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Beyond Celebrity Politics and Capitalism: From Justin Trudeau to Bernie Sanders, and More

“We need to question the celebrity relationship with politicians that has colonized the whole political spectrum,” says Naomi Klein.

US President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participate in a joint news conference at the White House on February 13, 2017. The fascination with Trudeau "speaks to the way that celebrity culture bleeds over into political culture," says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participate in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on February 13, 2017, in Washington, DC. US President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participate in a joint news conference at the White House on February 13, 2017. The fascination with Trudeau “speaks to the way that celebrity culture bleeds over into political culture,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Also see: “Trying to Build in the Rubble of Neoliberalism”: Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein on Bringing Movements Together

On Tuesday, May 9, Haymarket Books hosted a conversation between Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein, moderated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,000 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. The second part of the transcript of that conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity and is presented here, covers the gap between Justin Trudeau’s image and policies, the need to address narratives of racial injustice to create a broad progressive coalition, and the question of whether a capitalist society can ever be egalitarian. Read part one here.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I’m wondering, Naomi, if you could say something about Justin Trudeau, just because there’s this fascination in this country with the celebrity politician who can wink and twinkle their eye, as if that is what it is we’re looking for. Trudeau has been compared to the Canadian Barack Obama; he’s young and dynamic. It speaks to the way that celebrity culture bleeds over into political culture that creates the sense that these individuals can come along and sort of save the day. There’s a lot of memes: I saw some ridiculous meme on Facebook about Justin Trudeau: “Hey girl, I’ll cover your preexisting condition.”

All of this is mockery in one sense, but there’s very little actual critique of what Trudeau actually represents and what is actually happening. Instead people look at him in a sympathetic light without really knowing what lies beneath.

Naomi Klein: Because people like his brand, right? We understand that Trump is a brand, because he has a line of steaks and water and hotels. He breeds brands, his children are brands, his wife’s a brand.

Taylor: He’s got a logo.

Klein: And they’re doing all kinds of insane things like getting the trademarks for Ivanka’s brand approved by China on the day that she’s seated next to the president of China at Mar-a-Lago, and so on.

“We need to question the celebrity relationship with politicians that has colonized the whole political spectrum.” — Naomi Klein

But Justin Trudeau is a brand. Barack Obama was a brand. We just liked their brands better. A lot of people liked their brands better, but it’s this same process of falling for the images, falling for the spectacle, the marketing of the moment, the memes, the “rule by Twitter,” and letting them get away with it. I think we really need to be questioning the celebrity relationship with politicians that has colonized the whole political spectrum.

You guys have enough problems here [in the United States], so I’m not going to spend too much time deconstructing the Trudeau thing. But a really heartbreaking thing was the night that people were flooding to airports against the travel ban and Trudeau tweeted this amazing tweet in a very opportunistic way, realizing “I’m gonna get a lot of retweets now.”

…The whole world retweeted it because it was such a welcome antidote to the hate that was coming from the White House. I get it. The problem is, refugees are not being welcomed in Canada and in fact we have a policy called the Safe Third Country Agreement which says that, if you apply for [refugee] status in the United States, you cannot then apply to Canada because the US is considered a safe third country. It is not a safe third country. If Trudeau meant that tweet, he would have tweeted that he was opting out of the agreement because the US is clearly not a safe third country, and that would be meaningful on the night that people are being incarcerated in airports, to say “you can come here.”

So, I think we have to interrogate it all, including the willingness to look the other way at the parts of the Obama years that did not comply with the brand, like mass deportations of immigrants and escalation of drone killings. This is not to bash Obama, but we have to do better. We have to do better, because these are variations on a similar phenomenon that we’re seeing. We can’t be shocked that Trump’s supporters are still falling for his marketing — when he markets a few jobs at Carrier and it’s meaningless in terms of the unemployment rate — if on the liberal side we’re gobbling up the political brands that we like.

Listening to Michelle talk about Clinton, I think it is important that we learn some tough lessons from the primaries. I supported Bernie Sanders. I usually don’t endorse candidates, but I came out for Bernie — I think it’s the first time I’ve ever openly endorsed a candidate, I’ve never got into that game particularly — mainly because of climate change.

I’ve got that climate clock ticking very, very loudly in my ear, and on climate, Bernie was and is amazing. He pretty much took the demands of the movement and put them smack dab in his platform: no new fossil fuel infrastructure, no coal leases on federal lands, no Keystone XL, 100 percent renewables, all of it. He’s great on climate. But he was not able to do what Michelle just did, which is tell a convincing story, a narrative that connects the dots between neoliberal economic policies, mass incarceration, the ways in which the two have worked together, the vilification of Black people in this country and how that served the attacks on welfare and the decimation of the public sphere. You cannot do it without that narrative.

That’s not a hard story to tell, but I don’t think Bernie was able to tell it. I’m not saying he can never tell it, but I am saying that if we don’t learn how to connect these dots and tell a coherent story about how all of this has happened at the same time, then we’re not going to build the progressive majority that is within reach. That is the lesson we need to take from the 2016 presidential cycle.

Bernie got really close — and this is what I’ve learned from talking to Michelle, and reading you [Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor] — the real tragedy is how close he got, and that he could have won if he’d gotten 50 percent of the Black vote in key states, and if he had been able to convince more women that he really got it on reproductive freedom and really got it on violence against women, that he understood that we can’t take these rights for granted. If he’d been able to connect those dots, maybe he could have built the broad enough progressive coalition. And if not him, then the next person has to.

“What we learned when Bernie was out there is that progressive ideas are popular.” — Naomi Klein

Because what we learned — when Bernie was out there, talking about free college tuition and universal public health care and getting rid of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — is that progressive ideas are popular! This is important, after 40 years of neoliberalism and the constraining and fencing in of the progressive imagination. It turns out actually that the crowds are cheering for this. But he didn’t get the whole thing. So that’s where we need to focus. How are we going to do it next time? That’s all that matters.

Taylor: That is a question, though: Is it actually possible to have an egalitarian society where all of these things are possible, where human needs are met and realized, where the destruction of the planet isn’t connected to the way that our lives are organized, where racism and sexism and transphobia and all of these oppressions that exist in this society are absent … is that compatible in a free-market capitalist system?

Michelle Alexander: I think it’s a critically important question…. I’m going to speak now particularly about the narrative of racial progress in Black communities and, I think, many other communities of color, which is a narrative that measures progress by how far up you make it on a totem pole that is constructed within a capitalist model.

We’re often raised — and I’ll speak for myself, I was raised — on a notion of the American dream: that if you just get yourself a really good education, and you work hard, then the sky is the limit, but you gotta do that, and our work is to ensure that more people have a really good education, so that they then can get that good job and get that house, get that car and make their way up the ladder.

“Global capitalism leaves entire communities behind.” — Michelle Alexander

But as we’ve seen in recent decades, global capitalism leaves entire communities behind. Global capitalism depends on surplus labor. In a global capitalist society, not everybody gets to work. If we want an egalitarian, multiracial, multiethnic society in which everyone has the right to work and earn a fair wage, and has equality of education and universal health care — these are not pipe dreams! — it is difficult to see how we can get that in a global capitalist economy, where at the slightest temptation a corporation can pack up, move overseas, find a new plantation, new labor to exploit, and leave entire communities behind.

Especially today, as technological innovation is rendering thousands of jobs irrelevant, redundant, unnecessary; and as we see a world in which capital can flow freely across borders, corporations can move overnight at the drop of a hat, money can cross borders — but people can’t? — we have to begin to ask ourselves serious questions about whether it’s really possible to have an egalitarian, multiracial, multiethnic capitalist democracy.

I have come to the view that I think is one that Dr. King shared at the end of his life and that many freedom fighters have come to — including W.E.B. DuBois and others I could list — that we need something like a democratic socialist model, where every human being has a basic guarantee of a quality education, quality housing, the right to work at a fair wage, universal health care. These are basic human rights, human needs that every human being should be entitled to.

That doesn’t mean the end of all business or all entrepreneurship. It doesn’t mean that! But it means that as a starting point, we have got to be willing to honor people’s basic human rights and insist upon an economy that will ensure that every voice and every life truly matters.

If you look at some other nations, I’m not going to point to any and say they’ve got it all right, but they’re much further down the road than we are. There are countries that are considered “socialist,” at least according to Hillary Clinton and Trump, that actually provide quality education to every resident, that provide free health care and free college education, that have very few people behind bars. There are nations like this — Norway comes to mind, there are others.

“There is this punitive impulse towards those we conceive as “others,” to deny them the benefits that we want.” — Michelle Alexander

Now, these tend to be very homogeneous countries. What the research shows is that the most punitive nations in the world are the most diverse and the nations that have the most generous social welfare programs are the most homogeneous. There is this punitive impulse towards those we conceive as “others,” to deny them the benefits that we want to control for us.

So, really, the American experiment poses the question of whether we here, on this land that was stolen, in this nation that was born of slavery and genocide, whether we can here build a multiracial, multiethnic, egalitarian democracy. That will require, I believe, a radical revolution of values where we open our hearts and our minds to those we have been taught to believe are “others,” beyond our care or concern.

Klein: The way capitalism tries to resolve this crisis, traditionally, is basically with: “Let them eat growth. As bad as it is, the problem is that we’re not growing the economy fast enough. Yes, there are all these inequalities, but we just need to get to a higher rate of growth and then there will be more that will trickle down.”

The good news is that that is becoming laughable. It was good news to me during the election campaign when Hillary thought it was to her advantage to make fun of trickle-down economics. If she’s doing it, that means that idea is completely discredited.

That’s good, because it’s also completely untenable ecologically. Even if it were possible that by growing the economy, eventually everybody would get their piece of the dream — and it’s not, for the reasons Michelle’s just described — it would crash the planet very, very quickly.

We need to start from that basic premise of: What do people need to live fulfilled lives, what is enough? And what can our planet sustain? These are the two questions we need to ask at the same time. How do we live within planetary boundaries and how do we make sure that everyone has enough? In doing that, we cannot dodge the scary “R” words: redistribution and reparation.

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