Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I've finally got around to reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. And though I kind of assumed I knew what it was about from reading other articles from her, and I'm obviously a leftist, I have to say that even I am stunned. Both by how bad things really are. And how well she organizes her arguments, puts the pieces together and finds perfect rhetorical weapons to express the horror and enormity of it.

It's an amazing book, that you should just go and read. In fact, I'm so convinced of the importance of that, that I'm going to make an offer to friends of this blog who want to read it but aren't 100% sure or can't afford it. I'll buy you a copy (up to 5 for different readers). Just put the ordinary, cheap paperback, on an Amazon wishlist (either or and point me at it.


Oli said...

Interesting, very interesting.

I haven't read the book, but I did hear Klein talk about her book in Brighton and I find it hard to know if her work should be understood as that of a journalist uncovering stories that need to be told, or as an academic putting together a political and economic thesis of how changes are being pushed forward in our society today.

As a journalist her work is great and important, but I'm not totally convinced that there is a new academic thesis within her work. In particular I suspect that she has two things a bit mixed up:

1. A crisis is often exploited (or even created) by those in power to implement the radical reforms that they want to push through.

2. USA (in particular, but UK too) has had right wing, crony capitalist politicians in power for most of the last 50 years or so.

Isn't Klein's 'Shock Doctorine' just the coincidence of these two points?

Historically point 1 has been exploited by those on the left as well as on the right. Just think of the way that Marxist ideology has been imposed on various countries in a way that could also be described as a leftist 'shock doctrine'.

And point 2 has been highlighted by people like Chomsky for decades. Sure, I understand that Klein has catalogued some of the more recent, depressing examples of USA expressing its support for capital above all else (e.g. in Russia and Iraq) and these are important truths to be told.

However, I got the impression that beyond just reporting the latest misdeads of the USA, Klein was promoting a thesis that the 'shock doctrine' (point 1) was generally a right wing phenomenon used to push through privatisations and radical free market reforms on populations that don't want them. Surely that's too simplistic.

If the Falklands War was the shock that helped Thatcher break up the unions, why wasn't the second world war the shock that helped setup the NHS? What about the great depression being the shock that made it possible to setup the New Deal in USA?

From the point of view of understanding how 'the ideas lying around' are picked up and exploited by those in power, why isn't Milton Friedman just a right wing equivalent (or rather opposite) to Karl Marx? If one ignores the content of the ideologies, why is a Friedmanite promoting laissez faire ideology inherently more devious and dangerous than a Marxist promoting socialism or communism? Surely Klein's argument should be about the content of the ideologies, not the ways in which all such ideologies are co-opted and corrupted by the powerful.

But then again I haven't read the book ... so what am I misunderstanding?

Composing said...

On the first point, there's quite a long acknowledgements section at the back of the book, thanking the people she works with. From this, I get the impression that there's a fairly large team of people behind her.

Some, it seems she employs directly, some are specialists in particular countries that she collaborates with, and some come from various book-publishers.

So Klein might be a new kind of thing : a "journalist as leader / spokesperson for her own independent research team", as opposed to a journalist attached to particular paper or magazine and relying on researchers and funding from them. I guess she has the money and star-power to make this work.

On the second point, the whole book is basically one long argument that 1) and 2) *are* necessarily as opposed to contingently connected. With various kinds of evidence marshalled.

A lot of it is circumstantial evidence of this form :

a) person X was involved in pushing for that liberalization policy. Or supporting it vocally.

b) the policy had bad "unintended" consequences, which sometimes person X disowned.

c) But actually, person X made a speech / wrote an article / etc / *before* the implementation of the policy, saying that the bad consequence was likely and / or necessary.

There's enough evidence of this pattern in the book to convince me that the causality exists (ie. that people who push these reforms on other people, do, in some way, *know* that they're going to cause the suffering and intend it) although in each case the mix of naivety, self-delusion and abject self-interested cynicism of person X varies wildly.

As to the question of whether the left also plan to take advantage of crises, or even accelerate them, sure, there's a long history of that.

Klein doesn't really talk about it, though she occasionally quotes people who see similarities between Friedmanism and Marxism.

What she does point out though is that Friedmanism doesn't define itself mainly as an anti-Marxism. It's target is Keynsianism / social-democracy / mixed economies. This is what it's on a crusade to destroy.

So to the extent that we value any sort of middle-way / social market society, with a large, comfortable middle-class, Friedmanism is an immediate and provenly dangerous threat in a way that Stalinism or other unpleasant variety of leftism, just isn't.

Oli said...

To make the case that 1) and 2) necessarily go together, surely Klein would have to address the counter examples where 1 stands apart from 2.

A particularly good counter example in my mind is the creation of the NHS in the UK by a Labour government where the ideas and impetus to make such a radical change to health provision came from the crisis of WWII.

Not only is this an example of left wing exploitation of the new political possibilities offered through a crisis, but it is also a very positive and uplifting example (as opposed to the use of crisis by Hitler or Mao or Pol Pot).

If Klien want's us to understand her thesis as more than a rhetorical device, surely she has to explain why these supposed counter examples do not undermine her thesis.

Don't get me wrong, I think Friedmanism is (or certainly has been) a dangerous influence on politicians in the last 50 years and I sincerely hope that the recent financial crisis has put the final nail in the coffin of laissez faire's political credibility (I understand it had long ago lost credibility within serious academic circles).

I just think that point 1) stands by itself as an historical truth about the way that the powerful often get their way, whatever their political persuation.

PS: Actually, I think I should have stated point 1) more correctly as:

A crisis is often exploited (or even created) by those with power in order to implement the radical reforms that they want to push through.

Written in this way it is clear that crisis are often used and/or created by revolutionaries who have power, but are not yet in power.

I just don't see the necessary link with laissez faire capitalism.

Composing said...

Well, it depends what you're trying to prove.

She's not arguing that the only monsters are laissez faire. (Ie. that given a monster, you can be sure it's a laissez faire monster.) What she's arguing is closer to something like : all the shifts towards neoliberalism have been engineered monstrously. (Ie. "given a laissez-faireward shift, you can predict monstrous action behind it.")

The creation of the NHS by Labour after the second-world war might very well have been opportunistically taking advantage of a crisis, but it's irrelevant to this question. As are other monsters of the left.

(Think "Wason Selection Task" at this point.)

The only relevant counter-examples would be countries that moved joyously towards laissez-faire on a wave of popular, democratically elected support. Which is the main myth she's aiming to puncture.

Of course, Klein isn't quite making some kind of philosophical claim about necessity. It was my fault for emphasizing that.

I'm sure she thinks that it's possible, in principle, to be a neoliberal free-market advocate out of the best intentions and good-will towards humanity.

But she has a hell of a lot of documented evidence of a strong association between people who call themselves free-market advocates and destructive, cynical intentions, and she wants to, at least cast serious doubt on their regular excuses that somehow they didn't expect the mafia corruption or torture or social collapse that their policies entailed.

[quote]I sincerely hope that the recent financial crisis has put the final nail in the coffin of laissez faire's political credibility (I understand it had long ago lost credibility within serious academic circles).[/quote]

Although the book (I haven't quite finished it) probably doesn't get to the recent crisis, it's pretty clear that from the perspective of Klein's model, the crisis is not at all a problem for those pursuing the doctrine. It's just another example of a shock which usefully stunned us all into complacency while there was another large transfer of wealth from the public to the private sphere.

This is exactly shock-doctrine going according to plan :

- financial speculation is known to cause instability,

- instability leads to crises,

- crises lead to weak and panicking governments being open to demands for deregulation,

- which in turn leads to more speculation.

John Powers said...

It's embarrassing that I've talked a lot about this book without having actually read it. Here's an old discussion thread for what it's worth. The link to Jonas Cuaron's short film is dead and can be seen at this link.

In 2004 Klein had a piece in Harpers Baghdad year zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia which was mind blowing--essentially advancing the Shock Doctrine thesis.

At this point I sometimes imagine that I can no longer be shocked by US policies. But again today I was proven wrong with at piece God, the Army, and PTSD. The short version is that from the highest levels at the Pentagon the response to PSTD among Iraq War soldiers was "Jesus will fix it." And Rick Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" the curriculum.

Every once in a while I go off about Christian Evangelicalism in US policy and every time I do I feel rather embarrassed about sounding a conspiracy nut. No question about being a nut, but it's also clear that there's more to the Shock Doctrine than Milton Friedman.

My last link in this link fest is to a report by PRA about US conservatives, African churches & homophobia. The Ugandan bill on homosexuals is truly awful law. And the US connections have me pulling my hair out--truly shocking.

Oli said...

I hate the web as a UI. I just spent an inappropriate amount of time writing and editing a comment and then my computer crashed and I lost it. The fact that I'm tempted to write all comments first in Notepad so that I can regularly save versions as I go along just shows how wrong web UIs often are. The fact that Google and others can fix these shortcomings by using clever AJAX calls, doesn't appease my concerns much either. At best this just feels like 'hey with more string and sticky tape we can fix anything'. Then again, maybe string and sticky tape is all we've ever had.

Composing said...

Kaunda, I think that Baghdad year zero turns up as one of the chapters in the book. The amazing thing is that there are similar stories from all the frontiers of neoliberal expansion over the years.

That PTSD article is another good example of the corrosive synergy in the religious-distaster complex. Religion is the Opium of the People.

Oli, that sucks. But looking forward to the response in some form.

John Powers said...

"Religious disaster complex" did you coin that term or did Klein? I like it.

Going into the religious angle is OT. But I read an interview with the priest who wrote that PRA report about American conservatives and African churches. It turns out the priest considers himself an Evangelical. Religion and the shock doctrine are not necessarily joined. Making that that distinction is difficult, as peace-loving Muslims in the West have found out.

I must read the book. But continuing to opine from what I know of it, it seems important to note Klein's point that shock is a temporary condition--it wears off. So while the shock doctrine is a method of effecting change, there are at least two appropriate responses: resiting shock and recovering.

It's easy for people who aren't religious simply to ignore or condemn religion. But the extent to which religious institutions have been infiltrated by advocates of disaster capitalism, and secular institutions, like the US military, inculcated with this perverse religious/political melange, it's important to pay attention to religion. It's important at least so far as to participate in the recovery--the shock wearing off--of religious people.

What struck me about the PTSD article was how so many in the military complained about the "Jesus will fix it" approach. I suspect it was a majority all along. We can't afford to allow majorities of sensible people to feel isolated and impotent.

Klein's first step is to be informed, to know what is happening. And convincing people of disaster capitalism is a hard sell. But there are next steps and those of us convinced about the reality of disaster capitalism as a program need to begin that path. Wholesale condemnation of religion seems truly counter-productive. I see the next steps more a matter of aiding social institutions in recovery from the shock doctrine.

John Powers said...

It's bugged me since I wrote my last comment that you might perceive some criticism of your views in it. I certainly didn't intend any.

The main reason for chiming in again is about the documents leaked to the Sunday Telegraph about Iraq. It's hard for me to parse why the Telegraph instead of the Guardian and that sort of thing. The outlines of the leak have been known for some time, but the details, such as soldiers with only five rounds of ammunition when the invasion began, are, well shocking!

The mindset of leaders is so hard to figure, and Klein's thesis comes the closest to some sort of understanding of it that I've seen.

Composing said...

Kaunda, don't worry about perceived criticism. You've earned the right to say you think on this blog.

Re: Telegraph. Sadly, although they're making important and valid criticisms of the government, it's now a feeding frenzy in the right-wing media against the Labour Party.

John Powers said...

Oh well, a link, but most of all a snippet:

Summers’ [Lawrence Summers, Chief of the White House Office of Economic Advisers] assignment is to bring the broader economy to its knees; to crush big labor by keeping unemployment high, to force state and local and governments to privatize more public assets and services, and to generate as much human misery as possible. In short, Summers is laying the groundwork for structural adjustment within the US, a policy which reflects his ongoing commitment to multinational corporations and neoliberalism. It's the shock doctrine redux. These people are monsters.


John Powers said...

Keith Hart has a piece looking at disaster capitalism in re Haiti.

"The point of taking a wider perspective on world history than ‘disaster capitalism’ allows for is that the questions we must address take place on that scale, as well as in thousands of short-run local instances. Moreover, neoliberalism has been at least shaken by the financial collapse of 2008, an event that Klein’s theory failed to predict and cannot explain. But it is the immediate context for any discussion of what to do next. "