The Shock Doctrine

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A Review of The Shock Doctrine: The Face of Fascism in a Global System Heading for Collapse

by Juan Santos, The Fourth World, December 30, 2007

Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas is a poet, but he is not just any poet: he’s a poet armed not only with words, but with bullets – and not only with words and bullets, but with the heart of the Mayan people of Chiapas. He is a poet and a revolutionary who abandoned the ivory tower for the jungle – for the Selva Lacandona - to live with, to fight with, and to die with los de ‘bajo – the people on the bottom, who lives are crushed beneath the weight of the pyramid of Empire. He has taken their part, their lot, their future as his own.

Naomi Klein is a writer, one who sees with the eyes of her heart, one who backs the knowledge and vision of the heart with the most rigorous research - research she uses to build the sharpest and most aggressively articulated and documented of cases, a case developed as if our lives depended on it. They do. And Klein, like Subcomandante Marcos, has taken sides, the side of the poor. Marcos has said her latest book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, “is one of those books that is worth having in your hands. It is also a very dangerous book.”

“Its danger,” he says, “resides in that it is possible to understand what it says.” In the clearest terms, The Shock Doctrine lays bare the vicious nature of capitalist globalization, and shows us how and why our world has been so radically transformed over the last half-century; Klein spills the blood of the lie that “free markets” mean free people. She builds and proves a solid - often breathtaking– case that the global “free market” has been imposed around the world through terror. She calls it “shock” – with all the graphic undercurrents of electric shock treatments, torture and deep trauma that the word implies – spelled out in exquisitely researched detail. Her tale is the tale of the rise of “corporatism” – a technical word for the economic and political system called fascism – on a global scale. While a few Left pundits like Alexander Cockburn almost dismiss Klein’s work for ignoring the precedents of capitalist terrorism prior to the era of globalization, they miss entirely that her book is focused on a particular period of history and on stripping bare the real meaning of the time we have lived through over the last generation. They also miss the power of the writing and the sense of values and the heart-felt methodology that guides and informs it.

Subcomandante Marcos is right when he says that the book’s danger for the rulers “resides in that it is possible to understand what it says.” Klein has written a book on global political economy – one that is as gripping as the best murder mystery, as well researched as the best investigative journalism – on a par with the work of a Seymour Hersh. The Shock Doctrine is as accessible as a history by Howard Zinn, and nearly as evocative in some of its storytelling as the writing of Eduardo Galeano.

That’s why The Shock Doctrine – surprisingly for a scathing and in-depth leftist critique of globalization – is already on the best seller lists in six countries. Klein tells a meaningful and fully comprehensible story in human terms that makes sense of the world we have lived in. It’s the global story of our lives, one that contextualizes, crystallizes and personalizes the meaning of what we’ve lived through and often only dimly understood. She brings our recent history, the world around us, and thus our lives themselves, into sudden clarity and focus.

Klein’s central metaphor – yes, this is a book on fascism and global political economy that has a central metaphor – is shock treatment; its development as a means to wipe clean the meaning of a human personality and to replace it with a newly programmed persona, one in line with the electrical master’s wishes. At the outset of her book, she talks in depth with – she encounters - a survivor of electroshock - one of the victims of the early experiments that would be used by the CIA to write manuals on torture - as the woman struggles daily with the problems of reclaiming a memory that has been erased, and with reconstructing a life, a history and a personality that has been wiped out by a man - call him a doctor, call him a torturer -sworn to heal her, by a man sworn to do no harm.

In The Shock Doctrine the personal and political are inseparable. The lies, betrayals and brutal political manipulations of its antagonists (who seek to wipe the slate clean in “maladjusted” countries and bring them under their own control the way that experts in electroshock and CIA torturers seek to wipe out human memory and personality) and the valiant and often tragic resistance of its protagonists, are told with an immediacy that is lacking in any kind of “charitable” pity or condescension. Instead, the immediacy and vividness of her story is empowered and made more compelling by a consistently rigorous research that, in Klein’s hands, nails the truth and that makes its emotional impact inescapable.

Although she doesn’t bore us with the “correct” theoretical arguments that critics like Cockburn would seem to prefer, Klein is dealing in The Shock Doctrine with one of the core contradictions of capitalism, the relationship between bourgeois dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, and she shows us, through example after compelling example, how, under capitalism and imperialism, the reality of bourgeois dictatorship trumps the illusion of bourgeois democracy every time.

She shows us in vivid examples the reality behind the theory, how “democracy” and negotiation and the power to make decisions over our lives is reserved for the capitalist and imperial elites, who then impose the end result of their of their debates - their desires - on those who are most vulnerable to them, and how they do so, consciously, just at the moments when we are most critically vulnerable. As “free market” economist Milton Friedman put it, “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.” The logic, actually, the pathology, Klein exposes, is the now-global pathology of the rapist, the serial killer, the fascist, of the torturers of Abu Ghraib; of the Hannibal Lectors in business suits who both run and gorge themselves on the world. Here the essence of the world capitalist, who, as Marx put it, is the “soul of capitalism personified.” The brutal pathology and machinations of these men are shown, in concrete example after example, unmistakably for what they are; the pathology and methodology of torturers whose aim is not mere terror, but the gutting of people’s lives and livelihoods - the gutting of the world for their own enrichment. Klein doesn’t rely, as such, on the terms for them that I’ve just used. She’s not name-calling or breathing hell and damnation. She lets the stories she tells and the documentation that backs the stories - the documentation that makes them coherent extensions of one another across decades and vast distances – speak for themselves. They do just that, and the conclusions to be drawn from the picture the stories reveal are unavoidable.

What do the iconic events of our era - Pinochet's coup in Chile, the death squads throughout Latin America, Tienanmen Square and the capitalist conversion of China and Russia, the strangulation of the liberation struggle in South Africa, NAFTA, the birth of a new spirit of resistance in Latin America, the planes slamming into the towers in New York, the “Shock and Awe” unleashed against Iraq, the so - called "War on Terror," and the preparations for fascism in the US have to do with one another? What are globalization and neoliberalism, and how and why did they arise? Klein lays it out in stunning detail. See the finely produced short film that introduces the book at the link below.

For all the horror and overwhelming power of the global elites that Klein depicts, her conclusion is as hopeful as it is realistic. She tells us, in effect, that systems based on shock, terror, repression and exploitation cannot be sustained. She puts the matter simply and with concrete examples from around the world: Shock wears off. The story returns, memory, continuity, coherence and meaning return. The soul returns. The victim of torture can come to her senses once more. Submission can be cast aside, the will to resist, the will to live, reasserts itself. Lives, homes, cultures and economies shattered by crisis and repression – wiped out by shock- can be restored. “Information,” she tells us, “is shock resistance. Arm yourself.”
Jacket Cover