This Changes Everything is a book capacious enough to allow Naomi Klein two positions at once. But a real climate-justice movement will at some point have to make choices.
Naomi Klein’s success pulls her in two directions. To some, her decades-long failure to produce “proper” theory as well as writing scintillating and successful books has been an affront. On her Reddit AMA she’s said her writing “will never be enough for hyper-sectarian Marxists, and I’m cool with that.” Perhaps it was her bad luck that Slavoj Žižek had begun to use the phrase “shock therapy, in the Naomi Klein sense.” Both No Logo, published just after Seattle’s WTO conflagration in 1999, and 2007’s The Shock Doctrine, which named “a fifty-year campaign for total corporate liberation,” were seminal, highly readable accounts of consumerism and neoliberalism, and (primarily) vindications of mostly unvictorious struggles against their encroachment across the globe, in which she participated. The anglophone world is now just beginning to digest her latest, an ecological magnum opus, and its eagerly anticipated castigation of the mainstream environmental movement.
Klein’s Twitter bio now claims “they say I’m polarizing.” In fact, the responses to This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, have been unequivocally enthusiastic. The New York Times published one such, which asked only: “what’s with the subtitle? (…) Klein is smart and pragmatic enough to shun the never-never land of capitalism’s global overthrow.” Even the right-wing Telegraph was content to praise someone it clearly saw as “no advocate of socialism.” Opening This Changes Everything, Klein says that “this is the hardest book I’ve ever written, precisely because the research has led me to search out such radical responses.” Yet these radical responses have been warmly embraced by the center. The establishment, if it is trembling, is hiding it well.
Indeed, her difficulty writing it seems to have led to apparent contradictions. Klein supports proposals to create millions of green jobs and liberate people from work. She advocates rapid fossil fuel abolition and a welfare state funded by taxes on fossil fuel profits. She takes aim at the profit motive and endorses small local businesses as the fabric of the community. Rather than make accusations of confusion or hypocrisy, let’s take seriously her claim to have been pushed into radical positions by the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, and propose that, instead, two divergent Naomi Kleins have been formed who together make up the author of This Changes Everything.
The major Klein, whose voice dominates the text, is an idealist talking in terms of moral values, who’s for an embedded liberalism and a redistributive state. This Klein wants to create massive amounts of dignified work for families, support small local businesses, think of the children, and unite left and right to clean up corruption and get corporate money out of politics. Major Klein tends towards explanations of social phenomena in terms of moral failings: The reckless pursuit of profit is a result of “greed,” and so the economic crisis was “created by rampant greed and corruption.”
But there’s another, minor, Klein who finds her voice in scattered and inchoate moments throughout This Changes Everything. This Klein’s a radical realist talking in terms of raw power and material interests; she, for her part, stresses “only mass social movements can save us now,” advocates a “basic income that discourages shitty work,” proposes workplace occupations, blockades and neighborhood assemblies, hints at a regenerative politics of the nonfertile, and is disillusioned with even “enlightened” politicians, whether in the US or in Bolivia and Ecuador. While these two Kleins might be a readerly construct, it’s a charitable one that helps identify the critical points where pro- and anti-capitalist climate politics part company.
Major Klein uses the word “reckless” a lot and rails far more against deregulated capitalism and market fundamentalism than against capitalism or markets per se. This Klein advocates “dignified work” and valorizes climate action as a “massive job creator” for “good clean jobs.” Climate change, here, even offers the opportunity to finish the “unfinished business” of civil rights and decolonial struggles at the level of their perceived demand for the right to work: It “could bring the jobs and homes that Martin Luther King dreamed of; it could bring jobs and clean water to Native communities.” And, unsurprisingly, “the resources for this just transition must ultimately come from the state,” she says, as part of a “Marshall Plan for the earth.” Where this Klein differs from the “market fundamentalists” is in understanding that market mechanisms won’t create this transition without decisive state intervention. She endorses a call, therefore, for the state to “create the market for further investments.”
Klein sees that “there is plenty of room to make a profit in a zero-carbon economy; but the profit motive is not going to be the midwife for that great transformation.” Still, given a climate movement that challenges the endless drive for profit as the organizing principle of social life, why limit its ambition to capitalism minus the fossil fuels, plus some co-ops and a welfare state to complete its “human” face? We may have to settle for that as a new compromise, depending on the balance of forces, but the hard part is generating such powerful and combative movements in the first place. Once that’s done, why throw real transformative power aside and stop at a greener shade of Keynes?
Indeed, financing this redistributive program through taxes on fossil fuel profits makes the state dependent on the continued burning of fossil fuels. But if the confiscation and redistribution of fossil fuel profits is just a one-off stage in a more radical transformation, this criticism can perhaps be avoided. In other words, the major Klein needs the minor Klein to provide the “people’s shock” to help transition to a post-fossil fuel embedded liberalism. But does the minor Klein need the major Klein?
Minor Klein sets her sights on “the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die [...] a drive that goes much deeper than the trade history of the past few decades.” However, the source of this drive is underspecified. Klein’s focus on moral values leads her to propose that there are “sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits).” Yet her own evidence—such as the oil-drilling nonprofit The Nature Conservancy—somewhat undermines this claim. Klein identifies only one impersonal mechanism by which the drive for profits is enforced: the fiduciary obligation of corporate directors to maximize shareholder returns. This needs to be expanded to map the numerous mechanisms that together overdetermine—in the sense of there being multiple, distributed sufficient causes—the drive for endless growth.
These mechanisms include, but are not limited to: investors requiring returns; requirements of debt servicing; the need to generate surplus to cover unforeseen costs/losses; the need to generate surplus to reinvest in productivity (which may even reduce short term profits/dividends); income growth as a means to other ends, with perverse outcomes (like conservationist oil wells); the need to achieve economies of scale through expansion; the pressure of competition, either to secure first-mover advantage or not be left behind. For states: GDP underwrites hard military/trade power and soft aid/opinion power; growth expands the tax base; growth allows the state to keep rolling over the national debt.
In short, capitalism is a system of relations which produces certain behaviors regardless of individuals’ values. Indeed, to supporters of capitalism, this is precisely the virtue of the invisible hand. The impersonal weave of this system needs to be taken into account when considering whether local businesses, nonprofits, the public sector and co-operatives can transcend its logic.
A similar tension between the two Kleins emerges in their discussion of politics. The dominant theme is the need to “reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence,” “challeng[e] corruption,” and “to demand (and create political leadership)” capable of “saying no to powerful corporations.” This Klein sees the problem as rooted in the malign influence of corporate campaign donations, resulting in “this corroded state of our political systems.” She expresses bitter disappointment with Obama’s failure to fulfill his climate promises, but hopes that if social movements mobilize, then “politicians interested in reelection won’t be able to ignore them forever.”
Unfortunately, this Klein seems to accept that the free market right are “dismantlers of the state.” This is a common but totally erroneous conception that accepts the ideological claims of neoliberalism at face value. Economic liberalism is, and has always been, a project of state power. There is a reason that the neoliberal era is usually dated, including by Klein in The Shock Doctrine, to the coming to power of Pinochet, Thatcher, and Reagan. Consequently, this Klein sets out to “reclaim” the state for “the people,” but it is not clear to which pre-corroded, pre-corrupted state she refers, nor which people. The period she seems to have in mind is the populism of the New Deal, yet as she aptly notes, “social movement pressure created the conditions” for it. The corporate-capitalist character was still there, but other interests were able to force certain compromises.
Fortunately, the minor Klein’s politics are resistant to the state’s attraction. This Klein acknowledges that “even in countries with enlightened laws as in Bolivia and Ecuador, the state still pushes ahead with extractive projects without the consent of the Indigenous people who rely on those lands.” She coolly observes that “the reason industry can get away with this has little to do with what is legal and everything to do with raw political power [...] and anyway, the police are controlled by the state.” Here she also advocates a very different form of political organisation, replacing the “collusion between corporations and the state” which has reduced communities to “little more than […] ‘waste earth’” with “new democratic processes, including neighborhood assemblies.”
These two modes of politics are incommensurable. In the horizontalist practices of social movements we see nascent mass forms of non-coercive political organisation. But even more, the dynamics of the urban Aymara social movement in Bolivia and the recent Idle No More protests in Canada, the latter cited by Klein, suggest the strength of these struggles is inversely proportional to their coupling to the state. The major Klein at least underestimates the extent to which recognition and representation within the state is another of the techniques deployed, however consciously, by “hand-wringing liberals” in demobilizing indigenous, and by extension, migrant, anti-racist, feminist, and workers’ struggles.
The two modes of politics cannot long coexist, which is why we only glimpse the egalitarian one in occupied squares and workplaces, in self-organized disaster relief, and on the barricades of the nascent climate movement Klein dubs “Blockadia.” But when we glimpse it, we glimpse a world beyond and against the state, which contrary to Klein’s suggestion, by no means requires structurelessness over institution-building. The split between politics through the state and politics against the state is especially apparent in the question of border politics—no small matter as millions of climate refugees start to move—as illustrated in Klein’s bloodcurdling chapter on Nauru. It is the democratic, climate good guys of the European Union whose borders are the most lethal for migrants. If we want to avoid a xenocidal lifeboat ethics, then developing a mass politics beyond and against the state is vital.
Klein strikes an inspiring note when she heralds “a new kind of reproductive rights movement, one fighting not only for the reproductive rights of women, but for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole.” Her account of capitalism is nowhere so materialist as where she declaims how “our economic system (…) does not value women’s reproductive labor, pays caregivers miserably, teachers almost as badly, and we generally hear about female reproduction only when men are trying to regulate it.” Throughout This Changes Everything, kids, children, baby dolphins, fertility, future generations, seeds, and the quest for pregnancy poetically and politically structure Klein’s arguments.
The good life, “Mother Earth,” new age health practices, rural tranquility, and a natural drive towards reproduction and regeneration are pitted against the non-nature of pollution, technology, cities, Frankenstein, and in vitro fertilization. The major Klein rejects the disfigured, monstrous character of the Earth. “We did not create it; it created—and sustains—us. […] the solution […] is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.” This moral and ontological split is disarming and depoliticizing. Following Donna Haraway, we would always “rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” Haraway’s cyborg feminism is a lens which can help value and politicize regeneration and social reproduction—neither romanticizing it as an unsullied “natural” realm, nor letting imagined pasts and futures eclipse the present.
These themes culminate in the last full chapter of the book, “The Right to Regenerate”, in which Klein draws parallels between her own fraught attempts to conceive a child amid the stress of modern urban life, and humanity’s wider inability to value nature or emulate its gift for life. “As a culture,” she claims, “we do a very poor job of protecting, valuing, or even noticing fertility—not just among humans but across life’s spectrum.” This conviction leads her to ask: Is “it even possible to be a real environmentalist if you d[on]’t have kids?” While many environmentalists in fact fall into a similar, opposite, trap by morally abjuring natalism, this argument of Klein’s expresses reproductive futurism—a myopic focus on producing (proper) children and thus a (proper) future for humanity—a politics of the baby’s face.
Reproductive futurism devalues the queer and the now, including the potential desire to refuse to reproduce—or at least, to have a conversation about how and what is reproduced. It denies the intrinsic and equal worth of, as minor Klein puts it, “exiles from nature.” Major Klein’s reproductive futurism leaves the private form of the family largely unquestioned, the essentialism of the term “Mother Earth” almost unscathed, and the primacy of “fertility” intact.
Major Klein’s reproductive futurism also reflects a romanticism hinging on a “natural” life-domain somehow separate from capitalism. But capitalism is not, unfortunately, purely a logic of “short-term economic growth” that has been imposed by some (predominantly) middle-aged white men upon a separate, rich biotic world whose fundamental logic is long-term growth, circular regeneration, or life. In fact, in so many ways both capital and reactionary thought are premised on forms of “regeneration”; from razing public housing under the guise of “urban renewal,” to “right-to-life” activists opposing abortion, to the UN-led “carbon offset” forests that Klein critiques, where indigenous people are driven from their homes so that industrial activity elsewhere can be counted as “sustainable.” Capitalism is not something antithetical to nature but, to steal a phrase from Jason Moore, a way of organizing nature. Nature cannot express, in any unsullied way, what we are fighting for. We cannot simply affirm life, but must always ask: What forms of life? For whom?
Again, there is a minor Klein who is on the cusp of exploring such a “monstrous” conception of a nature by naming a “kinship of the infertile,” which we read as solidarity with non-reproductive lifeforms. This Klein’s openness to the complex desires of the dispossessed—including the desire for consumption, collective luxury, safety, “development,” and freedom from “shitty” work—show an occasional attunement to the already technological, entangled, human-nonhuman character of nature: a cyborg Earth. Recognizing the cyborg Earth does not condemn us to technofixes like geoengineering, but instead decenters maternity and makes room for the “unnatural,” the technological, and the nonfertile among the “we” coming into being in the struggles in Blockadia.
Cyborg Earth is not a foregone concession to evil technoscience but a site of struggles over the “commons” just like any other. A cyborg everything-ism reorients us towards practices that repurpose existing technologies and organisations of nature through bricolage—the art of making do with what is at hand. The minor Klein hints at a more hybrid, anti-austerity sensibility of this kind, that does not recoil from these “monstrous” entanglements of human, nonhuman, and technological natures. This Klein is doubtful about her desire for pregnancy and implies that if ecological crisis changes everything, surely it changes the institution of the family too. Disappointingly, the priority of incorporating a non-reproductive politics into the “regenerative” struggles of anticapitalism vanishes at the very moment in the narrative when Klein, at last, conceives a viable baby.
Much more could be said about this long, dense, inspiring, and perplexing book. Klein’s ability to appeal to both direct-action radicals and conservative journalists at the same time reflects the polyvocal character of This Changes Everything—there’s something in there for everyone. This no doubt reflects, at least in part, Klein’s desire for a broad populist politics which unites left and right, drawing on a social base of small local businesses, which can nonetheless form alliances with indigenous movements, trade unions, more affluent homeowners, campus activists, and others. But while a text can sustain such dissonance, movements face real tactical and strategic choices. This makes This Changes Everything a rich resource, but one from which the reader needs to pick out certain lines of argument in order to turn them against others.
There is a real gulf between a politics which seeks to back small local businesses against big global ones, and a politics which seeks to challenge whether business of any size is a desirable model of social organisation at all. Likewise, a politics which sees social movements as providing a potential constituency for election campaigns remains locked in the statist politics of representative democracy. By contrast, the kind of mass social movement practices evident in, for example, contemporary indigenous struggles, point to a rejection of recognition and representation within the state, which prefigures mass forms of non-coercive political power beyond and against it.
Finally, there is also a gulf between a regenerative politics understood as reproductive rights writ large, and a regenerative politics understood as decentering biological reproduction as just one moment of the multitude of human, non-human, and technological natures which are inextricably entangled in reproducing a world worth living in—and fighting for. After all, the history of reproductive struggles is characterized as much by a refusal of imposed motherhood as by affirmation of fertility.
The New Deal compromise Klein looks to as a precedent required not only powerful social movements, but also institutionalised representatives able to police them. The success of the trade union bureaucracies in turning the sit-down strikes of the 1930s into the orderly industrial relations of the 1950s also undermined the potency of workers’ struggle. In this sense, the New Deal reforms not only helped stabilize capitalism (and its endless drive for profits), but the compromise helped undermine the disruptive power which had forced the concessions in the first place. The problem with the major Klein’s program is therefore not that it “doesn’t go far enough” by some radical standard, but that in leaving central capitalist institutions in place, it’s ultimately self-defeating from an ecological point of view.
A compromise is always a provisional balance between opposing forces. The major Klein aims to hold at the fulcrum; the minor Klein invites us to push past the social tipping point and see what world our struggles can create on the other side. Major Klein wants to “ride the tiger”; minor Klein hints that tigers need no riders, and don’t take too kindly to those who seek to harness them for their own ends. Are today’s participants in climate movements willing to put their bodies and lives on the line, only to find that their dreams served to enlist them as footsoldiers for a modest Keynesian agenda? While Klein’s major politics point to such a recuperative closure, her minor politics are more open-ended, accommodating more utopian impulses in the here and now.
We are left asking key questions after reading This Changes Everything: does “everything” include the state, work, generalized commodification, profits, the family, local businesses, settler colonialism, Keynesian economics, and the inscription of the future as the image of the baby’s face? Or does “change” simply mean pressuring modest adjustments so that these institutions can persist in a post-carbon world? This is the difference between reforming to preserve capitalism in the face of an existential threat, and reforming to overthrow it, where reforms are simply the concessions exacted along the way. Klein vacillates between the two modes of reform, which ultimately reflect the respective antagonistic perspectives of capitalism’s (would-be) policymakers and the dispossessed on the barricades.
Perhaps Klein throwing her lot in with small local businesses explains why she seems caught between the fairer management of capitalism and its overthrow, between a merely anti-corporate politics and a more thoroughgoing anti-capitalist one. In any case, aspects of a radical anti-capitalist, anti-statist politics sit uneasily alongside green Keynesianism and localist economics. Taken at face value, Klein’s apparent advocacy of both positions at once reads as contradictory, or even incoherent. But reading This Changes Everything more charitably as an unintended dialogue between a major and a minor Klein allows us to instead identify tensions in the text, tensions which reflect real bifurcations in responding to something as all-encompassing as climate change.
These minor lines of thought point beyond the book to connect it with other texts, concepts, and live debates within social movements. And it is these minor currents which point beyond the ecocidal logic of endless growth, and with it beyond capitalism, the state, and climate chaos. At various points Klein seems on the cusp of pursuing this minor line, but, each time, she reprises a major refrain, generating dissonance. The distance between a major and a minor key is a single note, but everything depends on the difference.
Originally written for The New Inquiry.