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Capitalism as a catastrophe. A critique of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine

Capitalism as a catastrophe. A critique of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine


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By Mark Engler

Klein names a series of "organized attacks against institutions and public goods after catastrophic events, while declaring them attractive market opportunities." According to her, this is defined "disaster capitalism." Klein argues that, from one country to another, the initial shock of a war, a natural catastrophe, or an economic crisis precedes a second period of the shock, in which a series of unpopular reforms - privatization, government deregulation, and cuts social spending - happens while people are too confused and disoriented to resist. In the end, in a third period of shock, repression and torture are implemented to silence dissent.


A rare contradiction afflicts non-hierarchical social movements. Activists most reluctant to create formal mechanisms for appointing their own leaders do grant this same power to the media. This has certainly been the case within the anti-globalization movement, in which an anarchist ethos has prevailed. Confronted by a deep network of local lobbyists, councils and organizations, the media has been desperate for recognizable public figures who can pose as front men. They have, then, brought a few writers and intellectuals to public attention. Among them, one of the most notable is Naomi Klein, the 40-year-old Canadian journalist.

At first, Klein was an exceptional example of good timing. Just as his first book, No Logo: The Power of Brands, was going to press, historic demonstrations erupted in Seattle against the WTO ministerial meetings in November 1999. The anti-business movement described in his book was no longer considered a collection of clandestine and loosely organized international campaigns to a genuine global phenomenon. The book sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Although it seemed a fortuitous confluence, Klein did not become success by pure chance - she had interpreted the political environment well. According to Klein, when she was a university student in Canada in the early 1990s, "student politics focused on issues of discrimination and identity." But when he went back to doing research at some universities five years later, he saw a change. The students 'analyzes' expanded to consider corporate power, labor rights, and a well developed analysis of the workings of the global economy. 'When other books began to argue, in Klein's words, that' corporations they had grown so much that they were already supplanting governments, 'she began to portray the resistance efforts against them. As a result, there was one of the most astutely observed accounts of the motivations, views, and demands of the nascent global justice movement.

Being a brilliantly astute work of cultural criticism, journalists frequently refer to No logo as the 'Bible' of the movement. This is a loose analogy: I have never seen an anti-globalization activist lift it up as if it were holy writing, and in fact the book is presented much more as a guide than a manifesto. Anti-sectarian to the core, he succeeds in capturing believers and skeptics alike, using juicy examples from life in this new 'corporate age.' Klein recounts the words of a Diesel jeans salesman, who maintained that the product was not a garment itself, as was 'the way to live ... the way to dress ... the way to do something.' The goal of multinationals at this time, Klein explains, was focused on the leadership of their brands instead of the production of the goods themselves, which were probably manufactured in sweatshops in Southeast Asia. More and more, the publicists of that time sneaked into schools and public spaces. And to prevent genuine dissent, companies lured hipsters with tongue-in-cheek advertisements, offering canned resistance in the form of the tail 'Revolution.' At the time, all of this was prescient: the book carried forward the struggles of global movements for the environment and for decent wages, legitimizing them as eminently reasonable answers.

On Klein's part, much of his popularity was due to the absence of snobbish pretensions in his politics. In No logo, the author refers to anecdotes such as her work as a teenager, when she was folding sweaters in an Esprit store in Canada; and of his family outings in the country, in whose fondest memories he would twist his neck to keep in sight of the huge plastic McDonalds and Burger King signs he encountered along the way. He says that his older brother, when he was 6 years old, ‘had already memorized all the advertising songs from the television commercials, and was jumping around the house in an Incredible Hulk T-shirt,’ declaring himself “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” All of this greatly dismayed his parents, an American hippy couple who moved to Canada to avoid the appeal during the Vietnam War.

Such experiences helped shape Klein's fine political sensibilities. Belonging to a generation that deeply felt the seductive power of corporate propaganda machines, she was best able to articulate the growing desire to break free from their control. In the end, she would become the worthy bearer of her family's radicalism. Among all those who rose to form the public leadership of the movement, few managed to be more eloquent and responsible spokespersons than she. And despite her growing fame, Klein has remained determined in her demand for economic justice, passionate about taking responsibility for grassroots networks and citizen activists, and fearless in challenging those who defend the privilege of the powerful. These characteristics proved invaluable during the Bush Administration.

Shortly after the publication of No logo, Klein published a collection of his 'reports from the front lines of the globalization debate.' But it was several years before his next major work came out: The Shock Doctrine - The Rise of Capitalism. of the disaster. When it came out in the fall of 2007, the book belonged to a time that was already new.

The book grew out of reports by Klein in Iraq, New Orleans, and Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami. Of these scenes, he observed a common pattern. In the case of Iraq, the leader of the military occupation Paul Bremmer followed the 'attack and amazement' campaign by announcing the creation of a deeply privatized economy, which was based on what The Economist described as' a wish list the one foreign investors and international donors dream of. 'Corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater suddenly came to take advantage, loading themselves with jobs previously seen as belonging to the US Army. The oil industry, meanwhile, was lustfully awaiting the prospects. In the case of Sri Lanka, the white beaches erased by the 2004 tsunami quickly came under the control of the hotel industry, which built large tourist centers, preventing thousands of indigenous fishermen from rebuilding their villages. And after the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina, the Heritage Foundation produced a list of thirty-two tough neoliberal political programs to implement in the name of "post-hurricane relief." It called for the suspension of the general wage laws and the creation of a "flat tax free initiative zone," and was promptly adopted by the Bush Administration.

Klein gives his name to this series of "organized attacks on public institutions and assets after catastrophic events, while declaring them attractive market opportunities." According to her, this is defined "disaster capitalism."

“When I started researching huge corporate profits and huge disasters,” says Klein, “I thought I was facing a sea change in the way markets 'liberalization' was going on around the world. . " Examining the case more closely, he discovered that this model had even deeper historical roots. In the end, she would conclude that "the idea of ​​taking advantage of crises and natural disasters had been the classic modus operandi of Milton Friedman followers from the beginning." Over the past three decades, neoliberals have honed the strategy: wait for a devastating crisis, sell parts of the state to private actors while citizens reeling from shock, and suddenly make the "reforms" permanent. This is, in a nutshell, "the shock doctrine."

As a metaphor for the beginning, Klein tells the story of Dr. Ewen Cameron's experiments, supported by the CIA and done at McGill University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The unethical doctor implemented an extreme program of therapy. shock, which induced regression and amnesia in his patients, thus erasing them to a blank page, and re-creating a personality from scratch. As therapy it was a total failure, but it drew the attention of the CIA interrogators, who then promoted electroshock to make their prisoners "fall into a state of regression and terror such that they cannot think rationally or protect their benefits. own. " The victims were so scared that they no longer had secrets.

In the broader implementation of neoliberal ideology, shocks are implemented at the more social level than at the personal level. Klein argues that, from country to country, the initial shock of a war, natural catastrophe, or economic crisis precedes a second period of shock, in which a series of unpopular reforms - privatization, government deregulation, and spending cuts social - happen while people are too confused and disoriented to resist. In the end, in a third period of shock, repression and torture are implemented to silence dissent.


Klein uses his shock framework to connect a wide variety of events. Looking chronologically, he begins by showing how the introduction of neoliberalism in Chile under Pinochet in the 1970s followed suit. There, Friedman's economy, previously considered too reckless to implement, was adopted by a dictatorship shortly after the overthrow of Allende's democratic government. In Argentina, a military junta implemented a series of economic reforms similar to those in Chile, and in the process 30,000 people “disappeared”. Across the ocean, in the UK in 1982, the war in the Falklands allowed Margaret Thatcher "to use tremendous efforts to crush the striking miners' revolt, and to spark the first great privatizing tide of a Western democracy."

Another type of crisis, hyperinflation in Bolivia in 1985, created such a traumatic moment that economist Jeffrey Sachs was able to sell his economic form of extreme “shock treatment”. The same order to enter the market was prescribed in Russia in 1993, and carried out by Boris Yeltsin when he sent tanks against the Russian Parliament and put opposition leaders in jail. Klein maintains that, from Poland to South Africa, to China to countries affected by the Asian economic crisis, "the history of the contemporary free market ... was written with shocks."

The Shock Doctrine is an ambitious, accomplished, and important book as well. Their contributions come from several key points. First, it puts Klein's storytelling talent on full display. She once again stands out as one of the few English-speaking authors capable of capturing both the majority and the radical public at the same time. Whether or not one agrees with his general argument, his chapters are valuable capsules in the history of market expansion.

For example, there are numerous versions that tell of the implementation of neoliberalism in Chile under Pinochet. Empire Workshop by Greg Grandin, for example, did the job of making this story public very well when it came out in 2006. The version told by Klein, however, is remarkably vivid and well-researched. She presents gripping and tragic scenes, such as the assassination of pro-Allende dissident Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. After a bomb planted under his car detonated, his severed foot was left on the ground, while an ambulance tried in vain to take him to hospital. Perhaps, Klein expresses the drama of the most everyday events. In one story, he represents a team of Chilean economists at the University of Chicago, when they “camped out at the printing houses of the right-wing newspaper El mercurio” in the hours leading up to Pinochet's coup. There they were rushing to finish, print, and bring to the military leaders copies of their "Five-Hundred-Page Bible, a detailed economic recipe that would be the official guide of the Junta from its beginning."

Furthermore, the central message of The Shock Doctrine is critical. The author considers the book "a challenge against the most central and appreciated claim in official history, that the triumph of deregulated capitalism was born from freedom, and that the free and deregulated market goes hand in hand with democracy." Instead, Klein attempts "to show that this fundamentalist form of capitalism has arisen in a brutal birth whose midwives have been violence and coercion." A lack of originality in this argument has disliked some critics. They argue that anyone who seriously investigates the development of capitalism over the past centuries will find that violence is a persistent, if not ubiquitous, aspect of the creation and maintenance of "free" markets.

On this, I agree with Klein. Indeed, one could look at a variety of classic economic policy texts to illustrate the fact that, historically, the "free" market has required authoritarian state action to originate. Karl Polanyi's work is a good starting point. However, certain stories demand that they be told over and over again. Whenever the dominant ideology insists that peace, democracy, and "free trade" go together as a harmonious trio, Klein is correct that the talents of progressive analysts should be dedicated to demonstrating the opposite in novel and compelling ways.

A third resource in the book is that disaster capitalism, as manifested in Iraq, New Orleans, and post-tsunami Sri Lanka, is undoubtedly a major recent phenomenon, one that is likely to grow in importance with the effects of the overheating. global that are being made more and more. To name and detail, Klein has done a great service.

But beyond that, it is questionable whether the argument can serve as the basis for a broader understanding of the global economy than whether the shock strategy can well be considered, as she argues, "the preferred method of promoting corporate objectives."

The problems Klein addresses in The Shock Doctrine reflect a more general shift from the globalization debate. During the years of the Bush Administration, student politics once again took a new shape. A few years ago it was frequently said that the nation-state had become an obsolete concept and that transnational corporations were replacing it. But following in the footsteps of 9/11, the state has re-imposed itself with vengeance. For activist college students, opposition to the Bush regime took precedence over anti-business campaigns. And for analysts of globalization, the primary task has been how to refocus their explanations of the world order so that the picture becomes more centralized on the state.

The shock doctrine addresses this dilemma by uniting the state and the commercial entirely. Klein argues that “in every country where mainstream Chicago economic policies have been implemented over the past three decades, the emergence of a powerful ruling alliance between multinationals and a political class made up of wealthy members is detected — with blurred dividing lines between both groups. " According to her, the proper name for this system is "corporatism." He explains that "the acceptable role of government in a corporatist state is to be the conveyor belt that carries public money into private hands."

Similarly, Klein proposes that the only major motivation in contemporary capitalist politics is greed. Pointing out that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and various neo-conservative ideologues, have deep financial investments in industries profiting from the war on terror, she proposes that any attempt to divorce their political fervor from their business interests is “artificial and amnesiac. . " He writes contemptuously, “The right to pursue profit without limits has always been at the core of neoconservative ideology… in the war on terror the neocons have not had to give up their corporatist economic goals; rather, they have discovered a new and more effective way to achieve them. "

In this world, dismantling politics for profit alone will facilitate success. It can serve as a particularly useful corrective when the "crusade against communism" and "fighting terrorism" are the noble motives constantly evoked, and when something as insensitive as economic interests is never admitted. But it goes without saying that the movement is reductionist.

Klein's representation of a monolithic class of corporate-political elites is not pre-adapted to apply to any political circumstance. It is not particularly useful for recognizing and exploiting the differences between Clintonist "free traders," Republican realists, and neoconservative fundamentalists. It offers little help in understanding the Weekly Standard when it opposes the maintenance of permanent normal trade with China, a key target for corporate globalists, citing human rights as justification. Nor does it allow for distinctions between different sectors of the economy - taking into account, for example, that the interests of the large hotel industry (which in turn is furious at the negative effects of Bush's War on Terror on their businesses) they are not necessarily the same as Halliburton has. In the end, it ignores the possibility that factors such as religious convictions and nationalism, regardless of business, influence the policies of the Bush Administration.

Interestingly, although Klein is very good at tracking money, his book is not materialistic in a way that can satisfy the more traditional Marxists. She avoids exploring the structural forces — for example, the contraction of the global economy since 1973 or the decline in profitability of core industries — that have shaped the rise of neoliberalism.

His insights into the use of political shock are profound, but they also have limits. When the book's chronology finally reaches the invasion of Iraq, its plot takes a strange turn. Throughout the volume, Klein refers to the metaphor "attack and shock." Therefore, his readers believe that George W. Bush's war will represent the pinnacle of the same shock method. Rather, it is the point at which the metaphor begins to unravel.

Iraq has been the subject of every type of shock imaginable. But instead of promoting a state of regression and acquiescence in its object, it has inspired resistance. Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State at the time, is quoted as saying that the “US had at hand an Iraqi people who were not-scared and not-terrified. Beyond the ethical and political implications of the failed occupation, it is simply an instance of bad capitalism: “They sent Bremer to Iraq to build a corporate utopia,” writes Klein. “Instead, Iraq became a dystopia in the one that going to a business meeting would put you at risk of being lynched, burned alive, or beheaded. " The author remains ambivalent about these messages. On the one hand, the fleeing private contractors have already made billions of dollars from their deals with the government, and the oil companies are still fixed on Iraqi soil. On the other hand, important aspects of the crisis model itself have been dropped.

As Klein explains, it turns out that Bush-era disaster capitalism is distinct from the purest form of the shock doctrine. In reality, it represents a belated, desperate and especially fanatical manifestation of a system that has already been exhausted. After about 400 pages, this modified thesis is unsatisfactory. As Klein's schema falls on his own analysis of Iraq, the constant repetition of the same word "shock" makes it seem more of a yielding device than a consistent and illuminating interpretation.

The book makes a great mockery of Milton Friedman's contention that "only a crisis, whether it occurs in life or in the imagination, can produce real change." But there is no reason why this idea is inherently questionable from a progressive point of view. In the context of the United States alone, one could reason that the shock that resulted from the great depression of the 1930s gave birth to the New Deal. Or that the civil rights movement, marked by resolute nonviolence, provoked Bull Conner to whip up his attack dogs and fire hoses, thus creating a televised crisis whose shock called the public to action. Yes, only the most stubbornly gradualist theories of social change would overlook the importance of various "shocks" in instigating a revolt.

In Klein's interpretation of the Bush years, it would be easy to forget that there is a commercial world outside the domain of domestic security, the defense industry, large-scale construction, and oil. It contends that “a domestic security bubble, an industry sector that Wired magazine estimated in 2005 to be worth as much as $ 200 trillion, saved the US economy from a much deeper economic crisis after the burst of the tech bubble. The runaway US housing market, expanding creditors, and China's willingness to sustain the value of the dollar receive little or no attention. Similarly, many of the major companies mentioned in No logo — including Nike, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Microsoft almost disappeared from their accounts, as if they had ceded the global economy to Halliburton, Bechtel, Exxon and Lockheed Martin.

The result is a fairly revised version of the character of contemporary capitalism. "Democratic socialism, which means not only the democratically elected socialist parties, but also the sources of work and the lands that are democratically managed, were never defeated in a great battle of ideas, nor were they rejected in any election," she argues. "They were removed by shock at the most important political junctures." By the way, there is truth in the idea that many of the populations resistant to neoliberalism have been tortured into submission. But something is also missing in this picture.

In The Shock Doctrine, the insidious and seductive powers of multinational capital have disappeared. Without them, very little remains to explain the situation of the local elites of the global South, to whom they submit to support the North American model; the unsafe middle class that aligns itself with the social ascendants instead of joining the labor movements; or the lower class of aspiring consumers, who are the captives of the charming promises of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. All those groups that have much more central roles in the alternative chronicles of mercantile ideology. Nor does the analysis leave much room to explain why American children already sing the jingles in commercials and beg for fast food by the time they turn six. All those who have never been tortured by the state, but rather hugged instead - a relationship that is otherwise quite gruesome.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of How to Rule the World: The Next Battle for the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be contacted through the website http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Translated by Harrison Magee and Mara Tiburzi. Posted in Magazine Without Permission


Video: Henry Rollins: Education is the End of Disaster Capitalism. Big Think (May 2022).