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On Naomi Klein’s "The Shock Doctrine"


Leftists used to think that at least as a general axiom, if not by a precise deadline, capitalism was doomed. When I first arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, there was enough exuberance in the air even for mild-mannered reformers to be pushing plans for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, World Bank and kindred institutions.

But today most of these same leftists deem capitalism invincible and fearfully lob copious documentation at each other detailing the efficient devilry of the executives of the system. The internet serves to amplify this pervasive funk into a catastrophist mindset. It imbues most of the English-speaking left west of the Atlantic after seven years of Bush and Cheney, and frames Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

At the outset Klein permits herself a robust trumpet blast as intrepid pioneer:

“This book is a challenge to the central and most cherished claim in the official story — that the triumph of deregulated capitalism has been born of freedom, that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy. Instead, I will show that this fundamentalist form of capitalism has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion, inflicted on the collective body politic as well as on countless individual bodies.”

The arc of triumph she is alluding to spans the half century from the Eisenhower administration’s onslaughts on political and economic nationalism in Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s, to the US attack on Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent occupation. These are not decades where official apologetics have been entirely without challenge until Ms. Klein embarked on her researches. There are shelves worth of books on the ghastly consequences of the covert interventions and massacres organized or connived at by the United States in the name of freedom and the capitalist way. Klein’s own bibliography attests that there has plenty of detailed work on the neoliberal onslaught that gathered strength from the mid-70s on, marching under the intellectual colors of one of her arch villains, the late Milton Friedman, the Chicago School economist.

Where Klein would presumably claim originality is in identifying the taxonomy of this “shock doctrine”, the latest in capitalism’s phases of “creative destruction”, as Schumpeter described the soul of the system. So she describes the shock of a sudden attack, whether the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 or the bombing of Baghdad in 2003; the shock of torturers using sensory deprivation techniques and crude electrodes to instill fear and acquiescence; Friedman’s economic “shock treatment.” Methodically combined and elaborated, these onslaughts now amount, on Klein’s account, to a new and frightful chapter in the history of capitalist predation.

Klein begins with a chapter on the CIA-sponsored psychic “de-patterning” experiments of that monster, Dr Ewen Cameron of McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute, and states explicitly that torture, aside from being a tool, is “a metaphor of the shock doctrine’s underlying logic”. To use shock literary tactics to focus attention on the deliberate and sadistic engineering of collective social trauma is certainly no crime. But, as often happens after a shock, one eventually retrieves a sense of proportion, one that is not entirely flattering to the larger pretensions.

Capitalism, after all, as always been a shock doctrine of selfish predation, as one can discover from Hobbes and Locke, Marx and Weber, none of them saluted by Klein. Read the vivid accounts of the Hammonds about the English enclosures of the eighteenth century, when villagers would find nailed to the door of the parish church an announcement their common lands had been privatized. Protesters may not have “depatterned”, but were briskly hanged or relocated to Botany Bay. Klein could have used Karl Polanyi to better effect than as an epigraph. The wrenching conversion of peasant societies to cash economics, private property, the job regime, has always been brutal.

The Chicago Boys laid waste the southern cone of Latin America in the name of unfettered private enterprise, but 125 years earlier a million Irish peasants starved to death while Irish grain was exported onto ships flying the flag of economic liberalism. Klein writes about “the bloody birth of counter-revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s, but any page from the histories of Presidents Jackson, Polk or Roosevelt discloses a bleak and blood-stained continuity with the past. Depatterning? Indian children were taken from their families and punished for every word spoken in their own language, even as African slaves were given Christian names and forbidden to use their own, or to drum. Amid the shock of the Civil War the Republicans deferred by several years the freeing of slaves, while hastening to use crisis to arrange a banking and monetary system to their liking.

Just as there is continuity in capitalist predation, there is continuity in resistance. Here’s where Klein’s catastrophism distorts the picture. Her controlling metaphor for the attack on Iraq is the initial “shock and awe” bombardment, designed to numb Saddam’s forces and the overall civilian population into instant surrender and long-term submission. But “shock and awe” was a bust. It didn’t work. Its value even as a metaphor is useless, except as illustration of what parlor wargamers in Washington DC can hype. Having sensibly decided not to fight or die on an American timetable, many of Iraq’s soldiers regrouped to commence an effective resistance. Iraqi civilians struggle along as best they can under awful conditions and, un-numbed, tell pollsters that they wish the Americans would leave at once.

“Shock therapy” neoliberalism really isn’t most closely associated with Milton Friedman, but rather with Jeffrey Sachs, to whom Klein does certainly give many useful pages, even though Friedman remains the dark star of her story. Sachs first introduced shock therapy in Bolivia in the early 1990s. Then he went into Poland, Russia, etc, with the same shock therapy model. Sachs’ catchy phrase then was that “you can’t leap over an abyss step-by-step,” or words to that effect. This is really where contemporary neoliberalism took shape. And, it wasn’t just Sachs.

It was also other slightly left of center mainstream economists, most notably Summers and Paul Krugman as well. To his credit, Krugman has now recanted; Sachs also, but only partially. It’s true that you can make a case that this all goes back to Friedman. David Harvey’s book, A History of Neoliberalism, actually traces the origins of neoliberalism to Friedman in Chile. It’s an interesting perspective. But, as the left economist Robert Pollin remarks, to blame Friedman for the whole thing, and not how the entire economics mainstream went along–including the “liberals” like Sachs, Krugman, and Summers–is to let these people off the hook and to misrepresent history.

As Pollin, a brilliant and creative economist who spends much of his time advancing progressive counter-models–both for African nations and for advanced capitalist countries–emphasizes, “it’s important to pummel the Sachs’s of the world on this point, because they are changing, slowly. To get the world to change, their 1980s-1990s views need to be totally discredited. It’s not enough to just say Milton Friedman was an ultra right winger and leave it at that.”

There are huge third world economies that have been ravaged by neoliberalism that haven’t endured “the shock doctrine”, in the torments that phrase, as defined by Klein. India in the early Nineties was not on the receiving end of physical ‘shock and awe’ bombardment. Tortures were not inflicted by electric shock devices or techniques of sensory deprivation. Death squads have not rampaged through the countryside. If Friedman counseled the Congress Party or the BJP this is not recorded by Klein, who only gives India one brief mention. Yet the neoliberal policies advanced by the World Bank and other multilateral agencies and also enthusiastically seized upon by home grown politicians and government officials–many springing from a Keynesian (or further left) tradition–have certainly been sweeping and savage in consequence. Month after month on our CounterPunch site P. Sainath has described the immiseration of half a billion peasants from circumstances that were bad in the first place, along with the suicides of ruined farmers–a total now running well above 100,000. India has no place in Naomi Klein’s model of the “shock doctrine” and “the rise of disaster capitalism”, which suggests that model’s limitations.

Capitalists try to use social and economic dislocation or natural disaster–New Orleans is only the latest instance – to advantage, but so do those they oppress. War has been the mother of many a positive social revolution, as have natural disasters. The incompetence of the Mexican police and emergency forces after the huge earthquake of 1985 prompted a huge popular upheaval. In Latin America there has been shock attacks and shock doctrines for 500 years. Right now, in Latin America, the pendulum is swinging away from the years of darkness, of the death squad and Friedman’s doctrines. Klein’s outrage is admirable. Her specific exposes across six decades of infamy are often excellent, but in her larger ambitions her metaphors betray her. From the anti-capitalist point of view she’s too gloomy by half. A capitalism that thrives best on the abnormal, on disasters, is by definition in decline. As Cassius put it, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings”.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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