Book #27 of my Lunar New Year: No Logo

No Logo: Taking Aim at The Brand Bullies by Naomi Klein (Picador, 2002 edition with new Afterword)

I have this vague memory of a man from the Friends of the Lubicon who came to my high school to give us a talk about consumer activism. I remember thinking, “Yeah, that’s cool, but… like, do you really think you’re changing the world? You got some companies to stop buying paper bags from the paper company that was harvesting lumber from disputed lands. Big deal.”

Now, I’m a fair bit older, and I see that, in a very simply and clear way, it is a big deal. Corporate power in our world is something with which I’m getting more and more fascinated—in a negative way. When I was younger, I once quoted Balzac on how profits were made off the backs of the poor, and someone chided me for being so last-century. “That’s just not necessary anymore,” he said. “We have globalization now.”

What an idiotic assertion. We’ve had globalization for ages. What was the Age of Empires? What were the Crusades, and what did the Romans and Greeks do? And what about China? The movement around the planet of people and resources and the fruits of others’ labour may never have been performed more effectively than now, but that’s not for lack of trying.

No Logo, to me, feels like the kind of book that someday people will look back on as we do The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, in a way. While it doesn’t have all of the drama of a personal struggle—Klein isn’t absent from the narrative, but her presence seems more like the presence of any of the likely readers, just another person who emerged from the campus politics of the 80s and early 90s wondering what the hell else in the world needed addressing, and how it could be done. She’s not a runaway slave, or anything.

But on the other hand, there’s a mounting feeling I have that we are all, in some way, as clouded in our vision and judgment as the people who said, “Slavery? Well, there’s not much I can do about it.”

I don’t think I need to go into all the details of what make this book so important, or such a good read. I will instead mention the things that I walk away from it with:

Firstly, slavery is alive and well. It’s subcontracted out, and it’s done so by all kinds of brands that you can find all around you, maybe even among the clothes you are wearing now. Nike, Adidas, the Gap… to list them off takes too much time. Rest assured, if the company has a big name, it’s very likely it is, or has been, profiting from the work of young people, especially young women, in third world countries. We are no better than all of those southerners who tacitly approved of slavery. And this makes the defense of those people ring hollow: for after all, probably many people will say of us, “Well, they didn’t really know, you know. It was a different time.” But we do really know. Sweatshop scandals have been plastered all over our news for more than a decade now. We know, we just don’t care. And that is the basis of social evil.

Secondly, all forms of resistance have their place, but their place must also be understood. Fighting Nike is good, as long as one realized that Nike is not the true enemy. Imagine the brand that disgusts you the most in terms of its relation to human rights. Now, imagine that “brand” as a courtier in a wicked court. Certainly, the courtier is personally profiting, but what allows him to profit? The court, the monarchy. This puts me in mind of the Peasant Revolt of 1381 in England, where peasants were enraged at their ridiculous servitude to nobles in the land, under the provision of their King, Richard II.

Now, the revolution was fometed by all kinds of subversive underground types, though in that day they were Wycliffites instead of the anarchists and gobalization activists we have today. But the aura they had was basically the same one anarchists and anti-globalization people have in our society: they were looked down upon as loony, dangerous, ignorant, and as enemies of the state. Bear in mind that the Wycliffites and others calling for the revolution (such as antifeudalist cleric John Ball) had complaints that seem pretty weird to us now. Wycliffites were mainly considered bad and crazy because they questioned the authority of the Pope and demanded access to vernacular bibles. Imagine that. (And now, map that onto how we see anarchists and critics of the WTO and think about who might look “crazy” in the really long run.)

But the fundamental problem with the Peasants’ Revolt was that they mistook their real enemies. They thought that their oppressors were certain corrupt noblemen and lawyers and high-up types around the country. They killed a bunch of them off in London, in a march of horror and murder.

Then King Richard II summoned them out of the city to come and talk. He met with a fellow named Wat Tighler, who basically demanded that the Peasant’s charter be enacted. Tighler

asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.

During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

So what did he ask for? He asked for rule of law; for a cap on the powers afforded a Lord based upon his conduct; for human equality (save for the king); for redistribution of surplus wealth being hoarded of the Church; for human rights (after a fashion) and the abolition of serfdom and granting of human freedom.

And then Richard said, “Sure, sure, I’ll do what I can, now please go home and go back to work. Quit disrupting production.” And then the standard response to all criticism came: first off, Wat was dismissed as a boor—look how disgustingly he rinsed his mouth!—and then legal proceedings started, with the cooperation of a valet from Kent, the Mayor of London, and the King. “Oh, look! One of your bunch is a criminal, Watt!” the valet cried out, and the state apparatus did what it does best; it dropped the issues at hand—human freedom, rule of law, decency of the life of citizens—and jumped at the distraction of this one (accused) robber. A fight broke out, Watt was killed, the Mayor stabbed, and in the end, a bunch of the “protesters” were hanged for their troubles.

For anyone who’s even heard the stories of people protesting at WTO and World Bank meetings, this all sounds too eeriely familiar: tear gas instead of guns, to be sure, but whatever shuts people up faster is the favorite weapon. Arrests? You bet: some guys were arrested (without charge, if I recall correctly) at protests of Quebec City’s WTO Conference because a catapult launched stuffed animals over the barricade around the meeting venue. It’s kind of saddening to see how the tactics remain the same. Maybe that’s what The Movement needs, a new tactician.

But more pertinent is the issue of blame. The Peasants didn’t once think of killing the king, or even more importantly, the monarchy. The figurehead of the system they were trying to pull apart, the system itself, was entrenched, but it wasn’t that entrenched; we’re not living in an absolute monarchy today, are we? Yes, yes, I know, technological and economic change had to come before the dismantling of the monarchy could have been effectively performed.

My point is, that moment—the moment when the dismantling of the monarchy could be performed, when social and technological and ecnomic change coul fuel such a change—has never yet come. Sure, we don’t live in a monarchy. But step back for a moment and consider where the real power of a monarch comes from; some of it is from idealizing ideology and propaganda—placing the king near the top of the Great Chain of being, making regicide the worst version of the sin of murder aside from deicide—, and a great deal of it comes from money. Monarchs were merely oligarchs operating with a different methodology, different advertising/propaganda, and different means of securing cooperation. When I look at the rich ruling elites of our world, I see a strong, unbroken line back into the Dark Ages. Maybe they’re not from the same families; the Bushes got rich working for the Nazis, and buying oil from the Arabs that the Reagan Administration had already turned into our most-feared enemies. The Waltons and the Knights (of Wal-Mart and Nike) are rich because little kids in poor countries work for these respective companies’ subcontractors for nearly nothing. There is still a class of wicked people doing the same wicked things… even if they do it by remote control; even if they do it behind a veneer of caring and sharing corporate responsibility; even when they issue meaningless charters that mandate, you know, better conditions and stuff that nobody’s going to bother checking on once the furor dies down.

And the last thing I walk away when I put this book on the self is this: we can make a difference. We ought to, more people are realizing it, and we can. Now, I’m not sure what I can do from where I live now… South Korean activism seems all too political, too anti-Japanese and anti-American, and even the illegal-workers’ aid movements throughout the country seem risky to me, since, after all, the government could deport me at a moment’s notice for political activities. But I do know that inventive, intelligent people have made a difference in much more hostile conditions, and I can’t see why I too can’t find a way to do it, without getting myself sent back to Canada.

In any case, this book is very worthwhile, as is the documentary that Klein made with Avi Lewis in 2004, titled The Take. Here’s her official website for the book.

UPDATE: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention; there were still a surprising number of little typos in the book, despite it being a second edition, despite its popularity, despite all that. I was surprised, though I didn’t much mind. I am not surprised Klein didn’t have time to go through all that—she says as much in her Afterword—but I couldn’t believe nobody at Picador caught those typos.

Ah well, I’m sure this post also has far too many typos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *