Interview Conducted by Christoph Scheuermann
Naomi Klein helped launch the anti-globalization movement with her book, “No Logo.” Twenty years later, DER SPIEGEL spoke to her about the Hamburg G-20, the current generation of protesters and her concern about how Donald Trump will react in a crisis.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Klein, Donald Trump has been in office for almost six months, and we’re still waiting for a sign of moderation. The president remains short-tempered and egomaniacal. He fires off new tirades almost daily on Twitter. Are you getting used to this constant stream of fire?
Klein: His tweets don’t shock me anymore, but the fact that the people around him are still not preventing him from writing vile things is pretty stunning. A big part of the reason I wrote the book is because I’m worried about what might happen with Trump during a major military escalation or a major financial crisis.
SPIEGEL: Do you consider a president who is unmanageable and doesn’t listen to his advisers to be a security risk?
Klein: Of course, he is. But I also don’t buy the analysis that his advisers want him to stop the distractions and focus on policy. Many issues, as defined by the Republican Congress and Senate, are in opposition to a lot of what Trump ran on last year. Having the cover of the Trump dramas, intrigues and tweets works for his party in a strange way.
SPIEGEL: He says climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Is this part of that strategy?
Klein: The Republicans have said equally stupid things about climate change. Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, after being Exxon Mobil CEO and working there for 41 years, is actually the most radical thing Trump has done. I find it shocking that Tillerson is treated as the most intellectual cabinet member. The climate debate poses a dilemma for the Republicans. If climate change is true, then everything else that they are doing would have to be abandoned — we’d need to do what Germany did, with massive public investment in research and development, in renewables and transforming our energy grid. But “management,” “regulation,” “taxation,” “investment” are all swear words to the Republican Party.
SPIEGEL: What is the consequence of that? Will we have to tackle climate change without the United States now?
Klein: Not without the U.S., but without Washington. We’re seeing some increased ambition from other governments since Trump announced his plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but also, more importantly, from inside the U.S. at the subnational level. Mayors are now promising to run their cities on 100-percent renewable energy, in the case of Pittsburgh, by 2035. This is wonderfully ambitious. Obviously, it would be better to have a federal carbon tax helping with the transition. But it would be false to say there is no help coming from the United States on climate change without looking at what’s happening in New York state, Washington state, California, and others.
SPIEGEL: You argue that the problems of globalization should be solved through more nationalization. Isn’t that a bit simplistic?
Klein: It makes sense to keep more of the resources within public control, especially in the field of energy. This has happened in Germany in hundreds of cities and towns. As part of the transition to renewables, there has been a remunicipalization of energy, so that communities are not hemorrhaging the profits from energy production. The same is true after three decades of rail privatization in the United Kingdom. In a lot of cases, the answer is not state ownership but more of a public ownership on the commons model — community ownership, different ownership structures and more decentralization. Neoliberalism is in crisis. It has been in crisis since 2008, since the financial crisis.
SPIEGEL: Why aren’t there any alternative ideas to replace neoliberalism?
Klein: The neoliberal project was never just about privatization, deregulation, low taxes and cuts to social spending to offset those low taxes. It centered around the belief that there is no alternative. The left has been far too timid when it comes to proposing a different vision. But we now have a generation of young people who were never subjected to the kind of propaganda that my generation was subjected to. Their entire adult life has been spent after the financial crisis, their coming of age politically was capitalism in crisis and its defenders running for the hills.
SPIEGEL: Some of those young people you describe demonstrated against the G-20 summit in Hamburg. Are they right to protest?
Klein: Those meetings have never done much about climate change or most other issues, and I don’t think that this G-20 will be much different. But they are spaces where the Trump administration can be confronted. We’ve had Emmanuel Macaron positioning himself from a marketing perspective, as anti-Trump. Of course, there is a difference between being willing to put out a meme to “Make the Planet Great Again” and being willing to back that up with policy. But it’s a moment for courage, and when governments get together like during the G-20 summit they should boost each other’s courage, to put some substance behind what up till now has largely been posturing.
SPIEGEL: Twenty years ago, you helped launch anti-globalization with your book, “No Logo.” Today it has become almost fashionable to campaign against the consequences of unrestrained capital flows. Has your criticism become part of the mainstream?
Klein: I’ve never liked the term “globalization,” it sounds like you’re against the world. What we’re really talking about is the globalization of a specific economic model. The political right is hijacking legitimate frustration about people’s jobs, living standards, the ability to change the direction of the country you’re living in. This is the feeling that Trump, the Brexiters and Marine Le Pen are all tapping into, and they’re mixing it with xenophobic hatred of anything international, with hypernationalism and a toxic anti-immigrant, anti-United Nations, anti-everything global sentiment. The right has been able to do this because centrist political parties abandoned their traditional opposition to these types of policies. They ended up pushing the agenda even further, creating a vacuum for the right to go in. It’s very dangerous.
SPIEGEL: Why did these parties leave this space open?
Klein: You mean, why did they pepper spray us when we raised these issues? It is about the triumph of an ideological project that colonized pretty much every major political party. The reasons are different in South Africa than they are in England than they are in the United States. This is partly what I described in my book, “The Shock Doctrine.”
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Klein: During the past 50 years, people in various countries voted for political parties that promised the opposite of austerity. Then came a shock, often an economic crisis. Some governments have to go to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for a loan, and as a condition to that loan, they are told to abide by the rules of these institutions. This is one of the things that concerns me about Trump — his administration is setting the U.S. up for another economic shock by deregulating the banking sector, and by cutting taxes so much that there’s going to be a massive budget crisis. This becomes the pretext for advancing more radical economic projects. Trump ran on a platform promising to protect social security, but all it takes is one economic crisis to say, “Well, sorry. I have to break that promise.”
SPIEGEL: Do you seriously believe Trump is pursuing a strategy that elaborate?
Klein: It’s naïve to think he does not understand the utility of a crisis. His advisers are openly quoting Machiavelli and throwing around this “shock to the system” metaphor again and again. Trump made his first major business deal in the midst of New York’s debt crisis in the 1970s, he has stacked his cabinet with five former Goldman Sachs executives, including a Treasury Secretary who with bloodless focus profited off of the subprime mortgage crash. He has an education secretary who wants to privatize the entire school system of the United States. It is dangerous to just treat him as a buffoon who is incapable of executing any kind of coherent agenda.
SPIEGEL: You describe Trump’s rise as an almost inevitable consequence of the neoliberal project. Aren’t you fighting the same old enemy again?
Klein: Many liberals treat Trump like a martian who fell from the sky, who has nothing to do with the rest of us. I don’t think that’s true. The mainstream American culture was creating a context that Trump was uniquely qualified to exploit. The coverage of elections has come to resemble a reality show. It’s all about ratings, less about policy and content. That had started long before Trump ran for president. But if elections are nothing more than infotainment, then a reality TV show star is going to be much better at it than a traditional politician because they have those skills. There’s also this billionaire savior complex that has been building up around figures like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, all liberal heroes. We’ve increasingly been outsourcing our big problems to foundations run by billionaires — pandemics, a failing education system — rather than treating these as collective problems for democracies to solve.
SPIEGEL: Have problems like these simply become too complex and too expensive to be solved by countries with shrinking budgets through the means of a democracy?
Klein: That’s an extraordinarily dangerous idea. People aren’t even given the chance, they’re not given the tools, they’re not given the information. So much of our news media is not living up to its duty to inform the public about basic issues of policy so that they can make informed choices.
SPIEGEL: You sound a bit like Trump, who rants about “fake news” all the time.
Klein: I don’t call it “fake news”, but “bad news.” I have been critiquing the media for more than 20 years. I’m not going to stop just because Trump is doing that now.
SPIEGEL: But most democratic institutions in the U.S. are still working. The FBI remains independent, the courts, the media. You’re underestimating the checks and balances in the democratic system.
Klein: The courts have stopped his travel ban, but he did manage to get a Supreme Court judge appointed, and may manage to get it through. Trump has openly expressed his admiration for authoritarians the world over, much more than for democratic governments. You don’t have to be a genius to be authoritarian. Many authoritarian leaders around the world are ambitious idiots. We can’t be complacent.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you write about the rise of “superbrands” which have become more important than their products. Millions of jobs in manufacturing were outsourced to far-away countries. Will these jobs ever return?
Klein: Those jobs aren’t coming back. But there is a tremendous opportunity for a 21st century jobs vision related to transforming our infrastructure and economies in the face of climate change, in the face of the human rights crisis of racial inequality in the United States. There is a tremendous opportunity to invest in the infrastructure that improves people’s lives. Responding to climate change has the opportunity to create millions of jobs in renewables and efficiency, in land remediation and public transport.
SPIEGEL: What must happen for Americans to not vote for Trump again?
Klein: It has to be a two-fold argument. First, he lied to you when he said he’d protect your Social Security and your health care. Secondly, we have to have candidates who are going to bring universal public health care, make sure that your kids can afford to go to university and are going to create huge numbers of jobs by investing in public infrastructure.
SPIEGEL: Many Trump voters lost their jobs because of globalization. Is that a cynical consequence of your own criticism?
Klein: The only person talking about working-class voters was Donald Trump. That is the tragedy, not that they voted for him. It’s an absurdity that Trump could pose as a savior of the working class, from his golden tower and his golden throne, but it shows how people have been abandoned by the Democrats. A lot of people just wanted to raise the middle finger to Washington. I do believe that there’s a portion of Trump’s working class base that is reachable. The terrain is fertile.