Sunday, November 18, 2007

Marshalling resilience: A review of the Shock Doctrine

This is from This is a very favorable review of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. From other reviews I have read the descriptive aspect is reasonably accurate but there is little criticism in this review. I think that the book rather sensationalises the issue. Much of the radical change in capitalism has taken place gradually and in response to globalisation and has little to do with disasters. This is not to deny that Klein is right that in many cases disasters or crisis have been used to introduce strong free market capitalistic measures to an economy.
Being an oldster a Marxist and not much of an activist now the hope and resilience factors applauded in Klein seem to me to be tinged with idealism. As a Marxist I regard idealism as a negative term since it gives primacy of ideas over material conditions. It is the underlying economic circumstances that primarily determine consciousness not vice-versa. It is the economic crises that advanced capitaism engdenders that will change people's consciousness and capitalism not vice versa even though consciousness is certainly a factor. As the jargon goes the relation is dialectical but with the material conditions the primary determinant of outcomes.

Marshalling resilience
Finding hope in a shock-filled era

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein (Knopf Canada, 2007; $36.95)
I sit to write this review, somewhat dazed, in the mental aftermath of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Klein presents a powerful re-write of economic history threading around the globe in a 560-page work. It is a compelling description of the economic ‘shock doctrine’ that has developed within what she calls ‘disaster capitalism.’ Picking up the hefty volume is a bit intimidating — the image of a bullet hole through the ‘O’ of ‘Shock’ on the cover is not subtle — and I worry whether it will be a conspiracy doc — but it quickly sucks you in.

The book is shocking, it is despair inducing, but in the final moments of reading, I understand her intention — this book is about hope. Naomi Klein wants the rest of us to be shock resilient.

Klein’s thesis is a response to the kind of “shock therapy” advocated by free-market guru, Milton Friedman. Friedman promoted a globalised world including no subsidies or state-run enterprises, and the complete deregulation of trade. The Shock Doctrine comes from his realization that the implementation of such extreme free market policies, that are mostly opposed by and detrimental to the general (working class) populace, is most successful (i.e. meets with the least popular and political resistance) after intense shocks to a society, such as war, extreme inflation, natural disasters.

At these times, a state of chaos can allow for democratic rights to be suspended in a ‘state of siege.’ Unpopular economic policies can be pushed through while the public is preoccupied with survival. In Friedman’s words: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. …the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable” (166).

Proponents of the shock doctrine from Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics were sent around the world to spread these ideas to dictators and world leaders who could push these controversial economic mandates through during states of siege. During the 1980s the Chicago School infiltrated the World Bank and IMF, heralding the first of the structural adjustment programs. A new era of privatization was founded. And Klein cites event after event where the shock doctrine has been applied: Chile, Argentina, Poland, Louisiana, and on the list goes.

The Shock Doctrine is part of what Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’: a type of capitalism that benefits from disasters, such as wars, hurricanes, or fear of terrorism. It is on the extreme end of a spectrum of capitalism, far from the socialist economics of Roosevelt and John Maynard Keynes after the Depression. She lists examples of disaster capitalism where economies have done better with more warfare (Israel) and where a nation’s increasing fear has led to the huge economic gains in security industries (the U.S. following September 11, 2001).

While there have always been war profiteers, disaster capitalism is a somewhat new phenomenon. In the past corporations have required a certain degree of political and social stability to invest. But Klein’s examples are disaster situations where corporations can come in and rewrite the economic rules of a country or state to their advantage, and therefore “instability is the new stability.” Klein does not claim that disaster capitalists create the disasters (although she documents several statements that large shock events are positive for furthering the free market ideology). Her argument is that there is a clear mandate to take advantage of a state of shock to push forward an agenda whose true aims and beneficiaries are protected from democratic process.

Most of the paper in this volume is spent carefully gathering an impressive (and scary) amount of evidence of how individuals and companies have used disasters to shift economies. For someone like me, who grew up in the anti-globalization era, the thesis makes sense, but by the end of the book, the reader is embattled, and depressed: I already know that evil free market forces have taken over nations with disastrous human toll. The most important part of the book, for me, was in the briefly outlined stories of resilience to the shock doctrine.

Klein leaves us with a glimpse of Latin American nations that are beginning to refuse and push back the economic policies imposed in the 1970s, and even notes instances of countries have resisted the demands of the International Monetary Fund. While it might have added another few hundred pages, more of these accounts would have been appreciated. What of India, or the other former Soviet States during all of this history? What developing countries have not undergone disaster capitalism? However, I understand her intention, and it is a hopeful one: by arming us with all of this information, Naomi Klein wants us to become shock resilient.

Shock depends on surprise, confusion and disorientation. Once the storyline and context is regained, individuals can begin to develop a response to the situation. Klein states that the most powerful tool against shock is knowing your history. She argues that it is because of the memory of war and dictatorship, countries such as Britain and Spain have resisted the descent into chaos and suspension of rights and freedoms when terrorist acts have occurred. As well, Klein briefly alludes to rebuilding from the ground up, from the rubble instead of a “clean slate,” as healing for victims of disaster. She cites the powerful local movements in Thailand to reclaim land appropriated by corporations immediately after the 2006 tsunami, and the inspiration they have provided for parallel hurricane Katrina victims, who have started to ‘reinvade’ their homes in New Orleans.

This is the key message for us: become shock resilient. Resilience means to retain strength and stability in the face of crisis, and an ability to recover. Klein’s Shock Doctrine theory will make sense to people familiar with the conspiracies of ‘fundamentalist capitalism’, but it is the resilience idea that is inspiring. For an activist tired of being shocked, I like this rationale for her writing, and inherent solution.

Readers who pick up The Shock Doctrine will likely already be versed in an understanding of corporate globalization. But the story she outlines is a powerful contribution to our understanding of this process. It’s up to us to know our history, to understand disaster capitalism and the Shock Doctrine, its terminology and its proponents, so that we can ensure a greater degree of resilience when the inevitable calamities of the 21st century come our way.

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