The 100 best nonfiction books
by Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein’s timely anti-branding bible combined a fresh approach to corporate hegemony with potent reportage from the dark side of capitalism
Monday 15 February 2016 05.45 GMT
ome titles in this list are “zeitgeist books”, owing much of their success and influence to the way in which, consciously or otherwise, they channel the mood of the times. No Logo is a zeitgeist book.
When it was first published in Canada and the USA, just after some well-publicised demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation in November 1999 put “anti-globalisation” on the international media agenda, No Logo flourished a polemical subtitle (“Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies”), and was hailed as a mix of radical journalism and a call to arms. In hindsight, this response was fuelled in part by a kind of pre-millennial fervour.
To Klein, anti-globalisation was a misnomer. “At the reformist end it was anti-corporate; at the radical end it was anti-capitalist. What made it unique was its insistent internationalism.” Meanwhile, No Logo became a manifesto for a critique of the way the world worked, embodied in the visionary and articulate figure of Naomi Klein who, in the words of the Observer’s review, “positively seethes with intelligent anger”.
The secret of Klein’s work was the way in which she humanised her argument with fascinating reportage from her quest into Asian sweatshops, and the dark side of western capitalism in Africa. Her voice was insistent but not preachy, her analysis detailed but never obscure. She was hailed by one critic as the “young funky heiress to [Noam] Chomsky”. Which, in a sense, she was.
Naomi Klein is the child of militant hippies who moved to Montreal from the US in 1967 as Vietnam war resisters. Her father had grown up in an American communist milieu, loosely connected to Hollywood. Klein’s own childhood was partly a protest against her family’s radical agenda, especially her mother’s feminism.
She has said she spent much of her teenage years in shopping malls, obsessed with designer labels, in a rejection of her parents’ values. Klein has also said that it was “oppressive” to have, as a mother, “a very public feminist”, and she was slow to embrace the women’s movement. But two events, private and public, became the catalyst for her profound change of attitude.
The first occurred when she was 17. Her mother had a stroke, with some serious consequent disability, and Klein took a year off school to help the family care for her. This, she says was the sacrifice that saved her “from being such a brat”. Then, while studying at the University of Toronto in 1989, she became understandably traumatised by the slaughter of some female engineering students in a tragedy, (also known as the Montreal Massacre) in which a 25-year-old student ran amok, shouting that he was “fighting feminism”. Having denounced the women in his path as “a bunch of feminists,” he shot 28, killing 14.
This became Klein’s wake-up call as a Generation X intellectual in the making. With the publication of No Logo, she was hailed as a freedom fighter for a new and radical post-consumer culture. The great American feminist Gloria Steinem’s salute marked the passing of a torch: “Just when you thought multinationals and crazed consumerism were too big to fight, along comes Naomi Klein with facts, spirit, and news of successful fighters already out there.”
What singled out No Logo was the potency of its reportage. Klein herself observed at the outset that this is “not a book of predictions, but of first-hand observation.” As such, it struck a chord with the more socially responsible exponents of popular culture. Radiohead, for example, declared the influence of Klein’s work particularly during the making of their fourth and fifth albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). The band recommended the book to fans on their website and even flirted with calling their Kid A album No Logo.
The pop cultural appeal of No Logo is not hard to discern. Underlying Klein’s observations was the idea that if the world is a global village, then the corporate logo (Nike, Walmart, or Starbucks) constitutes a universal language understood by – though not accessible to – everyone. She analysed the birth of a brand as a corporate means of animating the banal vulgarity of mass marketing. As she followed the progress of the logo, in four sections – “No Space”, “No Choice”, “No Jobs” and finally “No Logo” – she moved through the negative effects of brand-oriented corporate activity, before developing a central argument about the conflict between corporate dominance and personal identity and the various methods adopted by the individual consumer to fight back.
Part of the attraction of No Logo is Klein’s frank admission of the naivety of her quest. When, in conclusion, she debates consumerism v citizenship, and chooses citzenship, she is appealingly candid. She writes: “When I started this book, I honestly didn’t know whether I was covering marginal atomised 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.” A movement is what she’s still promoting.
Ten years after the publication of No Logo, Klein, looking back, reflected on the lessons of her experience. In part, she seems to recognise that the phenomenon she had identified in 1999 is here to stay. “The first time I saw a ‘Yes We Can’ video… featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther King-esque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike.”
Even with her subsequent disillusion – shared by many North American liberals – at Obama’s failure to live up to his lofty rhetoric, Klein still conceded that the world’s love affair with Obama’s rebranded America had been timely. “Obama didn’t just rebrand America,” she writes, in a telling admission, “he resuscitated the neoliberal economic project when it was at death’s door. No one but Obama, wrongly perceived as a new FDR, could have pulled it off.”
Klein still retains her ambivalence about branding, and its broader social consequences, but she admits that “the global embrace of Obama’s brand” continues to demonstrate an extraordinary appetite for progressive change, the kind of social transformation Klein hankers after. So her youthful radicalism seems essentially intact, albeit with a softening at the edges. “The task ahead,” she writes, in language that betrays the influence of the phenomenon she once denounced, “is to build movements that are the real thing.” Quoting Studs Terkel, North America’s great radical socialist historian, she observes: “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”
As this new series develops, exploring the core of the Anglo-American tradition, we shall discover some fascinating connections between Klein and some of the radical journalists of the past, maverick polemicists such as Daniel Defoe and Tom Paine. No Logo, for all its wonky side, is at least partly descended from Paine’sCommon Sense, and Naomi Klein would have plenty to discuss with the author ofA Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
A signature line
“The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last 15 years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products.”
Three to compare
Jeff Ferrell: Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy (2001)
William Gibson: Pattern Recognition (2003)
Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything – Capitalism Versus the Climate (2014)