BY ERIK EMPSON
It does not seem to have been activists who made No Logo â€˜part of a movement â€™. Rather it seems largely the media itself that propelled Klein and her particular take on activism to fame. The reasons for this are relatively clear. With the growth of diverse and often contradictory forms of â€˜anti-capitalismâ€™, society at large needed to reduce these either to something recognisable (itâ€™s 1968 all over again), or to something ideologically containable: criminals, thugs and rioters.
Over the last few years groups across the spectrum of the traditional and radical left have all made particular concessions towards aligning with a broad â€˜anti-capitalistâ€™ movement. With all manner and diversity of groups jockeying to lead the carnival procession, what was needed was a politics of moderation or a moderate politics. What more suited to a symbolic politics than a politics of the symbol? Enter Klein. Klein builds an image of capitalism driven by marketing, corporate identities and brand imagery in the West that sits on a bedrock of exploitation in the South and the Third World. She diligently pursues the most familiar large corporations around the globe highlighting their excesses and abuses of power. Carefully covering a wide range of commercial practice companies brokering promotional contracts with schools and universities, the proliferation of temporary or low paid contracts wrapped up in the language of choice, the horrors of sweat-shop labour Klein produces a picture of the modern world throttled by unaccountable and profiteering capitalists. However, alongside these developments, a story is given of resistance: that of young people seeing through the media-marketed hype and creatively shaming, naming, prosecuting and organising against the power of commercial society. No Logo is not just a list of facts: it is peppered with statements from companies and activists alike, presenting an image of a world in hot contestation, as if the political was being reborn and recast as the fight between staid economic interests and an idealistic youth.
Yet behind the high-rise rhetoric of Kleinâ€™s political landscape there is the sinister shantytown of real politics. Fuelling No Logoâ€™s and its readershipâ€™s indignation against unethical consumption is either the implicit idea that hoodwinked consumers in the West are responsible for the working conditions of producers in the third world or a moral duty to ameliorate them. In the discourse of anti-capitalism this means that the genuineness of anti-corporate activism lies in the extent of our rejection of the perks of Western consumer society. If we expose the criminal production practices of major high-street retailers, the power of the manufactured image of those companies will be subverted. Almost overnight the onerous school-ground behaviour of judging people by what they wear has been instantiated as a form of politics itself.
To wear certain trainers, a well-established criterion of social inclusion for youth across the globe, has been re-posed as a sign of complicity with the heady world of exploitation. Counterpoised to Ali G like carriers of commodity sign values, Kleinâ€™s young anti-capitalists emerge as virtuous ascetics happy to divest themselves of the garb of capitalist logic. Kleinâ€™s choice of the logo as a key to unlock the secret working of the social system makes political conclusions such as these unavoidable. However the personable story of No Logo sets up preliminary lines of defence against these accusations. Klein too was once inebriated with cocktails of corporate signifiers, before she saw the light. No Logo bares all, from the sewing of labels on to jeans to the yearning for fast food, with a spirit of confession that would make a Catholic blush. Now saved from perdition, Kleinâ€™s story re-enters the sinful world of her youth with a rigorous attention to banal detail that outflanks Easton Ellisâ€™s American Psycho and has Douglas Coupland checking his notes. As an artistic whole No Logo is endangered by the banality of its subject matter. Everywhere the language of the mass-marketing machines is taken at face value, and the bizarre justifications of commodities within market society are read as if they expressed its inner workings. The nauseating saturation of sign values and the televised spectacle of commercial society are reproduced here in full. No sooner are we treated to prosaic quotes from the likes of the chairman of United Biscuits than we are raised up by the plight of workers sweating for a dime. Set against the tyranny of the logo, grass roots protests are re-posed as rising up against its logic. No one else has sifted through the garbage can of the self-serving rhetoric of the make-believe corporate world with more zeal than Ms Klein. But no one else has performed such a disservice to those who oppose the power of the corporation by constantly depreciating their political activity to serve as counterpoint to a journalistic device.
No Logo was potentially a powerful intervention. But the play between the rhetoric of the multi-national corporation and its inhuman reality is never really convincing. In places No Logo chastises an earlier political generation for maligning reality in the face of the image, yet the major import of Kleinâ€™s argument is to do exactly the same. Apparently obsessed with the writing on the wall, 80s activism did not notice that the â€˜wall had been soldâ€™. However, Kleinâ€™s own empirical bricks and mortar have no foundations except the juxtaposition between a commercial muppet show and extreme labour practices necessary to the capitalist system. In this admixture of indignation, intrigue and outrage Klein fails to posit exactly how such pernicious extremes have developed and the basis wherein companies themselves present their own activity not as creating products but as the creation of an experience through a brand.
Although No Logo tries to balance its attack on the commercial world with the reality of production, what tends to be missing is any connection between the ideologies of consumer society and the social needs that are generated by the cultural reproduction of the worker. We are continuously offered sound-bite rebukes to corporate ideology, yet the generality of conditions that have given rise to these ideational social forms are never explored. A case in point is a section that deals with the encroachment of private interests into education. Though usefully detailing how in the U.S. soft drink brands and computer manufacturers have exchanged money for publicity with public bodies, Klein saturates the text with her own outrage to the extent that the reasons behind these events receive little remark. Indeed not once does she attempt to explain exactly why such processes should be condemned. Rather she assumes that it will be self evident to her readership why genuine public life ought to be preserved. For what reason? The resistance against â€˜brand-extensionâ€™ into education turns out to be entirely symbolic: â€˜these quasi-sacred spaces remind us that unbranded space is possibleâ€™. This might convince her coffee-shop comrades, but it will make few inroads into shaping the politics of inner-city kids for whom Coke day is a welcome break from being taught social obedience. Brands are not the power, yet Klein colludes with the market rhetoric to the extent that she presents them as such. Most capital is anonymous and apart from high-street stores, much corporate marketing is not directed at consumers at all, but at other capitalists. This goes on in a world where corporate power and its legitimacy as the very motor behind social interchange has already been established and entrenched. Brands do not colonise space, the social power of capital has already made this space its own. Rather the brand fills out already colonised spaces, and herein certain companies in competition for the same market use resources to produce a social meaning to attach to their wares. In a Marcusian vein Klein is sensitive to the fact that this process involves the incorporation of any manner of existent cultural discourses and their reproduction as the exclusive property of a particular commodity. Hence the impression that capital speaks for and can satisfy our social desires coupled with the explosion of a market for people skilled in fabrication and mystification. Most of this stinks, but it could never be the basis for a politics. Capital itself is not tied to any particular identity; if one particular manifestation is discredited it will simply move to a different domain, this is given by its character as a social power. The celebration of symbolic campaigns against individual capitalists shows that Klein has bought the fetishism of the commodity wholesale. There is however no reason why we should. As the grandfather of the critique of capital scribbled in his notebooks so many years ago, the â€˜worker cares as much about the crappy shit he has to make as does the capitalist himself who employs him, and who also couldnâ€™t give a damn for the junkâ€™.
Phenomenology of the market
Still we inhabit a world where the colonisation of capital seems complete. It is a fair project that perceives here that the total subsumption of the social by capital implies a reconfiguration of the sites of political resistance. However, truths remain at the level of production that is not subverted by this logic. This is the truth of the necessity of work and the predominance of time spent at work. The cultural effects of market society lie in our incapacity to be creative outside of work. Entertainment has become a specialised industry and from computer games to motion pictures our cultural reproduction lies in received entertainment; lacking the time and skills, as individuals we are constrained to consume what others produce. The enormity of time that people are forced to spend under the social power of a master de-limits their capacity for developmental creative activity outside of it. Moreover, with the specification and diversification of types of work demanded by capital, the responsibility for developing the capacity to work is transferred away from the capitalist. Out of need we are forced to occupy the culture of our work, to enhance our productivity, and we often feel obliged to into making our â€˜freeâ€™ social activity orientate around work. On the level of politics No Logo degenerates from a potentially powerful critique of the spectacle, the actualised phenomenology of the market, into a rehashed appeal for a mode of liberalism. Economically speaking this is the voice of the owner of a boutique crying business as usual in the aftermath of the blitz. Implicit here is a culturally elitist disdain against mass production and homogenisation, wherefore the socio-political struggle of the middle class and the desire to restate a sphere of production and consumption outside the realm of capital, in the name of quality whether ethical or material. Behind the general victim mentality of Kleinâ€™s vision lies disdain for the masses, those hoodwinked into identifying quality with what is predominant, most immediate and socially manufactured as cool. No Logo is fuel for the burgeoning fires of cultural separation along class lines and of disdain for the ethically irresponsible and marginalized who seemingly sustain a market for secular idols.
What emerges as the political imperative in No Logo is not to subvert the power behind the saturation of corporate ideology into our social space, but to campaign against it being rubbed in our face. For all its symbolic power, the massesâ€™ struggle against the corporation is reinvented as a demand upon the corporation to be ethically accountable. Forgotten here are precisely the premises of the brand and logo: that companies are already ethical. Realising commodities on the market now implies that the commodities satisfy social needs for inclusion, standards and quality that are generated out of the subsumption of the political and the public by private power. In Noreena Hertzâ€™s recent book, the Silent Takeover, these same processes are understood in a positive light, and this demonstrates the extent to which Kleinâ€™s premises by no means necessarily serve a radical agenda. With a similar emphasis of corporate abuse of power and the excessive gravity of the inequality it engenders, Hertz endeavours to utilise the same type of personable journalism as her Canadian counterpart. Indeed if Kleinâ€™s brief was to marginalize activism to a liberal agenda, Hertzâ€™s remit was clearly something like: â€˜write a Kleinesque book, young, punchy, but try to change the ending if in doing so you can make out anti-capitalism to be good for capitalists, you can write your own cheque.â€™ Indeed if Kleinâ€™s demand was to build an ethical universe in response to branded corporations, Hertz, with characteristic naivety, confesses her belief that capital is often best placed to offer social justice. Similarly, the encroachment upon the public is seen as a process that could be reversed. Essentially The Silent Takeover tries to explain that the co-option of the public by capitalists has led to un-democratic resistances to capitalism. Hertz wants to reinvent an anti-capitalist rationale for the state that can gain political legitimacy by kowtowing to consumerist demands that provide moral and ethical justification for political regulation. This is not just about making capitalism accountable; it is more explicitly a means of making capital more profitable. Whom Hertz sees as her audience becomes very clear when she recommends to business that a set of ethical principles would enhance their credibility and sales potential. The working refrain of The Silent Takeover is the crisis of representation and the lack of faith citizens have in the democratic process. Hence â€˜shop donâ€™t voteâ€™ has become the hallmark of societies infected by the paradox wherein political statements are made through the boycotting of politics. But the most obvious problem with this book is its working motif: its basic thesis that somehow the â€˜takeoverâ€™ went un-noticed. Rather the current state of politics, especially in Britain, is exactly characterised by the re-management of the balance of government and business in the face of the displacement of the traditional left. The defeat of labour was not silent, but silenced. Indeed we are still reeling from the gradual destruction of opposition to privatisation of public services. The battles fought out by a dying labour movement are not represented in this book, and the symbolic activisms that have taken their place are not at all understood in the context of such a defeat. That her own political agenda of consumer activism is the result of such a process rather than the basis for a new one is not even considered by Hertz and we are left wondering what is on the cards for the future, when the author of such a palpably ignorant and obsequiously opportunist intervention is described as a leading new thinker of our generation. Graduates from Hertz and Kleinâ€™s shopping mall St Trinianâ€™s would do well to upgrade their diploma at where post-structuralism and Italian Marxism meet. Empire, written over a period of ten years, is immediately relevant to the world that Klein and Hertz have construed. The differences lie in the depth of the analysis. Whereas Klein skates upon the surface of brand identity, Negriâ€™s materialism leads him to present his analysis through the dimensions of the object of study itself. What makes Negriâ€™s attempt to restate a historically sensitive realism so fascinating is that this procedure is performed without recourse to a dialectic of negativity. If Klein mirrored her subject matter haphazardly by only dipping into its pre-conditions, Hardt and Negri have successfully provided an ontological view of the new world order that reproduces the hierarchy of its constitution. Empire excels in its clarity of exposition and a treatment of its content hallmarked by consistency and commitment. For this reason, in respect to an emerging politics, Empire is a tool for and a lesson in practice.
From positing the reconstitution of the political on the level of the trans-national, Empire moves on to delineate how traditional conventions of contractarian political philosophy must give way to the perception that the political is thus constituted, not in spite of, yet as a direct result of the activities and the productive, creative, desiring energy of the multitude. Constitutive power at the level of the multitude disturbs conventional concepts of state sovereignty, the ontological weight of the multitudeâ€™s desires placing the whole edifice of globalised polity in a responsive rather than proactive position. Despite the in-determinacy of the category of the multitude, the proletarianised many, this aged political referent serves as both the conceptual and real counterpart to Empire. The contemporary demands that capital make of labour lie in the intensification and extension of the value form of labour through further simultaneous homogenisation and differentiation of the concrete activity of work. Within Hardt and Negriâ€™s analysis this logic assumes a new turn of fate. Crucial here is the use of the Marxian notion of the general intellect, as is the changing reality of working practices. The sociobiological and cultural networks of social production lose their distinctive separation from the field of work. â€˜Affective labourâ€™ inaugurates the complete immersion of productive logic into areas traditionally understood as areas of consumption and dissemination of the surplus. Fundamental to this process is that â€˜cooperation is completely immanent to the labouring activity itselfâ€™. Hardt and Negri see post-fordist production as forcing society to the stage where immaterial labour creates the â€˜potential for a spontaneous and elementary communismâ€™. Yet not only does labour become closer in form to its systemic social character; the complete subsumption of labour by capital subverts the time of value production to the extent that even when outside of the regime of work, value is still produced. This is the world of the bio-political. It is easy to see how socialist feminist claims concerning the productivity of domestic labour find a place within this encompassing and integrative picture.
It is difficult to judge the truthfulness of this new regime of labour. It is tempting to fall back on Klein and the image of the dark satanic mills to sustain a notion that fundamental to capital is the imposition of one particular form of social control and raw exploitation. For sure this will long remain a reality of global capitalism. But if we formulate our critique of capital at its extremes we run the risk of failing in our critique of the type of everyday life that capital engenders within its heartlands. None of these three books offer much evidence to suggest that the power of private appropriation has waned. Indeed all the evidence points to the contrary. But they offer remarkably different responses. The fact that capitalists are in a position to steer, dominate and control what passes for social life shows the entrenchment of its social power, but we can see here its vulnerability too. The absolute poverty of the conventional apparatus of representative democracies means that any recourse to their authority mocks genuine attempts to enact politics from below.
Capital as a transcendent power
That young people are captured by the spectacular images of societies that know themselves through consumption suggests their powerlessness against the dominant logic. Yet Negri shows how this positing of capital as a transcendent power with all its pseudo-religious symbols can be and is daily subverted by multitudes that do not see the political as separate to the social. A politics based on high-street consumption could never effectively challenge capitalism, so long as the presupposition of market society remains the unchallenged economic and social alienation that is the mainstay of the social production of commodities.
Self-elected or media-sponsored representatives will continue to present the reclamation of public space as the goal of anti-capitalist politics. Rather for us, the issue is the reclamation of our alienated social power. To this end the politics of biopower, the bottom-up realisation of the potential of people to reap the fruits of their own activity, effectively challenges both the social power of capital as well as the ethical discourse that seeks to limit our desires. Crucially Empire locates the potential for politics not in the world of banal manufactured identities and the defacement of the spectacle but in the realm of our massive creative productive energies. Anti-capitalism need not degenerate into pathetic demands for a facelift to a system that is itself always pointing to a future beyond it. The invective found in Empire that potential for change lies in the here and now is in places being taken seriously by elements within the anti-capitalist movement. It is a strong foundation block for a maturing movement. Empire ends by opposing the misery of power with â€˜the irrepressible lightness and joy of being a communistâ€™. Rebellion is cast as a project of love. Herein lies a real potential to redefine a meaningful distinction between us and them. Yet reading Klein and Hertz shows that the lines are not yet in the least fully drawn. This project is one to be realised; until then we had better keep the champagne on ice.
Naomi Klein, No Logo, London: Flamingo, 2001 (pb. Â£8.99). Noreena Hertz, The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, London: Random House, 2001 (pb. Â£12.99). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000 (pb. Â£12.99).
Note: This review was written for the journal 'Studies in Social and Political Thought' (Issue 5: September 2001. For the full text, visit: http:// www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/SPT/journal/past/ issue5.html