The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein

Vintage, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 662 pages, C$22.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-676-97801-8

Some books want to make you laugh, and others want to make you think.  But Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine really wants to outrage you.  It is, after all, about how some very clever people have figured out how to take advantage of human suffering for profit.  It’s about how a class of entrepreneurs is deliberately taking advantage of crises to further their own agenda at the expense of the common good.  It about geopolitical crises can come to be used like forms of torture.  It’s about a more complete history of the past 35 years of geopolitical changes, one that adds an economic dimension to the various revolutions and catastrophes.  It makes Klein’s previous No Logo (which I finally read in a hurry after finishing this book) look like a checklist of benign corporate shenanigans.

The irony is that I left The Shock Doctrine alongside No Logo for years on my shelves, confident that I knew what it was about.  Disaster capitalism?  How businesses move in devastated zones to make money?  Tell me something new, Klein.  But it turns out that I didn’t fully understand the thesis of the book, because what Klein is after is really a history of the past 35 years in global politics, as influenced by graduates of the University of Chicago School of Economics.

If you don’t know about Chicago School Economics and their high guru Milton Friedman, you have a lot of catching up to do on free-market theory concepts.  But what Klein does is connect the dots until we’re looking at 35 years of intervention by Friedman-inspired “Chicago Boys” whenever there’s a traumatic political upheaval in the world.  The list of “shock doctrine” sites is long and terrible, going from Chile to Iraq but hitting destinations such as Bolivia, South Africa and Russia along the way.  Klein’s main thesis is that since voting populations does not like, want or accept right-wing economic policies, it’s best to put them in place during times of crises or panic when everyone is too terrified to protest.  If it sounds familiar, well, it should: As Klein suggests, the reforms implemented in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina were simply the homecoming party of techniques successfully field-tested elsewhere in the world.

The worst thing is that it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to support her claims: simply a list of people who think along the same lines, and who feel that it’s a good thing to send public dollars into private pockets.  Greed is a powerful thing, and it makes for excellent friends if ever some of the greedy get in positions of influence.  It all makes up for infuriating reading: by the time Klein ran down the list of links between the Bush administration and the oil industry, I was openly wondering how much more of this I could take before I had to stop reading the book and take a breath.

For intellectual honesty’s sake, I should probably note that there are a few annoying things about The Shock Doctrine.  The first is a feature of every left-leaning attempt to present another version of history (I’m looking at you, Howard Zinn): They tend to presume that you already know the conventional version of history.  If not, quite a few important details are left off, and trying to fit them in the narrative can take some research.  Second; Klein’s comparisons between economic shock therapy and psychiatric electroshocks is provocative and memorable, but it does sensationalize the issue and leaves it open to criticism of irrelevance.  Finally; it’s a big, big subject and the book does take a number of shortcuts.  This being said, I’m not going to insist on any of those issues as problems: Frankly, I had far too much fun reading a selection of one-star reviews of the book on Amazon (many of them personally offended than anyone would say something against Friedman; others simply reading off the same right-wing talking points) to give any comfort to those who are predisposed to hate the book.

Naaah; I’m going to assume my own biases and tell you that The Shock Doctrine is an important work.  It suggests a context for many seemingly disparate yet oddly congruent policies.  It shows how deeply anti-popular policies are now rooted in the US and, by influence, global policies.  It doesn’t offer a lot of hope, although the best it can do (“shock wears off”) is still inspiring.  But it also blows in the wind of the past decade, one that has seen obvious displays of policies that, until now, had been kept far away or couched in reassuring rhetoric.  The Shock Doctrine strips bare those excuses and, in doing so, give a bit of its own shock therapy to readers.  Read the book, blow a fuse, have all the outrage you want, then come back and do something about it.

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