WHile I worried that this was a simple ideological diatribe, I was very happily surprized at the intelligence and substance of Klein's book. It is a tough, well-reasoned manifesto for the anti-consumerism left of "Gen X." If you are wondering what was driving many of those protesters at the WTO and other summit meetings - most notoriously Seattle in late 1999 - then this book is the best place I know. It is part cultural critique, part economics and social policy, and partly a call to arms. Reading it has helped me to make sense of so much that I thought was simple, nihilistic anarchism. I was humbled to learn that there is far far more behind the movement than I had granted it.
In a nutshell, Klein argues that the "superbrands" - the huge corporations such as Disney and Nike - are progressively taking over virtually all "public spaces," including school curricula, neighborhoods, and all-encompassing infotainment malls like Virgin Megastores. THey are doing this in an attempt enter our minds as consumers in the most intimate ways, which Klein and others find unbearably intrusive. Moreover, she argues, as they subcontract overseas, the superbrands are leaving first-world workers behind while they exploit those in the developing world under horible conditions. It all adds up, she asserts, into a kind of emerging global worker solidarity that is developing new means (via internet exposes, protest campaigns, etc.) to push the superbrands to adopt more just policies and practices.
What was so amazing and useful for me, as a business writer looking at the same issues, is that Klein so often hones in on the underside of what I think are good and effective business practices: the development of brand values, globalisation of the production/value chain to lower prices, and the like. Often I may disagree with her take on things, but she makes too many insightful points to dismiss her and those whom she speaks for. I came to genuinely respect her as a thinker and writer.
Nonetheless, there were numerous omissions, some of which I must point out. First, while condemning exploitive labor practices in third-world sweat shops (which I do not deny exist), Klein fails to explore what the available alternatives are for these workers. Well, I went to Pakistan to examine one of the cases she addresses - children soccerball sewers - and I can say that their alternatives were all too often brick kilns or leather tanneries, both of which were far more dangerous and beyond the reach of international activists because the superbrands have nothing to do with them. Second, Klein tended to dismiss the efforts of MNCs out of hand, as weak sops designed more for PR purposes than to effect change. This is true for some groups, but again, while in Vietnam, I witnessed what I regarded as real social progress that came from the actions of a superbrand: upon hearing the demands and suggestions of a worker-safety inspector paid by adidas, Taiwanese sewing-machine manufacturers were approaching him for detailed design specifications to enhance their safety (driver-belt covers to protect against hand and hair injuries) and he had lots more ideas. However modest, that is real and concrete progress in my opinion.
Moreover, I believe that many of Klein's assertions are inaccurate or unproven. Is there really a mass movement growing out there? Is the clever defacing of huge advertisement boards really impacting pubic consciousness? Does everyone perceive the thrust of the brands as intrusive and poisonous? Is the World Trade Organization set up in a way that works in favor of the first world and against the third world? These are complex and very difficult questions. Finally, as a passionate activist, Klein rhetoric can get a bit overheated. At one point she says that IBM "otherwise impaled itself"; at another that Milton Friedman is a "architect of the global corporate takeover." What do these things mean? I may regard Friedman as a laughable free-market fundamentalist, but he is only a cloistered academic idoelogue, not a doer of any kind. Does throwing a cream pie in his face do anything more than shock adults?
In spite of these reservations, I can only applaud Klein for stirring up the pot of these issues, which provoke thought and encourage exploration, even by conservatives like me.