I read “The Shock Doctrine” over a year ago, but it’s definitely one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, and it has really informed a lot of my recent thinking about corporate capitalism and the Deep State. The central metaphor of Klein’s thesis is the concept of “shock” and all of its associated meanings, and how the phenomenon has been exploited by a political and financial elite to maintain power and increase their own wealth at the expense of the many.
There is ECT (shock therapy) and it’s uses for creating a psychiatric blank slate in patients/victims. There are military shock tactics, such as those used by the Pinochet junta in Chile and the “shock and awe” campaign of the second Iraq war in 2003. There is electrical shock used as a means of torture, by Pinochet and others in South America, to quell dissent and create a favorable environment for the “Chicago Boys’” experiments in economic shock. And there is the general state of public shock, brought about by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or the tsunami of December 2004.
The book is divided into seven parts, which roughly trace the historical evolution of disaster capitalism and the political climate it entails, from gruesome psychiatric research that can only be described as torture-carried out by one Dr. Ewen Cameron at McGill University in the 1950’s–to the application of these techniques recently in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other unnamed CIA secret prisons.
Klein discusses the use of Cameron’s psychiatric techniques to create a “clean slate” in his patients and later in torture victims, after the techniques were adopted by the CIA. She picks up and extends the analogy of the clean slate to apply to the ultimate aims of the Chicago School economists, who were enlisted by the U.S. State Department to indoctrinate South American economists with Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire approach to economics. These economists got the clean slate they sought as a test bed for their theories through the military juntas of the 1970’s in South American nations such as Chile.
If the book can be said to have a villain it is surely Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who did the most to promote so-called neoliberal economic policies in the second half of the 20th Century, both in the United States and abroad. Friedman’s belief in free trade and market fundamentalism began at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, but was soon exported by a Cold War-era government eager to counter the threat of socialism throughout the world, but especially in Latin America.
Essentially, Friedman believed that “the market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products…” His experiments vis-a-vis hard-line dictatorial regimes the world over never bore this out though. In fact, one of the only industries in Chile to survive the Pinochet era was the copper industry, Chile’s largest, which was never privatized.
Whenever and wherever Friedman’s policies were enacted, whole economies were wrecked and the populations who depended on them were impoverished, except for the tiny minority of plutocrats and elites who were responsible for enacting the policies in the first place. Examples range from Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, to Russia and South Africa in the 1990s, to, of course, the United States during the Reagan Administration and especially during the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era, when disaster capitalism really took off, with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Second Iraq War.
“Disaster Capitalism” is what emerges immediately after the shock is applied amidst the ensuing chaos–an opening, a power vacuum, an opportunity–to make a land or power grab, to exploit the misfortune of peoples and nations to enrich oneself, to fear-monger, war-monger, and most of all, to find a way to profit from the suffering of others. “The Shock Doctrine” is not a polemic; it’s a carefully researched, insightful, multi-layered indictment of naked greed masquerading under the so-called American ideals of freedom of choice and democracy; its true identity, however, is fascism. The corporate states of Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany are certainly the ancestors of today’s disaster capitalists. Hitler’s alliances with the major corporations of his time like Krupp and IG Farben are the prototypes of the military-industrial complex and its undue influence in American government that Eisenhower warned of. The Cold War in the United States may have been the most sustained, if not the most extreme example of disaster capitalism in practice.
For-profit government–or government services as an extension of the corporation–is the ultimate aim of disaster capitalism. It’s interesting to observe that the winners of the cold war like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Northrup-Grumman, etc have, over the past decade or so, updated their business models to go beyond just defense contracting, to provide all sorts of civil services that our own government used to provide–through career track positions–like social services benefits administration, facilities management, communications networks, disaster relief, etc. It’s always the claim of these corporations that they can provide better services at a better cost to the taxpayer than the government can, and it’s always a fact that these corporations become rich at the expense of the people these government programs were entrusted to serve.
Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” will terrify, sicken, disgust, and inspire outrage, yet the book ends on a note of hope. Perhaps it’s because I read this book, John Perkins’ books (“Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” “Hoodwinked,” and “The Secret History of the American Empire”), and Noam Chomsky’s “Hopes and Prospects” pretty much in succession, but it seems as though much of South America is leading the way in redefining democracy and freedom in the western hemisphere. Nations like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina–one of the first victims of The Shock Doctrine–have thrown off the reins of neo-colonialism through their rejection of American government/corporate influence and the criminal enterprises of the World Bank and the IMF and their structural adjustment programs (SAPs).
Ten years ago, Klein and her husband the filmmaker Avi Lewis, produced a documentary, “The Take,” about workers in Argentina and how they occupied a factory that was in bankruptcy and through collectivization returned it to production. While I haven’t yet seen the documentary, I understand it to be representative of the kind of change that is taking place across South America, in response to the terminal stages of globalism and the destruction it has wrought on that continent.
The United States is in the curious position of having started out as a nation founded by revolutionaries who told a parasitic global empire to go fuck themselves. Now we’ve become the latest and most extreme exemplars of neo-imperialism and virtual colonialism, and have even visited the destruction of imperial avarice on our own citizens and cities. Detroit and New Orleans are the best examples of this, though virtual colonialism is less about geography and governments now than it is about economics and demographics. Nevertheless, it’s inspiring to see some of the same things that happened recently in Buenos Aires happening in American cities.
Read this book if you want to really understand the undercurrents of world history and economics that have occurred over the last 40 years.
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