A Review of Naomi Klein's THE SHOCK DOCTRINE
|Book: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism|
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Publisher: Random House Canada
A Review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine
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Those critical of global institutions and free-market economics may find their worst fears confirmed in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, a thoughtful and provocative example of investigative journalism. The most recent work from the author who brought the anti-globalization movement No Logo, often referred to as the bible of the movement, has succeeded in providing a text that forces the reader to question the relationships between the dominant institutions that govern and manipulate their society. While it is not immune to the same criticism No Logo received from scholarly critics, The Shock Doctrine might well help to galvanize the left into the next stage of the anti-globalization movement.
The book begins with a discussion of the use of shock therapy as a means of erasing the personality of an individual, so that that personality might then be remade. In a revealing chapter, Klein describes the role of Dr. Cameron Ewen’s CIA-funded research at McGill University in the 1950’s in developing shock-therapy techniques, which would develop into modern-day torture-techniques utilized by the United States military. The methods employed by Ewen in his research are at once appalling and unethical; patients of Dr. Ewen, seeking aid for issues as basic as marital problems, were subjected without consent to prolonged isolation, mind-altering psychedelics in vast quantities, and large doses of electroshock therapy (p. 31). The results of these experiments were half-successful: the personalities of the individuals subjected to Ewen’s research were effectively erased. However, success was minimal in rebuilding them.
From this discussion, Klein draws parallels between the goals of Ewen Cameron – creating a blank-state of mind from which to rebuild – and the economic beliefs of the charismatic Milton Friedman, which rested on the goal of erasing any and all barriers to free-market capitalism – creating a blank state for private enterprises to rebuild. These beliefs, taught and originally developed at (and credited to) the University of Chicago, are summarized by Klein on page 59:
The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. It follows ineluctably that if something is wrong within a free-market economy – high inflation or soaring unemployment – it has to be because the market is not truly free. There must be some interference, some distortion to the system. The Chicago solution is always the same: a stricter and more complete application of the fundamentals.
The application of these fundamentals are, however, almost always deeply unpopular to the majority of citizens in a given economic region. This is because the “interferences” or “distortions” are often government subsidies or programs, and doing away with integral components of social welfare can have disastrous implications for economically vulnerable groups of people, who more often than not, outnumber those who are un-needing of government subvention. This poses a problem for followers of Friedman’s economic theory. How, when a free-market is perceived to be impeded by government support for public institutions (such as hospitals, schools) and social assistance (welfare, land distribution, unemployment insurance, for example), does one do away with such undesirable impediments, in the face of overwhelming support for the benefits they provide the public with? The answer to this is what Naomi Klein has termed, “The Shock Doctrine.”
The basic premise of the doctrine is simple. The ideal time to implement sweeping reforms that eliminate any perceived “disruptions” to the unimpeded free-market is immediately following a major disaster, when the public is too shocked and disoriented to affectively understand and respond to the radical changes that take place following the implementation of the Shock Doctrine.
Klein’s thesis seems sinister, and almost unbelievable. The implementation of sweeping and unpopular reforms upon a population already reeling in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster, in order to secure access to an unfettered free-market for private capitalist interests seems not only cold-heartedly cruel, but highly undemocratic. As her thesis develops, however, so too does the reader’s awareness that unrestricted capitalism and democracy do not go hand in hand. Indeed, they are the antithesis of one another.
Chile is the first case study presented by Klein, as the Chilean coup of 1973, funded and promoted by the CIA, provided the first real opportunity for the Chicago Boys (students of the University of Chicago’s economics program, developed by Friedman) to test their theory. The coup came with terror. The overthrowing of a democratically elected government came at a cost of approximately 3200 lives, and forcing 200,000 people from their homes (p. 88). Following General Augusto Pincochet’s ascent to power, and acting on the advice and support of the Chicago Boys, the dictator Pinochet worked swiftly to privatize publicly owned companies, eliminate trade barriers designed to protect Chilean businesses, did away with price controls in the already poor country, and slashed government spending (p. 92).
The desired effects anticipated by the Chicago Boys were not realized, however, as the inflation rate grew to be the highest in the world, and unemployment grew dismally high (p. 93). The solution, it seemed to those who supported Pinochet’s reforms, was a further dismantling of the welfare state, until the blank state of a free market was reached, from which capitalism could work its magic and restore balance to the economy. All this was done as swiftly as possible following the violent coup, while the population was shocked, and struggling to survive.
This “balance” was never restored, as Klein points out that as of 2007, Chile remains one of the most unequal societies in the world in terms of wealth distribution."Obviously, the results were not undesirable for everyone. After fifteen years of Pinochet’s governmental policies, in 1988 “45% of the population had fallen below the poverty line. The richest 10% of Chileans, however, had seen their incomes increase by 83%” (p. 100).
While the reader is at once appalled by the irresponsible disregard for the well being of the Chilean population exhibited by the Chilean elites (and their foreign advisors), Klein further shocks the reader by detailing how similar policies were implemented, often by more violent means, in Russia, South Africa, Argentina, Bolivia, and Malaysia. In each case, sweeping reforms were introduced following disasters that shocked and confused the citizens of the respective nations. The International Monetary Fund and/or the World Bank were heavily involved and supportive of these reforms, which would serve to open up the respective markets to unfettered foreign investment, regardless of the consequences for the vast majority of citizens living within those economies. Little room is left for doubt that such institutions are proceeding in the interests of the capitalist elites, who approach democracy as an obstacle, and not a desired goal for the countries to whom they offer loans and advice.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the implementation of the Shock Doctrine has not been limited to non-western, less developed countries. It is indeed shocking to discover that the ideas of Milton Friedman were largely put to use in the United States following the terrorist attacks of 2001, as well as in New Orleans following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. At the core of such efforts is a desire among American elites to dismantle Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which introduced social welfare following the Great Depression, and continues to keep potential profit-making industries – such as education – out of private hands.
Also striking is Klein’s substantial research into the intricate connections between White House executives and wealthy pharmaceutical, oil and military corporations. It is effectively shown, for example, that Donald Rumsfeld’s connections to the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, of which he held between $8 million and $39 million worth of holdings, were never severed when Rumsfeld took office as Defense Secretary, as is required of any public officials who could otherwise manipulate decisions in favour of their non-governmental interests. This obvious conflict of interest paid off for Rumsfeld, however, and Klein explains, “If he had sold his Gilead stocks at inauguration, in January 2001, he would have received a mere $7.45 each. By keeping them through all the avian flu scares, all the bioterror hysteria and through his own administration’s decisions to invest heavily in the company, Rumsfeld ended up with stocks worth $67.60 each when he left office – and 807 percent increase” (p.376).
This leads Klein to a discussion of the so-called “War on Terror,” which raises serious questions regarding the motivation for the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as whose interests are being served in the wars.
Klein’s approach in The Shock Doctrine is not free from academic criticism. It becomes obvious at several points that one is reading the work of a journalist, and not the unbiased, disciplined approach one might expect from a qualified researcher. In her discussion of the Chilean coup, for example, we find unsubstantiated speculation on the feelings of the Chicago Boys who were preparing work to present to Pinochet’s administration following his illegal seizure of the government, as she writes; “For the Chicago Boys, September 11 (1973) was a day of giddy anticipation and deadline adrenalin.” Is this unfair? When one considers the mountains of economic theory and text supportive of Milton Friedman’s ideas, perhaps an approach critically biased against such ideas should be a welcome addition to the literary world.
Another initial weakness one might accuse The Shock Doctrine of suffering from is the seemingly feeble connection Klein seeks to draw between the psychological experiments of a doctor in Montreal, and the transnational efforts of global institutions to reform economic legislation is various countries. It is this connection that ties the various topics of the work together, and at times, it is presupposed and unconvincing. On page 55, for example, the parallel drawn can be considered little more than a metaphor, which is empirically useless, as Klein writes of the actions of the US military in Iraq, “Like (Dr.) Cameron, Iraq’s shock doctors can destroy, but they can’t seem to rebuild.” This statement ends the first chapter of the book, and the critical reader, while able to comprehend the metaphor, is not convinced, nor perhaps even impressed.
Throughout the book, however, Klein continuously reaffirms this connection, and the parallel develops into a much more convincing relationship. In discussing the African National Congress’s disappointing failure to implement its much-respected and widely supported constitution following the ANC’s rise to government, she interviews an individual who was imprisoned during the ANC’s struggle, who
Sees parallels between the psychology in prisons and the ANC’s behaviour in government. In prison, he said, ‘if you please the warden more, you get a better status. And that logic obviously transposed itself into some of the things that South African society did. They did want to somehow prove that they were much better prisoners. Much more disciplined prisoners than other countries, even.’(P.252).
The connection between Cameron’s use of shock therapy in bizarre experiments, utilized by the U.S. military in the enforcement of Chicago Boys policies, (enforcement that is required in nearly every application of such unpopular policies), to the methods of shocking populations with immediate and sweeping reforms, often in the wake of a large scale disaster, is made quite convincingly by the end of the book. While one may not logically follow the other, the methods used and goals of both Cameron’s work and Friedman’s ideas are strikingly similar, and Klein successfully argues the correlation.
The Shock Doctrine proves itself to be a very important, and highly relevant book in today’s society. It is at once both frightening and empowering: Frightening in the scope the book provides on the vast amount of power and control exercised by private groups and institutions, as well as their intricate connections with top-level government officials, yet empowering in the capacity of individuals to resist the efforts of these powers, and exercise control over their own lives. People recover from disasters. “The universal experience of living through a great shock is the feeling of being completely powerless: in the faces of awesome forces, parents lose the ability to save their children, spouses are separated, homes – places of protection – become death traps. The best way to recover from helplessness turns out to be helping – having the right to be part of a communal recovery” (p. 560).
In a short film on the same subject, found on The Shock Doctrine’s website, the video follows the arguments of the book, and ends with bold lettering, stating: “Information is shock resistance. Arm yourself.” Naomi Klein has certainly provided readers with a useful tool to this end, and has again provided not only activists and leaders with a new text to galvanize upon, but also an important book that should be read by anyone seeking to be an informed citizen in today’s globalized world.