Naomi Klein's 'No Is Not Enough': An Urgent, but Outdated, Message for the Trump Era

To dismiss the new, the surprising, the unknown or the incomprehensible as an ideological diversion has always been one of the main flaws of dogmatic leftist thought

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A demonstrator holds a sign during the "March For Truth" protest at Foley Square in New York.
A demonstrator holds a sign during the "March For Truth" protest at Foley Square in New York.Credit: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

“No Is Not Enough,” Naomi Klein, Penguin Books, 288 pages

Although we were anticipating Naomi Klein’s new book, it was hard to imagine that it would be published so quickly. Less than half a year after Donald Trump entered the White House, Klein published a detailed report last month about the conditions that led to his election, the dangers involved in his rule and possible ways of dealing with them.

The book is suffused with a sense of urgency: It was written in one shot in the first months of 2017, immediately after it seemed that the world had turned upside down, in an attempt to provide a balanced and proven explanation for the changes. This book is shorter than Klein’s previous books, and not overloaded, without any footnotes and references; but it’s not a more modest book. It’s a kind of summary of Klein’s journalistic work and activism to date, and it tries to link the many insights that the author has accumulated in her work to the new political situation that has been created in the United States, and in effect, worldwide.

Naomi Klein's No is not Enough

The book begins with the sense of shock that accompanied Trump’s election to the presidency. Klein tries to analyze this shock. “Shock,” as we recall, was one of her important contributions to the contemporary political lexicon. In her book: “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” which was published about 10 years ago, Klein traced the ways in which right-wing governments in various places throughout the world have exploited major crises – wars, revolutions, terror attacks, natural disasters and economic collapses – for the swift promotion of neoliberal and anti-democratic policy in their countries.

She demonstrated how the shock ensuing from those crises – many of which were planned – enabled the governments to expand their emergency powers, suspend basic civil rights, impose lightning processes of privatization and deregulation and increase the power of international corporations.

Shock actually operated as a camouflage for the accelerated implementation of a prolonged and long-term policy; there was nothing sudden or surprising about it. Therefore, claims Klein, the shock of November 2016 and the following months is not only the personal reaction of liberals the world over to Trump’s election and afterwards to his words and his decisions; the shock is the method of operation of the Trump government itself. It works to Trump’s advantage: Every slip of the tongue and every scandal, every “unprecedented” decision or “bizarre” act divert our eyes from the government’s consistent policy, and it is that policy that is sowing the spreading economic and social ruin.

Moreover, Klein warns us of the shock that is still to come, in the wake of a major crisis – another economic collapse, or a mass terror attack, under whose cover the administration will be able to promote its cruelest plans quickly, and without opposition.

Naomi Klein.Credit: Kourosh Keshiri

That’s why Klein calls on us to get over our shock, as though the very fact that Trump entered the White House signals a far-reaching paradigmatic change. Trump is not a monstrous exception to the American policy of recent decades, but rather its logical essence, or at least a radicalization of the evil that has long been embedded in the policy, she claims.

In the first part of the book Klein traces Trump’s takeoff and shows that he is a sophisticated product of the economy of hollow brand names that became established beginning in the 1980s and replaced the economy of products, and whose logic she analyzed in her first book, “No Logo,” which made her famous.

She describes how Trump built himself up as the pure, perfect brand that lies at the heart of a financial empire that sells nothing except the name Trump – along with the halo and the lifestyle encoded in it – which it sells to projects all over the world that are run by subsidiaries, and also gives rise to companies like his daughter Ivanka’s. Klein demonstrates how the Trump brand doesn’t try to avoid scandals but is built from them, as long as they disseminate his name; but also how the accepted, more pleasant brands that fill our lives operate in the same way: the brands of the giant corporations whose interests are zealously safeguarded by liberal politicians too.

Instead of Hillary Clinton mediating the corporate takeover of the public space, in the Trump era the takeover will occur without an intermediary, or to be more precise, by means of the president-corporation himself, who takes care of the “Trump” interests – the brand, the corporation, the candidate, all in one basket.

Here Klein is at her best. She doesn’t make do with beating up on right-wing governments and corporate logic, but also exposes the failures of the liberal, “leftist” media, which by chasing after government scandals ends up strengthening the paradigm of government shock.

Klein demands observation of in-depth processes, and non-procedural attention to the democratic regression: not to begin the discussion with the diminishing of freedom of expression and the damage to civil rights, but with the prevalence of neoliberal economic structures and their expansion. She is always suspicious of anything new, and where other pundits are alarmed by events, she singles out processes.

But in the present book the limitations of the “Klein paradigm” seem more concrete. Can it be said with critical confidence that there is nothing new in the Trump era? That his administration is the distilled, unbridled embodiment of the American empire? That the riddle of Trump, and Brexit, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is really no riddle at all?

In her book Klein posits the “Trump show” opposite White House Chief of Staff and alt-right ideologue Steve Bannon, and claims that Bannon remains in the picture only as long as he promotes the interests of the president-brand name. But the alt-right is a broad social phenomenon, and an ideological analysis of the movement – its origins and beliefs, the secret of its success and its method of operation – would seem essential for understanding the present period. The alt-right is not only a secondary, diversionary effect of corporate neoliberalism; on the contrary, the alt-right and the Traditionalist movement from which it draws its ideas are clearly anti-liberal and anti-neoliberal.

Bannon and Alexander Dugin, Putin’s adviser, who cite Julius Evola, the mid-20th century neofascist Italian esotericist, and Rene Guenon, the father of Traditionalism – are building a new right-wing configuration (populist, tribal, anti-modern) that is hard to dismiss in the face of the corporate ostentation of late modernism.

Klein’s book contains too many such lacunae to be considered a genuine report on the present political moment. Russia is barely mentioned in the book, and appears only as an example of a “scandal” which fits in well with the diversion of the American shock doctrine. ISIS is also completely absent. It is mentioned only as a crisis-fomenting power – like a huge fire or a hurricane. The book includes no non-Western political players, and every process is examined via its influence on the United States. So an America-centric book was written just at a time when, for the first time in decades, there is a threat to Pax Americana.

It’s true that it’s still hard to assess the behavior of the rising Russian empire, and ISIS is engaged in a complicated dance with the Western governments – but to say that there’s nothing new under the sun also means holding onto a world picture that was shaped in the 1990s. So Klein’s urgent and current book is also anachronistic to some extent. Maybe there’s nothing new about Trump himself, and even about his rise to power. But to dismiss the new, the surprising, the unknown or the incomprehensible as an ideological diversion has always been one of the main flaws of dogmatic leftist thought.

The style of the book is also somewhat old-fashioned. Large parts of it are written in the language of liberal American journalism, whose content it is trying to criticize. It is full of personal stories – about meetings at which Klein was present, about the first time her young son participated in a film she shot, about her experiences from struggles in which she was active – which lead, naturally and without any difficulty, to the big, general public story. Every clash between interests is erased, every gap between personal desires and public activity is eliminated, and so a sequential and unified story is created. But that is the liberal fantasy that has infuriated large groups of people: that if we only manage to work together, to merge struggles, to demand the common good, everyone will come out ahead.

But the world is more complicated than that. The personal does not always lead to the general, but often subverts it, various social groups have competing demands that don’t conform with each other, and networks of severances and interruptions prevent political activity from coming into being. Klein’s book begs its readers not to be satisfied with a critical analysis of the present government and with saying “no” to it, but to extricate from this analysis the form to be taken by the fight against it. But it would seem that for the purpose of analyzing the present we need a new theory of power, an updated criticism of ideology and a broad geopolitical analysis, and such books have yet to be written.

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