This Changes Nothing

These pieces of Joseph Heath’s on Naomi Klein were interesting and uncomfortable reading. He talks about his developing something of a fixation on her book This Changes Everything, and about his frustration with the success of her work in general given its clear failings. Specifically, he believes Klein fails to formulate a coherent policy that is sufficient to address the problems she correctly identifies, and that the policy position she does formulate is driven primarily by moral and ideological values that are broader than the book’s topic of climate change.

He begins his later piece with a comment on the popularity of political writers like Klein and Chomsky among undergraduates and young radicals, and the way that they seem to quietly fall out of favour as people get older. This is an interesting observation, but I think he fails to properly address the mechanism underlying that phenomenon. That phenomenon reveals why Klein isn’t really a fish worth frying.

The phenomenon he describes is totally real. I recall being impressed by No Logo when I read it in my late teens, but although I looked at the Shock Doctrine, I really had no interest in reading it, especially given that it was the size of a phone book. I was aware that Klein was writing on climate change now but I have to confess I didn’t even bother looking up this last book, and couldn’t have told you what it was called until I read Heath’s piece yesterday. I have aged out of the Klein-reading years.

Heath describes This Changes Everything as being predominantly a series of anecdotes that support Klein’s existing political convictions – that large corporations use state power to oppress ordinary people. I share that conviction with her. What Heath fails to apprehend, I think, is how important those anecdotes are for the political development of young radicals. The following reflects my own experience as the kind of person Heath is talking about – the kind of person who reads Naomi Klein in her late teens, but not in her late twenties. I should make it clear that I think Heath’s assessment of Klein is entirely correct and that I enjoyed his posts. Nonetheless, I think his concern about her influence is naïve.

When you first develop political beliefs that are to the far left (or, presumably to the far right) of the mainstream political discourse in your society, those beliefs often develop out of moral intuitions that are not necessarily specific or derived from direct experience. As a young leftist you develop a general moral sense – which Heath identifies in Klein – that ordinary people are being exploited and oppressed by forces over which they have little control, but which it seems like, in a supposedly democratic society, they should have control. More and more you feel like you’ve identified a profound problem that the majority of people in your society don’t seem to take seriously, and this is disturbing. You develop a persistent sense of being the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Work like Klein’s and Chomsky’s, which is heavy on description but only moderate on analysis and light on detailed prescription, is appealing because it validates that moral sense with examples of specific injustices that prove to you, yes, ordinary people are being exploited by powerful forces. This is reassuring – somebody else, a public figure, sees that the emperor is naked and is exposing the machinations of the lying tailor.

Heath is bemused by Klein talking about police brutality in a book that is ostensibly about climate change, but I doubt the passage he describes struck many on Klein’s young radical audience as at all out of place. As he observes, reading writers like Klein and Chomsky is part of a process by which you collect specific examples that affirm that broad moral intuition – Israel is oppressing the people of Palestine, Nike is exploiting workers in low income countries, factory farming is exploiting workers and oppressing sentient animals, police oppress and brutalise people from marginalised groups, banks receive state assistance on a scale and with a readiness that poor people in Western countries dare not even dream of. If it’s all in the same book, so much the better.

Heath’s mystification at Klein’s failure to describe a policy position that he, a professor of philosophy and expert in public policy finds sufficiently coherent and nuanced is reminds me of the Conservative response to Occupy Wall St. “But what do they want” forty-something financiers asked of twenty-something liberal arts students. What they wanted, in broad strokes, was incredibly obvious – they wanted a state that supported them and other ordinary people more generously than it supported banks and billionaires. They wanted redistribution of wealth, and particularly relief from the crushing student loan debts they were forced to take on for even a chance of economic security in a nation with a gaping social safety net. They were outraged that they were being denied that in the same country that spent literally billions of dollars to bail out financial institutions and executives who had broken the law, all while imprisoning black teenagers for smoking pot and letting people with cancer go bankrupt paying for their chemo.

The forty something financiers cannot possibly be so stupid that they didn’t understand that, but of course, that isn’t actually what they were asking for. What they meant by that question, I think, is that they wanted twenty one year old gender studies and political science students to outline, in detail, an entirely new and viable economic system that was consistent with the classical economics the financiers themselves learned at university. And that is absurd.

Klein is the political equivalent of a popular science writer. Expecting her to formulate coherent, detailed, viable climate policy is like expecting Ben Goldacre to design a drug approval system for Britain. That’s not their job! If it was, we would never have heard of either of them, because they would be wonking away in a public sector office somewhere, hidden from view and public discourse.

Klein’s job, as in the job that young radicals pay her to do by buying her books, is to give them a better understanding of specific injustices that speak to their political concerns. That is important, although the older I get the less I trust people like Klein and John Pilger to relate these injustices honestly, and the less I read them. Of course a few books full of examples of states and companies behaving badly won’t be sufficient to turn young radicals into public policy experts, although perhaps it will be sufficient to inspire a small proportion of them to go into the relevant careers or activism full time after they finish uni.

Heath is right that Klein’s work is clouded by her ideological fervour, and I don’t doubt that letting her or anybody like her decide environmental policy in Canada would be a disaster. But the phenomenon he describes with people losing interest in work like hers as they get older acts as a kind of natural firebreak against that outcome. People like me read writers like Klein when we’re young, and then we go into careers in specific specialist areas. Eventually a lot of us will develop the kind of expertise Heath wants on one or two particular topics that we choose either as professions or as causes to which we dedicate substantial time – be it workplace law, migrant health, environmental protection, or whatever.

Personally, I’m realising more and more that I would need a degree in economics to formulate coherent and nuanced views on a lot of issues that matter to me, but I don’t see any time in my future to acquire one, or even to teach myself that content. I will probably never have views of sufficient coherence and complexity on redistributive taxation, socialised healthcare, or climate change policy to satisfy someone like Heath. It’s simply not realistic for the average progressive person to become an expert in economics, history, environmental science and law, such they could formulate coherent and realistic policy suggestions on police brutality, climate change, economic globalisation, workplace relations, socialised medicine, drug patents, over-incarceration, factory farming, the death penalty, abortion, international relations, and all of the other issues people on the left tend to care about. At best, we might become experts on one of these, and if we’re incredibly lucky we may actually be able to do something meaningful to address it one day.

Such is the tragedy of the ageing radical. I get just as pissed off as Heath when I see other lefties saying dumb shit about my area of expertise (such as it is), but I also realise it doesn’t really matter, because the radical left has so little power in English-speaking democracies at present. I’m not really sure what real world outcome Heath is worried might occur due to Klein’s work. Public opinion is so little swayed by the views of young radicals that I find his concern about Klein’s influence almost quaint. She may be a recognised public intellectual, but ultimately, the young people who read Naomi Klein live in a society governed by people who seriously don’t give a fuck about their opinions – that’s why they read her, and why Heath has nothing to fear from the fact that they do. The depressing reality is that if they ever influence public policy, it will be once they have amassed sufficient expertise to be accorded some position of authority and respect. A professorship, perhaps.