Fences and Windows

By Naomi Klein

The title of this collection of columns by Naomi Klein introduces a pair of metaphors. The fences are barriers separating people from previously public resources, the widening economic equality gap, the police cordons around political summits, a legal system that privileges private property over broader social values, and the rigging of democracy. Windows are the avenues still open for dissenting voices, like anarchic alternative summits, “reclaim the street” parties, and the Internet.

“Globalization” has become a metaphor as well, a word now used to describe so many things it is in danger of losing meaning. It is not an ideology of internationalism, since, as Klein likes to point out, the movement against globalization is just as international. Instead, what is meant by globalization (by its critics) is an economic model, often referred to as neo-liberalism, characterized by a transfer of wealth and power from the public to the private sectors, and a shift in political decision-making away from local representative bodies to supra-national, anti-democratic trade organizations.

These columns, most of them first appearing in the Globe and Mail, make up a sort of travelogue: dispatches from hotspots around the anti-globalization globe. But, limited in length, they feature only limited analysis. Klein is an articulate spokesperson for the anti-globalization movement, with a gift for turns of phrase like “trickle-down democracy” and some real insight into the way the media has covered the globalization debate, but she is skimpy on details and historical context. More hard evidence and background is needed to flesh out arguments and positions that are only outlined here. When she claims that free trade agreements should receive a failing report card, for example, she needs to be more specific. Costs to the environment or the “public good” may be hard to quantify, but they aren’t just verbal formulas to be dropped into a balance sheet either. Klein’s decision to leave her columns as they first appeared, “postcards from dramatic moments in time,” without expanding or organizing her message, has the effect of making the book both repetitive and lightweight.

Then there are Klein’s solutions, the vistas her “windows” open out to. The self-styled child of hippies, Klein’s vision of the good society is frustratingly vague and unsure of itself. “Debate” is something valuable in itself, with the “commons” sounding a lot like undergraduate common rooms. In outline, the new or alternative world order appears to involve more direct democracy and decentralized power: “community-based decision-making potential – whether through unions, neighbourhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives or aboriginal self-government – is essential to countering the might of multinational corporations.” Local government will result in common or public areas that will become new “social centres.” The program of the Mexican Zapatistas is held up as an example: “their goal is not to win control but to seize and build autonomous spaces where ‘democracy, liberty and justice’ can thrive.” These “free spaces, born of reclaimed land, communal agricultural, resistance to privatization, will eventually create counterpowers to the state simply by existing as alternatives.”

Klein never fully addresses the contradictions in this Utopian vision of socialist anarchy. At what point do direct democracy and decentralized power become so direct and decentralized they cease to be democratic or effective? How do you seize spaces without winning control? What sort of control is envisioned?

These are hard questions, but even theoretical answers provided by powerless alternatives and shapeless debate can assist real change. We have to imagine a good life and a just society before we begin to build.

Review first published November 2, 2002.