Naomi Klein’s masterpiece…
The journey between Brighton train station and London Victoria is an unremarkable one. I make it on average once every two weeks. For the most part I just read, but sometimes when the boredom overcomes me, I take to looking out the window and trying to spot buildings of interest. I rarely see any.
One thing does always strike me though. Three quarters of the way to London, the train stops in East Croydon where passengers have the opportunity to change for various destinations. It is not East Croydon itself that interests me (it looks pretty bland) but rather the large signs that adorn the sides of the platforms. They announce: ?East Croydon. The home of Nestle?. Now, you are probably wondering why this would be of interest. And the truth of the matter is that about two and a half years ago it would not have been of any interest to me at all.
However, around about that time a number of things happened in my life that would begin a process of education and enquiry for me. One was being laid off from my job in the e-learning sector. Sorry, that?s laid off twice in a very short space of time.
Another was my discovery of the American comedian Bill Hicks. However, more than anything else, the moment of great awakening for me was when I read the book ?No Logo? by Naomi Klein. Now you can take this or leave it, but it quite literally changed my life.
Klein?s book opened up a world to me. A world that I guess I had always known about but which I had always managed to successfully ignore. I knew that something big had taken place in Seattle (a city I only knew as the home of grunge) in the USA late in 1999.
I wasn?t really clear on what all those angry students were screaming about and I certainly didn?t understand why the police and government found them so threatening. Indeed so threatening, that the escalating cycle of violence was to lead to the death of a young man in Genoa some months later.
They were giving out about debts in Africa weren?t they? No one I asked in the pub seemed to really know. Not many people seemed to care that much either. ?Fu**ing students? one of my friends commented, ?they always need something to protest about don?t they??
And maybe they do, I said to myself. It hadn?t been all that long since I had left college myself and there always seemed to be people protesting about something. One week it was badger bashing. Next week it was student grants. The following week it was… well, you get the picture.
I didn?t have a very positive view of student politics, as many of those I had met from that world seemed to be self-important, moralising, sanctimonious bores. Oh and they smelled strange too. I imagined that those who had taken to the streets in Seattle and Genoa were of the same ilk, tying themselves to whatever lamppost was fashionable this week. Then I read ?No Logo?.
By the time I had finished Klein?s book I was overcome with the urge to join those tied to the lampposts. I now understood why they risked being baton-charged and beaten. I knew why they would risk arrest and assault.
I now knew why they would square up against out of control police forces (such as the Irish Police were in Dublin?s May Day parade when they were caught on multiple cameras horribly beating protesters) and still fight to be heard.
I knew why they came to protest with handkerchiefs over their noses ? they are doused in vinegar to combat the tear gas attacks, not to give some revolutionary street cred to a pimply asthmatic teenager. Oh, and one other thing: it made me angrier than I had ever been in my whole life (and believe me, as my friends will attest, that is no small feat).
Klein?s book is broken into four distinctive sections: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs and No Logo. Through these four sections Klein charts the rise of the ?brand? as a concept in American business, the colonisation of public space by marketing and advertising, the corporate take over of education and the result that this may be having on the arts and the media.
From there she traces the webs winding their way around the world by using that ubiquitous device, the logo, to give a hair-raising narrative. This device: the study of a globalised world through the linking device of the logo, underpins the book and is a large part of what makes it so utterly compelling.
Add to that Klein?s engaging writing, meticulous research and self-deprecating wit and she comes across not as an aloof researcher and author, but rather somebody who is barley able to suppress her own contempt and rage towards the repulsive rhetoric of those in companies like Nike, The Gap and Shell. However, she does not just set her targets on those companies who are high profile enough to be easily attacked but she goes after the very system that allows such mendacity to prosper.
This is the world of privatisation, liberalisation and the export processing zone ? that?s a sweat shop to you and me. She speaks about the world of the International Monetary Fund and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
She explains how this system has created the economic devastation in Venezuela, Argentina and Indonesia. I?m sure you can think of another few countries that are in a similar state. She outlines the never-ending decrease in the living standards of most of the third world?s workers. I could go on and on but you would be best served to read the book yourself.
In the years since No logo was first published it has become something of a phenomenon: a veritable counter-culture bible for a new mass movement (erroneously called the ?anti-globalisation? movement) with Klein as a reluctant spokesperson. She will be the first to say that she wants no such role (she says so with some humour in the follow-up book ?Fences and Windows?).
And the book is not just required reading for the aspiring street protester. Police officers tasked with dealing with the protesters have been obliged to read the text so as to understand the mind set of those that they are dealing with. I find this an amusing notion, as reading the text might just push a few of them onto the other side of the barricade.
Above all else though, one thing has always stayed with me from reading No Logo: the staggering greed and mendacity of some of the world?s multinational corporations. Whether it be Shell and their activities in Africa, Nike and their exploitation of sweat-shop labour, Microsoft and their woeful software or McDonalds and their almost total control of the food chain in many countries, the levels of power and influence that these companies wield is now truly frightening.
Which brings me back to that Nestle sign. Nestle have long been a favourite punch bag of the corporate watchdogs and left-wing groups. Their behaviour regarding milk-supplements for mothers in Africa is the stuff of legend. In recent months they made the news again when they attempted to get the cash strapped Ethiopian government to pay up for a 25 year old debt which was owed to a company that Nestle acquired many years later.
I (along with tens of thousands of others) wrote several emails protesting this outrageous act of greed. The argument rumbles on. Prior to reading No Logo, I can confidently say that I could not have cared less.
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