For left-leaning, progressive, liberal elite types (such as myself – other cliches are available), Brexit & Trump have now settled in as realities, and it can all become fairly dispiriting and difficult to respond to with ideas and constructive responses. That’s probably why I enjoyed Utopia for Realists so much, because it had a bit of optimism, hope and ideas about it – even if I didn’t agree with or get fully convinced by them all. And, as the title of this book makes clear, I had similarly high hopes for the analysis and proposed solutions of this book by Naomi Klein (hat tip by the way to Robbie Davison, who recommended it).
In the event, I was more taken with the analysis of the problem than the proposed response here. Klein is compelling when talking about the rise of Trump: what’s fascinating is that, particularly with her previous writing on the shock doctrine and the rise of corporate brands, Trump is very much the zenith of both those trends. His entire being is made up of a brand (it rests literally on his name being on buildings) while his entire political success is made up of shock, distraction, and continually shifting sands. Her skewering is as accurate and as pointed as any I’ve seen and, alongside the insight of books like The Unwinding and their chronicling of middle America’s decline, gives one a real sense of why and how we are at a stage where Trump can be president. She is also unsparing in her criticism of the Democrats and the Clintons in its inability to break from the broader establishment, suggest any real radical answers (to address genuine problems) and put forward any really progressive answers. I think she lets Bernie Sanders off the hook on some of his blind spots, but there’s no doubt he demonstrated (as has Corbyn) that more radical and redistributive policies have a wide audience of support.
Where the analysis runs onto stickier ground for me is the sense that this is all part of a wider conspiracy. I don’t disagree with the corporatisation of politics point, nor about the driving force behind wars (eg in Iraq etc) but the chapters here on Rex Tillerson, for example, read oddly given Trump’s recent arbitrary firing of him and also in the light of the reaction of the corporate crowd within the administration to Trump’s recent protectionist policies on steel (Gary Cohn, ex-Goldman Sachs, recently resigned, for example). That isn’t to say there isn’t much to be concerned about, but perhaps the extent to which it is organised I think is more questionable, at least where someone as fickle and unpredictable as Trump is concerned. I’m sure others would say I’m being naive.
The other bit I was mildly underwhelmed by was what the resistance or response looks like. Klein’s main point is that it needs to be a combined response to work – and that requires building coalitions and movements which cut across single issues. This seems entirely sensible, though obviously challenging in the face of an enormously unpredictable, issue-by-issue ‘opponent’. But the women’s march, the recent response to the Florida shooting, Black Lives Matter and a range of other grassroots movements have shown how these can make a difference – if they can successfully join up and mobilise that power as a whole there might be something there that genuinely changes things, particularly if employment, rights and climate change are genuinely factored in. Klein’s attempt at this, personally, was to draw together a broad group of people in Canada and author a joint manifesto: this seems, at least in her writing, to have minorly influenced the Canadian election and there’s plenty I agree with in the document that’s included. But, at the end of so much intelligent analysis and well-placed rage, it seems like something of an anti-climax: to write a document and to try to use it to tentatively influence some of the established political parties. Obviously, easy to critique, so the challenge to those of us operating in the broader social sector is to work out what these practical solutions are, where they should operate (on what geographical scale) and where and how to focus interventions. This book certainly gives you the fuel to be motivated to do so.