
and the deals and the trade shows in Washington, the more I realized that I
had to go to Iraq to research it myself.
It was actually a really hard decision to make because the war was still going
on, and it took a turn for the worse while I was there, which was during the
first siege of Fallujah. It was when the second front was opened up against
Muktada al-Sadr and really the turning point when the war started up again.
Things started getting worse when I was getting ready to go to Iraq and I almost
cancelled the trip. I remember writing to a friend of mine who was already there
and said, “I’m really afraid and that’s why I’m going,
because my fear is the problem.” Not just my fear, but fear in general,
and it’s the fear that keeps us from scrutinizing, that keeps us from
resisting. I deliberated and deliberated and just decided that the fact that
I’m afraid is evidence of the problem.
spent the first couple weeks visiting state-owned factories, talking to workers
and economic advisers and really doing the economic research. It got so bad
that before I left I was just visiting hospitals and talking to mothers who’d
lost their kids. When things get that bad that’s the only thing you can
Naomi Klein is the keynote speaker at the University of Minnesota conference
“Globalization, Modernities and Violence.” The event, which is sponsored
by the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, is a free and
open public forum and takes place April 15 and 16. For details, go to email@example.com
or call 612-624-0832.
For more information on Naomi Klein, check out her website