Fences & Windows

Fences & Windows by Naomi Klein

Fences & Windows is Naomi Klein in the thick of it: in the crowds, chatrooms and counter-summits of a swelling popular opposition to a postmodern economic model that has savaged every frontier.

With No Logo, Klein addressed graphic design’s complicity in the commodification of cultural and human identity. The brands that designers build for fast food and sportswear companies are now the world’s most powerful iconographies (no, this is not a compliment). Religious, political and social territories have been colonised by carefully kerned (or wilfully coarse) corporate visual strategies. Democracy itself has been swallowed by the sovereignty of smartly dressed transnational capital and its cultural detritus.

Klein’s strength is not just her persuasive criticism (Fences), but also her passionate advocacy of new possibilities (Windows). However, Fences & Windows is not a meaty thesis (see instead Hardt and Negri’s brilliant Empire), but rather a collection of short articles and speeches, the best of which surge and sweep and burn.

In ‘America is not a Hamburger’ Klein damns the conflation of corporate and public values in the government’s attempt at “rebranding” the country. Here Wally Olins is quoted complaining that the USA’s image problem is merely one of complexity. We don’t have a single idea about the country: there are hundreds of mixed up, conflicting messages. But as Klein puts it: “From a branding perspective, it would certainly be tiresome if we found ourselves simultaneously admiring and abusing our laundry detergent. But when it comes to our relationship with governments, particularly the most powerful and richest nation in the world, surely some complexity is in order. Having conflicting views about the U.S. - admiring its creativity, for instance, but resenting its double standards - doesn’t mean you are ‘mixed up,’ to use Olins’s phrase, it means you are paying attention.” America’s real problem is not with its brand but with its product. The boasts of diversity and democracy are increasingly perceived as false advertising.

For the most part, though, the book moves beyond No Logo’s concern with our image culture and into broader, deeper currents of dissent. The post-September 11 opportunism of equating a free world with free trade, while maligning civil disobedience, direct action and peaceful protest as terrorism: (“first a Starbucks window, then presumably the World Trade Centre”) is also an opportunity “for social justice movements to demonstrate that justice and equality are the most sustainable strategies against violence and fundamentalism.” In the Chiapas Mountains the Zapatistas issue a “global call to revolution that tells you not to wait for the revolution, only to start where you stand, to fight with your own weapon.” Subcomandante Marcos, the anonymous rebel leader who insists his mask is a mirror, is inspiring Klein and countless others with the possibilities of new ways of imagining power.

Although Klein is often dismissed for resisting prescriptive alternatives, here she does advocate a kind of local participatory democracy – a transformation of the “anti-corporate movement into a pro-democracy movement that defends the rights of local communities to plan and manage their schools, their water and their ecology... not better faraway rules and rulers but close up democracy on the ground.”

How will this world specifically materialise? Fences and Windows is a sketch of the ‘movement’ – with all the motion and momentum this implies. Not for Klein, the grand conclusions and party politics of the past, rather the patient experiments and creative self-determination of a new beginning – the end of ‘The End of History’.

The popularity of Klein’s writing is important: political engagement is often debilitated by the recognition of shifting economic and cultural forces in our lives, without the benefit of understanding these transformations. The exploitation and injustices of global capitalism have nevertheless unleashed unprecedented potential for international solidarity. Empowerment begins with the realisation that disparate parochial problems of unemployment, homelessness and privatisation are symptoms of the same global process – “an agenda that is concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands”. Klein recognises that this struggle is shared.

Visual communicators have the power to translate these struggles to other contexts so that there can be revelations of shared crisis and resistance. Contemporary visual language is often a one-way monologue of corporate branding, when it could be a real social dialogue of meaningful human communication. The point of all this, is that right now, it’s time to choose.

Jason Grant 2004