Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher, Penguin Books UK-Allen Lane, for providing me with an ARC e-copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I have a long list of books to read and I am trying to organise it somehow, mostly in order of acquisition, but this book arrived just as I had finished reading another book and it stuck in my mind. It is a very current and momentous book, so it was for the best that I read it promptly.
I am familiar with the name of Naomi Klein and I have seen many of her books and read about her and her ideas, but this is the first book I have read by her (I have read some short articles but although I kept seeing books by her that sounded interesting, it was usually when I was doing research on an unrelated topic or at a time when I could not read them and this time I grabbed the opportunity).
The book builds on much of her previous work, particularly on the issue of brands and how they have come to dominate our lives (the subject of No Logo) and also how politics and politicians exploit any disasters and shocks to impose ever harsher neo-liberal economic policies (that she discusses in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) and applies it to the current situation, particularly to Trump’s election and his policies since.
I started highlighting text through the book, to the point that sometimes I would be doing something and listening to the text to speech version and would have to stop to highlight something. This happened very often and I realised Klein was saying many of the things I had been thinking and some that I had not thought of but I recognised and agreed with as I read them. Her reflections about Trump as a brand and his presidency as the latest feather to add to this brand made sense (I learned new things about him and was reminded of others that had long forgotten but helped to build up a clear picture). It was curious that she referred to his time in the Apprentice and his appearances in WWE (televised professional wrestling) as (in a certain way) training for what was to come. She noted that some of his behaviours during the campaign were very similar to those of the fighters in WWE. And lo and behold, a few hours after I had read that part of the book, Trump tweeted the doctored video of one of his appearances in the WWE putting the CNN logo instead of the head of Vince McMahon, whom he was pretending to punch. And if I had already thought that was a very convincing comparison when I read it, even more so now.
The book is well-written, easy to read (well, or not, depending on what your point of view and your political leanings are), and develops the thesis that although many are shocked by Trump’s rise to power (and Brexit), it was not a total surprise, and there are people, organisations, and even whole countries who have resisted the move towards materialism and brands where only things, money, and profits matter, and where fingers are pointed at sectors of the population (immigrants, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, women, environmentalists…) who become the scapegoats for a situation they are the victims of. Klein looks at many of these groups and populations and how they have resisted the situation and taken a stand but she also notes that something else is required. Resisting and saying no is important, and it does not matter how big or small we are, we can all do it, but we need to find something to aim for, something that can unite us and something we can fight together for.
She discusses in detail the importance of trying to find common ground, rather than working for small goals, and states that the way the political centre has tried to introduce minor changes will not suffice. As an example of what could be done she focuses on the meeting that took place in Canada, bringing many groups together (unions, environmentalists, indigenous people, women’s groups, groups working towards racial equality…) and that produced the Leap Manifesto, because they think a leap is required to truly change things. We must leap towards hope and dare to embrace a revolutionary way of changing the world.
She notices the rise of dystopian fiction (and films) and the ever growing popularity of some classics (Orwell’s 1984) that she observes are a warning (not necessarily a prediction) and says we need more utopias; we need to be able to think of a better future. And she writes (and as she quotes a big favourite of mine, Oscar Wilde, I could not resist sharing it):
Because, as Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.”
I read some of the comments on the book, and they are separated along ideological lines. I agree that perhaps she uses examples that might not be as simply black or white as she makes them sound, and I also agree (and thought the same as I read it), that perhaps the Leap Manifesto falls short of going as far as it should (as it offers and statement of good intentions but not much in the way of implementation) although it is an attempt at reaching an agreement and a compromise between very different groups, so it is not surprising that it is not all that radical. I must clarify that I read an ARC copy and therefore did not have access to what I have read are very extensive notes at the end of the final version of the book. Without the notes, it is not a very long book.
The book made me think of an essay we had to write, when I was studying American Literature at the University of Sussex, discussing what could have been done, or rather, what could be done in the present, to somehow repair the gap between whites and African Americans in the US that comes from the time of slavery and was discussed after the Civil War and the freeing of all slaves, a gap that has never been fully resolved (as we all know). At the time of the Reconstruction, the suggestion had been that each freed slave be given 40 acres of land (therefore redistributing the slave owners’ property) and a mule (if you’ve ever wondered why Spike Lee’s production company is called that and never checked, now you know) so they could build up a life for themselves. Of course, that did not happen (or only in few cases) but I remember that after talking to the professor I did write a somewhat utopic essay that he could not fault for its reach, although he could not see how any government would go down that route. (I’ve been looking for it but I think it must have been in one of the floppy disks that disintegrated, although I might have a paper copy. I’ll investigate). It also made me think about how much emphasis on brands is made, even in the world of writing, and how a lot of the advice to sell anything (a physical product or anything else) is to create a brand and market yourself (rather than the product). As she notes, if you are swimming in the world of media, in whatever capacity, it is very difficult not to be swamped by the allure of branding and its fraught logic. This is something that I have been thinking more and more about recently, and something that I care for less and less. Yes, perhaps this book arrives at the right moment, at least for me, but hopefully for many others too.
As I said, I highlighted a lot of content, and of course, I cannot share it all. But I could not resist and had to share a few bits.
First, one that shows her wit (and that made me write: olé! as a comment)
The truth, which doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous, is that the Trump brand stands for wealth itself or, to put it more crassly, money. That’s why its aesthetics are Dynasty-meets-Louis XIV. It’s why Trump’s relationship to gold is the inverse of Superman’s relationship to kryptonite: Trump crumples when he is more than three feet away from something big and shiny.
This one I think will give you an idea of what the book is about, in her own words:
We have to question not only Trump but the stories that ineluctably produced him. It’s not enough to superficially challenge him as an individual, foul and alarmingly ignorant though he may be. We have to confront the deep-seated trends that rewarded him and exalted him until he became the most powerful person in the world. The values that have been sold to us through reality TV, get-rich-quick books, billionaire saviors, philanthrocapitalists. The same values that have been playing out in destroyed safety nets, exploding prison numbers, normalized rape culture, democracy-destroying trade deals, rising seas and privatized disaster response, and in a world of Green Zones and Red Zones.
And I love the way she ends the book (do not worry, it is not a spoiler):
My deepest thanks are for patient little Toma, who missed his mom over these last months, but feels strongly that, “Donald Trump is too rude to be president.
This book is not for everybody and if you really like Trump and what he stands for, or do not care about climate change and other issues such as the rights of women, equality, diversity, the rights of indigenous people… I’d advise you not to read it. If you don’t, I’d recommend you check a sample of the writing and see if it speaks to you. I now know why she is so well-known and respected. A compelling writer, whatever one’s political views.