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Interview :: Globalization : International : Media : Organizing : Politics : Race
Interview: Naomi Klein and her new Movie "The Take"
by Pete Stidman
Email: pstidman (nospam) yahoo.com
06 Feb 2005
Naomi Klein and Indymedia go way back to our beginnings in Seattle, where she was covering the nascent globalization movement as a columnist for the Toronto Star. Both Klein and Indymedia have grown since then, and maybe the tireless Klein has paced us. She has followed her book “No Logo” in 2000 with “Fences and Windows” in 2002, all the while writing hundreds of articles in publications like The Nation, The Guardian UK, Harper’s, The Toronto Globe and Mail and many others.
Now she and her husband, Avi Lewis, have produced “The Take,” a documentary about the occupied factory movement in Argentina. The film has graduated from the film festival circuit into the theatres, and it will be playing at the Brattle all this week (see http://www.brattlefilm.org for times). In her spare time (what little is left) she has been working on a new book about the Washington consensus and it’s effects on countries that are in transition to democracy.
In between writing her new book and promoting her new film at the Brattle’s opening night, she found a good chunk of time for an old media comrade, the amorphous Indymedia network.
BI: I know that your family is pretty far to the left. Do you have a built in advisory board there?
NK: I am very close with my brother; it’s very helpful having an economist as a brother. He had this progressive think tank in British Columbia, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, so he’s always helped me a lot. Whenever I wrote something that was fairly technical I used to always get him to read it but I probably a bit more confident now.
BI: Did you study economics at all?
NK: No I never studied economics, which is why I over-relied on my economist brother.
BI: Were you an activist when you started this journalism thing?
NK: Yeah, definitely. I saw myself as an activist first and then started writing articles about the stuff we were doing on campus. My first pieces were op-eds about different groups I was involved with, mostly around women’s issues. And then I started doing reporting. But I definitely came to it as an opinion writer, which I’ve mostly stayed. I’m not much of a reporter.
BI: Do you ever run into a problem with editors around bias working for the big publications?
NK: I think that because I’m perceived as having that bias the mainstream U.S. press is fairly inaccessible to me. But it’s different in the rest of the world. In Britain I write for the Guardian, which is a left leaning mainstream paper. We just don’t have that here. And we don’t have that in Canada either but in Canada there is this feeling that you should have token lefties in your newspaper, in a little cage, a little caged column. I had one of those cages in the Globe and Mail for a few years. They would publish 25 letters attacking me for each column I wrote, so I would get 1000 words and then there would be 4000 words on the letter page explaining why I was a moron. It gets tiresome, but it’s good to be in there.
BI: Do you think they were looking for someone into globalization because of the movement that was going on?
NK: I think it was partially that. I think they knew that there was a new movement out there that wasn’t represented in their paper. And giving a column to someone like me is a very safe way of representing that.
BI: In the Harpers article about the “honey theory of Iraq” you talk about the Neo-cons attempt to install some sort of Laisse Faire utopia over there and all the trouble they’ve been having. You say that their plan has failed because of International laws, Al Sistani’s resistance and other reasons, and that now more traditional restructuring will take place via the IMF. Have you made any revisions to that analysis now that the election results are rolling in?
NK: I think that they’ve already started a more traditional approach to structurally adjusting Iraq. We saw that in November when there was a negotiation about Iraq’s debt. “Negotiation” should actually be in quotes because Iraq, at that point, had a government that was entirely appointed by the United States. They negotiated with the Paris club group of industrialized countries that hold 40% of Iraq’s debt. They agreed to reduce Iraq’s debt by 80%. This was hailed as a wonderful victory for the Iraqi people. In fact it was a disaster because Iraq’s debt is so high that they could have defaulted. When a debt becomes unsustainable its more of a problem for the people who hold the debt than the people who are in debt. The IMF determined that it was an unsustainable debt load. [The Paris Club] restructured Iraq’s debt load in order to make it payable, and usable as a political lever.
There was overwhelming consensus across political lines in Iraq that the debt was illegitimate because it was Sadaam’s debt. When countries knowingly lend to a regime that is committing atrocities, there is precedent for determining that that debt is odious, hat’s a technical term. Al Sistani has rejected the legitimacy of the debt, so have even the most corrupt of the politicians, yet they went ahead and negotiated this deal.
BI: So that deal will hold true even after the election?
NK: Oh yeah. That’s what this whole time period has been about. I call it “the race against democracy.” It’s a race against time to try to lock in as many decisions as possible, including reconstruction contracts or debt negotiation deals that stretch well into the mandate of an elected government.
So welcome to wonderful world of democracy, we’ve already made all your decisions for you.
There were a whole slew of oil deals that were signed in the weeks before the election with Shell, Chevron, Texaco; none of this got any coverage. Deals to design a plan for the natural gas industry, to do all kinds of prospecting research and so on.
BI: What about the election? Do you think the US is involved in it?
NK: I think if you look at the leading candidates in all the parties what you see is a lot of people who were on the interim Iraqi governing council handpicked by Bremer. They’re spread throughout the parties, they’ve hedged their bets pretty well. If you think about somebody like Chalabi who is on the so-called Sistani [All Shiite Parties] ticket, my view is that Chalabi is something like a triple agent. This guy’s been working for the Americans for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if that falling out [with Chalabi] was staged. Now they understand that their puppets cannot be seen as puppets. They’ve created legitimacy for other people who are indebted to them and they’re going to take the stage.
There is another really interesting story that came up the week before the election in an auditor’s report: 7 billion dollars has gone missing. This was Iraq’s oil money that was being administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority. This money went to Iraqi ministries that were appointed by the interim government. They have said that it went to “ghost employees.” Employees that don’t exist on paper. To me that means that they have been systemically bribing all of these politicians. This is in the audit, their audit. This was presented to Congress but not covered in any significant way. That 7 billion dollars was about buying the next government…
BI: So that money was stolen from Iraq itself?
Yes. Most of the money that’s been spent on Iraq’s reconstruction is not US taxpayer dollars; it’s Iraq’s oil money. It used to be administered by the UN under the Oil-for-Food Program but was passed along and renamed the Development Fund for Iraq and administered by the Americans. It’s interesting we hear so much about the Oil for Food scandal, which is peanuts compared to the money that they lost under their watch, according to their own auditor. By the way I wanted to be really clear, I don’t think that they lost it.
It’s a very good way to buy yourself a government.
There is a chance that this slate [the All Shiite Parties slate] could surprise everyone and have a militant independent stand. They have the right to demand that the US leave Iraq immediately. They ran on that platform, that they want the US out of Iraq. They have a mandate, (unlike Mr. Bush on this question.) and it would be fully within their rights to tear up the interim constitution completely. That would, in one swoop, tear up all of Bremer’s economic reforms.
BI: With all of the irregularities that are happening with the Iraqi election, the Sunni polls not being opened and so on, and the irregularities in our own elections, and the American public being so accepting of all of this, are all elections becoming, as you say, merely symbolic acts?
NK: I think Americans dying their fingers blue in solidarity with the Iraqi people is more than a symbolic act. What they’re saying is, we voted in your election. (laughter) I think that they did.
I just want to add that something that people need to be aware of. There are always different factions in the administration, and plan A’s and plan B’s in any situation. One of the possible scenarios has always been the possibility of partition. There is an increasingly aggressive faction within the Bush administration that is pushing for partition, the Kurds taking control over Kirkuk and being given their autonomy, and the Shias also being autonomous. The advantage of that is the oil is in Kirkuk and it is near Basra and they could cut out the so-called Sunni triangle.
If you look at this election and the way it was carried out, in some ways it looks like a prelude to partition because the Sunni vote was very deliberately and predictably alienated with the decision to lead a brutal siege on Falluja. This basically made it impossible for [Sunnis] to vote morally, politically, and physically.
There are still a lot of people who are hoping to do gain control over the whole country but people need to be aware that partition is one of the possible scenarios.
BI: Is this plan B or C coming from the Neo-cons?
NK: I don’t think you can just say that it’s the Neo-cons but I’m starting to see stuff from Washington think tanks, “is Iraq really a country at all” and things like that. They are creating a discourse that will rationalize partition.
BI: What kind of sources do you use for Iraq? Are you developing a network of ex-officials like Seymour Hersh or?
NK: I have a lot of contacts I met when I was there and I stay in close touch with.
Email is one of the only reliable means of communication. I’m also plugged into a network of Iraqi ex-pats who are themselves very plugged in to what’s going on in Iraq.
I have a great research assistant who monitors the news for me and we do weekly reports on all the economic questions. A lot of it is from news sites that are for investors wanting to go to Iraq where’s there’s quite a bit of straight talk. They post their tenders and who is awarded for a contract and things like that. So I get most of the economic information from incredibly boring investor sites. I never thought my life would come to this.
ANTI-WAR and ANTI-CAPITALISM
BI: The globalization movement seems to have been hijacked by the whole anti-war movement. You’re doing all this stuff on globalization issues in Iraq, why do you think people aren’t picking that up? Why isn’t the movement itself out there yelling about how the IMF is restructuring Iraq?
NK: I can’t completely answer the question. I’m not sure there is such a thing as an anti-war movement. There are a series of marches. I would say the same about the anti-capitalist movements around the world. I think we should be very self-critical. I’m talking about North American and Europe, I think it’s a different story in Latin America where we have seen mass protest movements translating into very clear political demands and also taking political power in some countries. In North America I would say the energy is there, the support on these issues is there, and that a lot of that energy and passion is squandered.
I say this as someone who is part of these movements. I feel it as a personal failure as well as a collective failure, and most of my friends agree. None of us feel that we have successfully built on the passion or momentum that was there.
I think part of that had to do with unwillingness within those groups organizing mass demonstrations to have anything but the simplest rallying cries. They really didn’t want an anti-capitalist analysis or even analysis of neo-liberalism muddying their message, which they felt was uniquely radicalizing because it attracted so many people. People got sort of numbers drunk after February 15. It was like ‘oh my god, we’re huge.’ 10 million people, 30 million people on the streets just because they opposed the war. The lesson people took from February 15 was: ‘let’s just have another one and we’ll try to make it bigger next time.’ But it never got bigger, in fact it got smaller and smaller. People don’t join movements whose only political plan is ‘let’s have another march’
I think the greatest mistake of the antiwar movement was failing to echo the demand for direct elections that came from Iraqis last January 2003; Sistani’s demand of no interim government. We want elections now, we don’t want our occupiers writing our constitution. These are basic democratic demands completely inline with self-determination principles. We could’ve echoed those demands here, according to the basic principles of what solidarity actually means, listening to people in the country that you are talking about and backing them up. I think some of it was frankly racist, it was a suspicion that when Muslims ask for democracy they really mean theocracy. That racism was inside the antiwar movement or why else weren’t we backing up their demands for elections?
BI: Maybe just dis-organization?
NK: No, I don’t buy it. I also think that they the other reason why we didn’t back up those demands was our own ego. Iraqis tried to take an abhorrent situation, having survived three wars, a dictatorship, an invasion, an occupation, and 13 years of sanctions, and tried to demand democracy in the face of liberators turned occupiers who had absolutely no intention of giving it to them. We didn’t back them up, to do so would have been to admit that something positive could happen in Iraq right now, maybe giving a little ground to our opposition.
BI: You have a lot of ideas about the movement, do you have any about what Indymedia should be doing? What do you think is the role of Indymedia?
NK: I think Indymedia is in many ways the only lasting, and I know we all hate this word: institution that has emerged out of the anti-capitalist movements around the world. It’s the only real proof that we actually exist between demonstrations. You could say the same of the world social forum but I think it’s a little more problematic because the world social forum kind of came out of this movement but also came out of the political parties and was more institutionalized from the start. Indymedia grew out of the street demonstrations. I think we need to learn from that example.
About Indymedia itself, I think that sometimes the technology is ahead of the journalism. The infrastructure has been built, the desire for this alternative media is clearly there, and I think maybe we need to take the information side of it a little bit more seriously, but it’s very hard.
BI: Indymedia is really all about activism. Whereas traditional news sources are broad spectrums of things, sometimes I think we’re too heavy or depressing.
NK: I don’t think activism has to be depressing first of all. That’s part of what we tried to do in “The Take” is tell a story of resistance that is a tremendously human story, an emotional story, a rooted story, and the world is filled with those stories, right?
We never tell each other stories about you can win and that in many ways is more powerful. We tend to focus much of our media criticism on ‘why isn’t the mainstream criticizing enough.’ We’re working on this model that if the media would just tell us how bad things actually were we would rise up and revolt? Right? I‘m not sure. It can have another effect, which is you become overwhelmed by their power and their impunity. When you actually hear stories about people developing another model that works, that’s when you think ok I can actually do something. It’s believing that is contagious.
BI: Did you have a lot of choices to make as far as where in the world you would go with this movie or were you attracted directly to Argentina in the first place?
NK: The subject matter chose us, we didn’t choose it. We wanted to make a film about participatory democracy and positive responses to neo-liberalism. We were in Brazil researching participatory budgets and the World Social Forum in January of 2002. The crash [in Argentina] happened in December of 2001. We just started hearing about the neighborhood assembly, the Piquetero groups, and the whole country just in the streets all the time, voting, just living this national experiment in participatory or direct democracy. So it was like ok we should go to Argentina.
Choosing the actual subject matter within Argentina was the really difficult process. Between the neighborhood assembly, the Piqueteros, and the occupied factory movements and then realizing: it’s a film not a pamphlet. We shot 250 hours, we shot in dozens and dozens of factories and schools and health clinics that had all been taken over and ended up deciding to make this narrative film about this one group of workers.
BI: Did you ever think of showing this in Iraq, with all those factories that have been closed over there?
NK: Yes. I left a copy of the film in Iraq with the Unemployed Workers Union, I don’t know if they showed it. There weren’t that many opportunities for film screening when I was there.
BI: I’m sure.
BI: What’s the latest update on what’s happening in Argentina, are the factories still running?
NK: All the factories in the film are doing really well. Zanon Ceramics in particular has hired 150 new workers since the film was made. It’s pretty amazing considering they had a total of 300 when we made the film. The auto parts forge in the film is still working and doing well. They’ve had elections and Freddy is no longer the president of the cooperative, although he’s still in the cooperative.
One of the really exciting things to come out of the film happened when we showed it in New York. Avi was approached by somebody who decided to start a non-profit that is going to try give micro loans to the factories. It’s the biggest obstacle they have, making capital investments. That’s just an example of what activist media is.
BI: How much time do you spend in the field vs. writing at home? You spent a month in Iraq?
NK: Yes, and I spent 8 months in Argentina. My new book is about Washington not Iraq. It’s about policies that were designed here and in many ways it’s easier to research from here. The book is informed by the research I did in Argentina as well as South Africa, both are countries that have had really powerful liberation struggles against apartheid. The transition periods are when these deals are made that give people the vote but no power to actually change their economic circumstances.
I saw that in South Africa. There’s something incredibly heartbreaking about being in that country and talking to people who were on the front lines of the liberation movement, who are now scarred by struggle. Lost limbs and loved ones fighting for their liberation, now getting their water cut off, their electricity cut off and getting evicted from their shanty towns.
It’s not that they don’t believe in democracy anymore it’s that they need and want the real deal. They want what they were promised. They have been betrayed very deeply. I’m taking my experiences in South Africa and Argentina talking to people about the economic continuity between the dictatorship and the democracy to understand how those deals were made to pass the debt on from the Generals to the population and the newly freed democratic country. Even things like keeping the same economics minister and the same head of the central bank. I’m looking at Iraq as the ultimate case study and also as a story that’s not finished.
We have to know this story because it is how our liberation struggles are betrayed. Look at what happened in Haiti, it’s related as well. Aristide was a socialist who was only returned to power on condition of signing a structural adjustment program that forced him to betray his socialist roots and made it impossible for him to improve the lives of the people he was serving. This is how democracy is shackled and freedom is betrayed.
BI: Part of me asking is that I really enjoy being out there reporting, and I hate the part of being locked up in a room writing.
NK: you got to get out there…
BI: I do get out there but the ratio is what’s not so good…
NK: You can know something intellectually and then you can experience and then you know it on another level, you know it in your bones and that changes the way you write about it. It changes the way you talk about it; it just gives you a core that’s kind of unshakable. If you learn something from reading and analysis, when you are up against the propaganda barrage particularly in this country it can be hard to hold on to. But if you know something because you met the mothers and you were in the hospital rooms, you are changed by it. And when you are listening to George Bush say we are bringing democracy to the world you know it to be untrue in a different way.
BI: So much more powerful, but how much of your time a day do you spend writing this book for instance. Are you locked up in your room most of the time?
NK: Well, I’m at the stage now where I have to write the damn thing. I wish I had already written it but I have been traveling so much this past year. I wish the book were already out. Writing a book requires withdrawal from the world. You have to lock yourself up and not see your friends and say no to everything all the time. These past 2 years I’ve really felt that I do want to be doing the public speaking, doing the fighting in the media, doing the punditry, speaking at rallies and being in it. I think maybe I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can give myself permission to take a few months off.
BI: Well you definitely have our permission, maybe this is a good time to let you get back to writing.
[Photo below taken at the Global Beach festival, a grassroots alternate to the hollywoodized Venice Film Festival in Italy]
This work licensed under a
Creative Commons license.
Re: Interview: Naomi Klein and her new Movie "The Take"
(No verified email address)
07 Feb 2005
Re: Interview: Naomi Klein and her new Movie "The Take"
(No verified email address)
07 Feb 2005
The Take is seriously one of the best films I have ever seen.
PLEASE SUPPORT THE ZANON WORKERS IN ARGENTINA!!!
fernandoatwork (nospam) yahoo.com (unverified)
06 Mar 2005
The workers of the ocupied factory Zanon in Argentina need your help. Please read an sign this petition to support them!!!!
Please sign the petition now!!! They have received death-threats and the 22 year old wife of one of the workers was kidnapped, beaten, and her face and chest cut two days ago. Yesterday morning a hungcuffed man got into her house (which is supposed to be under provincial police protection).
The workers need your support now!!
Please sign the petition to support them here
It takes 10 seconds to sign.
Thank you !!!