The Shock Doctrine

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Naomi Klein, Friedman Fighter

Rick Simonson, Publisher Weekly's blog, October 1, 2007

It was a Thursday night (this past), Seattle's Town Hall, an audience of over 700 gathered. After being introduced, Naomi Klein came to the microphone, made gracious acknowledging remarks, and then cited the applause in the room that burst out when the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations of November 30, 1999 were mentioned. The spirit of those demonstrations, the public protest and stand against virtually unmitigated corporate rule over the sovereignty of other countries and other people within those countries (including our own), were much the spirit she wanted to tap into with the new book she was there to speak of, her brilliant,damning The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan).

For nearly an hour, Ms. Klein held forth, giving a straightforward, quietly impassioned, critique, highlighting many of the points she raises in her provocative, devastating, vital book - one that draws on serious research and scholarship, extensive travels, including those to war and disaster zones. Humor was lightly laced in, as when she said she thought of giving the book the title, Friedman Fighters. Milton Friedman, a name many people now may not be familiar with, was a key figure in her discussion (and is certainly a central player in her book, he, his theories, and his adherents). Alan Greenspan, whose The Age of Turbulence, is out and drawing major attention and sales, also figured much in the talk (For those who want to read, hear, or see a Greenspan v. Klein head-to-head go on the state of the world/economy, as mediated by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, one can find it at

The Shock Doctrine goes after much of the prevailing ways of the corporate globalized economy that has come to be the rampant norm these past decades - a force that exerts itself domestically (our want-something-for-nothing mentality as applied to government and services, and to business, including retail, with certain forces benefitting excessively because of tax breaks, subsidies, etc.) and internationally. The book focuses primarily on the latter, the way University of Chicago economic school (Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys) theories have been applied bluntly, shockingly (yes) in country after country, whether in cahoots with the shock of a brutal governmental regime (Chile, Argentina), the break-open shock of new democracy (South Africa, Poland, Russia), or the shock of natural disaster (the tsuanami in Sri Lanka).

The present Bush administration merits its own detailed examination, for it has applied this approach in everything from taking advantage of the trauma of September 11, 2001 on through the present Iraq War and then Hurricane Katrina. The rush to privatize as much as possible, to disperse and deflect accountability, to plunder the public coffers - how this has happened in place after place, time after time, is written of with exacting detail. Klein offers both scholarship and a sense of tangible witness (she goes to many if not most of the places chronicled).

It's a tough, grounded book, as it must be, for there will be those who, if it can't be ignored, will seek to dismantle its case. Klein is so thorough and has so much evidence in hand, that this book seems it will be able to stand its ground, whether the attacks are of the sound-bite variety or more nuanced ones.

One of the key things about The Shock Doctrine is its extraordinary attention to language, to narrative. Klein notes this in how the Milton Friedman approach to theory, to application is used - expert language, what she also points to as 'Washington consensus' language, the talk transmitted through certain pundits and sprinkled about, a trickle-down approach to language and shaped meaning. Her own language is careful, fresh. It is probably not coincidental that she has worked with two excellent editors - Louise Dennys of Knopf Canada and Frances Coady of Picador, brokering this in hardcover through the Metropolitan imprint - much more well known for their work with literary authors. (I don't know about Louise Dennys with this, but I know from the past few BEAs and occasional communiques how charged up Frances Coady is about this; taking nothing away from whatever else she's worked on or championed, there's been something in her talking about this book - 'wait until you see what Naomi has done' - that's come across as heatfelt as little else might seem these days.)

This is one of those political books that asks to be read, its writing so good - and its contents so vital. Paraphrasing does it only so much justice.

As much as the book is about laying out its history of this devastation and its whirlwind, it is also in its key, concluding moments, about how the World Bank/IMF approach to governance is being successfully challengedm how hope and persistence in resistance have been kindled (Seattle in '99 and elsewhere), how that success (and the seeming defeats) might be assessed from place to place and time to time. In the q&a, Klein took a not-surprising question about apathy in this country and turned it on its head, opting instead for a behavior she called 'learned helplessness.' When she likened it to some of what goes on in dog training (what are our bonds now? what behavior do we want to reinforce and how?) there were widespread nods and murmurs of assent in the hall. Like some other terrific writers and activists at work now - Rebecca Solnit in all sorts of ways, and Stacy Mitchell (Big-Box Swindle), to name but two of a good number - Klein seems able to get people to see approaches and solutions for their own selves, rather than offering some quick prescriptive answer herself (and in the person of herself as some would-be leader/spokesperson).

The affect, on a night such as this, was genuinely and somewhat surprisingly inspiring. Both when her presenting comments were concluded and then at evening's end - which included a screening of the short film Alfonso Cuaron made after reading Klein's book - there was a pause, and then heartfelt, moved standing ovations.

And yes, dear friends at Holt, et al, the lines then formed, and many books were sold ... may they be everywhere.
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