Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Doug Henwood on the crisis and The Shock Doctrine

Last week, the New Utrecht branch of the Brooklyn Public Library hosted a talk on the economic crisis and possible ways out of it by the economist and writer Doug Henwood. Here's part one of his remarks:

And here's part two:

Henwood has also written a penetrating critique of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine which points out its flaws from a left-wing point of view. I highly recommend that you check it out and let us know what you think in the comments.

Henwood edits Left Business Observer and is a contributing editor of The Nation. His books Wall Street and After the New Economy are both available through the BPL catalog.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (updated with video!)

For the better part of the last decade, Naomi Klein has been one of the most prominent spokespersons of a global movement dedicated to fighting against what it sees as the depredations of global capitalism. Her first book, No Logo, was fortuitously published just after the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and became something of a bible among so-called "anti-globalization" activists. Since then, she has chronicled economic collapse and workers' movements in Argentina, the attempts of the United States to reorganize Iraq as a model of "free-market" economics, and the Bush administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. In late 2007, she published The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, in which she attempts to fit these and other events into a broader analysis of the development of global capitalism since the 1970s.

Since the 1970s the nature of global capitalism has changed dramatically. From the end of World War II until roughly 1973, the liberal/social democratic welfare state was the reigning economic and political arrangement of the advanced capitalist West, and government-led developmentalism predominated in formerly colonial lands in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, since the 1970s, conservative free-market approaches to economics and politics have largely prevailed around the world, as embodied by figures like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the late economist Milton Friedman. How did this happen? In The Shock Doctrine, Klein argues that this transition did not take place democratically, but rather through the exploitation of "disaster-shocked people and countries." It's worth quoting at length from Klein's website in order to understand the main thrust of her argument:

"At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts.... New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters -- to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy. Sometimes, when the first two shocks don’t succeed in wiping out resistance, a third shock is employed: the electrode in the prison cell or the Taser gun on the streets. "

Klein also collaborated with noted Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron to produce a rather stylish short film to promote the book and popularize its thesis. Take a look:

To get this discussion started, I'd like to pose a few questions:

- Is it accurate to argue that conservative, free-market economics was simply imposed on people and countries by corporate and political elites without democratic consent? Is Klein advancing a conspiracy theory rather than a rigorous historical and theoretical analysis?

- Does Klein stretch her concept of "shock therapy" too far to fit certain events and historical processes into her argument? Does the exploitation of "shock and awe" always work, as she seems to imply, or is it sometimes unsuccessful?

- How has the economic crisis affected the validity of Klein's argument (if at all)? Is the Reagan era really over with the election of Barack Obama, as many have claimed, and is there a possibility of "shock therapy" being used in the service of more liberal/social democratic approaches to political and economic policy?

Feel free to comment on any other aspect of the book you'd like to as well. I'm looking forward to a great discussion with all of you!