“Erasing and Remaking the World”
Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”
Exploring the intersecting world of “super-profits and mega-disasters,” Canadian journalist Naomi Klein chronicles decades of instances where the two overlap, demonstrating how free-market ideologues welcome, and provoke, the collapse of other people’s economies. Klein devotes much of the first half of the expansive book to Latin America, following a trend of the past few decades to implement “Chicago School” economic policies by undemocratic (by the state) to the benefit of multinational corporations and detriment of local peoples. She traces these phenomena, starting in the Southern Cone of Chile and Argentina and the Falklands; through to Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia. Ultimately, she studies other points of contestation and disaster around the globe, making comparisons to economic reform attempts in Poland, China, South Africa, Russia, Southeast Asia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, New Orleans and Israel which seem drawn from a template. Klein catalogs case after case where these reforms have been implemented without the consent of the governed. Most times, they are by suspect means in situations where a crisis was artificially created as a means for ‘fixing’ it—which have in turn become a way of “cleaning away the poor.” Very early in the reading, Klein lets the reader know where she is going with the term ‘shock’ when she quotes Uraguayan writer Eduardo Galeano:
“How can this inequality be maintained if not through jolts of electric shock?”
Klein asserts that in country after country, the Chicago School followers have foisted their pet policies of privatization, deregulation, and cutbacks in social spending on an unsuspecting populace through non-democratic means. Initially, dictatorial military force and accompanying fear of arrest, torture, disappearance, or death helped to assist in the reforms. Over time, new organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank were employed instead, creating impossible debt burdens to force governments to accept privatization of state-owned industries and services, complete removal of trade barriers and tariffs, forced acceptance of private foreign investment. In more recent years, terrorism and its response as well as natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis have wiped clean enough of the slate to impose these Friedmanite policies on people too shocked and focused on recovering to realize what was happening until the changes were already firmly in place. Although a work of non-fiction, there is a clear villain in Klein’s book: neoliberal economic schemes and their author, Milton Friedman and his Chicago School followers.
Klein argues that from its humble beginnings as an economic philosophy, the neoliberal program has devolved into a form of corporatism, or crony capitalism. Seen strongest in America, the switch to using private sector contractors for nearly every conceivable task has created a bloat of companies which exist almost entirely to secure lucrative government contracts to perform work formerly done by government. They now operate in a world the author describes as “disaster capitalism,” waiting and salivating over the profits to be made in the next slate-wiping war or disaster, regardless of the human cost. She lets the Chicago School practitioners speak for themselves and their “shock therapy” views in their own callous words. Describing the underlying principle of the therapy comes from the late Professor Friedman:
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change…our basic function is to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
According to Klein’s thesis, these revolutionary economic programs were the “medicine” deemed necessary by a bloc of neoliberal economists who sought to bring underdeveloped countries into the global trading community. What the author makes inescapably clear is that the world economic order has been largely remade in Milton Friedman’s image in the last few decades. And that this change has occurred by adopting programs that would never have been democratically accepted by the common people. Military coups, violence and force, wars, induced hyperinflation, terrorism, preemptive war, climate disasters – these have been the disruptive vehicles that allowed such drastic economic packages to be imposed. Nearly always, they are developed in secrecy and implemented too rapidly for citizens to respond. The end results, as Klein again makes clear, are massive (and too often, continuing) unemployment, large price increases for essential goods, closing of factories, enormous increases in people living in poverty, explosive concentration of wealth among a small elite—and extraordinary opportunity for capitalism from American and European corporations.
Klein also tells about the International Monetary Fund (IMF) set up after World War II to help struggling countries and their economies recover. Many of its managers and policy-makers have been graduates of the Chicago School of Economics and have imposed the Friedman creed wherever possible. One interview provided with an IMF staffer, David Budhoo (who became a whistle-blower in 1988); likened leaving corruption of the institution to liberation in his resignation, when he stated that he was done “hawking (their) bag of tricks.” The shame of the situation still lingers, although he is now free from those business practices. “To me resignation is a priceless liberation, for with it I have taken the first big step to that place where I may hope to wash my hands of what in my mind’s eye is the blood of millions of poor and starving peoples… Sometimes I feel that there is not enough soap in the whole world to cleanse me from the things that I did in your name.”
The book pulls out of the reader a wide range of emotional responses, when painfully covering the callousness of the Chicago schemes; the massive human suffering created for no reason besides economic imperialism, and the greed of politicians, former political operatives, and corporate executives preying on the powerless. Likening free-market shock therapies to torture by electroshock, Klein documents that when some of the populace come out of the shock, become lucid, and begin to challenge the implementation of the policies (such as the loss of democracy, hyperinflation), the next step of shock doctrine is to terrorize, torture, or to make the challengers disappear. Klein’s summation of the Chicago School experiment: “It has been one of mass corruption and corporatist collusion between security states and large corporations, from Chile’s piranhas, to Argentina’s crony privatizations—the point of shock therapy is to open up a window for enormous profits to be made very quickly—not despite the lawlessness but precisely because of it.
The book is lucidly written, and a mine of facts and figures, which at times can be hard to absorb. Later chapters on the Homeland Security complex and Iraq have, thus far, been a depressing read, as one could expect any overview of cronyism and nepotism to read. Very evident is the sheer amount of care, detail, research, and effort that went into writing it. Citations (hundreds) and a glossary add nearly 100 pages to the book. In that regard, it is fairly clear that she wrote this book for the reader to follow up upon the claims she has made, which is easy enough to do and recommended by this reader. As mentioned, the clear villain in this narrative provided by Klein is Milton Friedman and his followers, shills in many respects, parroting defense and praise for their economic model that is either an absolute failure or works perfectly as designed. Klein would have you believe the latter, whereas I would be more inclined to accept corruption and manipulation as excuses (albeit, weak) for the failings of the Chicago School.
In that respect, Klein’s seminal work shows its weaknesses. In more than a few occasions per chapter, she gives her villains the “Michael Moore” treatment. You will weep for poor people in dismal economic conditions, get angry and frustrated with their suffering and neglect at the hands of society, and then, once she’s got under your skin, will point you at the boogeymen she believes to be responsible. Though less bombastic than Moore, you gradually become aware of her coaxing the reader to form a mob over the matter (which is appropriate by me), painting her characters as non-human caricatures, when in fact corporations and individuals are much more dynamic. My overriding vision the entire read thus far was seeing the antagonists ‘storyboarded’ as political cartoons. Simple pictures of ‘not the whole story’, in many respects, propaganda of a different sort, though the type I am more inclined to favor. However, Klein did allow for the villains’ own words to do the damning.
The Shock Doctrine goes very deliberately for the heartstrings, and succeeds, perhaps, in some instances, at the cost of rational objectivity. Having read her (and fact checked) her material before, I am satisfied that she is being honest and heartfelt as she pleads the case of the downtrodden. However, she occasionally comes across as someone with an agenda and single-minded viewpoint that holds the power to convince you of using every rhetorical/written trick in an expansive arsenal. Of course, there are always other sides to the story, and economic complications that Klein does not even attempt to touch on. The Shock Doctrine is a book whose strength lies in its explanation and case studies of “disaster capitalism”, crony corporatism, and “disaster apartheid—using disasters and other crises as opportunities and excuses to transfer land and other resources into the hands of powerful, favored multi-national corporations. She puts into a New York Times Bestseller plenty of evidence for her accusations and claims of a corporate, elite attempt to ‘remake’ a world, undemocratically and ideologically in story after story where the disadvantaged are taken advantage of by the rich, who become even richer: a regular routine, worthy of investigation, which Naomi Klein handles well in both research and prose.