Anti-capitalism or just anti-capitalists?
Naomi Klein’s book No Logo has been widely proclaimed as a manifesto for the anti-capitalist movement. Klein herself disclaims any notion that she has written a manifesto, but the book is still well worth examining. It deals with the development of enormous global corporations and some of the resistance to this; the title reflects a general anti-corporate attitude.
It is common to observe that all high streets look very much the same nowadays, with Next, Virgin, Pizza Hut and McDonalds being found more or less everywhere, and not just in the UK. This illustrates the rise of the brand or superbrand, which is constituted by an image or a logo much more than just a range of products. Marketing gurus see the brand as crucial – companies should create a brand, not just sell a product. For instance, John Grant’s The New Marketing Manifesto argues that a brand is “a popular idea or set of ideas that people live by”. Brands “add value to people’s lives”, and are the new traditions (now that older traditions such as a sense of community have decayed). This kind of celebration of brands shows an uncritical acceptance of capitalism’s values.
In contrast, Klein looks behind the logo and the label to expose the darker side of branding. The logo has expanded in size and importance with items of clothing just being empty carriers for the brand. She quotes the boss of Nike:
“For years we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company, meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product. We’ve come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company, and the product is our most important marketing tool.”
Companies such as Nike, Gap, McDonalds, Disney and Starbucks are not simply multinational corporations (which would mean they have different brands and products in different countries), but are truly global corporations (with the same brands and marketing wherever they operate). Nike in particular has emerged as a real superbrand: its swoosh logo is an immensely popular tattoo in the US, among both customers and workers. Imagine flaunting your status as a wage slave by having your employer’s logo tattooed on your leg. Some American teenagers are quoted as saying that Nike is more important to them than their girlfriend is.
One theme of No Logo is the way in which advertising, sponsorship and the market have expanded into areas of life which were previously free of them, thus resulting in the loss of what Klein calls “unmarketed space”. A blatant instance ot this is in schools, where companies sponsor lessons and TV programmes and all manner of equipment. Sponsorship of sporting and cultural events is now far wider than it has ever been.
But perhaps the biggest effect of the growth of the top brands is on employment. Increasingly, such companies are moving production to developing countries, especially in East and South-East Asia, in pursuit of cheap labour. Countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, China and the Phillipines have been happy to provide so-called free-trade zones or export-processing zones, with tax breaks for companies and no right to union organization for workers, as a means ot attracting the global corporations. Sub-contractors are used, so that, when questioned about wages and working conditions, Nike, Reebok and so on can reply that they do not actually employ anyone in Indonesia or wherever. Their production becomes far more flexible, as they don’t need to own land or factories, and can respond more easily to fluctuations in demand. They will also happily move prodution ftom one developing country to another in pursuit of a cheaper and more docile workforce. Young workers are often drawn into these zones with promises of good pay, only to find appalling wages, long hours, dangerous conditions, and tyrannical bosses, who may lock workers up if they refuse to do overtime. Some of the descriptions are reminiscent of nothing so much as Engels’ accounts in Condition o/ the Working Class in England in 1844—sweatshop conditions have just been exported to the “Third World”.
Companies such as British Airways and Debenhams have relocated much of their call centre work to India, where wages are a fifth of the UK level. The workers are given crash courses in British culture, everything from soaps to football, so they can chat knowledgeably with the callers, who don’t suspect that they are speaking to someone in Delhi or Bombay
However, while workers in Indonesia or Vietnam can make clothes, shoes or whatever, they cannot sell them in North America or Western Eotope. Here, the global corporations have led the way in the notorious Mcjobs – part-time or temporary work often on near-minimum wages. In coffee bars such as Starbucks, workers may have to work two or three shifts a day, to coincide with the busy periods. This gives the company the flexibility to cope with fluctuations in business without having to pay people to just stand around, but for staff it is, to say the least, extremely disruptive. In other companies, Microsoft for instance, jobs are contracted out to agencies who (surprise!) pay far lower wages. Again, this boosts flexibility and the ability to respond to booms and slumps in demand, avoiding such problems as redundancy pay. Many “permatemps” have been employed in this way for years, without gaining ptoper employee rights.
This, then, is the picture that Klein presents, of a world increasingly dominated by global corporations and their cultural and economic impact, where wotkers slave away in sweat shops for a pittance with little ability to fight back, and where temporary jobs hold sway. Profits soar, while the workers suffer.
The final section of No Logo deals with various kinds of opposition and resistance to the superbrands and the kind of society they represent. This can range from the fun but ineffectual – such as parodying advertisements or throwing custard pies at Bill Gates – to to the more substantive responses of Reclaim The Streets and the wider ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. Such activity Klein describes as “laying the foundations for the first truly international people’s movement”. Here are some examples:
- Exposing sweatshop and child labour, including school pupils discovering who made their uniforms
- Local councils entering into selective purchasing agreements, and refusing to buy from companies that (for instance) trade with Burma
- Secondary boycotts against cornpanics that supply other companies rather than the public directly
- Campaigns such as that against Shell in Nigeria
Klein is well aware of the limitations of brand-based politics, e.g. that boycotts can be counter-productive and that such campaigns tend to miss the broader economic context. Her argument, though, is that “you’ve got to start somewhere”, so you might as well start with aiming your attacks at one big corporation, normally Nike.
However, the idea of “starting somewhere” naturally implies going on to address other issues in the fullness of time, and it’s here that Klein’s ideas become mundane and just plain disappointing For instance, she advocates enforcment of existing ILO treattes, and that employment codes of practice be drafted by the workers themselves rather than by the corporations. All this of course assumes the continued existence of employers and employed, and offers no vision of the ending of class division.
Global capitalism is not a new creature, it is just capitalism writ large and even nastier. A return to pre-global capitalism would be no altetnative, even if it were practical. But it should now be clear beyond dispute that national-based solutions to humanity’s problems are pointless, and that a world movement, leading to world socialism is urgently needed.