Naomi Klein, No Logo

October 21, 2001

At long last I have finally finished No Logo. I bought this one at the (now Indigo) Chapter's flagship store in Montreal shortly after it came out last year. I still remember Klein doing a CBC radio interview at Niketown to promote the book, and being kicked out by the security guard, illustrating only one example of how Nike's so-called "public space" wasn't all that public. My other highly salient image of Klein was her appearance on a CBC town hall meeting to discuss the APEC summit in Quebec City this past spring. Her main point at the time was to call for the creation of a corporate death penalty for multinationals that are guilty of human rights violations. These were my primary impressions of Klein as I launched into the book in earnest this fall.

It took me a long time to get through No Logo. At times, Klein takes a meandering path towards her point, and I often found the prose to be redundant. The first chapter is already in danger of becoming a piece of time-capsule brandedness. Pop culture is a fleeting phenomenon, and Aqua's "Barbie Girl" is, to put it in vernacular, soo 90's. The real point of the first half of the book, though, is to examine the impact that branding is having on our public space, and the limitations brands impose on our freedoms of choice and expression.

In any case, questions of consumer choice aside, the real meat of No Logo comes in Part III: No Jobs. Klein's decription of labour practises in the garment industry, coupled with a deconstruction of our own McJobs service industry subclass, not to mention the widespread carnage of late-nineties layoffs in some of the most profitable sectors of the North American economy left me reeling. Klein attributes the North American job-flight in part to trade liberalization treaties like NAFTA, but more significantly to corportations' ballooning advertising budgets as the "image is everything" mantra took hold throughout the companies of the Fortune 500.

This afternoon, the impact of Klein's writing on labour practices hit home as Nisha and I strolled through Simon's and I examined the tags on all the clothes she picked off the rack to try. Without exception, every item was made in Bangladesh, Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, or Hong Kong, and, although I have no proof, it was not difficult for me to picture the likely working conditions in the sweatshops that produced these clothes, or the costs of sewing them together. Needless to say, I sufficiently spoiled Nisha's shopping experience to the extent that she didn't buy anything.

Closer to home, I don't have to look far to see how branding and the "new economy" have affected my own family. I come from a typical middle-class southern Ontarian, suburban Toronto family. Nice house, two cars, hockey, church, the whole deal. My parents and in-laws are not overtly political, and I hope they aren't embarassed by this little rant. I am writing this not because I feel that we are the exception, but rather because I suspect that many of my immediate family members are members of the majority of white-collar workers who are no longer satisfied with the quality of life attainable (or unattainable) in today's economic conditions.

In 1993 I became the fourth generation and sixth member of my family to work for a regulated public utility in southern Ontario. As an undergraduate, I held a summer job laying sod for the service deparment. My father and uncle are both technicians. The company was always a family-oriented business; their rates, and hence profits, were regulated by the government. In the wave of deregulation that swept through the utility industries in the nineties, presumably to give consumers more competitive choices, the company was chopped up and reborn under the umbrella of a branded multinational.

With the advent of the new economy the culture at the company changed almost overnight and restructuring was swift. My father retained his job, but his workload increased dramatically and he found himself travelling further and further afield to do his work. Throughout my childhood, Dad always expressed a certain satisfaction with his job, and dreaded the idea of retiring at the young age of sixty-five. In two years, Dad will be 55, and all but forced into early retirement. Not that I think he will be sad to leave- I suspect that the change in culture at the gas company has left him looking forward to "Freedom 55".

My uncle's experience in has been similar. One of the first decisions by the new managers was to relocate his job to another province. My uncle has the choice to follow his job, thousands of kilometers away from his parents and brothers, or find a new job within the new, "improved" company.

Have I mentioned the fact that the effect of deregulation of the utility industry in Ontario has led to a wave of price increases and corrupt brokers conning misinformed consumers? So much for the benefits of competition.

Another of my relatives has spent the better part of her working life wading through a series of administrative assistant positions. A single mother, she struggled to earn a living wage and raise her two children, particularly in the Toronto area where food, shelter, and clothing became exponentially more expensive throughout the 80's and 90's.

Next in line is my brother Gord, who, since graduating with a college diploma in retail fashion management, has spent the lion's share of his working life at a call centre for a major Canadian Bank. It wasn't more than a few months before cutbacks sent him packing and now he's training to be a salesman for Volkswagen. Gord's always been a great salesman, so I have no doubts about his success in the field, but I'm already wondering how much of his training will revolve around promoting, reflecting and exuding the Volkswagen brand.

In Nisha's family, my father-in-law was a successful business executive in the 80's and was central to the development of a multi-million dollar corporation. With success, though, came the realities of corporate life and the company was quickly bought out and restructured. Dad's decision to leave was all but spelled out for him. Since then, he has bounced around a few different companies, doing contract work and consulting. One might imagine that this is a good deal, but the stress of being out of work for weeks at a time, as well as a lack of pension and benefits illustrate how the new economy profits on the backs of consultants and casual workers.

Finally, my brother-in-law lasted a year and two months as an investment banker with a high-profile technology group in Silicon Valley. Neal was downright miserable throughout his stint, and is a new man ever since he left. While I'm not too worried about his future prospects, the moral of his story is that they treat you like dirt at every level when you're working for the man.

All this to bring me to my point: my family's experiences are typical, and life for workers in the new economy simply sucks. I didn't even bother to mention the handful of McJobs Nisha and I held as students. Despite the claim that the new, branded economy is good for the soul ("You belong outside.", according to one hawker of gas guzzling sport utility vehicles), I have seen little evidence that suggests that life in the trenches is anything other than miserable. I'm disappointed in myself that it took Klein's book to demonstrate the obvious, but I'm also optimistic that governments and citizens will take the power back from the hands of the Shell's and Nike's of the world. I look forward to watching the revolution because, no doubt, it will be televised.

Here are some interesting recent links about life in the modern labour force:

3 out of 5