Naomi Klein

Turning Pain to Gain

Claire Black, Scotsman, October 6, 2007

Two years ago, sitting in a draughty, leaking industrial building in a suburb of Buenos Aires, I listened as a group of factory workers explained how they had "reclaimed" their former place of work after being laid off, casualties of the economic collapse of 2002. The factory was operational, there was a crèche, some shelves of dog-eared books for workers to borrow and, although the building was dilapidated, there was a palpable sense of pride.

It was while Naomi Klein was living in Argentina, seeing first hand this response to economic crisis, that she was inspired to write The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, her ambitious, persuasive and damning critique of neoliberal, or unregulated, capitalism. Her most significant book since the revered anti-globalisation treatise, No Logo, it is an excoriating examination of the economic project exemplified by the Chicago School, a group of economists spearheaded by the diminutive Milton Friedman - Nobel Prize winner, policy adviser to a succession of US presidents and inspiration to, among many others, former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Friedman's free-market doctrine - a "fundamentalist form of capitalism" - demands deregulation, privatisation and radical cutbacks and has, according to Klein, "always needed disasters to advance". In a passionate and informed book, Klein bulldozes the link between deregulated capitalism and freedom, the notion that "unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy". Instead she posits that the neoliberal project depends on catastrophe - natural disaster, military incursion, terrorist attack - to provide a blank canvas upon which the new doctrine might be inscribed. Once imposed it leads to economic and social breakdown on a massive scale.

First tested in Latin America in the 1970s, it was the economic plan behind the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile, the regimes in Bolivia and Argentina. As Klein says: "Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era ... were committed with the deliberate intent of terrorising the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market 'reforms' ". Friedman's disciples spread their gospel far and wide. Klein finds their fingerprints on the response to the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, China after the Tiananmen Square massacres, Britain after the Falklands War and most recently and devastatingly, in Iraq.

Drawing an analogy between the electric shock therapy imposed on psychiatric patients in the 1950s, often in clandestine CIA-sponsored experiments, Klein argues that while populations reel from shock, natural resources are carved up, laws changed and any resistance repressed, often brutally. In essence, trauma is systematically exploited.

Less this be dismissed as woolly, leftist claptrap - there is a vociferous anti-Klein lobby both online and in print - Klein, alongside extensive research, presents a stream of individuals only too keen to explain that in every disaster lies economic opportunity. From the market analyst who comments: "Iraq was better than expected", while assessing the performance of the company Dick Cheney once headed (Halliburton) in a month when 3,709 Iraqi civilian casualties were recorded, to the description of the tsunami-cleared beaches as "an undreamed-of opportunity" for developers; to Republican congressman Richard Baker hailing flooded New Orleans thus: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

The Shock Doctrine is hugely ambitious and eminently readable. Klein's thesis, drawing together disparate events, far-flung countries and competing ideologies, is cogent and clear, and although she stops short of answering the question as to whether violence is inherent to neoliberal ideology, or results from its implementation, she builds an utterly convincing case against the excesses and corruption of a system so exemplified by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

After nearly a decade as a journalist, Klein has a reporter's eye for the personal story - the tenacious journalist gunned down on the street, the tortured farmer fighting for compensation, the destitute fisherman trying to sustain his way of life - and the ear for a perfect soundbite. Describing the response to Latin America in the 1970s, she states: "It was treated as a murder scene when it was, in fact, the site of an extraordinarily violent armed robbery." Her prose packs a punch, but it's also measured. Whether she's detailing the human rights abuses committed by dictatorships, or highlighting the economic inequities of the globalised world, Klein uses first-person testimony and historical documentation to illustrate her claims, and in doing so she allows us to form a more challenging understanding of the events unfolding around us.

In lengthy acknowledgments, Klein identifies Susan Sontag and John Kenneth Galbraith as models of "engaged and enraged intellectuals" who have inspired her. Klein's writing may as yet lack the profound eloquence of Sontag, but her arguments cannot be ignored.