Fintan O’Toole reviews Naomi Klein: a live story frozen
No Is Not Enough lays out the case against Donald Trump in an accessible but unoriginal way
Donald Trump: Naomi Klein describes the US leader as ‘a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past half century’. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
No Is Not Enough
The main problem for Naomi Klein’s new book is her old ones. The Canadian journalist’s first two books were immensely influential on the left.
No Logo, published in 1999, is a powerful critique of the rise, ubiquity and toxicity of branding, the replacement at the cutting edge of capitalism of manufacturing by image-making. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, published in 2007, was a superbly-timed analysis of the way neoliberals had learned to use crises, and the disorientation they create among citizens, to push though changes that would otherwise be unthinkable. Like all really influential notions, Klein’s once-startling perceptions have become familiar to the point of being commonplace.
This is the price of success and the bill arrives with her new book on Donald Trump and what he represents, No Is Not Enough. Klein, reasonably enough, analyses the Trump moment through the prism of her own previous work. She sees him as a combination of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. He is, on the one hand, a classic creature of the age of branding – Trump was a useless, conventional businessman who discovered that he could make a fortune by selling his image as the great mogul and deal-maker. And, on the other hand, he thrives on shock and the corporate interests he serves know how to exploit the disorientation he creates.
In both of these contentions, Klein is quite right, and she lays out her case in an accessible and highly intelligent way. The problem is that it’s not at this point a case that feels particularly fresh or illuminating. In part because of the very success of Klein’s previous work, it is hard for No Is Not Enough not to seem like something of a precooked dish – the book harks back to previous analyses and uses Trump to illustrate their truth. That they are indeed accurate – and that Klein deserves great credit for her perspicacity and prescience – does not obviate the reality that anyone interested enough in global politics to buy this book has probably grasped them already.
A few month’s work
The best political books happen when the fruits of years of research and thought are produced just at the moment when a crisis is unfolding. The Shock Doctrine was one of those moments: Klein had worked on it for six years but its appearance coincided with the start of the great financial crisis. The book in turn helped explain why it was the right and not the left that benefited from a profound crisis of capitalism – as Klein showed, neoliberals had perfected (in fascist Chile, in post-Communist Russia, in post-invasion Iraq and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) ways to exploit disasters for ideological and monetary profit. They were ready for a collapse; the left was not. Klein illuminated that distinction.
But No Is Not Enough is not that kind of book. It is a response to Trump’s election and thus, as Klein admits, the result of no more than a few months’ work. It reads that way. The style is breezy, conversational and designed to skim over complexities and contradictions. The specifics of Trump’s career are mostly drawn from other people’s writing: she makes good use, for example, of Matt Taibbi’s brilliant explorations of Trump’s ties to WWF wrestling and his use of its tropes in his campaign.
And there are obvious problems with writing on the wing about a rapidly unfolding phenomenon. From Klein’s references, it seems likely that the manuscript was finished in early March. This is an impressively tight time-frame in which to get a book into the shops. But it freezes a continuing story at an unnatural cut-off point. Klein suggests – as any journalist would have in early March – that the influence of Steve Bannon might be waning. Now, this is not at all clear. More importantly, given the emphasis Klein rightly places on the importance of Trump’s climate change denial, she writes that: “It’s not yet clear whether the US will officially withdraw from the Paris Accord”. It is now, of course. Why write a book so quickly when, like Klein, who writes for the Nation and the Guardian, you have plenty of opportunity to track and reflect on developments as they happen?
No horrible accident
The best way to treat the book, then, is probably as a reminder rather than as a revelation. Klein is quite right to suggest that the ascendancy of Trump, while shocking, is not all that surprising. She paints him as “less an aberration than a logical conclusion – a pastiche of pretty much all the worst trends of the past half century”. And this matters because it is an implicit warning against the complacent liberal assumption that a phenomenon so chaotic and vile must collapse under its own weight of improbability.
As Klein suggests, it is not alarmist to think that Trump will up the ante on shock tactics, up to and including war
If Trump is indeed a logical conclusion to the development of brand culture and disaster capitalism, he (or the more adept version that might replace him) cannot be dismissed as a horrible accident. One of the things that much media commentary has struggled to grasp is that chaos is not a problem for Trump – it is his element. It is no harm to be reminded of Klein’s previous warnings that we live in an age when oligarchs are not threatened by disaster but can instead thrive on it.
In Trumpland, disaster and triumph are not necessarily opposites – they may indeed be twins. Thus, as Klein suggests, it is not alarmist to think that Trump will up the ante on shock tactics, up to and including war. And, as she also rightly points out, the resistance to him has not been tested by the kind of emergency he would seek to exploit – a major terrorist attack being the obvious example.
Klein promises that the book will be a “road map” for resistance to Trump. That implies a set of proposals much more concrete and detailed than she comes up with. Beyond calls for more utopian thinking, for a sense of the history of resistance and for a commonality of struggles, the book is more sketch than map. But it does a decent service in pointing out that Trump emerges from something big and that, to bring him down and create a progressive alternative, the resistance has to think big too.