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by NAOMI KLEIN
Monday, Oct. 08, 2001 at 4:48 AM
NAOMI KLEIN writes in a recent issue of The Nation about how our approach to street activism may be different after S11. While we may still experience grief regarding the events, the material conditions that give rise to our dissent remain.
Signs of the Times
by NAOMI KLEIN
As shocking as this must be to New Yorkers, in Toronto, the city where I live, lampposts and
mailboxes are plastered with posters advertising a plan by antipoverty activists to "shut down" the
business district on October 16. Some of the posters (those put up before September 11) even have a
picture of skyscrapers outlined in red--the perimeters of the designated direct-action zone. Many have
argued that O16 should be canceled, as other protests and demonstrations have been, in deference to
the mood of mourning--and out of fear of stepped-up police violence.
But the shutdown is going ahead. In the end, the events of September 11 don't change the fact that the
nights are getting colder and the recession is looming. They don't change the fact that in a city that
used to be described as "safe" and, well, "maybe a little boring," many will die on the streets this winter,
as they did last winter, and the one before that, unless more beds are found immediately.
And yet there is no disputing that the event, its militant tone and its choice of target will provoke terrible
memories and associations. Many political campaigns face a similar, and sudden, shift. Post-September
11, tactics that rely on attacking--even peacefully--powerful symbols of capitalism find themselves in
an utterly transformed semiotic landscape. After all, the attacks were acts of very real and horrifying
terror, but they were also acts of symbolic warfare, and instantly understood as such. As Tom Brokaw
and so many others put it, the towers were not just any buildings, they were "symbols of American
As someone whose life is thoroughly entwined with what some people call "the antiglobalization
movement," others call "anticapitalism" (and I tend to just sloppily call "the movement"), I find it difficult
to avoid discussions about symbolism these days. About all the anticorporate signs and signifiers--the
culture-jammed logos, the guerrilla-warfare stylings, the choices of brand name and political
targets--that make up the movement's dominant metaphors.
Many political opponents of anticorporate activism are using the symbolism of the World Trade Center
and Pentagon attacks to argue that young activists, playing at guerrilla war, have now been caught out
by a real war. The obituaries are already appearing in newspapers around the world:
"Anti-Globalization Is So Yesterday," reads a typical headline. It is, according to the Boston Globe, "in
tatters." Is it true? Our activism has been declared dead before. Indeed, it is declared dead with
ritualistic regularity before and after every mass demonstration: our strategies apparently discredited,
our coalitions divided, our arguments misguided. And yet those demonstrations have kept growing
larger, from 50,000 in Seattle to 300,000, by some estimates, in Genoa.
At the same time, it would be foolish to pretend that nothing has changed since September 11. This
struck me recently, looking at a slide show I had been pulling together before the attacks. It is about
how anticorporate imagery is increasingly being absorbed by corporate marketing. One slide shows a
group of activists spray-painting the window of a Gap outlet during the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.
The next shows The Gap's recent window displays featuring its own prefab graffiti--words like
"Independence" sprayed in black. And the next is a frame from Sony PlayStation's "State of
Emergency" game featuring cool-haired anarchists throwing rocks at evil riot cops protecting the
fictitious American Trade Organization. When I first looked at these images beside each other, I was
amazed by the speed of corporate co-optation. Now all I can see is how these snapshots from the
corporate versus anticorporate image wars have been instantly overshadowed, blown away by
September 11 like so many toy cars and action figures on a disaster movie set.
Despite the altered landscape--or because of it--it bears remembering why this movement chose to
wage symbolic struggles in the first place. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's decision to "shut
down" the business district came from a set of very specific and still relevant circumstances. Like so
many others trying to get issues of economic inequality on the political agenda, the people the group
represents felt that they had been discarded, left outside the paradigm, disappeared and reconstituted
as a panhandling or squeegee problem requiring tough new legislation. They realized that what they had
to confront was just not a local political enemy or even a particular trade law but an economic
system--the broken promise of deregulated, trickle-down capitalism. Thus the modern activist
challenge: How do you organize against an ideology so vast, it has no edges; so everywhere, it seems
nowhere? Where is the site of resistance for those with no workplaces to shut down, whose
communities are constantly being uprooted? What do we hold on to when so much that is powerful is
virtual--currency trades, stock prices, intellectual property and arcane trade agreements?
The short answer, at least before September 11, was that you grab anything you can get your hands
on: the brand image of a famous multinational, a stock exchange, a meeting of world leaders, a single
trade agreement or, in the case of the Toronto group, the banks and corporate headquarters that are
the engines that power this agenda. Anything that, even fleetingly, makes the intangible actual, the
vastness somehow human-scale. In short, you find symbols and you hope they become metaphors for
For instance, when the United States launched a trade war against France for daring to ban
hormone-laced beef, Jos Bové and the French Farmers' Confederation didn't get the world's attention
by screaming about import duties on Roquefort cheese. They did it by "strategically dismantling" a
McDonald's. Nike, ExxonMobil, Monsanto, Shell, Chevron, Pfizer, Sodexho Marriott, Kellogg's,
Starbucks, The Gap, Rio Tinto, British Petroleum, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Citigroup,
Taco Bell--all have found their gleaming brands used to shine light on everything from bovine growth
hormone in milk to human rights in the Niger Delta; from labor abuses of Mexican tomato farmworkers
in Florida to war-financing of oil pipelines in Chad and Cameroon; from global warming to sweatshops.
In the weeks since September 11, we have been reminded many times that Americans aren't
particularly informed about the world outside their borders. That may be true, but many activists have
learned over the past decade that this blind spot for international affairs can be overcome by linking
campaigns to famous brands--an effective, if often problematic, weapon against parochialism. These
corporate campaigns have, in turn, opened back doors into the arcane world of international trade and
finance, to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and, for some, to a questioning of capitalism
But these tactics have also proven to be an easy target in turn. After September 11, politicians and
pundits around the world instantly began spinning the terrorist attacks as part of a continuum of
anti-American and anticorporate violence: first the Starbucks window, then, presumably, the WTC.
New Republic editor Peter Beinart seized on an obscure post to an anticorporate Internet chat room
that asked if the attacks were committed by "one of us." Beinart concluded that "the anti-globalization
movement...is, in part, a movement motivated by hatred of the United States"--immoral with the United
States under attack.
In a sane world, rather than fueling such a backlash the terrorist attacks would raise questions about
why US intelligence agencies were spending so much time spying on environmentalists and
Independent Media Centers instead of on the terrorist networks plotting mass murder. Unfortunately, it
seems clear that the crackdown on activism that predated September 11 will only intensify, with
heightened surveillance, infiltration and police violence. It's also likely that the anonymity that has been
a hallmark of anticapitalism--masks, bandannas and pseudonyms--will become more suspect in a
culture searching for clandestine operatives in its midst.
But the attacks will cost us more than our civil liberties. They could well, I fear, cost us our few
political victories. Funds committed to the AIDS crisis in Africa are disappearing, and commitments to
expand debt cancellation will likely follow. Defending the rights of immigrants and refugees was
becoming a major focus for the direct-action crowd in Australia, Europe and, slowly, the United States.
This too is threatened by the rising tide of racism and xenophobia.
And free trade, long facing a public relations crisis, is fast being rebranded, like shopping and baseball,
as a patriotic duty. According to US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick (who is frantically trying to
get fast-track negotiating power pushed through in this moment of jingoistic groupthink), trade
"promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle." Michael Lewis makes a similar conflation
between freedom fighting and free trading when he explains, in an essay in The New York Times
Magazine, that the traders who died were targeted as "not merely symbols but also practitioners of
liberty.... They work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraints. This makes them, almost
by default, the spiritual antithesis of the religious fundamentalist, whose business depends on a denial of
personal liberty in the name of some putatively higher power."
The battle lines leading up to next month's WTO negotiations in Qatar are: Tradeequals freedom,
antitrade equals fascism. Never mind that Osama bin Laden is a multimillionaire with a rather
impressive global export network stretching from cash-crop agriculture to oil pipelines. And never mind
that this fight will take place in Qatar, that bastion of liberty, which is refusing foreign visas for
demonstrators but where bin Laden practically has his own TV show on the state-subsidized network
Our civil liberties, our modest victories, our usual strategies--all are now in question. But this crisis also
opens up new possibilities. As many have pointed out, the challenge for social justice movements is to
connect economic inequality with the security concerns that now grip us all--insisting that justice and
equality are the most sustainable strategies against violence and fundamentalism.
But we cannot be naïve, as if the very real and ongoing threat of more slaughtering of innocents will
disappear through political reform alone. There needs to be social justice, but there also needs to be
justice for the victims of these attacks and immediate, practical prevention of future ones. Terrorism is
indeed an international threat, and it did not begin with the attacks in the United States. As Bush invites
the world to join America's war, sidelining the United Nations and the international courts, we need to
become passionate defenders of true multilateralism, rejecting once and for all the label
"antiglobalization." Bush's "coalition" does not represent a genuinely global response to terrorism but the
internationalization of one country's foreign policy objectives--the trademark of US international
relations, from the WTO negotiating table to Kyoto: You are free to play by our rules or get shut out
completely. We can make these connections not as "anti-Americans" but as true internationalists.
We can also refuse to engage in a calculus of suffering. Some on the left have implied that the
outpouring of compassion and grief post-September 11 is disproportionate, even vaguely racist,
compared with responses to greater atrocities. Surely the job of those who claim to abhor injustice and
suffering is not to stingily parcel out compassion as if it were a finite commodity. Surely the challenge
is to attempt to increase the global reserves of compassion, rather than parsimoniously police them.
Besides, is the outpouring of mutual aid and support that this tragedy has elicited so different from the
humanitarian goals to which this movement aspires? The street slogans--PEOPLE BEFORE PROFIT ,
THE WORLD IS NOT FOR SALE --have become self-evident and viscerally felt truths for many in the
wake of the attacks. There is outrage in the face of profiteering. There are questions being raised
about the wisdom of leaving crucial services like airport security to private companies, about why there
are bailouts for airlines but not for the workers losing their jobs. There is a groundswell of appreciation
for public-sector workers of all kinds. In short, "the commons"--the public sphere, the public good, the
noncorporate, what we have been defending, what is on the negotiating table in Qatar--is undergoing
something of a rediscovery in the United States.
Instead of assuming that Americans can care about each other only when they are getting ready to kill
a common enemy, those concerned with changing minds (and not simply winning arguments) should
seize this moment to connect these humane reactions to the many other arenas in which human needs
must take precedence over corporate profits, from AIDS treatment to homelessness. As Paul Loeb,
author of Soul of a Citizen, puts it, despite the warmongering and coexisting with the xenophobia,
"People seem careful, vulnerable, and extraordinarily kind to each other. These events just might be
able to break us away from our gated communities of the heart."
This would require a dramatic change in activist strategy, one based much more on substance than on
symbols. Then again, for more than a year, the largely symbolic activism outside summits and against
individual corporations has already been challenged within movement circles. There is much that is
unsatisfying about fighting a war of symbols: The glass shatters in the McDonald's window, the
meetings are driven to ever more remote locations--but so what? It's still only symbols, facades,
Before September 11, a new mood of impatience was already taking hold, an insistence on putting
forward social and economic alternatives that address the roots of injustice as well as its symptoms,
from land reform to slavery reparations. Now seems like a good time to challenge the forces of both
nihilism and nostalgia within our own ranks, while making more room for the voices--coming from
Chiapas, Pôrto Alegre, Kerala--showing that it is indeed possible to challenge imperialism while
embracing plurality, progress and deep democracy. Our task, never more pressing, is to point out that
there are more than two worlds available, to expose all the invisible worlds between the economic
fundamentalism of "McWorld" and the religious fundamentalism of "Jihad."
Maybe the image wars are coming to a close. A year ago, I visited the University of Oregon to do a
story on antisweatshop activism at the campus that is nicknamed Nike U. There I met student activist
Sarah Jacobson. Nike, she told me, was not the target of her activism, but a tool, a way to access a
vast and often amorphous economic system. "It's a gateway drug," she said cheerfully.
For years, we in this movement have fed off our opponents' symbols--their brands, their office towers,
their photo-opportunity summits. We have used them as rallying cries, as focal points, as popular
education tools. But these symbols were never the real targets; they were the levers, the handles. They
were what allowed us, as British writer Katharine Ainger recently put it, "to open a crack in history."
The symbols were only ever doorways. It's time to walk through them.
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