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Disaster Capitalism: An Offer You Can’t Refuse—Or Can You?

Michael Gould-Wartofsky is a young writer and activist from New York City. He has been a part of student, labor, and international solidarity movements for much of his life. He can be reached at mgouldwartofsky [at]

At the crossroads of Buenos Aires’s shopping district sits a posh mall called the Galerías Pacífico, a showcase for global brand names and a playground for Argentina’s rich. One day, a film crew descended to the basement. There they found an abandoned torture chamber, its walls still etched with names, dates, and messages from political prisoners disappeared under the military junta. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein goes digging deep into the basements of global capitalism, from the torture labs of Latin America to the oil fields of Iraq, unearthing the bodies and catching the culprits red-handed. In the process, she demolishes one of the great myths of our time: that free markets go hand in hand with free societies, and that globalized free enterprise brings peace and democracy. Instead, as Klein documents in this definitive history, the new world order is the product of three decades of free-market terror, torture, and shock.

Ten years ago, the critics of capitalist globalization—Klein, author of the 1999 No Logo, among them—protested the market fundamentalism then being imposed on the world through backroom deals at the WTO and IMF. After September 11, we saw free markets increasingly enforced at the point of a gun in the hands of a resurgent state, to the tune of shock and awe. When Klein first set out on her research, she tells us, she believed that “everything had changed” after 9/11, that this “disaster capitalism” was a new invention. As she went on, it became clear that the War on Terror, Iraq, and New Orleans, far from aberrations, were the continuation and culmination of thirty-five years of the “shock doctrine”: the exploitation of crisis to “erase and remake the world” in the image of the capitalists’ dreams. The underlying metaphor is that of torture, of the shock treatment developed by Ewan Cameron in the 1950s, which would later form the basis for the CIA’s interrogation manuals. Cameron sought to “depattern” his patients with electroshock, to turn them into blank slates so they could be “reprogrammed” or “cured.” Klein argues that the disaster capitalists have sought to do the same—only to entire societies.

The Shock Doctrine traces disaster capitalism to its ideological roots in the Chicago School of Milton Friedman, forcing a double take on the economist’s legacy of “capitalism and freedom.” Friedman and his “Chicago Boys” were the vanguard of the counterrevolution, taking shock therapy from its proving ground in Pinochet’s Chile to the rest of a traumatized world. Friedman understood that “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Regarding his own ideas, he might have added, they depend on the force available to impose them on unwilling populations. Klein shows how neoliberal economics has come to dominate societies, not through a peaceful battle of ideas, but in each case, through a string of shocks: the first is a collective trauma—a coup, war, hyperinflation, or natural disaster—that leaves the public disoriented and demobilized. The second is a program of economic shock therapy—privatization, deregulation, and deep cuts in social spending—pushed through all at once before people can recover. The third is the shock applied in the secret prisons and in the streets to those who dare to resist.

Leaving no stone unturned, combining on-the-ground reporting and meticulous historical documentation, Klein goes on to follow the bloody trail of the shock therapists and their shock troops around the world. She draws a clear line from Chile and the Southern Cone in the 1970s to China and Poland in the 1980s to Russia and South Africa in the 1990s, and full circle to the United States, Iraq, Israel, and South Asia in our own time. Some of this will not be altogether novel to readers on the left. The role of the corporations, the CIA, and the Chicago Boys in the rise of repressive regimes across Latin America, for example, is a familiar story to those who have been paying attention. Yet the dominant narratives, whether those of neoliberal think tanks or human rights NGOs, have obscured the relationship between the economic project and the political terror, between the shopping mall and the torture chamber. At last, Klein reconnects the dots and pulls out the threads running from Friedman, Ford, and ITT to the military regimes, irrefutably tying the one to the other and revealing the secret history of their economic “miracle.”

Klein does not exempt the self-proclaimed democracies from her scathing survey. Since people around the world, given the choice, tend to reject free markets and embrace redistribution, their “unscripted self-determination…always ha[s] been the greatest single threat to the Chicago School crusade.” Thus, shock doctors operating in ostensibly democratic regimes need “democracy-containment,” taking key economic decisions off the table to be made behind closed doors. As dictatorships fell and the peoples of Latin America, Eastern Europe, and South Africa began to win political freedom, they were denied economic self-determination, their democracies “born in chains.” Facing economic warfare—the shock of hyperinflation, of crushing debt, of capital flight—all ruling parties, even ex-movements like Solidarity and the African National Congress, were led to sell out their base, sell off the public sphere, and bow before market fundamentalism. Some were eager customers, like Yeltsin and the oligarchs after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Klein’s account of Russia’s years of shock therapy is devastating. So is her story of the Washington Consensus, pushed by international lenders as they exploited crisis after crisis to force “structural adjustment”—privatization, spending cuts, free trade—on the Global South.

The disaster capitalists have now come home to roost in the United States and, by extension, in the nations it has occupied. Perhaps the most striking and revelatory section of the book is Klein’s analysis of the “War on Terror” as a new economy, an analysis which has been sorely missing from the public discourse. The long war, as Klein shows, was outsourced from the outset, giving rise to a phenomenon she calls “the disaster capitalism complex—a full-fledged new economy in homeland security, privatized war and disaster reconstruction tasked with nothing less than building and running a privatized security state, at home and abroad” (299). From surveillance cameras and biometric technologies to privately built detention centers and military bases, Klein gives a thorough accounting of just how deeply enmeshed the private sector has been with the war and repression, destruction and “reconstruction” seen since 9/11. The lines between big business and big government have been erased, yielding a “corporatist state” that redistributes untold wealth upward from public funds to private firms and shapes foreign policy to private interests. Now, the complex appears to be perpetuating itself, generating an enduring economic incentive for war, militarism, and disaster, and a powerful disincentive for peace.

The occupation of Iraq has brought the shock doctrine into plain view of a shocked world—and its “overshock” sparked a ferocious resistance. The war, as Klein reports first-hand, was really another attempt to erase and remake an entire society, “a creation of the fifty-year crusade to privatize the world…the purest incarnation yet of the ideology that gave it birth” (359). Contrary to the claims that there was “no plan” for Iraq, the occupation plotted a familiar course—shock and awe, then economic shock therapy, then the shocked bodies of Abu Ghraib. But there were unintended consequences, more disastrous than even the disaster capitalists could imagine. Insurgent flames were only fanned by their privatized pillage of Iraqi industry and infrastructure—the selloffs of public firms, the layoffs of 500,000 state workers, the invasion of foreign corporations and contractors, and the armed robbery of Iraq’s oil money. The shock doctors could only answer the resistance by dismantling democracy, repressing dissent, and torturing those suspected of standing in the way. Meanwhile, the system Klein calls “disaster apartheid,” marked by “Green Zones” and “Red Zones,” now stretches beyond Baghdad and across the world, from Israel and Palestine to post-tsunami South Asia and post-Katrina New Orleans.

Yet in many of the places ravaged by disaster capitalism, we find “shock resistance” and “people’s reconstruction” today on the upsurge. Klein reaches this hopeful note at the end of her book—citing stirring examples of contemporary resistance, along with an accounting for the crimes of the past, in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, Lebanon, Spain, Thailand, and even the United States. Movements in many of these battlegrounds—with deep roots, long memories, and a new resilience—are turning back the free-market tide, rebuilding what disaster capitalism has destroyed, and proving another world still to be possible. Unfortunately, these movements and their histories never receive the attention they deserve in The Shock Doctrine, covered in a mere 24 pages out of 466, almost as an afterthought. This cursory treatment may point to a deeper problem in perspective: If we see people simply as victims or objects of violence, battered and “depatterned” to the point of helplessness, and not as the historical subjects they are, in constant struggle against their torturers, we risk losing sight of the transformative possibilities of this struggle. While Klein sometimes pauses to recognize the resistance—for which the ruling class needs its cattle prods and taser guns—the people themselves demand a more central place.

Some readers may also find themselves asking a simple question: Isn’t all capitalism disaster capitalism? Klein doesn’t seem to think so. The book does not entertain the possibility that the “shock doctrine” could simply mark the latest evolution of a system with five hundred  years of disaster behind it. This is not the first time that markets have conquered the known world with such brutality, or that ruling classes have had to repress unruly populations to open up markets. Klein writes as if we can expect something much better to emerge and endure under the capitalist system, as if a capitalist state could transcend its corporate bottom line to give it to us. We end up getting a Keynesian wishlist: free markets mixed with strong public services, state investment, and corporate regulation. Rarely does she mention revolutionary alternatives, whether those crushed in the twentieth century or those rising anew in this century. Of the new movements in the South, she concludes they are “radical only in their intense practicality.” Yet a more accurate conclusion could be that they are practical in their intense radicality. They are at once rebuilding what was, preparing for the next shock — and building new social and economic forms of democracy and solidarity that could hasten a world beyond the disaster of capitalism.

Still, Klein did not set out to write another movement manifesto like No Logo. She set out to write the covert history of the “free-market revolution” and an explosive exposé of the real forces driving and profiting from today’s disasters. As such, The Shock Doctrine is a decisive triumph, a grand slam against the Chicago School team (after years of missed hits by the left). The popular reception of Shock, which has ranked among the bestselling books in the United States and has also been made into a short film, suggests that a critical left perspective may finally be breaking through the blinders of the mass media to a truly mass audience. With this book on the shelves, the neoliberal establishment will now have a harder time making the case that capitalism equals freedom and markets equal peace. Klein’s work has helped turn this debate upside down, that is, right side up. A book is not going to end the global onslaught of disaster capitalism, or the further shocks that may be on the horizon in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, and countless other economic and ecological war zones in the making. But as Klein has said, “Information is shock resistance. Arm yourself.” With a book like The Shock Doctrine, we are thoroughly well-armed.

2008, Volume 60, Issue 01 (May)
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