shock“The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”

by Naomi Klein

2007 Metropolitan Books

I feel confident saying that The Shock Doctrine is one of the most important political non-fiction works of the last decade. This should be a high school textbook, or at least required reading in college. Naomi Klein applies her extensive vision and intellect to present us with a way of seeing our world that is extremely relevant and powerful: in the pursuit of enormous profits, those running the global economy intentionally exploit terrible catastrophes, or even create them, to take things for themselves that only shocked and traumatized populations would give up. This ambulance-chasing strategy of those in power is defined as the “shock doctrine,” and “disaster capitalism”, alternatively known as “neoliberalism” is the dominant social paradigm it has created.

Although there are flaws here, which I will mention, this book is both timely and well-written; Klein carries the reader through a story about grandiose topics like neoliberalism, torture, psychology, and international politics that is fundamentally readable.

The most important contribution made by this book in my view is the dismantling of the myth that capitalism’s global dominance is a function of democracy or destiny. This is the notion that with the defeat of the Soviet Union, all alternatives to “the free market” have naturally faded into history, presumably because capitalism is so irresistible. To the contrary, Naomi Klein provides numerous case studies to show us the exact opposite is true – the temporary triumph of global capitalism has been fertilized by the victims of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, wars, campaigns of torture, and economic calamity. In short, alternatives to capitalism have been shocked into submission wherever they’ve appeared.

This is no accident, it is part of a conscious crusade by market fundamentalists, those devoted to the pseudo-religious belief that “the market solves all.” Klein explains that the shock doctrine was developed (at least in part) by the patron saint of neoliberalism, free-market economist Milton Friedman. In his words, “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” And he intended to provide those ideas. It was Friedman’s opus “Capitalism and Freedom” that proclaimed neoliberalism’s core edicts: deregulation, privatization and cutbacks to social services.

Since the 1970s, these teachings have been vigorously applied across the globe by the “holy trinity” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Their institutional missions have been to turn the globe into one enormous marketplace, and generate maximum profits by compelling governments to shed the ability to protect their people and natural environments from the plunder of capital. The trinity’s painful prescriptions (like selling health care and education to for-profit industries) typically followed on the heels of disaster, and were attached to much-needed loans or aid that could not be turned down in a time of crisis. Distressed governments took the bait, but in the long run the shock doctrine just created more poverty and ruin. Davison Budhoo, an IMF senior economist who designed these policies in Latin America and Africa throughout the ’80s explained in his resignation letter, “sometimes I feel that there is not enough soap in the whole world to cleanse me from the things that I did do in your name.”

Naomi takes us on an extensive tour to survey the damage. The first stop is probably the most striking – Chile 1973. It was here that Salvador Allende, democratically-elected socialist president of Chile, was overthrown by the Chilean military with the support of the CIA and Richard Nixon. The brute violence, disappearances and torture that followed are painful to recount, but equally painful were the economic policies implemented straight out of Milton Friedman’s neoliberal playbook. Following the coup, it was disciples of Friedman – the “Chicago Boys” – who were put in charge of the economy, and they acted swiftly to reduce wages, break unions, and sell off vital social services to private multinational corporations. This first neoliberal testing ground showed that Friedmanism succeeded in raising profits, just as it raised the inflation, unemployment, and hunger that soon gripped the country.

These origins of the shock doctrine are fascinating, but Klein also brings us up to the present to inspect disaster capitalism as it operates in today’s world. One of the examples is Iraq, where “Shock and Awe” facilitated the complete dismantling of the Iraqi state, and continued US military occupation still prevents the population from interfering with highly unpopular shock treatment policies like selling off the nation’s vast oil wealth to western oil corporations. Likewise we see the same pattern in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as officials jumped at the “opportunity” of this cataclysmic storm to push through policies that normally would have faced stiff opposition, like the shutting down of public schools and housing projects to make way for charters and condos. This privatization may have the effect of increasing the suffering of the impoverished and now somewhat homeless black majority of the city, but in the shock doctors’ eyes, such suffering is hidden behind large stacks of money.

In case you weren’t convinced yet, we also get to tour South Asia following the 2004 tsunami, post-Soviet Poland and Russia, post-Tiananmen Square Massacre China, post-Apartheid South Africa, and at least 5 other traumatized regions to study the shock doctrine in action, and everywhere we find the same theme – exploiting disasters with economic projects that benefit the few before the many can respond. Whether the crises are intentionally created or merely opportunistically seized upon, Naomi Klein helps us see that it’s the policies of deregulation, privatization, and cutbacks to social services that prove to be as disastrous as the calamities they follow.

My main criticisms of this book center around the fact that it’s simply too long and too depressing. There’s a tremendous wealth of information here, and the points are well made, but it ends up being overwhelming (even for me, and I’m used to reading about horrible tragedies). How much can one read about torture chambers, mass poverty, and violent exploitation before despair sets in? At 466 pages, this is overkill, and the author can’t help but be redundant. Worse, only the last of the 22 chapters actually deals with solutions, providing essential hope for our otherwise desolate and traumatic landscape.

This conclusion is by far the best and most important section, because it shows that in many ways this disaster capitalist complex is being defeated by the efforts of regular people, most dramatically in Latin America. Detailing how the global justice movement has delegitimized the neoliberal project and its trinity of institutions provides necessary knowledge for all organizers and activists today – the weakpoints of the worldwide capitalist menace.  But preceded by 400+ pages of gloom, I bet most readers don’t even reach this before giving up on the book. In short, as vital as The Shock Doctrine is, it could have been made truly transcendant by cutting at least half the exposee of the problem and supplementing several more hopeful chapters along the lines of the (excellent) conclusion. Surely the shock doctrine’s traumatic story doesn’t have to be a trauma to read.

In the end, Naomi Klein stands out as a genius who’s mastered an incredible library of knowledge, and an artist able to weave together a torrent of difficult concepts and facts into a compelling story that educates the reader on basic truths of their reality. The lessons and themes of The Shock Doctrine can be applied much more extensively than Klein dares to here, as it’s not just “disaster capitalism” that requires an element of shock to propagate itself, but capitalism as such. From the beginning with the land enclosures and the witch burnings of 15th-17th century Europe, capitalism was built through appalling theft and horrific flames. Understanding how the system we have to deal with now was birthed in those pioneering social and ecological shocks (as part of a more-or-less deliberate strategy by elites) is an effort made much easier with the help of this book.

And now that capitalism is suffering its own shocks, will new disasters present themselves as opportunities for the powerful to develop fresh forms of exploitation (bank bailouts spring to mind), or will we establish the space to finally heal from the trauma we’ve been subjected to under capitalism, as we move towards a more just and sustainable future?  That story is still being written, one day at a time, by all of us.