Gaining Street Cred

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It is a modern conceit that each generation must have its defining cause. True or not, the current crop of 18-to-30-year-olds has certainly acquired one. It is called globalization, and in No Logo (Flamingo; 490 pages) Naomi Klein, a young Canadian activist, sets out to write the anticorporate manifesto for Generation Why.

On one level Klein has succeeded brilliantly. In the U.S., Canada and Britain her extended polemic against transnational corporations thinly disguised as reportage from the battlefront shows every sign of becoming Das Kapital of the reclaim-the-streets crowd. In Britain, for instance, No Logo's publisher describes the book as a "word-of-mouth sensation," having sold more than 40,000 copies at about $22 a pop in less than a year. A paperback version is due this month. "Each reprint so far has sold out faster than the one before," says Flamingo publicity director Helen Ellis. "This book is gathering momentum."

And why not? It's fresh, lively, idealistic and comes across as the last word on the brand of lifestyle politics that has captured the imagination of protesters from London to Seattle and Prague. In effect, Klein charges international companies especially those enjoying high brand recognition with exploitation, environmental pillage, human rights abuses, hypocrisy, kowtowing to repressive regimes, disowning their homebase workforces, driving down wages and much more besides.

Large corporations, argues Klein in one typical slash-and-burn critique, are expanding "through layoffs, mergers, consolidation and outsourcing ... in other words, through job debasement and job loss." Trekking round the outer fringes of global capitalism, she unearths scores of examples to buttress her argument. Front and center are Free Trade Zones, which now employ about 27 million workers in 70 countries. One such the Philippines' Cavite Export Processing Zone has 207 factories and 50,000 workers (mostly young women) on 12- to 16-hour days, assembling everything from IBM computer parts to Gap pajamas, and earning a fraction of what workers in the West would get.

Klein's brickbats, though, are not confined to Western companies' behavior in developing countries. Downsizing, greed and arrogance at home are equally in her sights. "The modern employer has begun to look like a one-night stand who has the audacity to expect monogamy," she writes, juxtaposing the soaring pay of ceos and the diminished security and rewards of many ordinary workers. The result, she points out, is that "among the total number of working-age adults in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., those with full-time permanent jobs working for someone other than themselves are [now] in a minority."

And yet there is something missing from this diatribe, and it goes, broadly speaking, under the heading of perspective. Where globalization is concerned, perspective can emerge from the most unexpected directions. Only last month the one-time leftist firebrand Clare Short, now Britain's Minister for International Development, issued a report on global poverty arguing that solutions lie in encouraging investment and training by large multinational firms. Coincidentally, Washington's Institute for International Economics put out a book, Fighting the Wrong Enemy by Edward M. Graham, that demolishes many of Klein's arguments, including the claims that foreign direct investment results in job losses at home and drives down labor, environmental and wage standards everywhere.

No matter. Klein is not seeking a meeting of minds with her opponents. Nor is there any sign the antiglobalization backlash is waning. Yet facts remain out there, and some seem irrefutable for example, that a half-century of growing international trade has helped send per capita income up by 150%, even though there are 3.5 billion more people alive than in 1945.

Perhaps older generations should abandon this line of argument. No Logo represents one of those totemic, defining works that ultimately transcend fact and acquire a reality of their own for a generation or a sex or a minority. However misguided, this is a book that should be read by all age groups to understand why rioters trash McDonald's and Starbucks. The immediate target the corporate culture that substitutes image (brand) for substance (decent jobs and conditions) is only half the story. For Klein, the child and grandchild of activists, what matters ultimately is the political awareness of her generation. Modern corporate "imperialism" is her target, but one suspects that what she really despises is the political system that allows some people to get rich.