Monday, July 21, 2008

Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In typical fashion, I didn't read Klein's hugely popular No Logo until a few years after it came out, and then wondered why I hadn't done so earlier. So I was avidly awaiting TSD, and I wasn't disappointed.

In this work, Klein takes 'disaster capitalism' in her sights. Like NL, TSD mixes economic and political theory with often-heartrending personal stories of the human reality of those affected and those who have challenged exploitative power; angers and depresses but also gives hope in presenting those who have successfully challenged the systems it criticises; and is compulsively readable.

Klein's argument is that 'disaster capitalism,' the neoliberal, free-market economics which has Milton Friedman as its godfather (and the word is appropriate), cannot be implemented under democratic conditions because the populace understand the way in which it effects a mass transfer of wealth and power to the top of society, while leaving the rest in extreme suffering; those who would implement such a system have learned that it is only implementable in the shocked aftermath either of natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami) or, in even more sinister fashion, in the wake of disasters which are created expressly for, or expressly including, the purpose of implementing such systems (as in the US-backed overthrow of democratic government in South America, or the invasion of Iraq).

Klein convincingly relates this economic 'shock treatment' to the psychological kind developed by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the aim was to completely wipe an individual's mind clean so that an entirely new and desirable structure could take its place. Not only do these two resemble each other metaphorically, writes Klein, but the psychological techniques are used to destroy those who oppose the economic program, from Argentina to Abu Ghraib.

One of the interesting things about this work is the demonstration of the way in which the ideology of neoliberal capitalism becomes unchallengeable, and is understood by its proponents as a universal good (in the same way that, for example, state communism or state fascism demanded the deaths of millions 'for the good of all'). For this reason (among others), the ideology has been adopted by all sides of politics in the two-party systems which go under the name of democracy, so that the old parties of labour are also part of the neoliberal consensus. At the same time, economics itself is completely postmodern inasmuch as wealth and poverty rely entirely on perception; so, for example, a political leader who gives any public sign of failing to follow this ideological consensus will immediately see their national wealth shrink dramatically as 'the global market' responds.

The biggest strength of the book from my own perspective, however, was to give an informative perspective on economics in the world order. As someone with left-liberal politics (and I suspect I'm not alone in this), economics as a subject turns me off. I start to yawn as soon as I see the jargon. But at the same time, I know that economic theory and ideology is a driving force behind the nature of modern states, the global system and the workings of power. This work explained, for example, why 'global aid' and 'reconstruction' has in fact been counterproductive in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and the tsunami-affected countries: the Western 'free market' left to its own devices, will charge the highest price for the lowest level of service as provided by its own cronies (this much is already familiar), transferring wealth out of the affected area and leaving the people who are victims of these events with no role in the reconstruction and reshaping of their own society, let alone the concomitant financial support which such work would provide.

In some ways, then, this book is also a wideranging global economic history of the post-WWII period. Once you've read it, you'll see the fingerprints of this system everywhere... and in itself this knowledge is power.

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