Naomi Klein: “I view free-market ideology as a cover story for greed”

The Canadian author and social activist on parenthood, people power and why climate change could be the ultimate opportunity for the left.

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More dynamite: Naomi Klein photographed for the New Statesman, October 2014. Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra

Naomi Klein is sitting on an armchair with her legs drawn up in an almost yogic pose, cradling a glass of orange juice as she lays out her plans for a complete, bottom-up overhaul of global capitalism. When Klein writes, she is polemical and uncompromising but in person she is strikingly low-key. Before I went to her rented flat in north London, I re-watched footage of her speaking to Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in 2011. In the video, Klein is dressed in her usual stylish but understated way, with the same inoffensive Rachel-from-Friends highlights she has had for years. Her voice barely carries above the crowd but the people in the front rows have formed a “human microphone” – they echo her speech so that those behind them can hear. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the 1 per cent love a crisis,” she says, because it gives them an excuse to privatise public services. “Fortunately, there’s one thing that can stop this. And it’s a very big thing: the 99 per cent.” The demonstrators begin to cheer. Klein knows that, in the right circles, her words are dynamite.

Her argument that elites use crises – wars, recessions and natural disasters – as excuses to impose their free-market world-view was the theme of her third book, The Shock Doctrine. Klein has good timing. It was published in 2007, just as the financial crisis erupted. Her first book, No Logo, which discussed the dangerous, seductive power of modern brands and the anti-globalisation movements mobilising against them, was printed soon after protests shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. It became a bestseller.

She spent five years researching This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate. She had initially intended it to be a book about “hubris and risk”. In 2010, she reported on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest such accident in human history. “For me, there was something really formative about seeing the smartest guys in the room fuck up so badly,” she tells me.

As she continued researching, her thesis expanded. This Changes Everything argues that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with protecting the planet and that climate change provides the left with a perfect opportunity to restructure the global economy: ending the fetishism of economic growth, tackling inequality, empowering local communities and curbing corporate power. “Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine – a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression – climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below,” she writes.

Critics have accused Klein of using climate change as a Trojan horse for her anti-capitalist agenda, or of being a “watermelon” (green on the outside but red within), but they have got it the wrong way round. The problem with most green campaigns, she argues, is that there’s no “theory of change. People are not going to fight for a marginal carbon tax.” By painting the climate-change debate red and making it about social and economic justice, Klein hopes to create a mass environmentalist movement.

When I watched her give a talk to around 2,000 people in London this month, I understood what she meant. The auditorium was silent as she spoke of melting ice and rising global temperatures. Then she began her critique of capitalism: “We’re talking about an economic system that is failing the vast majority of people, with or without climate change . . .” She had to wait a moment for the applause to die down.

Klein tells me that she wants to disrupt the political imbalance. Fossil-fuel companies “buy elections” over climate change but it is “not the issue that people on the left vote for. They vote on economic issues mainly, maybe women’s issues or gay and lesbian rights.”

Why the left has been so slow to grasp the opportunity offered by climate change is a mystery to her. “The right has understood for a long time now that if this [global warming] is true, it is a kind of killer blow to [its] ideological world-view,” she says.

Klein’s almost religious faith in people power is matched by a deep suspicion of the wealthy and powerful. They aren’t just muddling along, making short-sighted, selfish decisions; they act with a high degree of foresight and self-awareness, whether they are invading Iraq to turn it into a beacon of economic liberalism in the Middle East or denying climate-change science because it challenges their economic power.

“I do view free-market ideology as essentially a cover story for greed,” she tells me. “I don’t think it’s an ideology that should be taken entirely seriously. I don’t think people come to it for the most part out of intellectual curiosity.

“I think it is a story that is incredibly convenient to elites because it rationalises extremely antisocial behaviour. It’s an ideology I don’t want to make peace with.”

I wonder if one of the problems of becoming something of a superstar of the left is that you end up spending a lot of time in the same room as the businessmen and politicians you loathe. Does she find herself constantly picking fights, I ask? “I should be more like that. When I’m in those rooms, I mostly just want to observe the way people behave. I have friends who are always up for those fights. It’s not my temperament, I guess. I just like to get my ducks in a row.”

She says she has tried not to “personalise” her book, though this hasn’t stopped her slipping in the occasional put-down. Richard Branson, the Virgin founder and aspiring space adventurer who has reportedly failed to keep his green pledges, is “Mr Retail Space”. She sometimes responds to unfavourable articles on her personal website in a satisfyingly teenage way: “PS BTW you do know I didn’t write the headline, right. Just checking, cuz you seem to know so much,” she wrote after one hatchet job.

Although she mentions in This Changes Everything that climate-change deniers can make fierce Twitter trolls, she seems unfazed by the criticism she receives online. “I haven’t been finding it overwhelming. I actually think the deniers might be losing a bit of steam,” she says. “It comes in these hilarious waves where everything’s fine and then suddenly there’s this deluge of pure loathing . . . I just have to wait it out.” Her greatest problem, she adds, “is still being confused and compared with Naomi Wolf and dealing with people who are pissed off with her – rightfully so at this point”.

Klein, who is 44, is the third generation of leftist activist in her family. Her paternal grandfather, Philip, was a Disney animator who worked on Fantasia and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and was fired for being an agitator after taking part in the studio’s 1941 strike. Her parents moved to Canada in 1967 when her father, a doctor, refused to serve as a military physician in Vietnam. Klein’s mother is the feminist film-maker and disability rights activist Bonnie Sherr Klein.

Naomi was in many ways a typical teenage girl who read Judy Blume books, hung out in malls, experimented with make-up and was described in her high-school yearbook as the girl “most likely to be in jail for stealing peroxide”. This brought her into conflict with her parents, who had a “judgemental take on consumerism”. She has come to understand them. “I can see why the 1980s were an angry decade for people who fought through the 1960s and 1970s and who just thought: ‘Woah, we’re losing everything.’ It must have sucked for them! I don’t think my parents are angry people but I think the 1980s were an angry period.”

Ideologically, Klein has come closer to her parents’ world-view. In her new book, she argues that to avoid catastrophic global warming, people will have to return to 1970s levels of consumption. Yet she is still, in a smaller way, rebelling against their attitudes. “They made a mistake and the second-wave feminist movements made a lot of mistakes around making people feel judged. That’s why I try [to] talk in a way that doesn’t make people feel bad about wanting things, because that’s a great way to turn people off.”

Her efforts to avoid preaching may help explain Klein’s popularity among young people. She uses their language – things “suck”; people are “jerks” who “fuck up” – and she understands why you might want the latest trainers or handbag. “It’s a lifelong question, the extent to which we learn to rein in our own inner shoppers in a culture that’s just buy, buy, buy,” she tells me.

Klein is married to the TV journalist and film-maker Avi Lewis and has a son, Toma, who is two years old and “absolutely truck-crazy”. She visibly cheers at the mention of him. “It’s been hilarious watching this thing evolve, as I’m writing about getting off fossil fuels and then I go downstairs and play with dump trucks.” I ask her how she thinks she would react if he turned into a teenage mall brat. She says she’s not sure but, for now, she’s “trying to keep his carbon footprint as low as I can”. “One of the things that’s nice about being an old mom is that every person I know has kids . . . He’s the most handed-down child,” she adds.

Toma was the baby Klein was almost certain she would never have. The most moving parts of This Changes Everything are the passages in which she describes her struggles to conceive: a series of miscarriages, an ovarian tumour and a cancer scare, a failed round of IVF that left her feeling like a “supermarket chicken past its best-before date” and the pain of coming to terms with the prospect of never becoming a mother while she attended endless environmentalist meetings. “It used to drive me insane when environmentalists said, ‘We’re doing this for our kids.’ It’s really exclusionary.” She wanted to write about these experiences because climate change is often spoken about in “technical” and “apocalyptic terms”. “The emotional side is very important and we neglect it.”

Klein tried to keep her work on climate change separate from motherhood but inevitably the two are connected. “Ecological despair” was a big reason for her decision to delay having children until her late thirties. Little research has been conducted into how pollution affects fertility but Klein discovered that in Mossville, Louisiana, a community with 14 chemical plants and regular leaks, women seemed to report higher-than-average rates of hysterectomies, birth defects and miscarriages. Following the BP oil spill, dozens of baby dolphins were washed up on Gulf Coast beaches. Many of them had been stillborn or had died days after birth. Scientists later found that the dolphins had, among other things, low cortisol and high adrenal levels. She thought this was strange because the “naturopathic” doctor whom Klein saw before becoming pregnant diagnosed her with similar problems. She retreated to the countryside on the doctor’s orders and went on long nature hikes, slowly allowing herself to believe that this time the baby was healthy.

Klein wants to make clear she didn’t just write her book because of Toma: “If I didn’t have a kid, I’d probably be doing this much more effectively.” It must have been a difficult few years. She was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, something she doesn’t want to talk about, though she writes on her website that she has a “great prognosis” and nothing will stop her promoting her views.

For all the romance and passion of her book, Naomi Klein is clear-headed about the scale and difficulty of the change she is hoping to achieve. She is convinced that climate change can deliver a “killer blow” to capitalism and that she has people power on her side, but no revolution was ever easy. 

“This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies