Thursday, January 21, 2010

Naomi Klein

I don't know Naomi Klein's writings very well. I know her name (her brand?) and I saw her in the Copenhagen video I wrote about earlier, but I haven't really spent too much time with her.
Reading the excerpt of her 10th Anniversary edition of
No Logo, I was tempted to write that the age of branding has a suitable commentator: a shallow one.
I suppose if you write the anti-branding book, you have to take branding seriously, but Klein really takes the branding gurus at their word a bit too much. the fact is that branding, like many of the other hot management trends of the last 50 years or so, is a pretty nebulous phenomenon.
If by branding we mean products whose cache far exceeds their material function (Nike, Starbucks) . . . well that's been with us for a long time. A very long time. In fact, it is one of the things that has been complained about since the birth of consumer culture and was observed by writers of pastoral condemnations of frivolous, rich, urban sophisticates thousands of years ago. The Marxist writer Baudrillard made this phenomenon a particular focus of his work in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rise of the branding gurus in the past 10 years gave us a new vocabulary for talking about this phenomenon. But those gurus didn't invent branding or even change it all that much.

George W. Bush was not an unprecedented triumph of branding over reality (Benjamin Harrison, anyone?). And while the Obama administration may be in more than one way unprecedented, I think the phenomenon is a bit more complex than it's ad campaigns.

In a way, Klein seems to recognize this, and brings in another phenomenon, outsourcing, that she hopes may be a bit more definitive of our time. In a way, maybe. Outsourcing is one the more dramatic ways the powerful display to us a quality that they now have in spades--moreso than ever before--flexibility.

Klein tries to figure outsourcing as a outgrowth of branding: As branding presents a huge front for what is usually a modest product, outsourcing "hollows out" formerly grand institutions--government, "big" business--even as their facades present the same big, reassuring facade to the public. But outsourcing isn't primarily about visionary business strategy, or a "light" military (though Rumsfeld, may have been dumb enough ton have drunk the new age koolaid). Outsourcing is about always having options. If your union workforce is expensive and recalcitrant, having a factory in China is a great stick to hold in negotiations with them: you can credibly threaten to move more or all operations there. If your army is led by officers with a different notion of America's role in the world, being able to do select tasks (kidnap & torture?) with Blackwater functionaries--usually ex-soldiers themselves--can be convenient both from a deniability standpoint and as a lever against reluctant military leaders.

But this isn't new. The forces of British colonialism were often employees of private companies like the East India Company. And the whole world of party-affiliated (rather than state-affiliated institutions making decisions and enacting them was a common characteristic of communist and fascist regimes.

While the rise of government outsourcing and quasi-governmental groups to do the outsourcing IS distressing, I doubt it has anything to do with more recent events in the world of branding.

One of Klein's big problems, a problem one often sees among theorists on the left, is that she takes the "conspiracists" at their word--she actually believes the branding gurus when they say they've discovered the new philosophers stone, when in truth this is just another line of market-speak, another management & business philosophy "revolution" which only serves to make out overpopulated management & administrative sector feel likes it has some kind of purpose.

The dirty secret is not that business has found some new way of usurping our decision-making powers from the grocery store to the ballot box. The dirty secret is that we willingly--happily-- surrender that power, and that we are surrendering it to a bunch of empty suits, people every bit as feckless, hapless and fraudulent as the "citizens" who abdicate the power to them.