Firebrand

There’s a pair of battered Converse sneakers under my bed, Body Shop moisturiser in the bathroom and Oakley sunglasses on the dressing table. They are part of a world of brands and siren calls, promising retro-alternative chic from shoes, sound ethical activism from toiletries and edgy urban cool from eye protection. They also speak the language of globalisation, the transnational marketing ideology that rose in the late 20th century. In No Logo, Naomi Klein sets out to chart the dominance of the branded transnational corporation in the global marketplace. She explores the loss of public space, free choice and civil liberties, the economic and social exploitation associated with branded transnationals and the growing dissatisfaction, resistance and activism directed towards these corporations.

No Logo is divided into four parts: ‘No Space’, ‘No Choice’, ‘No Jobs’ and ‘No Logo’. In ‘No Space’, Klein looks at the triumph of the branded corporation and its symbolic representation, the logo. She follows the phenomenal success of branded corporations such as Nike, The Body Shop, Levi’s, Reebok and Tommy Hilfiger during the 1990s—corporations that purport to sell not only products but images, ways of life, even political statements.

Particularly disturbing is the Faustian pact between the resource-starved US public school system and transnational corporations. This phenomenon has seen fast food franchises and movie merchandising in school cafeterias, corporate-sponsored educational TV featuring compulsory viewing quotas in return for audio visual equipment, sponsored curriculum featuring Disney movie characters and school web browsers recording the surfing patterns of students in order to tailor direct advertising to students.

In ‘No Choice’, Klein contrasts the underlying erosion of consumer choice with the apparent explosion of choice offered within a branded product line. She looks at the methods used by corporate franchises to nullify competition. These include massive price undercutting and the saturation of the market with branded product. Klein also examines the ideology behind the transnationals’ censoring of which products are available and influence on what is actually produced. For example, Wal-Mart and Blockbuster remove magazines and films that do not promote the family values formulation implicit in their brand identities.

Klein explores this dark side of branded transnationals further in ‘No Jobs’. Using oral testimony, case studies and an overwhelming array of statistical sources, she shows the standard labour practices of transnational corporations both in the West and in developing countries. Divesting brand from product manufacturing enables transnationals to shift continents and manufacturing contracts to chase the cheapest unit price. Klein looks inside the Export Processing Zones in Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka and Mexico where governments exchange cheap rent, tax concessions, minimum or no labour regulations and environmental and safety concessions for the promise of future prosperity. These zones feature less than subsistence wages, long hours and temporary jobs with few basic conditions.

Working culture has been transformed in rich Western countries by the transnationals’ drive to reduce labour costs to the bare minimum. Klein examines the creation of a culture of temporary, low skilled, low paid work, where labour is often contracted through labour hire firms or reduced to casual short shifts. Wages are low, with minimal conditions and job security.

Finally, in ‘No Logo’, Klein looks at the various forms of community resistance to transnationals, branding and logos. Culture jamming, subvertising, hactivism and adbusting are all politicised attacks on advertising. She describes campaigns like Critical Mass and Reclaim the Streets. These protests are increasingly organised around resistance to world economic summits and Klein demonstrates the way the internet is used to link protests across the globe.


Klein also examines the highly organised anti-corporate campaigns, corporate watchdogs and human rights organisations that use the internet and mass media to make connections with worker support groups in Export Processing Zones and expose the labour practices of transnational corporations.
In the three years since No Logo was published, it has been translated into 25 languages. It was short-listed for The Guardian Newspaper Book Award in 2000, the Canadian National Business Book Award in 2001 and the French Prix Médiations, also in 2001. Klein is a journalist, and this is reflected in No Logo’s accessible and evidenced-based style. At times, the research, statistics, charts, case studies and examples become somewhat overwhelming for the reader. This was particularly evident in ‘No Choice’ and ‘No Jobs’, where the central arguments were sometimes difficult to maintain under the barrage of evidence and anecdote. Such evidence-based writing, though, is a boon to the activist reader, undoubtedly a core target group of the book.


No Logo sets consumer concern about corporate ethics and the dominance of branded products and advertising within the framework of globalisation. In this way, Klein translates free market ideology and global economics into a language that ordinary people can understand. This is arguably the key strength of No Logo. In revealing the exploitative, pervasive and highly influential apparatus beneath the imagined worlds promised by branded corporations, Klein enables the reader to make their own connections. The arrival of Borders directly opposite the independent Carlton bookstore Readings—a Melbourne institution set in a street of cafés, street culture and university bohemia—suddenly seems not just cheeky but part of a systematic corporate marketing strategy. In the context of increasing homogeneity and corporate dominance, my patronage choices are not just about cheaper books, but about what kind of world I want to live in.

Klein’s hypothesis, stated in the introduction to No Logo, is that ‘as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations’. While Klein documents a wide breadth of resistance to transnational corporations, her focus is largely on university-educated activists in the West and does not convincingly herald the growth of a large global movement. What No Logo does successfully document is the myriad of strategic and innovative resistances to multinational corporations. The mapping of patterns and strategies of resistance, criticism and change are very useful and provide strong models for subsequent activism.

Klein’s discussion of the limitations of consumer campaigns is particularly salutary.

Klein also unravels some of the gender, class and ethnicity threads running through patterns of brand globalisation. She observes that in the US, it is the richer neighbourhoods that are able to maintain independent stores and unbranded public spaces. Poorer neighbourhoods are the targets of franchise saturation and invasive intrusions into public spaces, including aggressive billboarding and branding of public sporting facilities. She highlights the parallels between factory workers in developing countries and franchise workers in the West. Significantly, in a replication of class divisions on a global scale, it is in those non-Western countries that are poorest and least protect human rights—such as Burma, Nigeria, China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka—that transnational corporations proliferate, producing non-essential goods for comparatively wealthy Westerners.

Despite the excellent research and well-reasoned central arguments, Klein sometimes digresses onto historical tangents. These are often weak, unsupported and do little to aid her thesis. During her discussion of current worker discontent in the West, Klein says that ‘the fear that the poor will storm the barricades is as old as the castle moat’. She supports this contention with a motley and disconnected assortment of evidence including an observation by Bertrand Russell on Victorian class fear, an account of her dying grandfather’s mental confusion, an anecdote about fear of servants in the Punjab and the increase of gated communities in the US.

Similarly, Klein’s claim that student activism around identity politics in the early 1990s was to blame for the incursion of transnationals into universities is both unsubstantiated and poorly argued. Klein provides little evidence to support her claim other than her own memories of university. She directs her critique solely at feminist activists ‘fighting about women’s studies and the latest backlash book while their campuses were being sold out from under their feet’. The reader may well ask where everybody else was. After making such a strong case for the sophistry of advertisers and the insidious undermining of public space and choice by branded corporations, this finger pointing seems a little simplistic and incongruous.

It is the gripping nature of Klein’s writing, however, that makes No Logo so compelling and provoking. With her penetrating gaze, her savage and insightful analysis, Klein enables us to see that the transnational emperors are wearing no clothes. After reading No Logo, our choices, particularly our consumer choices, become politicised and powerful.         

No Logo, Naomi Klein. Flamingo, 2001. isbn 0 00 653040 0, rrp $24.95

Rebecca Marsh is a Research Fellow at Deakin University School of Health Sciences.

 

 

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