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The image of capitalism

We review Naomi Klein's passionate exposé, No Logo. But what does she suggest we do?

In No logo (Flamingo, £14.99) Naomi Klein tells the story of the rise of the brand name, the way in which this typified in a logo has achieved a position way beyond ordinary advertising and in so doing has had an impact on the lives of many people. Her study is based on researching and exposing the operations of some powerful firms, such as Nike, Wal-Mart, Shell, McDonalds, Microsoft and quite a few more.

What happened was that in the late 70s and 80s the rôle of the logo, in the beginning only seen on clothing, escalated from a small emblem, discreetly placed on say the inside of the collar to a position of prominence:

"Gradually the logo was transformed from an ostentatious affectation to an active fashion accessory. Most significantly the logo itself was growing in size, ballooning from a three-quarter-inch emblem into a chest-sized marque. This process of logo inflation is still progressing, and none is more bloated than Tommy Hilfiger who has managed to pioneer a clothing style that transforms its faithful adherents into walking, talking, life-sized Tommy dolls, mummified in full branded Tommy worlds."

Klein's contention is that this scaling up of the logo's rôle has become a change in substance; "logos have become so dominant that they have essentially transformed the clothing on which they appear into empty carriers for the brands they represent".

This started the process in which the brand names began to divorce themselves from the actual process of manufacturing; their rôle became that of selling, but selling an image, while the making the articles that carried the brand image was given to others. The consequences of this had huge economic and social repercussions, especially in the US, where most of these firms were based. In the first place the manufacturers were going to go for the cheapest manufacturing costs they could, which of course inevitably meant basing their factories in the Third World. In the second place, it meant massive job losses in the factories formerly based in the US and Canada, where thousands of workers were made redundant, with not much hope of getting another job in an economy which was in transition to what is known as "service".

In the Third World factories things were even worse. Industrial estates were set up, managed by all sorts of chicanery, to be enclaves independent of the labour laws existing in those countries, mainly the Philippines, Malaysia and China. Young mostly female labour was and is employed, and any form of workers' industrial organisation ruthlessly discouraged, to the point where the life of a known labour organiser was precarious indeed. If all this reminds you of the early days of working-class history in America and Britain not to mention Europe, you are indeed right, and it only goes to show that nothing is ever gained permanently in the capitalist system and that the lot of the working class is a never-ending struggle to gain small improvements in their wages and working conditions an equally difficult one to hold on to them. Klein personally visited many of these Third-World factories, managed, with difficulty, to talk to people forced to work incredibly long hours, and heard of abysmal working conditions, of pregnant girls who are frightened to reveal their condition for fear of the sack and cases where babies are born at work and mothers who have died because they were pushed too far.

The social consequences of "the brand image" in its country of origin have in the ten years or so since the concept of goods being marketed as a lifestyle in which you are invited to kill to obtain designer labels have been immense and have permeated deep into the Western world. Not content with advertising alone, firms have infiltrated the universities, schools and sport. Deals have been struck with universities for the monopoly to sell and promote such brands, Coca-Cola one of the foremost. Even the educational material offered by the host has been influenced by or actually supplied by commercial companies, one of the worst offenders being Microsoft. All this goes under the name of sponsorship where the benefits supposedly go to the recipients but in actuality are firmly in the hands of the donors.

This has had repercussions on "normal", shall we say existing, labour relations within capitalism. In the highly-skilled creative areas of firms like Microsoft, traditional labour contracts have been replaced by something more akin to supply. Job security, such as it was, is a thing of the past. Whilst some are happy with this the major result has been an increase in mental illness and a rising level of stress-related sickness.

There is much more in Klein's passionate exposé, but inevitably we reach the point where we have to say, what are we going to do about it? What should our reactions and actions be? Capitalism is a social system which has showed a great ability to change yet stay the same. Klein appears to believe that something worthwhile can be done within the system of capitalism. She is an activist, who believes that by a series of demonstrations, street parties and suchlike activities this current trend within capitalism can be contained and we can return to, what? The idyllic days of some non-existent period of capitalism in which everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds?

There is a new dogma which is challenging the social democratic reformists like the Labour Party or the pseudo-revolutionary totalitarian reformists like the "Communist" Party, which is that "global capitalism" has brought about a totally new kind of capitalism which requires new tactics. On examination these consist of making an awfully big fuss and causing a moderate amount of damage to property in the hope of bringing about publicity and public sympathy for their ideas. In some mysterious way this is supposed to halt the profit system from behaving in the way it was always behaved, that is, exploring any avenue legal or otherwise in the hope of maximum profit. It won't work. No reform has ever achieved its aim in the past and this is another one which is doomed to failure, as well as wasting an awful lot of energy. Even the limited aim of achieving favourable press coverage won't work because such coverage as is obtained is reported as the work of "anarchists", "militants" or whatever the current term of abuse may happen to be and the damage to property is reported as the work of "mindless hooligans". Capitalism cannot be humanised, cannot even be slowed down. It will grind its own remorseless way until we organise to replace it with socialism.

CYR