Only a crisis, actual or perceived can produce real change. That in a capsule defines the Shock Doctrine. As conceived by its primary proponent Milton Friedman, the shock doctrine allows the imposition of otherwise unpalatable economic conditions on an unsuspecting populace through the haze that follows a catastrophic event. By taking advantage of a crisis or disaster (natural and increasingly man made) the three primary tenets of the doctrine, namely deregulation/free trade, privatization and severe cutbacks on social spending could be imposed with impunity and without regard for what is considered as nationalist safeguards. As envisioned by Friedman and his disciples (whose economic policy is forever known as the Chicago school of thought), the objective is to strip away all regulations until all distortions are removed and the markets are free to regulate themselves. The idea being that the free regulation of the market would allow all people to benefit from the wealth that is subsequently created. But in Milton’s hands and as practiced by his fervent disciples, it has evolved to pure corporatism coupled with a disaster capitalism. The basic doctrine thus put in place, Naomi Klein’s excellent book the Shock Doctrine sets out to challenge the basic assumptions and tenets of the Doctrine by showing that its unfettered application all over the world has brought about the grossest violations of human rights and created and in numerous instances broadened and increased a hundredfold the inequality between the rich and poor. It has brought about the very opposite of what it purports to bring about.
Given such a highly controversial and potentially contentious subject, Klein has undertaken in depth research and from the wealth of information contained, has put in a significant amount of time to gather all the facts and to ensure that the facts speak for themselves. And the facts are damning indeed.
The first half of the book is devoted to studying the cases of the countries where the doctrine was first applied. From Latin America, to South Africa, Poland, Russia, China, Korea and Indonesia, the book shows us how the application of the doctrine has necessitated the most brutal repressions (i.e. Chile’s Pinochet and Argentina’s generals) and wide application of torture. Indeed the stringent economic measures required that torture be applied. It was the means of ensuring compliance of the people and to remake the society in accordance with the vision of its creators. As such it was carried out systematically and clinically both on individuals and on whole societies. And the result of such experiment was the almost complete privatization of its national industries, the lay-off of thousands of state employees, huge national debts to the IMF and World Bank, and the enrichment of a very tiny segment of society. It does not even begin to describe the misery, exploitation and deprivation that was endured and in some cases, still being endured today by the ordinary people of these countries. And because the interests of big multinational companies are involved, it comes almost as no surprise to learn that the US backed several coups which subsequently put governments in place that supported the Chicago School.
The second and third parts of the book deals with the application of the doctrine to the country of its birth-the US. And we see how the evolution of the doctrine and its accompanying disaster capitalism has led to the Iraq war and even more disastrously, the privatization of all but the most basic government functions. What has happened is the logical next step in the process. Where the national industries of other countries were once the target, it only makes sense that the target now is what may be the richest prize of them all, the US Government. From the findings of the book, it appears that any and everything that could be contracted out has been contracted out, reducing and stripping away functions that have traditionally belonged to the State. Thus, we see how the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has lead to rich gated communities (built by private contractors) and huge blocks of poor areas that are still without water or electricity. In the words of the book, what has evolved is the hollow state. If the previous chapters have already been already sickening in its detail of torture, murder and poverty, this chapter is perhaps the most sickening as it enumerates in painful detail the huge amounts of public money that have gone to line the pockets of very select corporations (in many cases owned by very prominent individuals). It is cronyism and corruption at the highest levels and banana dictators have apparently nothing on them when it comes to amassing enormous amounts of money.
Klein concludes the book by showing that at the moment there is a growing move to reject the policies of the Chicago school and this is by no means an easy task. Despite the experience of countries under the shock doctrine, there are ominous signs of its continuing power. A quick look around us confirms the existence of rich gated communities while increasingly large segments of society remain disenfranchised and down trodden. And should the shock doctrine continue, these gated communities could become fiercely armed and read to fight to the death to maintain its stranglehold. But as with everything else, there is hope. Latin America is now on its first attempts to bring back a democratic socialism, which attempt was brutally cut short in the 70s. They have before them a few models, namely Scandinavia, but it remains to be seen whether it can be applied everywhere else. An important insight to take away from reading the book is the idea that we owe it to our collective existence to fight against the continuing hold of this insidious doctrine whether or not we are from countries that have been under shock. As pointed out by the author, disasters have traditionally united humans; it cuts across religious, cultural and political ties and alliances. We must learn to do so again and we must learn to rebuild our society into a more just version of what we have thus far created.
Note: The Shock Doctrine is now available at RWB for 15 Euros