Saturday, June 30, 2007

Superstructure, Meet Base

In recent years, Naomi Klein has emerged as one of Left journalism’s most trenchant critics of late capitalist economy. Her website is available at:

In her 2000 book No Logo, Klein confesses to having been, in college, a acolyte of postmodern cultural criticism, rallying militantly for more democratic “representation” in late capitalist culture, while ignoring the persistence of concrete socio-economic inequalities. Ironically, it was the very successes of PC agitation in the early to mid-90s that ultimately inspired to her convert to an older, more economically-oriented Leftism. She came to realize that achieving greater “diversity” in campus curricula or magazine adds didn’t exactly make for a more equitable society, when most minorities continued to be denied access to tangible means of economic and political self-determination, when the gap between rich and poor continued to widen, and when the concentration of capital continued to reach historic magnitudes. In fact, she discovered in the victories of Gen-X demands for cultural pluralism a kind of repressive desublimation at work: global capital figured out that it could make the face of capitalism more "funky," democratic, and multicultural--and thus more mass appealing and legitimate--without having to change the underlying realities of exclusion and exploitation. In other words, nineties' identity politics did more than fail to subvert capitalist hegemony; it actually collaborated in designing its most recent atavism.*

In the past four or five years, Klein has spent her time researching what she terms “disaster capitalism”; the fruit of that research has been both insightful and disturbing. Through investigations into the handling of post-invasion Iraq, post-tsunami Asia, and post-Katrina New Orleans, she’s uncovered global capitalism’s latest, and most pernicious strategy: exploiting disaster to implement radical neo-liberal policy reforms. A book on this theme will appear in September; this article, which appeared in The Nation in 2005, offers a précis of her basic arguments:

Klein’s angle on the Iraq war, to my mind, is among the most penetrating to have yet appeared. In her September 2004 article, “Baghdad Year Zero,” she makes the compelling case that not only was the war initiated to fulfill the neo-con dream of establishing a laissez-faire utopia, but the very policies that have been implemented in furtherance of this dream are one of the chief causes of the violence that continually threatens both our soldiers and the nascent Iraqi democracy, not to mention hundreds of thousands of everyday Iraqi citizens. Her article, which appeared in Harper’s, is available online at:

Subsequent to this article, in early 2005, Klein gave a public lecture that expanded upon her thesis of a relationship between neo-liberal ambitions, the Iraqi occupation, and the insurgency. While some of the material will be familiar from the Harper's article, much of it--including her discussion of the suppression of spontaneous democratic activity in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, and of the true significance of the 2004 Iraqi elections--is new, and worth checking out. The lecture is available in ten parts on youtube. Here’s the link to the first part:

The importance of Klein’s work on Iraq is that it makes clear that all this current talk in our public discourse that blames the problems there on a putative “culture of dependency” or on long-standing sectarian hatred is ultimately a screen. While Klein herself has admitted that the situation in Iraq may very well have degenerated to the point of intractability (and she was writing in 2004), the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from her investigations is that no viable solution is truly conceivable that doesn’t confront first and foremost the fundamental economic realities there and the forces determining those realities, chiefly the neo-liberal policies that were initiated during the regime of Paul Bremer and the CPA.


*Thomas Frank, in One Market Under God, offers a different, but equally compelling critique of this 90s form of “market populism.” On the complicity, conscious or otherwise, of “radical” postmodern academics and neo-liberal ideology, see Chapter 7 of One Market Under God, “The Brand and the Intellectuals.”

No comments: