Monday, June 21, 2010

Review of Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine"

Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" is a journalistic tour de force. Over nearly 600 pages of text, she traces the rise and implementation of neo-liberal economic ideology in many times and places: 1960s Indonesia under Suharto's coup and his allies in the Berkeley Mafia, in the Southern Cone in the 1970s and in particular in Pinochet's Chile, in Brazil, in Thatcher's UK, 1980s Bolivia, in China following Tiannamen, in Germany, Poland and Russia following the collapse of communism, in South Africa following the fall of Apartheid, in the Asian financial crisis, in post-9/11 USA with the homeland security bubble, in post-9/11 Israel with the same homeland security bubble, in the Iraq war, in New Orleans following Katrina, and in places like Sri Lanka that were victims of the 2005 Tsunami. The cases that get the most attention are Pinochet's Chile, Russia under Yeltsin and Iraq under the USA. As the book was put out in 2007, it does not include the current American financial crisis, it does say later on that the USA is headed toward economic collapse, something Klein might wish she had elaborated on.

The narrative, which is primarily descriptive rather than analytical, is informative if nothing else. Readers will learn of the "Chile Project", a plan to have Chile's brightest economic students receive their graduate education at the University of Chicago. The plan was so successful that Pinochet's finance minister, Sergio de Castro, was one of the alumni, and it would be further implemented to impact the rest of Latin America. The reader will learn that Margaret Thatcher seemed unlikely to hold on to power, up to and until she decided to fight a war over a previously marginalized and neglected piece of land: The Falklands Islands. Following the war, Thatcher would go on to use the same propaganda tactics against coal miners, referring to them as "the enemy within", while the Friedmanite Junta in Argentina lost power.

The comprehensive historical referencing is necessary for Klein's thesis. Her thesis is that neo-liberal economic philosophy has not been able to win support democratically, and that it has been implemented throughout the world via the use of shocks. Over time, the promoters of neo-liberalism have grown aware of this and have taken on an approach to incorporate that into their long-term planning, "instability is the new stability" and allow shocks to take place. She brings up the use of torture and makes it not only relevant but integral. She points out that many of the most economically "liberal" regimes were also the most repressive, and her argument is that it may be impossible to run economic liberalism without a police state to enforce it. Milton Friedman is quoted dismissing this notion as silly. Following his visit to China in 1989, he wrote a letter to a student newspaper asking them if they would critique him for supporting a regime like China, implied to be different from that of Pinochet's Chile [Friedman had visited Chile in 1975 and had said Pinochet's regime was off to a good start]. A few months later the Tiananmen massacre took place. Klein introduces the reader to a narrative of the massacre ignored by the North American press. An alternative narrative, advanced by - among others - Wang Hui in his 2003 book "China's New Order", is that it was not merely about "democracy versus communism," the protesters were against the corporatization of China's economy under Deng Xiaoping. Milton Friedman was in fact supporting a regime much like Pinochet's Chile.

Torture is not just used as a supporting device to neoliberalism, to keep dissidents in line. Klein argues that it's also a metaphor to the shock doctrine, what torture does to the individual, the shock doctrine does to societies. It was found in studies, conducted in the 1940s and 1950s, that an optimal interrogation strategy was to shift from sensory overload to sensory deprivation. With these methods, as opposed to rote sadism, victims might suddenly regress to behaving like children, crawling on all fours, being incontinent at both ends and sucking their thumb. Psychologists like Ewen Cameron believed that this was the blank slate, a fantasy neurological state of behaviorist psychology on which any psychology could be imprinted. By destroying the old individual, a new better individual could be built. Cameron achieved great success at destroying individuals, but never anything other than failure in rebuilding newer, better individuals. Upon destroying the individual, rubble and ruins are left behind, not a plain field. While this was shown in the case of individuals, it was not shown, or rather it was shown and not widely understood, in the case of societies. When the USA moved into Iraq with its aptly named "Shock and Awe" campaign,  one of the leaders dismissed accusations of "nation building". He said it was "nation creating", the implication that Iraq was a blank slate. Another major figure, John Agresto, director of higher education reconstruction for the occupation, commented that he had never read any books on Iraq, because he wanted to lead with as open a mind as he could have. A Mormon missionary thought that the Book of Mormon would open eyes in Iraq, and that he would eventually be a hero of Iraqi history for spreading his gospel. The reader is informed that the military knew that museums, holding ancient Mesopotamian artifacts, might be looted, but that the leadership deliberately chose not to protect them. The National Museum of Iraq lost 80% of its 170,000 objects. Meanwhile, some saw the looting as a form of rapid privatization... it would accelerate the destruction of the country, allowing a new country to be rebuilt on Friedmanite grounds. "I thought the privatization that occurs sort of naturally when somebody took over their state vehicle, or began to drive a truck that the state used to own, was just fine," said Peter McPherson, the senior economic adviser to Paul Bremer (Klein, page 427).

The Iraq war ties into the Homeland Security Bubble, a Bush-era source of "economic growth" in the USA which is never mentioned in the mainstream media. Both Rumsfeld and Cheney had at least tens of millions of dollars of assets coming into their positions, with many of those held on. This gave them a direct interest in privatizing the military, a position Rumsfeld advocated in a September 10, 2001 speech to US generals, where he compared the Pentagon bureaucracy to the Soviet Union. As of the book's publishing, the Pentagon sends US$ 270 billion to private contractors. Washington became the next silicon valley. There were 2 security-oriented lobby firms in 2001, but by mid-2006 there were 543. Cameras, data mining, image recognition are a tough business. The CEOs of the top 34 defense contractors enjoyed a 108% compensation increase between 2001 and 2005, compared to a 6% average at other large American companies in that period.

As an aside, the book also benefits from the best explanation I've seen of the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What is known is that there was some popular support for peace in Israel in the 1990s, and that this support went away and was replaced by a more hardline outlook. I've never seen this explained in a satisfying manner in the mainstream press, and I was interested in Klein's two points on this regard. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ironically caused by "Washington Consensus" shock policies such as privatization,  there was an influx of nearly 1 million Russians into Israel, equivalent to a ~20% increase in population. At this point, Israeli businesses no longer needed Palestinians for cheap labour. The borders would often be closed off, leading to catastrophic economic problems in the Palestinian territories, amplified by Israel's refusal to allow Palestinians to trade with other countries, which in turn fed terrorism. Additionally, following the 9/11 WTC bombings, there was a homeland security bubble throughout the world, a bubble I've also never seen mentioned in the mainstream press (only the housing bubble is discussed) but well documented in The Shock Doctrine. Israel's leaders, who previously had a vision of themselves as the Singapore of the Middle East, now had another vision, that of a futuristic fortress. Israeli corporations benefit from the media analysis of their anti-terrorism dealings because it is free marketing for their police state technologies. In its December 12th, 2005 issue, Forbes magazine declared Israel "the go-to country for anti-terrorism technologies".  Here's a link to the article:

This comprehensiveness is depressing. The book was a page turner, in my case, but also a teeth gnasher. The dominance of neoliberal philosophy appears to be total, and it succeeds virtually wherever it goes in the period 1965-2005. Solidaire was hijacked in Poland, and the African National Congress turned its freedom charter, which it had held on for nearly forty years, into a joke once it achieved power.  It's begun undermining the very apparatus of its enforcement, the united states military, an entity that was largely privatized under Rumsfeld. Every so often when individuals do end up leaving the fold, they don't go very far, for example Jeffrey Sachs going to debate war with his former friends to argue that more foreign aid is the solution... as if there are no complete ideological alternatives. Perhaps there aren't.
  •  In the 1980s, Sachs was a young Harvard celebrity professor, who brought the shock doctrine to Bolivia, where inflation went down and unemployment went up, which he calls a success.
  • He was brought to Poland in the early 1990s. They liked the way he was able to raise foreign aid with his connections. He did the same in Poland, moving the Soldaire party to the right, though it took time to convince them.
  • He tried to do the same in Russia, they got the shock doctrine but to his surprise he wasn't able to raise foreign aid this time. In her interviews with Sachs, he apparently believes that they (the IMF economists) were lazy in not analyzing the Russia situation, which he thinks warranted a Marshall Plan. Klein implies that Sachs is blind, and that the IMF crowd didn't give aid to Russia because they wanted it to fail.
  • He is now in open ideological disagreement with the IMF crowd and advocating debt forgiveness. He has moved from Harvard's economic department to Columbia's. 
If I had written a book like this I might have contemplated suicide. I suspect this is where her last chapter "Shock Wears Off" originates... perhaps her publisher told her that her text was too gloomy, and she needed at least some bloomy to compensate. In her last chapter, she argues it is difficult to pull off the shock doctrine on the same population multiple times. She argues that the current socialist successes in Latin America are largely due to the excesses of the Juntas in the 1970s and 1980s. If true it's a nice story, but I wonder if there's more. Are there truly more successes in Latin America now than there were in other parts of the world in other decades? Is the region better protected than South Korea, Thailand, etc were before the Asian Financial Crisis hit? If Venezuela is such a beacon of socialism, how has the US military not yet bombed the country? I guess history will tell. I do want to believe Klein's final conclusion, that shock wears off, but it is hard to do so following her encyclopedic cataloguing of their skill at manipulating the world over the previous four decades.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I knew the book covered the Iraq War, Katrina, and the tsunami, but I had no idea Klein took such a long and broad view of history here. It seems important to wonder whether, even if shock does wear off, what long term effects it might have on afflicted areas. Perhaps what we need now is to produce a public culture devoted to transparency, the protection of democratic values, and a frank historical narrative, both in public school curricula and national sites of memorial and celebration.