The Shock Doctrine

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Shocked and Appalled

By John Allemang, Globe and Mail, August 31, 2007

If there's anyone who knows the ins and outs of a successful marketing campaign, it's Naomi Klein.

So why is the author of the bestselling No Logo, the 2000 book that tore apart the pretensions of “Just Do It” brand-building while inspiring the social-justice spirit in young consumers, walking away from a screening of the video for her long-awaited new book, The Shock Doctrine?

“It's too disturbing,” she says, as she closes the door to the small room that started off as our meeting place but now feels more like an isolation chamber.

Of course, if you're a truly discerning consumer of the commodity that is intellectual culture, you're focusing less on Ms. Klein's sudden disappearance from her own promotional gathering and more on the fact that her massive new tome (to be published on Tuesday in seven languages) comes with its own trailer – if trailer is a word that can begin to describe this dense and darting six-minute documentary created by Ms. Klein and Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron ( Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien), which will shortly make a more public appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Book videos “are the hot new thing in publishing,” according to the 37-year-old Canadian author, whose particularly successful brand of activism-for-our-times has always had a soft spot for the hot new thing. And why not? Why should left-wing politics be preachy and above-it-all, which is certain death for any movement that is sincerely committed to reaching the masses, whoever they now may be?

Those are particularly relevant questions when the subject is as difficult and unsettling as the one Ms. Klein has chosen for her No Logo follow-up – no less a theme than the human devastation caused by the unrelenting propagandists for the free-market economy over the last 35 years, from the torture chambers of Augusto Pinochet's Chile and the murderous disappearances in Argentina's military rule to the morass of Hurricane Katrina and the shock-and-awe destruction of Iraq.

No wonder Ms. Klein flees her own video. Reduced to a film-festival format, The Shock Doctrine scours the vulnerable brain, as the jarring noises of crying babies and wailing cats surround images of pain and torture that are meant to represent the shock-therapy metaphors peddled by unsparing market economists – in the most visceral and literal way.

This, to Ms. Klein's sensitive eye, is the ugly face of capitalism, and it's a sight she can't stand to see.

We're a long way from No Logo, a book that exposed the cruel ruses of global branding, true, but didn't implicate us quite so much in the writhing bodies and twisted souls of the market's innocent victims. Smart 17-year-old girls latched on to it and found in its breezy pages the substance to go with their style. Hundreds of them wrote personal letters to Ms. Klein, thanking her for opening them up to the world of politics, a place from which they thought they were barred.

No Logo was upbeat, empowering, effortlessly superior to the globalized economy it described (to the point where some critics accused it of being just an elevated version of consumer snobbery). The 662-page Shock Doctrine, as you might guess from its subtitle, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, is much more prickly and much less eager to please.

As such, it is a risky venture for a woman who found a devoted worldwide audience with her previous book, including praise from British and American rock stars and a paparazzi following in Italy, where unlicensed No Logo boutiques honour her fame. She deliberately resisted writing an obvious sequel – to the point of investing over $200,000 of her advance payments in research operations, building a virtual academic institute in order to get the goods on such unsexy free-market gurus as the late University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Her acknowledgments alone run to eight pages.

“I did feel some pressure to write another No Logo,” she says, returning to the meeting room after the video's cacophony has given way to a more bookish calm. “ Politics … but fun!” she says, in a parody of the marketing voice that can reduce every bright idea to its most lucrative and inane. “ ‘Easier than Chomsky,' someone said. Well, this isn't that.”

No utopia

The Shock Doctrine, in her analysis, is “the secret history of the free market.” The concepts that economists such as Prof. Friedman and institutions such as the World Bank so zealously promoted – deregulation, privatization, free trade, debt reduction, huge cuts in the public sector, targeting trade-union movements – have become so mainstream that they seem inevitable for any political office-seeker in a Western democracy, even if they lead to lower wages and less protection for the working classes.

But Ms. Klein is determined to show that this free-market utopia, designed to benefit big corporations and their allies in government, is neither inevitable nor democratic nor a good thing. And by doing so, in her detailed histories of those political and economic crises where the free marketeers overplayed their hand (Prof. Friedman is disturbingly tight with the repressive Pinochet, for example), she also wants to shake us out of our deference to crisis-capitalism's shock therapy and lead us back to the more humane values of democratic socialism.

Does that make sense? In Ms. Klein's world, these are givens. Free-market ideals are undemocratic by nature and can be imposed only against the will of the people at “a moment of collective vertigo” when the ordinary rules of political behaviour are suspended – one classic example being Sept. 11, 2001, when right-wing think tanks rolled in with readymade agendas to take advantage of what she calls “a period of disorientation, when you trust authority figures and think Rudy Giuliani is your long-lost daddy.”

Her project is a secret history because so much free-market rhetoric, in her view, is at odds with the way these economic “reforms” have been carried out. Since people won't choose a more precarious economic life willingly, they have to be fooled or shocked or tortured into being compliant – which sounds accurate in describing Pinochet's Chile and post-9/11 Iraq, both of which submitted under duress to the delusions of free-market ideologues, but doesn't quite correspond with the usual view of the divisive but freely chosen Margaret Thatcher and Mike Harris.

Ms. Klein will point out that Mrs. Thatcher's government arranged for striking mine workers to be beaten and spied on, and that Ontario's Mr. Harris had an education minister who was actually videotaped talking about the need to prepare the way for cuts by “creating a useful crisis.” But she's not about to entertain the idea that Mrs. Thatcher or Mr. Harris came to power because a mass of people actually preferred their ideology to the alternative – we must have been bullied or duped or metaphorically tortured.

As a secret history of capitalism, The Shock Doctrine, for all its hefty research and convincing connect-the-dot revelations about the money men's back-room machinations, doesn't purport to be even-handed. Being balanced and boring just isn't Ms. Klein's style, in activism as in the rest of her life.

This leaves her wide open to challenges from free-market defenders such as National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, who comments: “It is true that radical changes in economic policy are usually only possible in conditions of crisis: Chile under Pinochet, Thatcher after the Winter of Discontent, New Zealand after the currency crisis. Israel and Ireland are more recent examples. But that is true not only of free-market reforms: Communism was only imposed in Russia, Cuba etc. after the ‘crisis,' albeit self-inflicted, of revolution.

“And whereas communism has everywhere been renounced at the first democratic opportunity, I note that none of the free-market experiments I mentioned have been reversed, though different parties have come to power.”

But such polite observations from the other side are not about to waylay Ms. Klein.

“ The Shock Doctrine is an alternative history,” she says with amiable defiance. “This is the part of the story that's been left out. Hundreds of books talk about the other version of history, about the ineffectiveness of big government and the corruption of big labour and the problems of stagflation. This is not that kind of book.”

Red-diaper baby

Ms. Klein's left-wing certainties, her refusal to lie down and accept the fact that the business mentality has triumphed, are rooted in her family history: “I don't question being a leftist any more than I would question being a Jew – it's the culture I got taught as a kid.”

Her upbringing, she believes, is responsible for The Shock Doctrine's theme of resistance against the privatized world. Her American parents, who came to Montreal during the Vietnam War, both thrived in publicly funded occupations – her mother as a feminist National Film Board director, her doctor father as the founder of a natural-childbirth clinic who also taught at McGill University and worked at a large public hospital. But when Ms. Klein was a baby, the family moved to Rochester, N.Y., and suddenly her mother was working out of a trailer for a local public-access station, while her father treated uninsured patients at a tiny clinic on the edge of town.

“They faced the choice of whether they'd be totally marginal in the United States or part of the mainstream in public institutions in Canada,” says Ms. Klein.

After five years in the United States, the choice seemed more clear-cut, and so Ms. Klein came of age as a serious-minded Montrealer – auspiciously, she wrote a Grade 9 essay on the CIA's responsibility for Pinochet's 1973 military coup. Clearly, talk in the Klein household was dominated by big issues. Her grandparents on her father's side were ardent old-school lefties, both of whom supported Stalin out of unassailable faith in the communist cause. Her grandfather, who worked on Fantasia, led a strike at the Disney studios, and Ms. Klein grew up hearing tales of her father, age 13, joining in the protests.

“These are my childhood stories, what we heard on car trips,” she says, “about my grandfather getting blacklisted, about my father screaming ‘scab' on the picket line at Disney.” Her grandparents joined a rural left-wing community in New Jersey called Nature's Friends, where Woody Guthrie would show up to sing to the converted. This is where she spent her childhood vacations, giving the lie to the much-repeated description of her in her teens as just another “mall rat” – a recurring image that makes her wince.

“It's pure propaganda. Yes, I really was a teenager in high school, but the truth is I was a pretty serious kid. It was played up as an interesting angle when No Logo was published” – the phrase “mall-rat memoir” even found its way to the dust-jacket – “and I didn't do enough to hide it. It will haunt me forever. I do think it's silly, though. Do men who write fairly serious books get this kind of treatment?”

Having grown up in a Jewish socialist family where politics was table talk, she married into another where the bar may have been set even higher. Her husband, the hyper-articulate CBC television host Avi Lewis, is the son of former Ontario NDP leader and UN AIDS envoy Stephen Lewis and of legendary feminist columnist Michele Landsberg. He is also the grandson of the late federal NDP leader David Lewis – the last of the supremely confident Canadian socialists, who coined the phrase “corporate welfare bums.”

Ms. Landsberg first came across Ms. Klein, then the editor of The Varsity at the University of Toronto, when the young writer called for reassurance after drawing fire for criticizing Israel in the student newspaper. “It was very brave of her to take on the Jewish establishment,” Ms. Landsberg says. “She said what she believed without softening the blow, and I was very impressed by her courage.”

As a regular at family colloquies, Ms. Klein most often ends up trading ideas with Stephen Lewis. “Both of them are at a loss for small talk,” says Ms. Landsberg. "They're both thinking about stuff, and there's this great engagement around issues.”

Still, Ms. Landsberg feels that Ms. Klein's greatest similarity is to David Lewis. "We have these old snapshots of David at the Socialist International meetings before the war, as a very young man, and there's the same intellectualism of the left, and the same passion. That's the tradition Naomi is a part of, and I see hope in that."

Moving with the time

The left in Canada has been suffering from a crisis of confidence for many years. Ms. Klein encountered it head-on in her early 20s when she led a pack of her university-journalism friends in the effort to remake a long-standing but faltering left-wing Toronto publication called This Magazine – only to be met with complaints that she was dumbing it down and selling out by directing some of the magazine's attention (however critical) to popular culture.

"There are always people on the left who are resistant to change," she says, "who are terribly nostalgic for a mythic moment when everything was figured out. … But while I feel a part of the tradition, I'm also trying to evolve it. This Magazine was in trouble, and that's why it was handed to a gang of 22-year-olds. It had not changed with the culture."

But this is a left-wing thinker who can change with the culture – and even manages to change the culture herself. With No Logo, she helped foster a more critical and nuanced understanding of global business practices at a time that she calls "the high-water mark of corporate triumphalism."

With The Shock Doctrine, both her goals and her challenges are much greater, despite the fact that the triumphs now seem much less secure, after Enron and the conspicuous failures of the Iraq master planners – one of whom, Paul Wolfowitz, went on to run the World Bank.

"We're living in a moment of unbelievable defeatism and passivity," she says, with more animation than that blanket statement should allow.

But instead of rounding on the overly passive masses – somebody must be electing all these duplicitous leaders, or yielding quietly to the corporate cuts or nodding off when so-called terrorists are held for years without trial – Ms. Klein spreads what she calls her “mobilizing stories” in order to rewrite the history of the free market's triumph, so that left-wingers can realize how they were outmanoeuvred and learn from their mistakes.

The brief sense of victory that No Logo seemed to promise to thoughtful shoppers now seems a long way off, after the post-9/11 arrogance of the disaster capitalists in Iraq, who paid no attention to Ms. Klein's arguments that the policies of globalization would come crashing down.

"They made the transition from Free Trade Lite, opposing the anti-globalization movement through arm-twisting and bullying, to ‘Who needs the International Monetary Fund? We'll treat this bombed-out country like a blank slate, with no government and no negotiating.' "

In response, Ms. Klein offers up encouraging examples of people who have refused to play along, like the Germans who didn't buy into the economists' miracle cures at the difficult time of reunification: "They know from their history how dangerous it is to shock society. The forces unleashed are volatile, and they're not forces you can control."

This is not the bravado of a David Lewis, not even close. But for the endlessly marginalized left, it's a start.

"Almost no one I know has the confidence David had," Ms. Klein says. "We've internalized the narrative that our ideas have been tried and have failed – which is why we have strong critiques, but when it comes to producing alternatives, we go weak."

Even a bright, audacious, bestselling leftist Naomi Klein can admit to carrying around the idea that “when we're in power, we're a disaster.” And despite the hopes of her Lewis in-laws, she doesn't, so far, have any interest in running for elected office – a generational difference Michele Landsberg finds hard to accept, even as she acknowledges the shock-resistant activist's lesson that there are many different ways to change the world.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
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