The consequences of commodifying disaster under inconclusive scrutiny.
I underestimated this one. I went into it with the mindset that I’d be getting the standard easy-digest political 101 that you’d reasonably expect from a bestselling political book that isn’t just another memoir from the latest cog to fall off their most recent political peg, but between Brexit, a pandemic, rising unemployment, a debt bubble, a stock market bubble, some scepticism towards the future of the global reserve currency, the geopolitical trend towards neofascism and authoritarianism, amidst a cyclonic merry-go-round of concerns, it seemed like the right time to attempt to educate myself to some degree about the potential fallout of disasters, and the mindset of the influential in response to them.
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is Naomi Klein’s 2007 dissection of a specific strain of exploitative financial institutional practices on a geopolitical scale from the mid-20th century until the mid-Iraq war. The book looks at numerous examples around the globe moving from North and South America, to South Africa and into eastern Europe before returning to the USA, examining a series of drastic economic shifts that, though scattered in space and time, all share a collection of striking similarities.
It would be the kind of thing to fall out of the frothing maw of a raving conspiracy theorist had the book not been more than well researched and had the author not been a well-respected journalist, contributing to a number of publications including The Guardian and The Intercept, with a previous international bestseller in No Logo under her belt in 1999 and two further books before The Shock Doctrine saw a printing press. The Shock Doctrine subsequently became an international and New York Times bestseller, and was adapted into a Youtube short film, directed by Jonas Cauron, with over a million views.
Klein’s journalistic praxis is relentless to a slightly unnerving degree. The Shock Doctrine is dense with information. I don’t always take the various bestseller accolades all that seriously – to some extent they’re a good indicator of how the publishing industry is allocating its marketing budget as much as they are an indication of the quality of a book – but while I came away from this one with reservations and a number of questions, I’m also convinced that, as we draw towards the theoretical end of this pandemic, it is important that people read this, not just in terms of Klein’s apparent left-biased objections, but in terms of the way in which we are aware of influential actors, our approach to change, and the wider implications for political–economic interactions at transnational scale. If nothing else, this book will leave you with a lot to think about.
There’s an interesting passage in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, courtesy of the Reconditioning Centre’s Dr. Benway. It is a point-by-point breakdown of how one goes about deconstructing a human psyche under torture by inducing forced human regression. It is one of the more readable and interesting parts of an otherwise thoroughly repetitive and overhyped novel.
In 1957 Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, unknowingly, joined the CIA’s project MKUltra where he worked on a cure for schizophrenia using, amongst other things, drugs, electroconvulsive therapy at up to forty-times the recommended power, noise and repetitive statements, and long-term induced comas. If you’re familiar with common torture techniques beyond waterboarding and the macabre machinations of medieval sadists, the alarm bells in your skull will be ringing.
Dr. Cameron’s experiments under the MKUltra program ran from 1957-64. You’d be forgiven for assuming that perhaps he was where Burroughs received inspiration for Dr. Benway, but Naked Lunch was published in 1959.
In the paranoia fugue of mid-20th century American anti-Soviet culture, the potential of mind control gained serious attention from the CIA. Building on the earlier work of one Donald O. Hebb, the working hypothesis was not intricate: blast a subject with enough psychological artillery for a long enough period and they should eventually regress to a completely vulnerable state – a blank slate. This blank slate was the ideal end point. From there you are free to reconstruct the regressed person to fit your desired purpose. And it was successful. Partially. Patients lost memories, forgot close relatives, lost the ability to talk and suffered incontinence, and in some cases believed their interrogators to be their parents. But after they had been shell-shocked into a haphazard infantile state, there was nobody with an interest in doing the rebuilding. Naomi Klein suggests that, far from curing mental disturbance, Dr. Cameron’s experiments were concerned with the development of systematic torture techniques for the effective extraction of information by lowering a subject’s psychological resistances; a bullet point list of processes to which one subjected a victim much in the same way a technologist might run standardised tests in a laboratory.
“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. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”– Milton Friedman
This sets up the basic premise of The Shock Doctrine. Naomi Klein posits that what free market advocates, such as Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, put into practice during the latter half of the 20th century, across the globe, was no less than economic shock therapy in the vein of those CIA-funded torture experiments under Dr. Cameron. She further suggests that since its inception, these practices have effectively matured into what she calls ‘disaster capitalism’.
In a perverse parallel to those experiments, the point of shock therapy, under the pretence of national salvation and economic recovery from disasters such as hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War, is to open up a vacuum in which vast profits can be extracted at accelerated rates by exploiting a deliberately created absence of regulation or legal framework. It results in corporatist collusion, vastly benefiting the already wealthy global elite, backed by the IMF and the World Bank, and is done so at catastrophic expense to the everybody else. The process operates on a 6-9 month timeframe, in which institutions aim to impose rapid irreversible change to their targeted nation. In the free space opened up by drastic free market reforms the national assets are stripped before the government catches up, and by then the damage has long been done.
This sets the stage for one of the problems with The Shock Doctrine – everything I have just relayed to you in those last two paragraphs takes Klein a good 250 pages to get to. Klein lets her research do, almost exclusively, all the talking. If she wants to level a criticism at a political action, she tends to rely on quoting someone else. She clearly has a stance here but seems unwilling to grab it by the bollocks. As a result, while she avoids the hysteria that can characterise some left-wing political writing, the overreliance on letting the timeline just play out across the page, though clearly coloured by her political beliefs, leaves the book with a feeling of directionless regurgitation or worse nose-tapping insinuation.
As far as introductions goes, it hooked me. Shock doctrine as a subject, shock doctrine as execution, it seems. The first hundred and fifty pages had me scrawling literally thousands of words down in a notebook. On reflection, it’s telling that most of what I wrote down were questions. I don’t think many of them, if any, were answered. This is one of the leitmotifs that appears in criticisms of the book – a seeming lack of a coherent core argument outside of a mountain of reporting. Every new section of the book was yet another outline of another bit of history featuring the same people causing the same problems.
While her research is incredibly thorough, you come away with the impression that you are just reading her research notes. The entire middle of the book is so preoccupied with laying out what happened where and with who that it almost completely forgoes any assertion of a point outside of pointing to a series of historical events and the links between them. She only really starts to construct an argument about everything she has laid out in the last fifth of the book. That is far too late.
The hard clarification via evidence is enlightening, but, despite the obvious political leanings of the book, you are left on your own to figure out what to do with it. The actual reason for highlighting all of this information can get lost in a cacophonic barrage of facts. This in turn leaves a certain amount of flexibility in how you interpret Klein herself – what is this book doing? She goes to great lengths to detail one event after another and the way in which different pieces of the world function as new cogs in the great feeding trough machine, but the overall effect, long before the halfway point, turns from frustration and horror to tedium and apathy. We get it – neoliberalism, disaster capitalism, Chicago School, IMF, World Bank all bad. But what, outside of a broad archive of historical financial manipulation and abuse, is the point of this book?
Drawing corkboard connections between events and people and suggesting the presence of a pattern makes you look like Alex Jones, and at times the relative emaciation of her own assertions can leave the impression that all of this research has produced a conclusion that Klein finds difficult to argue.
I’d also like to know whether Klein has a functional alternative? It’s one thing to point to a problem, but one should preferably have an answer to it. Alternatively, you can argue that asking Klein to provide a solution is more or less pointless, if we agree that Mark Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’ thesis is accurate – citing Margaret Thatcher’s words: ‘There is no alternative’. One wonders if Klein, or anyone, can provide an answer to the problems here – if indeed they are problems at all.
Might this be a case of attributing to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence? At times the argument, such as it is, really does just come across like a demonstration of a capitalist economy just going through the motions. People make investments, somebody wins, most people lose. Most, if not all of us, are thoroughly familiar with this idea. It certainly wasn’t news in 2007. Outside of an imprecise catalogue of the mechanics of greed, for which the book could serve as a functional reference, the specific takeaway is elusive. Repeatedly I have to ask: What do we do with this information? On the other hand, the pattern of financial and human exploitation preceeding national ruin under authoritarian rule and free market doctrine, pushed by parties become all to familiar by the end of the book, reccur with a consistency that at the very least throws the proponents of free market capitalism under severe suspicion even if they are otherwise innocent of the accused strain of malevolence.
The overreliance on piled up facts and suggestion is impractical. If I read a reference for the mechanical means by which the global leech class destroy the world around them, I want that reference to be specific. I want ‘strategy A works like steps 1 through 3’. Give me the equivalent of a chess guide: ‘If A then C, if B then D’. I can now point to ways that disaster capitalism was put into practice in a series of different places at a series of pivotal moments, by exploiting the political tension, ignorance, or legal technicalities of an individual circumstance. What that amounts to in terms of pragmatic ways to hamstring an assailant using those strategies, is very little.
Klein argues that while deregulated free markets do not deliberately create disasters of their own accord, as many conspiracy theorists assert, the day-to-day actions of private industrial interests in and of themselves ensure that the knock-on effects of those actions create further disasters with increasing severity and frequency. The privatised sprawl of industry will, in turn, make huge profits off of the back of this, creating a whirlpool of misery and degradation. But if private companies are not deliberately creating disasters can we accuse them of being inherently malicious? A destabilising force in an ever-destabilising world, yes. But malicious intent is not so clear, in comparison to a more generalised and contemptible addiction to greed.
Certainly, if the system is producing these toxic actions then it is necessary to enact methods of punishment for the individuals taking those actions with enough severity and consistency to force the way in which free market disaster capitalists operate to change to the broader benefit. The inevitable resistance to these new terms of operate is long-term inconsequential – the point, to take a leaf out of Milton Friedman’s own book, is to forcibly create a change that is persistent enough to become a new normal, whether there are objections or not. The recipient of that change is the variable, the change itself must be a constant.
Do private interests inevitably bear the responsibility for some theoretical eventual calamity that does bring the world to its knees? If the government do not regulate the market and privatisation, do the government bear the responsibility? Is regulation and anti-globalisation alone going to avert the acceleration towards some protracted state of apocalypse? Klein seems to lean hard on the malice of profit-motivated industry, but it bears asking what she would put in its place, and that really isn’t clear. There is a greater and more precise set of discussions that can be derived from numerous points in The Shock Doctrine, and each one would undoubtedly require books in and of themselves. It would be idiotic to suggest that The Shock Doctrine answers those question. But it could do more to acknowledge them.
I think this book is essential reading, but with the caveat that it can be an incredible slog at times. There are hundreds of pages in this book that churn out fact upon fact with little regard for anything else. The irony is that The Shock Doctrine seems to have less deliberate purpose than the dystopian economic architecture it outlines. What does the Chicago School want? A completely deregulated global market looping through periods of disaster, from which they can extract market-beating quantities of revenue. What does Naomi Klein want? Not that.
Beneath the calculated research, there is clearly a great deal of passion. It may be that that passion, in the wake of the dot com bubble, 9/11, the war in Iraq and everything else up to 2007 created a certain amount of tunnel vision, but in turn it would be remiss, if not entirely hypocritical, of me to make that assertion with any pretence of weight. Suffice to say, however, that there is a certain amount of single-mindedness to this book that can leave the impression of not considering some questions in the heat of its own battle.