The Shock Doctrine

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Book Review: Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine"

SusanG, Daily Kos, October 14, 2007

... the [Milton Friedman] Chicago School strain of capitalism does indeed have something in common with other dangerous ideologies: the signature desire for unattainable purity, for a clean slate on which to build a reengineered model society.


Far from freeing the market from the state, these political and corporate elites have simply merged, trading favors to secure the right to appropriate precious resources previously held in the public domain—from Russia’s oil fields, to China’s collective lands, to the no-bid reconstruction contracts for work in Iraq.

A more accurate term for a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business is not liberal, conservative or capitalist but corporatist. Its main characteristics are huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, often accompanied by exploding debt, an ever-widening chasm between the dazzling rich and the disposable poor and an aggressive nationalism that justifies bottomless spending on security. For those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created by such an arrangement, there can be no more profitable way to organize a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance (once again, with government and large corporations trading favors and contracts), mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture.

The world would be a far, far better place if what had happened in Chicago 50 years ago had stayed in Chicago, as Naomi Klein’s riveting The Shock Doctrine makes abundantly clear. In this mind-bending masterwork, the lauded Canadian journalist has reached the apex of her analytical and explanatory powers, creating a bone-chilling narrative tracing superficially unrelated events—Katrina, Iraq, Chile’s Pinochet regime, Poland’s remaking, Russia’s lurch toward capitalism, brutal Indonesian crackdowns, China’s human rights violations, South Africa’s failure to enact its Freedom Charter—back to the fountainhead of right-wing economist Milton Friedman’s slash-and-burn corporatist ideology promulgated at the center of the laissez-faire universe, the University of Chicago.

In this account, to Friedman and his acolytes, all the world’s an experimental lab in which, to quote Klein, "Bush’s exploits merely represent the monstrously violent and creative culmination of a fifty-year campaign for total corporate liberation." As she describes early in the book CIA-funded Canadian experiments in dismantling an individual’s personality to create a clean slate, a sick feeling grows: one knows where this story is going, it’s going to applied to whole societies and the results aren’t going to be pretty.

What Friedman and his technocratic/corporatist allies realized was that like an individual, a society that suffers a trauma—a natural disaster, an economic meltdown, a political upheaval—is initially so stressed in its wake that if ideologues move quickly enough, they can ram through "reforms" at what amounts to the political speed of light. Ergo, "the Shock Doctrine," with its ruthless privatization of formerly public property, elimination of social programs, busting up of worker groups, and the suspension of minimum wage laws. "Crises are, in a way," Klein writes, "democracy-free zones—gaps in politics as usual when the need for consent and consensus do not seem to apply." Of course, people eventually begin to recover from the seminal event and even the layers of free-market strangulation can’t seem to keep them down. And as they recover, they rebel. And when they rebel ... carnage ensues.

Just as there is no kind, gentle way to occupy people against their determined will, there is no peaceful way to take away from millions of citizens what they need to live with dignity—which is what the Chicago Boys were determined to do. Robbery, whether of land or a way of life, requires force or at least its credible threat; it’s why thieves carry guns, and often use them. Torture is sickening, but it is often a highly rational way to achieve a specific goal; indeed, it may be the only way to achieve those goals. Which raises the deeper question, one that so many were incapable of asking at the time in Latin America. Is neoliberalism an inherently violent ideology, and is there something about its goals that demands this cycle of brutal political cleansing, followed by human rights cleanup operations?

There is more than a whiff of sociopathology in the technocrats described in Klein’s sweeping account, as they advise, tinker, pillage and plunder their way first through Latin America, then expand to Indonesia and Poland and Russia and South Africa, and ultimately turn their eyes upon the American adventure in Iraq ... and then bring it home to New Orleans. The decade upon decade of fine-tuning how much death and how much misery a society can take and still be profitable is described in excruciating detail. The human lives are discarded, the indignities and suppressions that can’t be entered into a spreadsheet are discounted—unless they can be used as individual lessons to the populace that everyone better get in line, pronto:

All Argentines were in some way enlisted as witnesses to the erasure of their fellow citizens, yet most people claimed not to know what was going on. There is a phrase Argentines use to describe the paradox of wide-eyed knowing and eyes-closed terror that was the dominant state of mind in those years; "We did not know what nobody could deny."


Of course, all interrogation is purportedly about gaining valuable information and therefore forcing betrayal, but many prisoners report that their torturers were far less interested in the information, which they usually already possessed, than in achieving the act of betrayal itself. The point of the exercise was getting prisoners to do irreparable damage to that part of themselves that believed in helping others above all else, that part of themselves that made them activists, replacing it with shame and humiliation.

Every place the shock doctrine has been imposed, it has failed, even on its own economic terms. It has yet to yield the free-market paradise promised; interest rates soar ever higher, currency crashes, even greedy provincial elites who think they’re going to strike it rich usually end up at the bottom of the multi-national corporation heap. Undaunted, the free-market fundies insist that every failure is due to the "interference" of maintaining even the smallest strand of a traditional safety net imaginable. No state has proven—yet—to be willing to erase in the necessary radical fashion every vestige of commonly held public resources or government payout or protection in some form.

Iraq comes closest to the ideal, Klein maintains, and we all know what a cheerful economic experiment that has turned out to be:

The weak public present and the robust corporate one reflected the fact that the Bush cabinet was using Iraq’s reconstruction (over which it had complete control, in contrast to the federal bureaucracy back home) to implement its vision of a fully outsourced, hollow government. In Iraq, there was not a single governmental function that was considered so "core" that it could not be handed to a contractor, preferably one who provided the Republican Party with financial contributions or Christian foot soldiers during election campaigns. The usual Bush motto governed all aspects of the foreign forces’ involvement in Iraq: if a task could be performed by a private entity, it must be.

This entire book is ripe with full-throated, rich metaphors, followed fearlessly to their logical ends. The image of the frontier. The psyche. The Rapture. The hollow men at the hollow core, selling off pieces of shared civilization, piece by piece.

As Klein brings the disaster capitalism model home to the streets of New Orleans, turf wars with public agencies and charities begin, with no-bid contracts at stake behind the scenes: "The companies at the heart of the disaster capitalism complex increasingly regard both the state and nonprofits as competitors—from the corporate perspective, whenever governments or charities fulfill their traditional roles, they are denying contractors work that could be performed at a profit."

There’s a danger when reading a work of this sort to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the battle; helplessness can set in when few suggestions are given on specifically how to roll back the changes of 30 years. Klein’s book is clearly meant to be more descriptive than prescriptive, an opening challenge to consider alternative ways to organize more economically and socially just societies—and not necessarily to serve as a cure-all for how to do so. Still, the final chapter explores some tentative resistance measures in Latin America and Indonesia that hold promise, most founded on the principle of going "off the grid" of IMF-based loans and other corporate-backed restructuring schemes. Some cases are cited of the underdog Latin American governments helping each other with law enforcement, trade agreements and loans; the previous targeted victims are beginning to explore the limits of using their smaller resources to pool together for regional strength and to beat back the predators that view their geographical assets and populations as exploitable free game.

The Shock Doctrine is a magnificent achievement on every level: beautifully written, intellectually engaging, paradigm challenging, thorough and haunting. It deserves a place as a defining book of this decade—when we all began to slowly wake up and see clearly what’s been done to the world ... largely in America’s name. And you come to realize just what conditions these powerful forces need to perpetuate in order to continue their global pillage:

The only prospect that threatens the booming disaster economy on which so much wealth depends—from weapons to oil to engineering to surveillance to patented drugs—is the possibility of achieving some measure of climatic stability and geopolitical peace.
Jacket Cover