Canada's Leading Public Intellectual

Larissa MacFarquhar appears to have limited critical capacity when it comes to political or economic ideas, but her profile of Naomi Klein is nevertheless insightful. Klein comes off as an incoherent bundle of reflexes. She has passions, prejudices, animosities, an appealing streak of punk nihilism, a cynical and savvy strategic sense, and no ideas. Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis, come off as so saturated in familial left-wing politics that their ideology, such as it is, seems less a set of propositions that might be true or false than an ethnic identity or tribal commitment that can neither be chosen nor forsaken. Bred-in-the-bone cultural assumptions rarely cohere when articulated; their logic is emotional. Which explains how Klein can bounce so blithely and unintelligibly from a milquetoast Canadian faith in government to a petulant, anarchic distrust of large institutions.

MacFarquhar writes:

Klein doesn’t have much use for political parties. When she is asked about this, she explains that she has seen liberation movements betrayed by the politicians they fought to get elected, but her impatience appears to be rooted in something more than that: she seems to dislike parties and, indeed, governments, in a visceral way, almost the way that Milton Friedman does. In principle, she is a Keynesian, but she distrusts centralization, institutions, platforms, theories—anything except extremely small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives. Basically, she really, really doesn’t like being told what to do.

So there you go: a Keynesian in principle with a distrust for “anything except small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives.” So would this be a fair summary of Kleinism: The yearning that massive benevolent government initiatives will somehow emerge from within Temporary Autonomous Zones?

I think this passage nicely sums up Klein’s romantic, anti-intellectual, solidarity-craving rejection of the extended order of impersonal exhange:

“I’m not a utopian thinker,” Klein says. “I don’t imagine my ideal society. I don’t really like to read those books, either. I’m just much more comfortable talking about things that are.” The only time she has ever felt a whiff of utopia was in Buenos Aires, in 2002, when the political system had virtually disintegrated—during the time that she and Lewis were filming “The Take.” “That moment in Argentina was an incredible time because a vacuum opened up,” she says. “They had thrown out four Presidents in two weeks, and they had no idea what to do. Every institution was in crisis. The politicians were hiding in their homes. When they came out, housewives attacked them with brooms. And, walking around Buenos Aires at night, there were meetings on every other street corner. Every plaza where there was a streetlight, people were meeting under it and talking about what to do about the external debt, I swear to God. Groups of one hundred or five hundred people. And organizing buying groceries together because they could get cheaper prices, setting up barters because the currency was worthless. It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.”

Klein has no picture of an ideal society. She doesn’t like to read books about it, either. What she knows deep down (not in that book-knowledge sort of way), what she’s really got to work from, is this: that the sight of nervous people thrown together by crisis, deliberating under streetlights about what to do next in order to make ends meet is… profoundly inspiring. Her objection to “disaster capitalism” is not so much that it is capitalism that follows the disaster, but that the engaged community of disaster eventually comes to an end.