A good friend just published a terrific piece in In These Times on Naomi Klein’s recent championing of divestment against Israel. While I’ve never been that interested in the whole Left-Right battle over the Israeli-Palestinian “narrative” (noticing, as I’ve done over the years, that the conflict often ends up a surrogate for domestic US or Israeli Left-Right partisan clashes), I will admit that it takes courage to take on both divestment and it’s political rock-star champion before an audience not inclined to accept such challenges.
I must also admit that the whole Naomi Klein phenomenon has eluded me until she decided to become a political spokesmodel for my BDS obsession. Klein came to prominence during the anti-globalist protests/riots that started in Seattle in 1999, providing an patina of academic respectability to a “movement” that began by throwing garbage cans through the windows of Starbucks and has since degenerated into an incoherent hodge-podge of rage against modernity coupled with flirtations with any totalitarian (preferably bearded) who is ready to stick it to Uncle Sam, rhetorically or otherwise.
Klein’s argument, fully culminated in her most recent book The Shock Doctrine, basically boils down to a search over who profits in any given political situation. Thus the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will always be about enriching defense contractors, and even little old Israel (according to Klein) welcomes endless war on all borders (and busses blowing up inside the country) because of the opportunity it provides Israeli companies to export high-tech security equipment around the world.
If such arguments remind you of Marx’s economic determinism, there is actually a wider intellectual history Klein is building on (or simply standing on, depending on your attitudes towards her scholarship). For decades, Marxist political thinkers have had a major problem: the continual improvement in the lives of working people. According to Marx (who, to be fair, was making reasonable predictions based on a 19th century perspective), the workers would grow more impoverished and miserable as the capitalist class continued to exploit them for their own gain. Indeed, it was only when the workers became so desperate in their poverty and despair that they would rise up to overthrow their capitalist overlords to usher in a new age built on the rule of the proletariat.
Unfortunately for Marx (but fortunately for the working classes), the fate of the working man continued to improve with each decade (often, in the US at least, though the efforts of labor unions who had rejected radical politics in favor of practical help for their members). Thus, Marx had to be reformulated which it was in the post WWII era with the impoverished Third World standing in for the domestic proletariat. This Global Immiseration Thesis states that it is the Third World that will grow poorer and poorer due to exploitation by the industrialized West and thus Third World radicalism (most recently, its Islamist variation) would provide the foot soldiers for global revolution. While this new approach to Marx requires the Western worker be transformed from the vanguard of progress to members of the oppressive class, the working man as the agent of history could clearly be sacrificed in order to perpetuate hope for a massive historical overturning of society.
Much of this is window dressing for the true reason behind Naomi Klein’s stardom: the need for young fresh faces to serve on the front lines of magazines and TV as the intellectual champions of radical politics. After all, reading Noam Chomsky is one thing. But put him in front of a camera and the legendary political demi-God is indistinguishable from an old, petulant, thin-skinned geezer happy to proffer the most wacked-out conspiracy theories from behind the blast shield of tenure. Klein, on the other hand, offers magazines and cable TV a far more appealing Rolodex dial whenever any issue of the day needs to be wrapped into a nice Left-Right easily digestible political package.
So wherein comes Klein’s infatuation with divestment? According to her, it is the only non-violent option left to her allegedly Ghandiesque cohort (not noticing the implied threat of what comes next if this prescription fails). Yet it’s hard not to notice that Klein has decided to champion a tactic already popular by her adoring fans (whoops! I mean her astute political base), not by providing a new, creative, intellectual framework for her position, but by publishing articles and arguments indistinguishable from the hundreds of undergraduate blog entries supporting BDS.
Klein ends her pandering bid for acceptance (whoops! I mean her cry of the heart) with an anecdote about a British telecom company that refused to do business with Israel not because of a heartfelt political or moral principles, but because they realized they would sacrifice the much more lucrative Arab market by selling to the Jewish one. The fact that her story demonstrates boycott and divestment decisions motivated not by conscience but by Arab economic power seems to have eluded her, a strange lapse for someone who has built her career around finding the money-power “nexus” behind every political decision ever made.