Naomi Klein has a gift for grasping the essence of the current political situation and providing a rallying point for the Left. She did so in No Logo, her 2000 best-seller, and she does again in The Shock Doctrine. In both of these books, as in her journalism, she insists that our political challenge centres on the economy—and that you do not necessarily have to be an expert to understand how the global capitalist economy works. The appeal of her prose is sustained by her ability to explain the crux of economic relations in clear, even personal, terms for a general readership.
In No Logo Klein laid out the basic logics of neoliberal globalization and the role of multinational corporations, thereby supplying a useful framework for an entire generation of activists, what might be called ‘the generation of Seattle’. Her book provided activists with a rationale for why we fight. But generations pass quickly these days, and the cycle of movements that were associated with the 1999 Seattle wto protests declined precipitously after the opening of the us’s global ‘war on terror’ and definitively came to a close with the occupation of Iraq. The economic arguments that had previously been the focus—about trade regimes, debt, poverty and corporate profits—no longer seemed as pressing in the face of the new horrors of violence and destruction. The globalization protest movements were forced by the new circumstances to transform into anti-war movements.
In The Shock Doctrine Klein offers a new rally-point for the Left, adequate to our current situation, by creating a bridge that links the analysis of war, violence and disaster to arguments about neoliberal globalization. Her book brings the focus back to economic relations, but now the analyses of capitalist profits and control are complemented by investigations of the state and corporate apparatuses, which create and exploit various forms of large-scale destruction. Klein invents the concept of ‘disaster capitalism’ to name the regime of accumulation that not only treats disasters as economic opportunities—to privatize public goods, to expand markets, to restructure production schemes and so forth—but which may also require such disasters to keep functioning. In a bold conceptual move, she links together here disasters created by military violence, such as the ‘war on terror’ and the occupation of Iraq, and those resulting from ‘natural’ causes, including the tragic aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. To a certain extent, the argument goes, it does not matter to disaster capital what generates the disaster—only that such crises continually arrive, allowing capital to exploit the devastation and temporary disorientation that they bring in order to accomplish the principal goals of the neoliberal agenda: privatize public wealth, deregulate economic activity and reduce social-welfare spending. In a further move, however, she draws out the relation between violence and capital by tracing the concept of disaster capitalism back over thirty years. By articulating this concept Klein is naming the enemy, linking together its many disparate faces, and thus providing once again a figure against which to fight.
But whereas No Logo was published at a high-water mark of the globalization movements and was buoyed by their enthusiasm, The Shock Doctrine arrives in very different times, and is cast in a more sombre tone. The book is thus less oriented toward rallying the troops and more concerned with establishing an intellectual, ideological orientation. Klein approaches this task on three levels, each with its own style of writing, resulting in a hybrid, genre-mixing text. First of all, she employs the methods of investigative journalism to masterly effect in order to reveal some of the most nefarious events and personalities within the contemporary power structure, talking to evacuees in Baton Rouge, fishermen in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, Manila sweatshop workers in the throes of the Asian financial crisis. This generates both a sense of drama and powerful indignation against those currently in power. Klein uses a first-person voice in most of these parts of the book, putting herself at the centre of the narrative. These are probably the passages that most successfully draw the general reading public into the story. In the style of the genre, she provides readers with her own persona as a point of identification. But the project also requires her, secondly, to operate as a historian and trace the strong lines of continuity that extend from today’s dominant economic and political power structures back over the last three or four decades through countries across the globe. She does not delve into archives like a professional historian, but she does reconstruct through careful research the central historical events of her story with remarkable detail and clarity. On a third level, finally, she adopts the tools of economic and political theory to investigate the nature of contemporary capitalist production and control.
The fundamental idea of The Shock Doctrine is that there is an intrinsic link between capital (or at least one mode of capitalist activity) and violence. Her point of departure for exploring this link is Milton Friedman’s metaphor of ‘shock therapy’, which he deemed necessary to impose free-market capitalist reforms; indeed she probably takes this metaphor more seriously than he did. The psychiatrists who experimented with electroshock therapy in the 1950s and 60s, she explains, sought to disorient patients and destroy their existing psychic structures. They imagined they could create a clean slate on which new, healthier structures could be formed. Friedman similarly dreamt of destroying existing social and economic structures, making of society a kind of clean slate, in order to push through his desired economic policies. Without some sort of traumatic event to destabilize social habits and institutions and disorient the population, Friedman knew his reforms would never be accepted. Klein then pursues this analogy and demonstrates how various traumatic events, whose effect on the social body is similar to that of electroshock therapy on the individual, have been repeatedly used in different national contexts to impose Friedman’s free-market vision as well as neoliberal economic policies more broadly.
Klein also understands neoliberal economic reform as shock therapy more literally. Indeed, embedded in the argument of this book is an excellent brief history of the evolution of torture techniques over the last half century. That history begins, for Klein, in some of the very same laboratories at McGill University that were experimenting on patients with electroshock therapy in the 1950s. The cia, recognizing the utility for interrogation of these and similar techniques that disorient subjects and break down their psychic structures, funded this psychological research and incorporated its results. Klein draws a continuous line from such experiments to the cia’s interrogation manuals, and from techniques used by Latin American dictatorships to those employed today by the us and its allies in the ‘war on terror’. The use of such torture, Klein argues, is one element of the shock that is necessary in many cases for neoliberal economic transformation. Torture serves, in effect, to prolong the initial shock and finish clearing the social terrain so that the new economic structure can be built.
All of these elements come together in Pinochet’s Chile, Klein’s paradigmatic example of the shock doctrine to which all of her other historical examples conform to a greater or lesser extent. In Chile, of course, Milton Friedman’s free-market ideas were already well established before the 1973 coup d’état, in part through the training programme for Chilean economics students in Friedman’s department at the University of Chicago, the so-called Chicago Boys. Friedman himself acted as a kind of informal advisor to Pinochet during the early period of his regime, during which time the General did impose a radical plan of privatization and economic transformation. Chile quickly became the beacon of neoliberalism for Latin America and the world. And the stubborn sectors of Chilean society that resisted the political and economic transformation—communists, trade unionists and various others—were dealt with through torture and various other brutal tactics. Pinochet’s Chile thus brings into play all three elements that comprise the shock doctrine: military shock (the coup d’état); economic shock (Friedman’s economic transformation); and physical, social shock (through torture, imprisonment, murder and the like). Think of the shock doctrine, then, as the mode of activating and implementing disaster capitalism.