In the aftermath of the Battle of Seattle the mainstream media desperately cast about for an easily accessible explanation for this unexpected (to them) outburst of popular anti-corporate activity. They found what they were looking for in Naomi Kleins No Logo, and in turn promoted it as the anti-corporate movements bible (The New York Times) or even more gushingly as the Das Kapital of the growing anti-corporate movement (The Observer). At first the praise heaped upon No Logo by the bourgeois media is somewhat puzzling, given that it is in parts a passionate attack on contemporary capitalism. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that the books main arguments have several fundamental flaws, which leads Klein to conclusions which are ultimately to the benefit of the ruling class.
In No Logo Klein attempts to explain the current wave of anti-corporate/capitalist protest by linking it to the rise of the uber-brand (Nike, Gap, Microsoft) and the methods by which these companies operate and advertise. Her contention is that over the past ten years the most successful modern businesses are those that have abandoned making things in favour of marketing images. Nike and Tommy Hilfiger provide the best examples of this approach. Both of these corporations have totally withdrawn from manufacturing any of their own products, instead concentrating on design and marketing, whilst the dirty business of actually making things is handed over to sub-contractors.
Klein argues that this shift had three major effects that fed into a growing anti-corporate mood. Firstly, the withdrawal from manufacturing led to massive job losses within the United States, as the sub-contractors now responsible for production moved factories to the Third World in pursuit of the cheapest costs possible. The only sector in the US economy that was able to absorb those formerly employed by companies such as Nike and Levis was the service sector, home of the low-wage, low-skill, high stress McJob. Workers who had been brought up to expect jobs for life in companies such as IBM found themselves thrown on the scrapheap or into McDonalds, and were not unsurprisingly resentful at their treatment. In the Third World the situation was even worse.
Production was relocated to free trade zones, exempt from local labour laws and taxes, using mostly young female labour, paid slave wages in Victorian-style sweatshops. The horrendous conditions within these zones attracted the attention of international labour groups, who attempted to improve conditions within these factories by attacking the companies whose goods were produced there. These campaigns fed into the anti-corporate mood by firstly exposing the conditions under which goods were being produced, but also the massive profits being made by using Third World labour.
Finally freed from the drudgery of making anything, boosted by the massive profits from exploiting Third World labour, the corporations were free to concentrate on marketing and branding their products as effectively as possible. This led to the third trend Klein identified: the invasion of previously public space, the intrusion of corporate advertising and sponsorship into schools, universities and the arts. With the boom in sponsorship came increasing corporate control over these formerly publicly-funded institutions, and the growth of resistance amongst students and young people hitherto uninterested in politics.
It is Kleins contention that these three effects brought together the diverse elements seen at Seattle: trade unionists fighting to protect jobs, human rights activists and Third World campaigners, students protesting against corporate control, as well as the usual suspects from the Left. In as far as it goes this analysis is not incorrect. However the question Klein fails to address adequately is why multinational companies underwent the changes which brought this movement about.
Klein accepts that the rise of the brand and the retreat from production was undertaken in the pursuit of profit, but does not enquire why it was necessary to make this change in order to increase/maintain profitability. She makes the presumption that the multinational decision to become mere purveyors of brands was the driving force behind their abandonment of manufacturing, that it was the requirement to spend ever-increasing amounts on advertising and branding which forced companies to relocate production to the Third World. However the market-led de-industrialisation of the First World had been going on for a decade before the multinationals Klein highlights made the conscious decision to follow suit.
The logic behind the shift of heavy industry (coal, steel, shipbuilding, etc.), from First to Third World was the same as the movement of shirts, trainers and PCs a decade later. Since the crisis of the early 70s ended the post-war capitalist boom, the main method by which profits have been maintained and increased has been the reduction of costs, either by increasing productivity or by reducing expenditure.
The creation of virtual companies whose production was carried out in the cheapest location possible, whilst fighting for market share through advertising, was merely a continuation of this long-term trend. Klein fails to recognise this, instead writing off the policies of Nike, Gap et al as a recent aberration. This oversight leads to Kleins most serious error, and explains why the capitalist press was so eager to accept her explanation of the anti-corporate movement. The last third of No Logo deals with Kleins travels amongst the emerging anti-corporate protesters, from trade unionists attempting to organise in the free trade zones of the Philippines to the Biotic Baking Brigade (motto, to their lies we respond with pies).
Klein argues that these diverse forces are beginning to turn the power of the corporations back on themselves, that the more companies rely upon their brands to sell themselves, the more vulnerable they become to criticisms and revelations. She lists the victories of the growing movement: Shells retreat over Brent Spar, Nike being forced to institute guidelines for how its subcontractors treat their workers, the extensive coverage in the media which anti-capitalism now warrants. She advocates the control of the excesses of capitalism by regulation and government.
Because she sees the problems she criticises as an aberration, rather than the norm, Klein is unwilling or unable to make the leap to socialism as the only solution to capitalism. It is these reformist illusions that make No Logo so attractive to the mainstream media, and explain its promotion as the movements bible. However, this is not to condemn No Logo absolutely. If you ignore the exaggerated claims of the media and its lack of any substantive programme and instead read it as reportage and use its extensive references and research to inform a more radical stance, you wont be disappointed. Just try to ignore the fact that its published by Rupert Murdoch.
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