Capitalism in ‘ruthless profit-making’ shock!
Far from being big, bold or original, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is shallow and simplistic, and reading it feels like being bored to death in a pub by refugees from the 1980s Left.
Upon the publication of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine last month, much of the liberal press went into fawning overdrive.
‘There are very few books that really help us understand the present. The Shock Doctrine is one of those books’, declared the UK Guardian. ‘An ambitious overview of the last 50 years of capitalism’, reckoned the New York Times. Klein also wooed equally star-struck audiences on a speaking tour, including a sold-out talk at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s South Bank, wherein she was greeted as the guru/seer of ‘anti-capitalism’. She’s also in the Top Ten most influential thinkers alive, though as The Shock Doctrine makes abundantly clear, that’s not the same as being the most brilliant or original.
Indeed, as one wades through this vault-door stopping tome, it becomes clear that the 33-year-old Canadian Klein frequently mistakes quantity for quality, interviews for ideas and, most often, basic journalistic graft for intellectual inspiration. A sensationalist (though hardly sensational) writer like Klein is ready-made for the current period. After all, nothing enthuses what passes for today’s intelligentsia more than simplistic hand-wringing against ‘capitalism’, ‘corruption’ and ‘consumerism’. If The Sopranos ever went into a seventh series, you can bet that Tony’s gloomy son AJ would be devouring The Shock Doctrine and grumpily quoting ‘facts’ from it at the Soprano breakfast bar. Throw in grave reportage on torture in Abu Ghraib prison and you’re guaranteed to climb the bestsellers list faster than you can say ‘weapons of mass destruction’.
Now, it’s one thing for Klein to project a tone of this-will-be-big-news-for-you-sunshine regarding capitalists (they are self-interested profit-makers!) or capitalist state machineries (they can, like, trample over your rights!), but it’s another story when Klein’s mish-mash of Keynesian nostalgia, hostility to conviction politics and fear and loathing of dramatic social change is considered by intellectuals to be big, bold and radical. In truth, The Shock Doctrine is like being trapped in the Guardian’s Weekend section forever, with only activists from the European Social Forum for company.
In short, it’s not very good.
Klein’s supposedly ground-breaking research (the book’s blurb, not mine) shows that free marketers cynically use disasters – wars, terrorist attacks and natural disasters – to push through privatisation programmes. The disorientating effect of disasters is supposed to make the masses acquiesce to redundancies, wage-cuts and the rise of private rather than state-run services. Klein cites the turbulent landscape of Iraq, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Asian tsunami in 2004 to show such devious capitalist plotting in action. Moreover, she argues that free market flag-wavers, such as General Pinochet, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, manufactured psychological ‘shock and fear’ on unionised workers in order to press ahead with anti-working-class measures.
Developed from the electro-shock techniques used by the CIA in the 1950s – whereby a patient’s memory is effectively ‘wiped clean’, rendering them sedated and powerless – the Shock Doctrine described by Klein is the deliberate use of fear and disorientation to crush resistance to the free market. As the social experiment in Chile has grimly demonstrated, there’s no doubt that the free market and democracy don’t quite go hand-in-hand, as classical liberals once insisted they do.
Capitalist states have a pragmatic approach to democracy. In stable periods, democracy helps mystify sources of genuine power and decision-making in society, while in societies populated by mass oppositional movements, democracy can quickly be jettisoned if it threatens the accumulation of capital. There’s no doubt that the coup in Chile, wherein the democratically elected Worker’s Party was overthrown by General Pinochet’s military force, is a tragedy of recent history. But Klein’s account reads as if the facts of the events of 1973 were somehow shockingly new, and as if her account is particularly insightful. What next? Will she be outraged to learn that Hitler disposed of trade union leaders in 1933 in a similar ‘shock doctrine’ fashion?
Another aggravating weakness of The Shock Doctrine is Klein’s tendency to shoehorn events to neatly fit her thesis. So in her chapter on Chile, the masses are described as having been too psychologically ‘disorientated’ to resist the privatisation programme overseen by Pinochet’s goons. Klein cites the late Milton Friedman’s belief that Chile needed a ‘shock to the system’ in order to stimulate growth and/or pacify the opposition. This doesn’t mean that the mass of Chilean people were psychologically traumatised. Rather, it was the liquidation of their political organisations and leadership that made resisting wage cuts and redundancies more difficult. Besides, it was not the case that the Chilean people simply shrugged their collective shoulders and got on with it. Deep resentment, spilling over into confrontation, was a constant feature of Chile’s political landscape.
A similarly one-eyed interpretation of recent history can be found in the chapter on the Thatcher years in the UK. Thatcher, who was elected in 1979, was famously a follower of the economist Friedman, and even a diplomatic ally of the despised Pinochet. Klein glues these facts together to suggest a similar subscription to ‘Shock Doctrine’ ideas. In particular, Klein believes that Thatcher used the Falklands War in 1982 ‘to launch the first mass privatisation auction in a Western democracy’. Thus, Thatcher operated a ‘limited version of shock therapy’ and used that to declare (class) war on ‘the enemy within’: the miners and the labour movement.
So much of this dashed-off sketch is deeply unsatisfactory and hackish. It is certainly true that Thatcher successfully used victory against Argentina in the Falklands in order to rescue her dwindling political support at home. And it is true that by whipping up old-fashioned British nationalism and militarism, she succeeded in painting the left and labour movement as ‘unpatriotic’ and a threat to the ‘national interest’. But this is hardly the deployment of a shock-and-awe strategy to disorientate trade unionists. Rather, both the Labour Party and trade union leaders acted as if they were still operating in the post-Second World War era of consensus, with industrial conflict sorted out over beer and sandwiches in Downing Street. But Thatcher’s government took the gloves off and launched an all-out offensive against trade union power, leaving the Labour Party completely incapable of defending workers or, indeed, itself.
Had the left been as single-minded in defending living standards and workers’ rights as Thatcher had been in undermining them, then the result might have been very different. The New Right’s success in cutting back public services and reducing collective bargaining power was never as inevitable as Klein makes out. Klein seems to rehearse and rehash the old left’s habit of making Thatcher’s invincibility and her crude authoritarianism seem mystifyingly popular. It was the spinelessness of the Labour Party, not some elaborate Shock Doctrine, that explains how and why the ‘Falklands Factor’ swept Thatcher to victory in 1983.
Klein has certainly done her research, but she is too preoccupied with her own thesis properly to assess what was really happening in the early 1980s. This calls into question the credibility of her overall thesis. Indeed, her journey from Electro-Shock Therapy to Shock and Awe takes such sizeable leaps in concepts and history that her arguments inevitably come crashing down.
Klein’s ‘if the label fits’ approach to surveying the rubble and carnage in Iraq doesn’t really unearth what’s new and distinct about the crisis there. Too often she simply rehearses many of the anti-war left’s arguments that Bush’s warmongering in Iraq was a return to colonial plundering of another country’s resources – only this time, Bush was using force to open up Iraq to foreign investment and companies that would be friendly to the Republican Party. Klein mentions contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater as proof that even security forces – even the army itself – are not immune to the neo-cons’ obsession with privatising everything.
And yet, the US Treasury has spent some $212billion on the Iraq war so far. It’s hard to see how the US is becoming any wealthier on Iraqi oil. In truth, the main motivation of the 2003 war was to find some kind of political purpose for Bush’s leadership. That project is now deeply discredited; the US army doesn’t even have the authority to patrol around Baghdad. As Frank Furedi and Brendan O’Neill have outlined elsewhere on spiked, the arrival of private mercenaries in Iraq isn’t a product of an obsession with unregulated free markets, but a consequence of the state’s lack of nerve, authority and willingness to be held to account for difficult actions and decisions (see Mercenaries in Iraq: Dogs of Indecision, and A tyranny of experts). It is the weakness of the US state, not any gung-ho strength, that is responsible for the corrosive misrule in Iraq.
In the chapters dealing with the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the clearing up of the debris after the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in December 2004, it becomes clear that private companies step in because state authorities lack the gumption and wherewithal to rebuild ravaged communities. And even this is only half the story. Far from this signifying an era of cut-throat capitalism, investors are far more hesitant and risk-obsessed than Klein will admit. Indeed, in the case of Ground Zero in New York, that paralysis is particularly acute. If capitalism is so rampant at the moment, how come a replacement for the Twin Towers still hasn’t been built? Actually, if contractors had built a replacement, Klein would only have seen this as scandalous, even immoral.
Indeed, The Shock Doctrine isn’t a critique of the market as such, but rather a vehicle for warning of humanity’s rapacious and destructive nature in general. So Klein pilots a raft of deeply reactionary and utterly conservative arguments that sound closer to the old aristocracy’s loathing for the French revolution than they do to a manifesto for human progress. She argues that the problem with rapid capitalist development after a disaster is that it dislocates people from their ‘community’ and their past – exactly the kind of guff that traditionalist conservatives have long criticised the market for. Here, Klein uses an unappealing mix of therapeutic psychobabble and mushy sentimentality to try to convince us that it’s better to repair what we have than rebuild from scratch.
In truth, natural and man-made disasters, always tragic of course, can and do provide an opportunity to start again – and perhaps create something better in the process. Klein uses the harrowing images of Electro-Shock Therapy to imply there’s something sinister about the wholesale reconstruction of a local community. Periodically, the destruction of machinery, buildings and infrastructure enables capitalism to start a fresh round of profitable activity. Indeed, capitalism would long since have collapsed without this process of destruction and renewal. But Klein isn’t interested in this particular structural weakness of capitalism. Her main target is the strong, free-willing subject and how that expresses itself – in other words, political conviction. According to Klein, the fundamentalists of capitalism and communism ‘deplore diversity and demand an absolute free hand to implement their perfect system. The world as it is must be erased to make way for their purist invention. Rooted in biblical fantasies of great floods and great fires, it is a logic that leads ineluctably towards violence.’ And all this is rooted in the self-interested human subject that at all costs needs to be constrained. Klein’s arguments here repeat the long-established framework put forward by Adorno and Horkheimer in their 1944 book, Dialectic of Enlightenment. These ideas found their most visible expression in the counter-culture of the 1960s but they have greater influence and reach today.
To be fair, Klein is not quite of the same stripe as the anti-globalisationists and environmentalists. At root, she favourably namechecks Keynes over Friedman and yearns for a return to the consensus era of a mixed economy coupled with extensive state-run services. At times, reading The Shock Doctrine is like being bored to death in pubs by old lefties in the late 1980s still clinging on by their fingernails to memories of consensus politics, class harmony and a belief that a few state-run schools and hospitals is about as good as it gets.
That was 20 years ago. The fact that Klein believes that this creaking relic of the past, with a few new misanthropic prejudices thrown in for good measure, is somehow a blueprint for the future reveals that, if anything, it is Klein’s own doctrine that is truly shocking – shockingly awful.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. He is speaking at the session Teach the world to sing at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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