Review: No Logo by Naomi Klein

No Logo cover

The quotation on the cover calls No Logo “the Das Kapital of the growing anti-corporate movement”. This is no doubt an exaggeration, not to mention a poor comparison, but there is some truth in it. At any rate, it is more imaginative and less clichéd than calling the book a “bible”. Klein’s book (her first) has been elevated to the position of essential reading for the wannabe/newbie anti-globalisation activist. Of course, No Logo chronicled a pre-existing anti-corporate trend. In fact, Klein captured the burgeoning phenomenon at the right time – just before the Seattle WTO protests – and thereby came to define it. Ironically, to some extent, No Logo itself almost became a brand of a kind. Visiting Klein’s website demonstrates how the author herself has cultivated a corporate identity.

The book itself is divided into four sections. The first, entitled No Space, explains Klein’s view of branding and its implications for public cultural space. The second, No Choice, discusses the tactics used by large businesses to dominate the marketplace, including mergers, bulk buying leverage and corporate censorship. Thirdly, labour rights, sweatshops and global employment issues are the focus of the No Jobs section. The book ends by looking at growing methods of anti-corporate activism in the largest segment – No Logo.

For me, the chapters on branding were amongst the most interesting. Klein’s key idea is that the most cutting-edge businesses no longer produce products, but brands. The business of manufacturing can be outsourced to others, often foreign factories. Businesses such as Nike – a recurring example – can concentrate on what they now see as their core mission – cultivating their brand. They are in effect glorified marketers, selling not just a mere product, but a lifestyle, an image, an identity. Of course, this can be obtained simply by purchasing the product in question. That this is an illusion is considered too obvious for discussion. But the implications of this outsourcing as well as the increasingly invasive marketing tactics of these corporations constitute the theme of the book.

No Logo repeats the common assertion that corporate branding has drastically extended into public space – be it schools, cultural events, or even towns themselves. The problem for Klein is that the result is a situation in which public affairs are seen to be impossible without the generosity of corporate sponsors. I would have preferred a more extensive explanation of just why this is such a problem. For sure, I entirely agree with her, but I myself have trouble explaining why it is that the protection of a (perhaps imaginary) “pure” public space is so important. A more developed discussion of the damaging effects of the loss of public space, be it mental or physical, would have been welcome. In fact, Klein frequently assumes that it is obvious to the reader why the phenomena described throughout the book are A Bad Thing. To some extent it is obvious, but her overall argument would be better served by a more in-depth and principled critique.

Furthermore, much of the comically excessive corporate intervention Klein documents in the early chapters of the book is barely recognisable to the British reader. Some allowance must be made for this, given that much of Klein’s experience comes from the more commercialised societies of North America.

But No Logo is by no means focused solely on the impact of these phenomena on Americans. The second half of the book addresses the role of American and western capital abroad, looking at labour conditions in developing world factories supplying the great American corporations, as well as the global aspects of anti-globalisation attitudes.

At times, Klein seems to conceive the process of globalisation as nothing other than marketing. It is created and driven by marketing, as well as existing for the sole benefit of the product, via the concept of the “global teen”. Globalisation, for Klein, is subordinated to shopping. This is a disappointingly simplistic assessment which ignores all the ways in which diverse people interact in ways free from corporate influence. Klein exaggerates the extent to which businesses have usurped free civic activity, be it local or global.

Indeed, the author often labours her point. A good proportion of the book is made up of the same points unnecessarily repeated in various permutations. Given the size of the text (458 pages), one is left feeling slightly short-changed. However, she seems to be aware that her argument is often overdone and occasionally plays devil’s advocate against her own case. This is a welcome degree of balance and prevents No Logo from becoming a tiresome polemical tract. Klein’s wit and self-deprecation is also essential in preventing the text from becoming cliché. Klein’s style, which is very easy to get used to, is highly engaging. It is intelligent and elegant without being overly intellectual, ironic yet honest.

Of particular interest to scholars of the anti-/alter-globalisation movement is Klein’s assertion that while young activists were focused on the 1990s “identity wars” (ie. religious rights, homosexual “liberation”, feminism and so on), capital looked outward and expanded its grasp. (Note Klein’s sharp division between capital and activism.) Today, according to Klein, activists as a whole are a step behind as regards globalisation. Capital was first to appreciate and benefit from the potential of late 20th century globalisation and the activist community (if such a thing exists) must pay the penalty for its insularity: “in this new globalized context, the victories of identity politics have amounted to a rearranging of the furniture while the house burned down.”

Klein’s focus on export processing zones is also very welcome. These “free trade areas” deserve far more attention than they receive, even today. Yet Klein’s sympathetic attitude towards labour standards does not stop her from accepting the complexity of the sweatshop issue in a mature fashion. One of the most shocking reports in this chapter of the book is that of the discrimination against pregnant women in Mexican maquiladoras. Not only are young women hired on a 28 day basis (all the easier to fire them should they become pregnant), but they are also forced to attend sanitary pad inspections in order to prove they are menstruating.

Klein has a tendency to use a single example to prove general rules, but after all, No Logo is a work of polemic. Nonetheless, in many ways, the book was actually much more tempered and sensible than I had expected.

The key problem is that No Logo is preaching to the choir. If this book is truly the “Das Kapital of the anti-corporate movement”, it has failed in its mission. The closing remarks of the afterword are telling. Klein writes of “we in this movement”. As I have stressed above, Klein has managed to write an account of a movement that has subsequently itself become a key text of that movement. To this extent it has been very popular, but one wonders how far it has succeeded in evangelising beyond that core of activists. No Logo would instead be done real justice if it were read as a starting point by ordinary, non-activist citizens who have just begun to take an interest in these matters.

I myself began reading No Logo with scepticism, but Naomi Klein’s charm has won me over. Despite my low expectations (and the flaws that I did find), this is an intelligent, well written book, sober yet optimistic.

No Logo by Naomi Klein is published by Harper Perennial (2005).

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I’m a student in the UK, working towards a master's degree in International Political Economy. This blog is intended to complement my studies by addressing perennial issues and current affairs. Please see the about page for more information, or the contact page to get in touch. My personal website is here.

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