Naomi Klein’s latest book features a review on the back which says ‘If you only read one non-ficition book this year, make it this one.’ While I’m normally suspicious of such superlative praise, this book may well justify it.
First things first. This is not a chirpy or upbeat book. The first 442 pages are almost unflinchingly grim, stark and bleak… The concluding 20 pages are certainly brighter, but they’re still an awfully long way from euphoria. There are times where this book is liable to make you so angry that you will likely cry. However, despite the darkness there is something that I found deeply comforting about the Shock Doctrine. And out of that comfort springs hope, belief and the possibility of social change.
The Shock Doctrine details the rise of what Klein has termed disaster capitalism, an evolution in capitalist praxis which is more commonly referred to as neoliberalism, globalization or Empire. Klein gives a brilliant exposition of these developments, from their birth in the University of Chicago economics department and the writings of Milton Friedman to their current hegemonic status within orthodox capitalist economics and international institutions such as the IMF and WTO.
Where Klein departs from the traditional path is the comparison she draws between Freidman’s economic shock therapy policies and the shock therapy of Dr Ewen Cameron, an American psychiatric doctor who extensively employed elector-shock therapy and total sensory deprivation to try and turn his patients into a clean slate on which to work. Cameron believed that he could shock mentally disturbed patients well; that by removing the patient from their usual understanding of themselves and the world he could re-create their personalities to conform to social norms. Cameron’s work was overwhelmingly a failure to treat patients, indeed many who suffered from anxiety and other minor ailments ended up severely traumatized and unable to function socially, however his techniques have since been extensively employed by the CIA and US military from the 1960’s onwards, and their influence was notably seen at Guantanamo bay and Abu Ghraib, where sensory deprivation allied with electroshock have proved valuable weapons in torture. Whereas conventional beatings often reinforced the individual’s values and pre-existing notions of right and wrong, sensory deprivation and electro-shock yield a sense of confusion which interrogators have found more useful methods of obtaining information.
Klein’s hypothesis is that the shock of sensory deprivation and electro-shock, with its aim of creating a blank slate on which the doctor is to create anew is analogous to the economic shock treatment advocated by Friedman and his acolytes, which seeks to shock economies into functioning according to a free market model. In order to implement this shock therapy. Whereas Cameron’s shock therapy works on the ecology of mind, at the level of the individual, Friedman’s shock therapy achieves similar effects within the social ecology. Friedman himself has claimed that
Only a crisis, actual or perceived-produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around. That I believe is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable
Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962 ix
In other words, whist normal social and economic conditions abound people will be opposed to the dramatic changes which Friedman advocated: the privatization of public managed wealth, lowering taxes for the rich, allowing foreign multinational corporations to compete freely with small domestic companies and opposing any form of state intervention in the economy to subsidize (for example) staple foods and water. That such measures would be dramatically unpopular, especially among the poorest sections of society ought to be obvious, and this explains why they have unanimously failed to be implemented via democratic means.
In a crisis however, be it a war, a coup, or a natural disaster; Friedman saw the opportunity (as indeed did Lenin) to implement drastic changes to society while the general population is suffering from the shock of the crisis. Once the crisis is resolved the changes will have been made, and there are stipulations put into practice which make reverting these changes difficult bordering on impossible. Essentially this kind of shock therapy acknowledges that the ideas of the free market are null and void within a democratic society, however in times of crisis and shock democracy can be temporarily suspended, allowing the neoliberals to attain their goals.
While the homology between the sense of shock and disorientation of Friedman’s economic program and Cameron’s electro-shock therapy are in many ways fascinating, Klein has a tendency to overstate the similarities, making things which contain interesting parallels in certain ways, but remain heterogeneous in others appear to be part of a unified and homologous program. The brilliance of this book though is not the overarching theme of psychological and socio-economic shock, as the detailed cases by case analysis Klein conducts, examining where, when and how neoliberalism came to hegemony.
Starting with Pinochet’s coup in Chile, where the democratically elected and popular nationalist leader Salvador Allende was overthrown by the fascistic general whose forces went about ensuring control through overt violence, to the similar scenario in Indonesia, where another nationalist leader, Sukarno, was again overthrown by a bloody and violent military leader, Suharto, to the military juntas in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, a similar story is told. Democratically elected leaders removed forcibly, and while the violence surges and the people are left shocked and awed by the scale of the bloodshed economic reforms are implemented which see unemployment soars as the poor get rapidly poorer as the rich and their friends the multinational corporations get vastly richer.
Following the theme of a crisis or a shock, Klein goes on to document how extraordinary circumstance have been used by neoliberals to implement unpopular and often disasterous policies. Be it Thatcher’s use of the Falklands War to revitalize her flagging first term in office, to the way that the Asian Tsunami, Hurrican Katrina and 9/11 have been used as opportunities to push through unpopular laws while the publics’ attention is elsewhere.
Particularly enlightening are the chapters of the transition to capitalism experienced by Russia. Whereas the mainstream media talks of the end of the Cold War as a jubilant time, they conveniently omit to mention the fact that in order to push through the reforms which saw 1/3rd of the Russian population plunged into poverty virtually overnight as state assets were handed out to Yeltsin’s friends and family, the President had to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the elected parliament, and then turn the military’s guns on both the parlimentarians who decried his actions, and many of their supporters.
The story of a nation strangled at birth is repeated in both Poland and South Africa under very different circumstances. The similarity however is that both nations negotiated political freedoms, from Soviet bureaucracy and Apartheid, however their desires for political freedoms were catastrophically undermined by economic agreements they were cowed into signing, which essentially prevented the implementation of the political programs of both the ANC and Solidarity.
Why did I find such tales of suffering, violence and misery in any way positive then? The answer is that by systematically exposing the violence and exploitation that has accompanied the rise of neoliberalism Klein exposes the lies endlessly repeated by the corporate media; that free markets go hand in hand with free people and that neoliberalism has been a democratic success. The truth as the Shock Doctrine exposes is very different, and led to reaffirm these two statements in my mind.
I believe in free people NOT free markets
I believe in democracy not capitalism
Noam Chomsky famously said that he believed people needed to take forms of intellectual self defence against the propaganda emanating from the corporate media. The Shock Doctrine’s exposition of the rise of neoliberalism, divulging the anti-democratic, violent methods by which we have arrived at our current juncture in history serves the function of intellectual self defence by allowing readers not only to glimpse the violence of global capitalist institutions, but also by suggesting the possibility for alternatives to the shock doctrine of the free market; mass movements which instead present alternative values of social solidarity, democracy and freedom.