I’m Branded

No Logo author Naomi Klein recently visited Australia, which brought her book to the attention of the mainstream media and the celebrity-making machine. Klein resisted this, but described the book’s success as an activist tool.

One Spring night in 1993 a teenager spoke to the Victorian Trades Hall Council and reduced the worldly union officials to tears. Speaking through an interpreter, Tumthong Pohirun described the experience of jumping from the third floor window of a burning factory on to the dead and dying bodies of her friends in a desperate attempt to survive. Her burns were severe, but healed. The emotional and psychological pain of seeing her friends burn would still hurt. Tumthong was a worker at the Kader toy factory in Thailand, which is notable, not because of the appalling pay and working conditions, but because the deadly fire which killed 188 workers actually made the news in the countries where the toys were sold.

In No Logo, Canadian journalist, Naomi Klein asks why the dreadful story of the Kader fire did not ignite the anti-corporate/anti-globalisation movement that is now becoming so angry and visible. Tumthong was in Australia to participate in an international conference organised by Australia Asia Workers Links, where Australian unionists and activists compared experiences and worked on campaigns with labour activists from independent labour organisations from around the Asian and Pacific region. AAWL was founded back in the 1970s when globalisation was taking off — as transnationals and Australian companies started moving offshore seeking cheaper costs. Since that time, they, like other labour activist groups have sought to educate, connect and build solidarity between Australian unions and emerging labour organisations in the region.

No Logo tells the story of job flight and what that has meant for First and Third World workers. Klein persuasively argues that there is good reason and a certain synchronicity for the growing solidarity (although she steers clear of such old-fashioned terminology) between the young Western casual retail workers and the young factory workers of Asia and South America who make the products that carry the sought-after labels. They are young, they are exploited, they have no power, they are manipulated by advertising and they are not filled with hope that one day they will be rich and happy. Klein paints a picture of a new generation enraged by the power of the big corporations to control their bodies and minds, dismissive of the capacities of governments and of old social movements to change anything.

Long-term activists who participated in the recent Australian M1 and S11 actions were no doubt gladdened, if a little bemused, by a new generation who had just discovered that the clothes they wear and the toys they play with are made in ghastly conditions by workers paid less a day than they spend on a cup of coffee.

Klein doesn’t quite have the answer to the question of ‘Why now?’ Why did the Kader story die away a few years ago, yet now the stories are being heard and acted upon? Her own research does, however, answer the question in many ways. As with all social movements, the growing anti-corporate mobilisation is the coming together of many related things. All that research and campaigning work by labour, environmental, feminist and human rights groups have enabled coherent critiques of complex free trade constructions like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). The globalisation of capitalist production, distribution and exchange spurred on by communications and transport technologies was clearly not in itself enough. The meaning of the glaring statistics about transnationals that had budgets greater than some nation states and control the majority of world trade did not capture the popular imagination.

Klein suggests that if the media reports of the Kader fire had shown the toys being made by the workers, it could have made a difference. The delegates at the Trades Hall in Melbourne were shown the Bart Simpson doll, and that did help bring the story home. Not surprisingly the television story of Kader steered clear of such uncomfortable images that clashed with the interests of the Christmas advertisers. Klein argues that a change came about in the mid nineties:

What happened in 1995 was a kind of collective ‘click’ on the parts of both the media and the public. The cumulative response to the horror stories of Chinese prison labour … has been a noticeable shift in how people in the West see workers in the developing world. ‘’They’re getting our jobs’ is giving way to a more humane reaction: ‘Our corporations are stealing their lives’ …

Whilst Klein can tend to hyperbole, anyone witnessing the assorted causes that have come together for S11 and overseas equivalents, does have to agree that a collective ‘click’ has happened.

Australian activists, though, would be very doubtful about the extent of mass media convergence. However, the mass media is also being challenged by the efficacy of the internet and email in facilitating rapid and coordinated actions, enabling research and analysis that is not all one way — from the West to the rest. The role of the internet, though, can be overplayed, and some caution is needed. It needs to be remembered that what is also easier today is to travel quickly and relatively inexpensively around the world. Add to this the dominance of the English language and familiarity with Western culture, and communication is pretty easy. Western cultural and economic hegemony is indeed enabling the organisation of global anti-globalisation.

It is upon these marvellous contradictions that Klein focuses her analysis as she weaves together her themes of No Space, No Choice, No Jobs and No Logo. The change for Klein is in resistance to the omnipresence of branding, of resistance to the ‘quest to turn brands into media providers, arts producers, town squares and social philosophers — transformed into something, much more invasive and profound’.

‘No Space’ is a chilling account of how ‘branding’ has worked to take old fashioned advertising into the stratosphere. Whereas the old cigarette ads suggested glamorous lifestyles came with their products, contemporary corporate branding has almost left the producers behind. Not surprisingly Nike is a favourite example, and as a market leader it does epitomise the phenomenon. Producing shoes is now a tiny part of Nike’s business and is done by overseas sub-contractors far from Seattle. Nike’s big investments are in advertising, promotions, celebrity sponsorships and more and bigger lifestyle stores, not sports shops. The swoosh, according to Klein, is invidious. She claims to have met Nike retail employees that have it tattooed on their bodies. They didn’t have to — and they certainly have no need to feel company loyalty, as they are casual, readily dispensable workers.

Klein is particularly vehement about the ‘cool hunters’, who go around stealing sub-cultures. It is they who got young urban black American men who walked and talked a certain way to wear their clothes and shoes, even to sing about the products — and then sold the concept so well that now we have middle-class white kids slouching around trying to be cool, black dudes (and failing miserably). Meanwhile, kids are beating others up to steal their runners and parents are working extra shifts to pay for the must-have clothes for their kids. The appropriation of sub-cultures is not new. It just happens faster. It must be hell trying to be a rebellious teenager these days and not find your street smarts copied in a shop window or being worn by the likes of Celine Dion.

It is not only Nike though. Klein has much to tell about those old hands at selling fantasy lifestyles, Coca-Cola and Disney. There are other new players who came into their own in the nineties — Borders swallowing up bookshops, Wal-Mart consuming the small town high street and so on. The Starbucks story got to me. As I was reading about them buying up the coffee shops of North America, I heard that they are about to set up in Melbourne. Then I left the television on after the end of Star Trek one night and heard David Letterman tell a joke about the ubiquitous Starbucks. Next day I see a Simpsons re-run with a running gag of empty shops with ‘Starbucks coming soon’ on the windows. The latter is particularly pertinent, considering that The Simpsons is produced by one of the major all-consuming media corporations.

Whilst jokes based in our experiences of popular culture engage us, one does worry that these unpaid promotions are no different from paid product placements. The old PR adage that any publicity is good publicity rings true for these corporate giants. Nike claims to have been touched by their critics. They and other retail corporations claim to have responded to labour exploitation criticisms and eventually owned up to the off-shore contractors and are pleading better behavior. Even criticism, though, keeps their name in lights. (Should I stop writing about them?)

Whether there really is space to protest is contestable. Whilst some argue that the internet has opened up new space and Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass activists are taking on urban streets, and the culture jammers the billboards, it is also harder to find space without a logo. Klein includes some inspirational stories of communities who have thrown the logo back and refused to take the money. One poor US high school rejected Nike’s offers of sponsorship because it involved painting the swoosh across their basketball court. But this is a hard choice, as schools are forced to seek sponsorship as government withdraws from funding schools.

At an Ontario school, the sports teacher, who wanted his mainly working-class and ethnic minority charges to reject the hold of Nike and co., organised a fashion show. Students paraded the cool clothes to a running commentary about Third World worker exploitation, and performed skits about how kids are made to feel bad about not having the right clothes and so on. The students responded with the reasonable question of, ‘What then are we to wear?’ ‘I don’t want to have to be some sort of major political activist every time I go to the mall’, complained one girl. Protest in other ways too, argued Klein as the guest speaker.

This, too, was the first question asked at Klein’s public lecture in Melbourne. She again emphasised that while consumer protest has its limitations, it is a useful gateway to get people involved, and hopefully move to the next stage of understanding and activism.

Klein also characterises No Logo as a tool, she deftly illustrates her argument as she stirs up readers’ personal outrage at how they are being manipulated by the corporations, and then takes them smoothly to the logical outcome — that workers need to organise collectively. For Klein is pro-union, which unfortunately is not characteristic of a lot of anti-corporate/anti-globalisation activists.

Whilst she would not want No Logo to be just characterised as a story of labour exploitation, Klein does come from good North American left liberal stock and is not backward in recognising the class dimensions of her story, as the above examples demonstrate. In an interview in Melbourne’s Age newspaper, she said that she is heavily influenced by anarchist theory, and this comes through in her enthusiasm for the diversity of individuals, groups and actions, and her strong endorsement of direct or grassroots democracy. Klein does not bemoan the lack of a ‘party line’, as do the traditional socialist groupings that are feverishly trying to recruit the emerging activists. She weaves a strong pattern of alliance building between unions, environmental, cultural and social activists, which characterises this new social movement.

But still, what is it to be ‘anti-corporate’? Does it mean more than to be angry about being manipulated as to what you buy? Does it mean a deeper sense of a loss of control over more than just purchasing decisions? In reading No Logo, at times I was not sure whether the actions chronicled were more than youthful rage against the machine.

Klein does rage against the corporate theft of regional culture, whether it be small-town America losing their high street ambience to Wal-Mart or the all pervasive ‘swoosh’ on the backs and feet of youth. Naomi Klein is not breaking new theoretical ground. She does what a good journalist can do. She has assembled extensive and persuasive evidence to support her contention that there is a new global social movement. The new energy is coming from a new generation of activists who, depending on who they are, may or may not recognise their legacies. The welcome arrogance of youth tends to assume that no one has done this before. Klein knows this is not the case and she gently weaves into the story the continuities of protest over labour exploitation, rampaging corporations, environmental destruction and the loss of community space and democratic freedoms.

She acknowledges that much has been learned from the identity politics pervasive in the previous decades that have no doubt contributed to contemporary alliance building across differences and diversities. However, she is also critical of the self-absorption and blindness of the sort of ‘politics of image not action’ that dominated her time at university. She says, ‘We were too busy analysing the pictures being projected on the wall to notice that the wall itself had been sold.’ The cool hunters are quite happy to add minorities and even protesters to their images, as they constitute more markets to exploit.

In the end though, anti-corporate protest is limited not by the diversity of banners and the T-shirts at S11s, but by the limits of the collective imaginations. Whilst some are protesting against capitalism armed with century-old anarchist and marxist blueprints and others have an understanding of the need to recreate local sustainable communities and grassroots democracies, the suspicion is that much anti-corporate feeling is ephemeral. Have we cut through the thrall of branding when anti-corporate T-Shirts, incorporating corrupted versions of the logos, become fashion items?

Far too much of the anti-corporate movement’s focus is upon the corporations to improve their act. This has very swiftly been taken up by the spin doctors who are able to reconstruct their masters as ‘good corporate citizens’.

The challenge for the activists who have passed through the gateway of raging against the corporate machine is to take others with them. The questions at Klein’s Melbourne appearance did not suggest that her ‘fans’ had got the point. They wanted to be told how to do it, and wanted to construct Klein as a celebrity. The Age sub-editors also did not get it, or purposely sought to undermine Klein’s message by titling her interview ‘Just doing it’.

Klein had spent most of her time in Australia with activist groups, doing the more important networking and alliance building. The public lecture was sponsored by an independent bookshop (logos plastered all over the stage) and was sold out attracting a crowd which was a mixture of students and a lot of older people. I hoped the students would pick up on Klein’s comments about the need to focus on the next WTO round, especially the GATs and TRIPs and how Melbourne University’s ill-fated MU Private venture can open the door to outlawing public education funding as an impediment to free trade. But no, they wanted to know where to buy their clothes and what companies Klein personally boycotts.

Whilst Klein warns against, it, there is a dangerous tendency by anti-corporate advocates to hark back to presumably better times and some very worrying notions of small-town, small-business utopias — which enable the right-wing populists to join the anti-corporate bandwagon. Presumably some capitalism is OK, as long as it isn’t overdone. Big government, too, is railed against and yet it is the failure of governments to take on the corporations that is also justly criticised.

It is popular nowadays to argue that governments have failed to take on capitalism, so there is no point in wasting energy on them. However, this argument misses an essential point. There is a huge difference between demanding accountability from corporate capitalism and surrendering to its power. We want to break the nexus between the corporations and government. Transnational corporations would be quite happy to replace annoying governments, and they have quite a history of doing so. Government should not be let off the hook.

Whilst we may criticise the lack of real democracy in our political systems, the anti-corporatists need to remember that we want to be citizens of the world, not shareholders of the company.

There are alternatives, but writing about these was not Naomi Klein’s project in No Logo. In researching and writing No Logo, she has made a terrific contribution to the growing anti-corporate/anti-globalisation social movement. It is a deservedly popular book even, I’m glad to report, amongst commuters on my morning train (after Harry Potter, of course.)

Jeannie Rea has been raging against the corporate machine for a long time.
She also teaches Gender Studies and Public Relations at Victoria University.

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