Naomi Klein is sitting in a dim stairwell, looking dazed. She’s just emerged from a fierce debate on corporate responsibility before a packed house. Things had started off calmly enough—business journalist Sameena Ahmad of The Economist earnestly insisting that mega-corporations serve as positive influences in the third world, Klein mocking her position by quoting a litany of articles on corporate thievery from Ahmad’s own magazine. The crowd was wildly pro-Klein, which enraged Ahmad, who ended the debate with a nasty tirade. “Nobody has elected Naomi Klein,” Ahmad railed. “She says that she represents the world and the activist community and the people—she doesn’t!”
“I’m pretty freaked out by that last outburst. I never speak for the movement, let alone the world!” Klein says afterward, aghast. But since the publication of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (which hit the street just weeks before activists stormed the December 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle), 32-year-old Klein has become one of the antiglobalization movement’s primary translators, rendering complex economic issues in accessible language. She finds herself in a strange position: heroine of a movement that distrusts leaders, using her media savvy to make dissent an alluring commodity on the cultural marketplace.
A few days after the Manhattan debate, Klein explains why she feels so ambivalent about being a poster girl for antiglobalism. “It takes the focus away from what makes the movement interesting, and it puts me in an awkward situation. Sometimes I get strong urges to pierce everything in sight and stop looking so acceptable,” Klein says wistfully. “But then I go to an event and there are 17-year-old girls there, and I know it’s in part because they’ve seen someone they can relate to.”
Klein grew up in Canada, a self-confessed “brand whore” who pissed off her politically active family (her mom made the anti-pornography documentary Not a Love Story; her grandfather was blacklisted for organizing Disney’s first strike) by gravitating toward Barbies and designer clothes. “I’m really happy I rejected my parents when I was young, because it’s what allows me to relate to people who like shopping and movies and nice things! I think that’s how it all started for me—cultural analysis was a good way to consume as much pop culture as I wanted to.” Klein got politicized in college, and dropped out to become the editor of This Magazine, a Canadian left-wing publication, as well as “the token young leftie columnist” at The Toronto Star. When she returned to finish her education a few years later, she met a new generation of students on the front lines of anticorporate activism whom she wrote about in No Logo.
Bored by her own cynicism, Klein found inspiration in these college kids who were fired up with hope and anger instead of hiding behind irony. “In my column in the Star I was debunking Wired and taking down Melrose Place, doing my culture criticism shtick, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my whole life putting things down. I wanted to be the type of person that could believe in positive change.” She cracks a self-conscious grin. “OK, I sound like an infomercial, but it’s true.”
Klein stands before us—part guinea pig, part convert—to testify that it’s possible to try to change the world without being too earnest or humorless. In Fences and Windows she reframes the protests as something more joyful (and much less threatening) than the media images of broken McDonald’s windows suggested—as “an alternative global city where urgency replaces resignation . . . and the prospect of political change does not seem like an odd and anachronistic idea but the most logical thought in the world.” On the other hand, Klein realizes that a movement can’t thrive on rage and raves alone. In several essays she vents her fear that “a culture of serial protesting is rapidly taking hold,” with activists hungrily searching for the next Seattle. “Is this really what we want,” she asks in the book, “a movement of meeting stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead?”
No Logo was so successful that you get the feeling Klein sees it as an albatross. People peg her an expert on branding, but that was one strand of her argument, which focused more on the nefarious influence of corporations on domestic and foreign policy. She dove deeper into global economics until she could speak about the IMF or debt relief as easily as Nike and sweatshops. As she writes in Fences and Windows, “I have been globalized by this movement: I have learned what the market obsession has meant to landless farmers in Brazil . . . to fast-food workers in Italy.”
Now Klein herself lives somewhat nomadically, popping up at protests and conferences around the globe. Her husband, Avi Lewis, recently quit his job as the host of a prime-time Canadian TV debate show to work with Klein. “We were trying to figure out how to make a film about participatory democracy without it being incredibly dull,” she says. So next month they start shooting in Buenos Aires, where hundreds of neighborhood assemblies have sprung up since Argentina’s economic crash, “acting like a shadow state and providing a lot of services the government used to provide, like health care and an elaborate barter system.” She’s convinced that the carnivalesque nature of Argentinean politics will make for a visually exciting movie. “It has that quality of defiance, of dancing on the rubble as opposed to a do-gooder quality that sometimes makes people in the West cringe at political art.”
What looks like political collapse in Buenos Aires or Brazil to some looks like a window of opportunity to Klein. She’s captivated by what she calls “a new kind of leader”—people who question the notion of political saviors, like Luis Zamora, a leading candidate for Argentinean president, who’s been strongly influenced by the masked Zapatista philosopher Subcomandante Marcos. “Zamora gets swarmed by people saying, ‘Save us.’ And he tells them, ‘I can’t save you. Go to your neighborhood assemblies.’ His vision for the election is not to run candidates but to run ideas, so they don’t elect leaders who are just going to disappoint them again.”
When asked during the debate whether the antiglobalist movement has built a power base that’s capable of effecting change, she answered that it hasn’t yet coalesced in the U.S. But as Klein writes in the introduction to Fences and Windows, “Perhaps its true challenge is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too quickly.”