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Published on Monday, April 3, 2000 in the New York Times
Naomi Klein: Canada's Anti-Corporate Crusader
by James Brooke
TORONTO -- Cocooned in the spiral staircase of a downtown bookstore recently, Naomi Klein gleefully popped corporate marketing balloons as she brought her war on modern corporations to hundreds of office workers who had skipped lunch to hear a fire-and-brimstone treatment of their bosses.

"Branding means selling us our desires," said Ms. Klein, whose new book, "No Logo," has made her Canada's 29-year-old media meteor and the most visible face of a sometimes scattershot anti-corporate youth movement, which is planning a show of force in Washington in mid-April.

"If you listen to Starbucks," she said, "we long for community. If you listen to Barnes & Noble, we long for libraries. If you listen to Microsoft, we long for communications."

Her book has become something of a movement bible here, staying on Canadian best-seller lists since its release in January, just weeks after days of protests at a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle thrust the complaints of her generation before a global audience.

Mixing activism with analysis, she has filled university auditoriums, has won a column in The Globe and Mail and has been kicked off a television debate show by an angry conservative writer. In the first week of April, she will hopscotch from debates in New York to "counter-summits" in Washington, where protesters are preparing to demonstrate at meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While her book is being published simultaneously in Australia, Britain and the United States (Picador), translations are in the works in French, German, Italian and Spanish, and a documentary is being negotiated with British filmmakers.

Her war on modern corporations boils down to a central theme: as companies' marketing budgets become more and more lavish, they maintain profit margins by farming out manufacturing to sweatshops in the poorest corners of the globe.

In so doing, they break with a basic, Henry Ford principle of 20th-century manufacturing: create a mass market by paying workers well enough so they can buy the products they produce. At same time, Western consumers are the targets of what she calls "Big Brother branding."

"My generation has grown up completely under the marketing microscope," she said.

Energetic and optimistic, Ms. Klein incarnates that generation's reinvention of the North American left. One of Ms. Klein's grandfathers, a Marxist, was fired by Walt Disney for trying to unionize the animators of "Fantasia." Her parents left the United States in the late 1960's to protest the Vietnam War, her mother becoming a feminist filmmaker and her father, a doctor, a supporter of Canada's national health system.

As an adolescent in Montreal, she rebelled against her socialist parents by becoming a self-described "mall rat," working after school in a chain clothing store.

At the University of Toronto she edited the campus newspaper, becoming, in her words, "Miss P.C." She denounced campus violators of a lengthening list of "isms." Recalling that phase of "identity politics," she said, "I watched the left get smaller and smaller."

After college she edited This Magazine, a leftist review in Toronto that limped along on dwindling circulation. Pulling dusty back issues from the stacks, she discovered that once upon a time there was "a movement on the left."

At the same time, she remembered that when advertisements started to infiltrate bathroom stalls at the University of Toronto, students fought back, wielding felt-tip pens against the omnipresence of marketing.

Four years later, her book contains some of her favorite "culture jamming" examples: perky models morphed into skulls; Nike's "Just Do It" slogan tweaked into "Justice. Do It"; Apple Computers' "Think Different" campaign mysteriously embellished with a photo of Stalin and the ominous slogan "Think Really Different."

Gloria Steinem recalls watching Ms. Klein at a book promotion in New York, handing out little cutting tools to allow people to cut designer labels off their clothes.

"In the women's movement, in the labor-left movement, we focused on how much money was earned and by whom," said Ms. Steinem, who has published Ms. Klein's essays in Ms. magazine. "Now, Naomi is focusing on the next step, which is how the money is spent."

The resonance of Ms. Klein's ideas speaks volumes here about how Canada sees itself today.

While Americans generally see Canadians as economic equals, Canada missed the American boom of the 1990's. After a decade of economic stagnation, Canadian per capita income fell in 1998 to $16,487, or 13 percent below that of Mississippi, the poorest American state.

At the same time, Canada has moved away from the isolated, nationalist economy of years past. In the last 15 years, foreign investors have roughly tripled their holdings in Canada, controlling about 13,000 corporations, which are worth about $500 billion and responsible for about a third of the country's corporate profits. Once an economic hinterland, Canada became the industrialized world's most trade-dependent country in the 1990's, with 43 percent of its economy tied to trade.

In such an economy, Ms. Klein's anti-multinational message has appealed to people who complain of a loss of local economic control.

"Canadians feel a little bit on the sidelines in the way the global economy is changing," said Paul Tough, who published many of Ms. Klein's essays in Saturday Night, an intellectual monthly here. "In the states you feel you are in the center. In Canada sometimes you feel you are in the center, but sometimes you feel you are in Indonesia, the Philippines or somewhere where you are being acted upon, not acting."

It is that kind of anti-corporate, anti-marketing anger that boiled over in Seattle. "The real anarchists in Seattle," Ms. Klein said, "were the businessmen, who were saying, 'We don't want any rules.' "

Then, warning that her generation's activists are not going to abandon their critique of laissez-faire globalism, she looked ahead to another meeting of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in Prague in September, and predicted with ill-disguised glee, "Prague is going to be nuts."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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