BookBrowse Reviews The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

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The Shock Doctrine

The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

by Naomi Klein

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2008, 576 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Based on breakthrough historical research and four years of on-the-ground reporting in disaster zones, The Shock Doctrine explodes the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically

If, as the critics have said, Naomi Klein's first book, No Logo, is the bible of the anti-globalization movement, then The Shock Doctrine is its Tacitus, its Herodotus, its Gibbon: the recent history behind global capitalism and how we have arrived at the present moment. No Logo brilliantly eviscerates the branding of Western culture and the penetration of the market into the public sphere; it is impossible to say enough good things about that book. The Shock Doctrine is a worthy successor, deepening the perspective on globalism by identifying its ignoble modus operandi—the shock doctrine, "orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting marketing opportunities."

Klein traces the roots of today's system to Milton Friedman, the incredibly influential Nobel Prize-winning economist who taught for decades at the University of Chicago before moving to Stanford's Hoover Institution. She credits him with two innovations that have molded the world we inherit today. The first is a fierce adherence to the free market—guided by the triumvirate of privatization, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending—that outlasted the long trend toward a Keynesian mixed economy that dominated American policy since the New Deal. The second, more specifically Friedmanesque idea is that these policies require a crisis in order to implement them, and that change should happen swiftly to jolt the system into working order.

At the heart of the book is Klein's challenge to the official history of the second half of the twentieth century which says that free-market reforms and democracy have marched hand in hand across the globe. Instead, she demonstrates, over and over, how Friedman's adherents have exploited and even helped create disasters in order to push their reforms on an unwilling citizenry, demolishing social democratic nets for millions of people. In a truly gripping story, Klein relates how Chicago School economists seeded universities in Santiago with their disciples, hoping to turn Chile into the first laboratory for their policies. When Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, the so-called Chicago Boys handed the junta a ready-made free-market plan which they'd authored in collaboration with the CIA, a 500-page bible known as "The Brick." Klein demonstrates that what is usually described as a politically-motivated military coup was just as much about economic reform at the behest of American-based multinational corporations and a few wealthy Chileans. Dissidents were arrested, tortured, and disappeared with the intent not only of removing key leaders but also of destroying an entire leftist culture. The exact same pattern repeated itself across the Southern Cone* in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Klein then traces the shock doctrine's steady progress throughout the rest of the century, devoting a chapter each to the bloody events in the Falklands, Poland, South Africa, Russia, and China before arriving at the present moment and the perfect commensuration between homeland security and the corporatist economy.

The Shock Doctrine is a highly polemical book which, like all polemical books, will energize those already inclined to agree with Klein and will be quite easy for opponents to dismiss as exaggerated or histrionic. Read this book if you've been demoralized by the news from Sri Lanka after the tsunami, Iraq after the invasion, and New Orleans after the hurricane. The Shock Doctrine will give you a surprisingly long historical perspective from which to view the corruption and exploitation that all three recent events have prompted. The criticisms launched against Klein center on her unbalanced, unremitting attack on capitalism as the scourge of the planet. What these critics miss is that Klein specifically aims her weaponry at corporatism, the strand of capitalism that erases the line between government and business by turning over public wealth to private companies, thus enriching a few and impoverishing the masses.

The hardest part of Klein's argument to swallow, even for those sympathetic to her politics, will be the parallel she draws between economic shock and physical torture. The book begins with a graphic account of the research of Ewen Cameron, a CIA-funded psychiatrist who obliterated the minds of his (unconsenting) patients with electroshock therapy in the belief that he could rebuild functional personalities after the slate had been wiped clean. Cameron's work later became the basis of the CIA's torture manuals used in the service of right-wing coups across Latin America and, most recently, at Guantánamo Bay. Yet Klein goes far beyond simply pointing out that disaster capitalism often relies on torture in order to deal with dissidents. Instead she argues that disaster capitalism and torture are the same thing—a much more hard-hitting thesis.

Klein points out that torture is never truly about gaining information, but rather about terrorizing individuals and a nation in order to induce a blank slate, free of resistance, upon which to build a new society. Electroshock therapy is the "shock and awe" of psychiatric treatments; disaster capitalism is the electroshock of economic policies. Readers might find this linguistic syllogism a bit too neat or convenient. They might balk at the way Klein seems to condemn capitalism by association; just because some corrupt dictatorships have used torture to implement free-market policies does not mean that all forms of capitalism violate citizens' integrity. But in fact the parallel stands if it is understood as a kind of literary metaphor, an astonishing similarity at the level of deep structure. Both practices operate by the same logic and both are doomed by the same flaws. Just as Ewen Cameron was unsuccessful at remaking his patients into healthy citizens, so too will disaster capitalism never fully quench resistance and remake citizens into obliging consumers.

The Shock Doctrine makes for compelling if unsettling reading as it moves along with the stealthy progress of a good conspiracy theory. Klein's covert history of the last fifty years delivers the shock of the new as it recasts familiar events through her lens. It is not the inspiring call-to-arms that No Logo is, but it does end on a positive note. From the detritus of disaster capitalism, Klein forecasts, will rise newly shock-resistant societies that will take the tools for building strong social institutions back into their own hands.

*The geographical term Southern Cone refers to the areas of South America that are below the Tropic of Capricorn. This includes all of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, southern parts of Brazil and, sometimes, Paraguay.

Reviewed by Amy Reading

This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the June 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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