As the dust settled over the crumpled Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall in the early 90s, the celebrated political analyst Francis Fukuyama swiftly proclaimed the end of a vicious battle of ideologies: free market and its sidekick liberal democracy had triumphed over the tyrannical central planning, heralding an unfettered spread of freedom and neo-liberal policies that would bring incommensurable global wealth. But something was amiss: how could the neoliberal trinity –privatization, deregulation and social spending cuts – a set of policies that primarily favor the rich, be voted in by a majority that is poor and who identifies with a social-democratic platform -redistribution of income, social spending and regulation? Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine debunks the myth of democratically led neoliberal agendas, arguing that citizens have been coerced into them following episodes of rampant disorientation, confusion and fear; in other words, shocks. Shocks of any nature – natural disasters such Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Asian Tsunami; civil wars in Chili, Brazil and Iraq; economic meltdowns in Bolivia, Poland and Russia- all provide a gateway through which elite policy makers circumvent the democratic process and march their economic agendas on a stricken population. Klein parallels the effects of societal shocks to those experienced in torture chambers: The victims have lost their sense of worth, of dignity. Most crucially though, their capacity to resist is obliterated and they become pliable to authority. In the same way functions a society, a vulnerability Hitler and other dictators understood all too well. But what is unprecedented now is the institutionalization of trauma –the Shock doctrine- by neo-liberal hawks. Starting in the early 1970’s and under the aegis of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, the role of shocks has been textbooked and become the first step in forcefully reshaping a society according to a pure economic ideal. From the Chicago Boys’ economic tabula rasa experiments in Latin America to the Thatcherist method in Britain and the ”’shock and awe” strategy of the Iraq war, Friedman’s toolbox for radical change has been used over and over. Naomi Klein paints a mosaic of events, revealing a pattern of cutthroat capitalism that is morphing into a cynical and systemic industry: the Disaster Capitalism Complex – a part of the economy that feeds of shocks (whether natural or induced by extreme neo-liberal policies), forces foreign economic policies on sovereign countries and provides a wealthy minority with national assets. In such a world dreamed up by neoliberals, the citizen has bequeathed his democratic rights to the greed of a few. What’s worse, Klein warns, is that economic policies that exclude the worse-off may give rise to extreme nationalism and racism, precisely societal diseases Milton Friedman thought could be cured only by implementing free trade and reducing government spending.
What is impressive and refreshing with Naomi Klein’s book is the sheer amount of research that has gone into backing her claims. With 60 pages of references and notes covering both ends of the political spectrum, Klein’s less orthodox ideas get denied the claims of conspiracy theories, a labeling that has been used by the mainstream to quiet out diverging views. Moreover, the abundance of case studies, covering more than thirteen countries, from third world countries to developed ones, provides a vivid sense of the magnitude of the neoliberal grasp on the world economy and its pervasion into the lives of millions of people. What is important in Klein’s book is that she doesn’t dwell on the perennial debate Marx and Smith have been having ever since their deaths. Her attack is centered on the illegality of Smith’s unduly check mate. Rather than leaving social democracy to prove itself as a valid mean of conducting a society, neo-liberalism has stifled its rival by unacceptable and undemocratic means. Violence, torture, assassinations, bribery and intimidation have been used by old tyrants and modern institutions to impose a belief that, as of yet, has only been mathematically proven within the constraints of economic models. Worst still, some policy makers have acted under the façade of neo-liberalism to further their own personal finances -Klein’s exposure of members of Bush’s cabinet profiteering from the Iraq war is enough to raise the ire of any partisan reader. Klein’s critical thinking and flexibility is also laudable in other aspects. In one revealing episode in the book, she accuses Amnesty International for failing to understand or focus on the reasons behind the torture under Pinochet rule. By maintaining its apolitical stance, the NGO thwarted an opportunity to reveal the darkness beneath the veal of the nascent economic doctrine. Her final message is a hopeful one: Though neo-liberalism is difficult to combat because of the power structure the world finds itself in, citizens can protect themselves from shocks by simply being aware of them and girding their loins before the next wave hits. Her book is thus intended for a wider audience, not just as an informative tictac break, but mostly as a counter-toolbox against neo-liberalism.
Naomi Klein sees people power, authentic democracy as a weapon against political and economic abuses. It is thus difficult to criticize this approach lest one appears elitist. Nonetheless it is a truism that in every democratic cloud lays a golden elite sliver, whose ambitions and interests are of different color than that of the mass. Her analysis covers a particular point in time when a powerful minority identified with neo-liberal policies, and saw the need to overcome a democracy-conscious mass opposition by shocking it into oblivion. In a twist of irony, the advent of democratic consciousness may have created the need for shocks, allowing the elite to breathe its interests again. Shocks then may just be a new set of instruments yanked from an old toolbox, in the same way propaganda and the deintellectualization of the mass was and still is being used. Klein may be facing a vertical structural reality that is present within every society no matter its democratic claims, and this might be too difficult a fact for Klein to admit. Nevertheless, her written battle against elite wrondgoing is worthy of praise, and her idealism may influence enough heads to make that steel structure more horizontal.
A highly commendable book.