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Change Everything Ep. 7: Naomi Klein, Coronavirus Capitalism, and a People’s Bailout Now!

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INTRODUCTION

Maya Menezes (MM): Hi. I’m Maya Menezes.

Avi Lewis (AL): And I’m Avi Lewis, and you’re listening to Change Everything: a podcast by people who are freaking out—

MM: about the pandemic.

AL: Yes, and also climate, racism and inequality and thinking through solutions that are actually as big as the many crises we face.

MM: We know times are so precarious right now for so many people, and support for podcasts and media are usually the first things to go. And this is why we want to thank everyone who is so generously continuing to support us on Patreon. If you’re able to support the show, you can give something as low as a couple bucks a month or whatever you can, for however long you can. Everything goes to the folks who edit and produce Change Everything. Check out the show notes for how you can support the show if you can. Thank you so much to all of our dedicated and generous listeners. We’re so incredibly grateful for your support. Give us a visit at patreon.com/changeeverything.

Transition Music

AL: Hi Maya

MM: Hi Avi

AL: So how’s your pandemic going?

MM: Oh geez. I don’t know.

AL: And other greetings of 2020.

MM: The things we say now. Um, I don’t know. I feel like a lot of people, I’m oscillating between this really scary sense of calm, like a calm before a storm, and this just endless ocean of grief. I have in brackets in my section here, keep it light.

AL: Keep grief section light.

MM: zero chill. Yeah. I mean, obviously, it’s a really scary time. So many of my friends have lost their jobs, I know really bad things are coming. I read the news, which is not good news, news flash everybody, but yeah, I know people are preparing to not be able to pay their bills or make rent. And on top of all that and trying to feel useful and like I’m doing something to help my community, I’m trying to like, I don’t know, do things that make me feel calm. I started reading my teen sci-fi books again, which is actually great. Yeah, um, they’re also like revolutionary futurisms, just low key, which is really great. And trying to just also leave room to grieve, which I think is important as we realize the incredible importance of the political moment that we’re in. Um, how about you?

AL: All of that. and yes, I feel the grief almost as a physical force that we’re all trying to keep at bay. And maybe we shouldn’t push it away. For me, in addition, I’m feeling the stress of a kind of prolonged stay in a totally unreal place. Like, for those of us who have the privilege of being able to shelter in place and isolate our worlds are shrinking to whatever four walls we’re in and whatever people are in our germ biome, the ecosystem of bacteria that we’ve chosen to wait out the crisis with. And we’re just getting through it. Which is real. And I’ve been living in New Jersey for the last couple of years, and New Jersey is really the next to epicenter of this crisis, and the death toll and hospitalization numbers are flattening, but have not started to descend in any dramatic way. So we’re still very much in the thick of it here, and it’s pretty terrifying. I got sick and was almost on the way to the hospital. All better now, but didn’t have to go to the hospital, and hospitals here are just utterly overwhelmed. So the crisis is really real as are all of our human attempts to get through it. But at the same time, I feel like leaning on the outside of that bubble is this knowledge that truly historic things are happening in this moment — in this unprecedented global moment. We’ll look back for years or even decades to come and realize that there were vast forces that reshaped human history on a huge scale in this time that we lived through and we were doing whatever we could day to day to get through it. But there’s this huge exoskeleton of what’s happening at the same time. So I’m feeling that disjunction of the two worlds and the place where they collide, which actually makes me really happy that we have decided to do this podcast the way we have, because our special guest today is Naomi Klein, who is really good at helping us navigate those epic intersections between worlds. Naomi has written books like the Shock Doctrine, which is proving to be helpful and super depressing for many people in this moment.

MM: a nice light read.

AL: Nice light read on the park bench. Naomi has co-founded organizations like The Leap where we work with Naomi. She lives with some of us, specifically me and our son. And it turns out that Naomi Klein is also an inspired baker of all baked things, which we will explore in minor detail later.

MM: Oh, yeah. Let’s explore that later. Can’t wait. We also, of course, decided to invite Naomi to this episode because this podcast is part of our launch of the People’s Bailout project, which some of you, if you’re on our mailing list, might already know about. But, you know, right before the pandemic really hit full swing beginning of March, The Leap staff were away at a retreat, planning about how we were going to bring a Green New Deal to life. The before times. Katie, who’s our executive director, and I actually went straight from the retreat to New York to stay with Avi and Naomi. Had some meetings there. And it was like the great escape. It felt like the great escape from New York. Things were just closing every day.

AL: You kept changing your flight and getting out or sooner and sooner.

MM: sooner and sooner. I remember we went to sleep in New York and there was, like, 50 cases and we woke up and there was, like, 200. Like, let’s get on a plane. But of course, we got off our flight in Toronto, and two days later, Katie was one of the first diagnosed cases of Coronavirus. Everybody got sick. It was pretty bad. Everyone is better now, but it was very scary and a really good moment for us as we pivoted all the work in our organization. I think, really, I’m really happy with what we decided to do, and we spent a week in emergency mode bringing really bold calls to action now largely considered vital to our survival by a lot of different people. We took those really important calls to action directly from people who are mobilizing in their communities all over the place, and we packaged it together in a multi stage bailout for people and the planet. As we anticipated, governments would move to bailout corporations.

AL: and I think it’s worth just taking a minute to explain a little bit about the People’s Bailout project before we get to the Naomi interview. I will offer a quick preview that I think it’s one of the best conversations that she’s had. She’s done a lot of podcast interviews and webinars, in part because her work for a couple of decades has really focused on this issue of the extraordinary moment of crisis and the good and terrible things that can come out of it. But this, I think, is one of the best interviews that Naomi’s given. But let’s just preview the People’s Bailout a little bit. The People’s Bailout is designed to complement existing efforts, so there are great projects which we’ve seen launch in different countries around what a just recovery looks like, in particular the principles that should guide it. And we were early and enthusiastic signatories to that effort. We were actually already working on our own way of contributing to this moment, and we decided to focus on amplifying specific political demands, in a way harkening back to the Leap Manifesto in 2015 which founded our organization eventually and was a set of political demands. And setting them in a frame, setting them in a story of how we can come through this crisis and emerge on the path to a safer and fairer world. And we believe firmly that narrative and framing is critical to help us stay oriented and to help us stay focused on how to turn these moments to the advantage of all, rather than the immense benefit of a few. So the frame we came up with is the three R’s of the pandemic, the phases of the pandemic in sequence to put us on the right path: relief, recover and reimagine. So on our website, we’ve aggregated these political demands coming from work on the ground organizing in the pandemic and mapped them to those different phases from the emergency moment. The relief moment of responding on an emergency basis in the crisis; through the recovery phase, where there will be and is already massive government spending and big debates and fights over bailouts and stimulus packages; to the ultimate reimagining of society and the transformative change that we know we still, more than ever, need to be headed for.

MM: We will be releasing more and more calls to action on a rolling basis. We’re gonna be pulling these demands from organizations and people who are mobilizing for the future we all deserve. But right now we’re kicking off with three focus areas on the website: healthcare, work and housing. Now there’s much more coming soon. So get in touch with us about it by signing up at people’s bailout.ca. The link is in the show notes.

AL: and now it’s time to play our brief separator music. And then we can roll our interview with Naomi Klein.

CONVERSATION WITH NAOMI KLEIN

AL: Naomi, welcome to Change Everything.

Naomi Klein (NK): Thank you, Avi. Hi, Maya.

MM: It’s so weird seeing you guys in different rooms. It’s fun, it’s fun.

AL: But this is our zoom lifestyle anyway. It’s true. I’m wondering if we should have zoom family calls just to get a little distance and still connect.

MM: Oh, God, I’m Zoomed out forever.

NK: so Zoomed out.

AL: So that’s very much, that’s very 2020.

NK: But Leap was ahead of the game on Zoom because The Leap is a virtual office. So, things haven’t changed that much.

MM: We’ve been living on Zoom. I mean, the backgrounds have changed because you can do backgrounds on Zoom now.

AL: there you go. No, but we’ve been in Brady Bunch boxes for three years.

NK: Our son is obsessed with backgrounds. That’s all he does. He had his first Zoom play date and all they did was just change backgrounds. For like an hour, which is fine.

AL: You know what he did today, he figured out how to put video files in the background.

NK: That’s terrifying. What’s he going to put up there, that’s the problem.

AL: He doesn’t know. He has no idea what he’s doing,

NK: Because he makes videos of us without our knowledge or consent. We’re under surveillance capitalism by our seven year old, like we’ll suddenly turn around in the car it turns out he’s made a 45 minute video of our conversation.

AL: if you hear tapping in the background it’s because I’m googling “parental controls Zoom” right now to prevent his virtual classroom from featuring our car rides from when we used to go out in the car.

NK: right? Like family fights that are immortalized. Yeah. All right. Yeah, that’s life.

MM: Well, now, I guess it’s the new normal. We’re in what, the second year of the third month since the fourth week – what is time?

AL: 60 eternities, 60 eternities into quarantine.

MM: So we’re like, somewhere in the second month, I think. And it’s a very frightening time to be alive. We have disaster capitalism happening all around us in real time. We feel like there’s also this incredible opportunity that just seems to be – billions of dollars are seemingly falling from the sky. Trillions of dollars falling from the sky. We have community organizing, lifting off at a rate we never thought humanly possible. We have the possibility of winning things that would take us decades to win. So where do you feel we are in our political moment right now?

NK: Well, I’m not sure we’re in the same place, you know, in Canada and in the U.S. and even within the U.S., in a blue state like New Jersey it’s pretty different from, you know, red states like Georgia that have just opened themselves up. But where are we? I’m gonna try to zoom out. As you were saying, Maya, this is a moment of radicalization. And I think for me personally, because I was really involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign, the last few months have just been surreal going from pretty much a high point in my political life — not pretty much, I would say, definitely a high point in my political life — which was February 22nd being in Las Vegas, Nevada, on the day that Bernie Sanders won that state. Crushed it, you know? I was there when news came down that we had won almost every caucus on the Las Vegas Strip and I was able to drive over to the caucus headquarters, what they called the boiler room where everybody was on the phone, and just, like, see the happiest, dirtiest people I’ve ever seen in my life and just kind of everybody was hugging and just like in this state of disbelief, because it wasn’t just like winning a state and winning it by a lot. We were in Las Vegas, we were surrounded by Trump Tower and, you know–

AL: Casino capitalism, the home of.

NK: I mean, just the shiniest, tackiest, just giant monument to, you know, you’re about to get your big break, right? And the reason that Bernie won was because the people who make that illusion possible who polish the slot machines and mop up the floors and clean the hotel rooms and drive the taxis to the airport. They all rose up and said, Fuck this. This is an illusion. We need fundamental change. And took on, in many cases, their own union leadership. And it was just this incredible triumph of grassroots organizing, particularly Latinos for Bernie. It was just an amazing thing to behold, and it was such a political high. And within days the whole thing had come crashing down with the Democratic Party brutally uniting around this terrible candidate of Joe Biden. A failure of the other so-called progressives to unite behind Bernie. And then the next thing we know, we’re in the pandemic. It’s just like, whoa.

AL: So it’s been a fun couple months for you.

NK: Yeah, but I think in terms of the radicalising potential of this moment, I don’t think we can discount the impact of the groundwork of the Sanders campaign and the work of Sunrise and Dream Defenders and Mijente and all these base building groups that had coalesced around it and had moved these radical bold demands into the center of the political discourse, including a Green New Deal. But also, you know, decarceration and Homes for All. All of these policies that were like, during the campaign in this sort of centrist push back, it was like “It’s too much. It’s too fast. We just want to go back to normal. Can we just please have a break after Trump.” And that was something I saw firsthand when I was in Nevada, like older African American voters who were just, like, really beaten down and understandably so and actually agreed with the Bernie Platform. But were like, first of all, Americans aren’t going to accept this speed of change — and they may well have been right. And also we are in the middle of this surge of white supremacy and a madman is at the helm, and let’s just have a pause. The chair of the Biden caucus that I attended in Nevada was this lovely man and he kept saying to me, I agree with you, but here’s why we should vote for Biden. Because I was speaking for the Bernie camp in this caucus at this high school in Las Vegas, and he just said, “We just need a transition.” That was what he kept saying. “We just need a transition from Trump to these types of policies.” Now here we are in this moment that clearly isn’t going to allow for a transition, right? Like it’s full blown crisis emergency and only those types of bold policies that seemed like too much too fast just six weeks ago. Now they seem like maybe not enough. Like maybe we weren’t thinking big enough, right? So, yeah, I’m just trying to kind of metabolize that moment.

AL: It is incredible. It’s incredible to ponder, because there was a slight unreality in the previous political moment of 2019, not just the Bernie Sanders campaign, but all over the world. It felt like there was an emergence of a need for transformative level policies. And the Green New Deal was one example of that kind of surge. And it’s true. They did lay the ground for what’s being considered now. But the crisis has taken over. And as much as that’s all pre crisis thinking, I feel like you’re saying that what happened before did shape the possibilities. Now, when we need even more because the needs are spiraling out of control.

NK: Absolutely it did, but the tragedy and the difficulty is that the political vehicle that might have delivered it–

AL: In the United States.

NK: In the United States, is no longer an option. But I think we are seeing in Canada that the Trudeau government is moving to the left in some ways, not fast enough. But there’s no doubt that sort of centrist neoliberal politicians are having to move. And that may mean that if Biden manages to squeak victory from Trump, that he will be able to be pushed too. I mean, I think there’s no doubt that the Biden we would get is not as bad as the Biden we would have gotten, but the problem is, I mean, this crisis is just so bad and so deep, right? And so being better than you would have been without the crisis isn’t going to get us much. It’s a really low bar because the need is just so tremendous. The thing that I have been sort of trying to flag from the beginning is, it isn’t just about the bad corporate bailout, right? It’s about who’s gonna pay for the bad corporate bailout down the road, right? The bad corporate bailout is one; phase two is “Oh, we spent all our money. We’re broke. Now you have to close all your schools and hospitals and fire your teachers because we can no longer afford the meager social safety net that failed us in this pandemic.”

AL: In the crisis.

NK: That’s the phase that I’m really scared about.

AL: So I want to flag that we will save sometime towards the end of this conversation, to talk about the hopeful possibilities which we really feel are real, and we are throwing ourselves at with ultimate velocity. But I also think that there’s — in the web of fear that surrounds all of us in our personal lives, in our health and our families in this extraordinary situation and in the global situation, there’s a lot of truly bad shit that is going on. Naomi, you’ve been tracking a bunch of it, and I think we want to give ourselves license to dive into the dystopia for a few minutes and explore some of what you’ve been observing, with a caveat for me that I think in moments like this, so much is happening at once. Even your perception from living in the States that the Trudeau government is kind of moving to the left and abandoning some neoliberalism. That is true in some policies and in some use of public funds. And at the same time they’re cracking down and being more repressive and much more authoritarian than we’ve ever seen. And that’s happening under the surface. So let’s take it as a given in this conversation that everything is happening at once, and let’s try to trace some of those strands. So you’ve been doing a bunch of new research into a particular surge in dystopian surveillance and the sort of land grab of big tech companies using the crisis for a disaster capitalism moment. We’ve seen lots of specific examples without flagging a bunch of them. Give us your sense of the dystopian stuff that’s going on, that maybe not everybody is tracking in terms of the disaster capitalism moment we’re in.

NK: So I think we’ve got some kind of low tech old school disaster capitalism that we’re aware of, like the oil companies getting bailouts and governments suspending enforcement of environmental protections even as they ram through oil pipelines carrying oil that nobody wants, under the claim that this is some kind of essential activity when actually, their biggest problem is storing the oil they already have. So there’s that and there’s lots and lots and lots of that. But what I’ve been really struck by is, I don’t think that we’ve ever seen an economic crisis that is as — not exactly unevenly distributed, but that has such clear winners from the beginning. During the 2008 financial crisis. and IPS Institute in Policy Studies has a good report on this, the billionaires as a class lost a great deal of collective wealth whereas in the first, I believe, month they were tracking of this pandemic the billionaires as a class increased their wealth by more than $300 billion.

MM: Record gains.

NK: right? And obviously, Jeff Bezos is the extreme end of this, you know, and this pandemic is like a perfect pandemic for Jeff Bezos’ business model because his two main revenue streams are delivery of everything and the other is the cloud, is streaming. And these are the main ways that we are continuing to consume is, we’re continuing to consume that which can be delivered to our doors, those of us who can afford it. And we are continuing to distract ourselves with endless streaming television and movies. And we’re working via platforms that require the cloud as we are at this very moment. So this is Amazon Cloud Services and this is Amazon delivery, and that is why he is getting so unspeakably rich.

AL: we need a little commercial break for a conspiracy theory about Jeff Bezos cooking it up in a lab just to counterweight the Sinophobia coming from the White House.

NK: Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. So the trouble with this, I mean, there’s lots of trouble with this, and it’s a complete obscenity because some of the most vulnerable workers are workers who are on Jeff Bezos’ payroll. And even as he racks up these vast increases in his personal wealth he is refusing basic demands to shut down and clean warehouses after multiple Covid cases have been detected and so on. People are aware of this. So the reason why this is a big political problem is that usually the corporate class is weakened during a crisis, right? So, like they don’t have money, they come to governments on their knees. That’s why it was so frustrating in 2008, when the Obama administration failed to actually attach strong conditions to the bailouts of the banks and the auto companies and the insurance companies, because they could have, because they were desperate, right? They weren’t able to spend the kind of lobbying money and advertising money that they would normally be able to spend to get whatever they want. Now we have companies that are on their knees in this crisis, like Boeing and so on. And you know the car companies, but we also have this class of tech companies who are incredibly liquid. Went into this crisis not leveraged, like the real world companies. And then on top of that, are experiencing this boom because of so called like on demand services. So whether it’s Instacart or Zoom, you know, or Google or Amazon. I mean, they’re all doing incredibly well, which means that they have all of this capital to engage in gloves off lobbying. And they’re doing it. I mentioned Eric Schmidt. He’s the scariest of the bunch because he is no longer working at Google full time, although he still owns a huge amount of shares and is still an adviser. What he’s actually doing is heading up two task forces for the Trump administration in Congress to advise them on AI and defense, and he is advising them to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on more AI research and implementation and integration. And there’s a lot of China fearmongering, like China as an authoritarian state is able to do all of these things with these technologies that we’re not able to do. So even though we may have inv