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!


Anonymous said...

Its all about economic competition in the realm of current poltics. All morals are defunct when wealth and power are at stake. I was wondering what do you think about Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by Perkins. It gives us a very different view of the current politics among nations. Its all interconnected. Can there be altruism among nations when strategic resources are so scare. Elite are in collusion.

I agree when Klein suggests that terrorism doesn't just blow up buildings; it blasts every other issue off the political map. The spectre of terrorism - real and exaggerated - has become a shield of impunity, protecting governments around the world from scrutiny for their human rights abuses.

Chris Maisano said...

I actually have not read Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins. People whose opinions I trust and respect, however, have been critical of the book. One of them, Mark Engler, has a review of that book here: I also actually saw him speak at a conference last fall, and I found his analysis of the global economy and possible alternatives to it to be pretty thin.

As for terrorism and human rights, I am very interested in seeing how the Obama administration will deal with this issue. The prison at Guantanamo will be closed, but as far as I know, the practice of extraordinary rendition (sending terrorism suspects abroad to be "interrogated," i.e. tortured) is still in place. That will be something to follow.

Anonymous said...

Machiavelli said that it was much more secure to be feared than to be loved. The previous US administration seemed to have been following Machiavelli's advice to the letter. But the world is far more chaotic than ever. Obama is giving hope and decency a chance. The example of Europe gives me hope that what a continent has done, the planet can too. History of Europe is full of bloodshed and violence. Right kind of education makes a difference. Making love not war seemed to have sunk it. Maybe its the mass media. What the media has done in one continent can perhaps be done in another. Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media, notes Noam Chomsky...If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Brooklyn Book Talk. No time like the present to debate such issues. Excellent selection. The breakdown of economies worldwide is evidence that corporate control of media and politics benefits only the chosen few. Masses are miserable as they always have been. Concentration of wealth and power among the few is true in every nation throughout history. But every ideology contains the seeds of its own destruction be it capitalism or socialism, when its basic premise is taken to the extreme. The biggest shock is that why cant the masses get it. Maybe because of the indoctri-nations they go through in their respective polities. They cant distinguish between rhetoric and truth. Forgive then Father for they know not what they know not.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1:49

I hardly view Europe as a shining example of peace and tolerance. Italy is trying to fingerprint the Roma and drive them out, as well as immigrants from Africa. Greece is also trying to evict the Roma. France is periodically being hit with violence from disaffected Muslim youth. Spain has just gotten over its conflict with the Basques. Britain is about to plunge into a major economic crisis. Read BBC news to find out what is being left out of US media about Europe.

Strategic resources are scarce because rampant materialism is wasting them.If people rethought their lifestyles, they would not let themselves be sucked into the cycle of greed and exploitation perpetuated by corporations.

Chris Maisano said...

To Anonymous 8:58:

When you say "The biggest shock is that why cant the masses get it. Maybe because of the indoctri-nations they go through in their respective polities," that's a similar argument to the one that Klein makes. That is, the social and economic policies that have predominated around the world over the past 30-odd years have not been subject to the democratic consent of the majority of people where they have been implemented. Such policies have triumphed strictly through ideological manipulation by media and political elites or through physical violence, according to this view.

What I'd like to generate some discussion about is whether or not this argument is accurate. Conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, etc. did win elections, didn't they? Surely there had to have been widespread support among the populace for at least some aspects of conservative, free market ideology to triumph in electoral politics, right? Or is Klein correct in arguing that such policies were foisted upon societies against their will?

Anonymous said...

Most people don't think - they just react. The media has trained them to react to whatever the media wants to promote. A politician just has to win over the media and s/he has won over the masses. Depeche Mode called it:

Anonymous said...

Chris wrote: "I hardly view Europe as a shining example of peace and tolerance."

I agree but not long ago the same Europeans were buthering each other in the name of their national or ethnic identity. As a species humans have a ferocious genetic heritage. All it needs is subscription to an identity (race, color, creed, ethnicity, nationality), a percieved enemy, and a well-designed propaganda to activate that primal instinct and unconscious identity-based memory. The rest follows as predictably as a computer program. Bush administration was able to do it so skillfully. Freud says that humans have this deep seated need to hate. Early half of the last century, it was the communists. Right now Muslims fit that bill. What's new under the sun.

Anonymous said...

Drew Westen has done some ground breaking research on how people vote which he descirbes in his book, The Politial Brain: "The words, imagery, and neural networks [politicians] activate in people's minds influence what they believe and feel and ultimately how they vote..." Human rationality is highly over-rated. We are primarily emotional, fallacious and self-loving beings and always construct reasons to justify their primal programming. Will Durant in The Lessons of History (1968): "In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war."

Chris Maisano said...

I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised about all of the skepticism regarding human nature and the capacity of people to govern themselves democratically here. Surely the media have enormous power in setting the agenda in a mass society such as ours, but I don't think the relationship between media and the people as simple and one-sided as some of the posters here are making it out to be. If it were easy for politicians to win elections simply by winning over the media, wouldn't Hillary Clinton have beaten Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination last year? The media all but crowned her as the inevitable candidate before any primaries or caucuses even took place, but she still lost because Obama out-organized her. McCain was the media's darling when he ran for president in 2000, and he failed to win the Republican nomination. I'll agree that many people are credulous consumers of media content, but I think that there's a very large number of people who are a lot smarter and savvier than some posters are giving them credit for.

And I'd still like to have some commenters take up the question about democratic consent that I've posed a couple of times now, because in many ways that's the central question raised by Klein's book. If that particular argument is flawed, then the rest of her argument is immensely weakened.

Anonymous said...

The conventional media promoted Hillary. The online media promoted Obama. Read The Revolution will not be Televised by Joe Trippi. That explains how the Obama campaign was able to beat Hillary.

Anonymous said...

"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow a very lively debate within that spectrum -- even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people a sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of debate."
-Noam Chomsky

Human nature, it seems, has not changed since stone age. Investements in industries of violence, the world over, is monstrous; exploitation of the have-nots by the haves, is perennial. Information age is continuation of politics of a stone age mentality, supported by tax-payers on all sides. The politics behind only becomes more subtle, and needs better advertisements and well researched rhetoric. Does education really make a difference, I wonder? And what kind of education would that be?

The films such as "War Made Easy" or "Why We Fight" should be part of research if anyone is interested in listening to all sides of the debate. What do you think about the following comment: "In America, the constitutional and civic duty of the media is defined as a free and vigilant dispersal of information to the public. The film War Made Easy blasts the US media for their less than critical examination and broadcast of pro-war messages throughout the past century. The film contends that an increasingly tangled relationship between the media and government erases the obligations of an independent informer and places news in the hands of a few in power. Homogenous faces of propaganda deplete the complexities of war and foreign policy with little intention to critically inform the public. Rather, they exist to maintain support of executive decisions through glitzy computer graphics and patriotic images. Audience power is lost as the public is offered up a small spectrum for opinion and acculturated to passively consume one message. The implications of this relationship are treacherous as it endangers the foundations of democracy in America. Ultimately, the intermingled relationship of the government and the media has led to a democracy of complacency, a public content with status quo."

We are a strange species mostly defined by 3 Ns'...nepotism, narcissism, and necromania...Lets not forget Karl Popper...“We all remember how many religious wars were fought for a religion of love and gentleness; how many bodies were burned alive with the genuinely kind intention of saving souls from the eternal fire of hell.”

Anonymous said...

The Shock Doctrine reminds me of Drew Dellinger's poem while dreaming of the future of our precarious planet, most inhabitants of which call truth, conspiracy theory or beleive propaganda to be truth...

Joseph Goebbles believed that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

It's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grand children
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do

Drew Dellinger, Hieroglyphic Stairway

Anonymous said...

What one chooses to read is a question worth pondering about. Does one read only those sources which one knows in advance will offer no unwelcome thoughts? The same applies to choice of other media, and watching and listening. One can select all of one's sources of stimuli and input carefully such that an alien upsetting suggestion will simply never be heard or read. Otherwise, why would there be so much "uniformity" within cultures such as "Bible Belts" and "Quran Belts" of the planet? So much for free will.

Anonymous said...

Anon Wrote:
"One can select all of one's sources of stimuli and input carefully such that an alien upsetting suggestion will simply never be heard or read."

Even if one comes across alien upsetting inputs, they are never INTERPRETED in a way that they could change one's major thoughts or values. Catch em while they are young...It takes a village and a while to become passionate about one's identity...

Anonymous said...

The Wall Street and banking crises have driven America into an economic meltdown. Now Obama, our governor, and our mayor are going after unions. It reminds me of Milton Friedman going after the Louisiana teachers union after Hurricane Katrina.

Chris Maisano said...

Anonymous 1:05,

Fair enough, but isn't there some evidence that especially the Obama administration is trying to use the economic crisis to move at least partially in the direction of a more liberal/social democratic approach to governing? His proposals regarding merit pay for teachers aside, his proposed budget represents a fairly strong shift from the conservative, free-market orthodoxy of the past thirty years back toward a moderate Keynesianism. It's also likely that the administration will approach Congress later this year to ask for more economic stimulus money, and may be forced by circumstances into partially nationalizing the banking sector.

The writer Rick Perlstein had a piece in The American Prospect a few months back that details the history of a liberal "shock doctrine". I think one of the weaknesses of Klein's book is in portraying the use of political and economic crises in facilitating vast and rapid social change as coming primarily from the right, when it has been used by the left on a number of occasions as well.

Anonymous said...

Noam Chomsky has said something to the effect that the myths we construct to express our understanding of the realities we are immersed in are limited by the range of our knowledge. Not only that but also which identity we subscribe to. Interpretations of international events are biased because majority populations in all nations are subjected to messages selected by media monopolies. Chomsky also says that when the myths are meant to cover over fears about forces beyond our control, they can be conspiracy theories. Consider these pairings of fears and rationalizations:

fear of political power --> conspiracy theories;

metaphysical fear (fear of death) --> religion, a theological conspiracy ;

fear of personal inadequacy-->racism,

fear of strange cultures--> ultra-nationalism

Man is a political animal. Certainly, so long as there are more than two people on Earth, conspiracies will occur and power struggle will ensue. Chomsky further adss that too often we invoke a conspiracy in constructing our story of the world because we lack specific information about the sciences, economics, history and other relevant fields of specialized knowledge. Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. Experience has shown that if the evidence allows for several explanations to a given problem then the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is most probably correct. How about the hypothesis that power politics is about control of the many by the select, privileged and powerful few. Who owns most guns, most wealth, and now most of the mass media will like to keep it that way, come what may. Only the relatively more powerful survive in the longest run. Money, sex and power, that is all there is, in the kingdom of the parochial political animal.