Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books, $28.00.
There's something happening here and what it is ain't exactly clear – unless you happens to be Naomi Klein. She is certain that just about everything that has happened over the last 35 years, from the Chilean coup to Tiananmen Square, the Falklands crisis, the fall of the USSR, all the way to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Iraq, is all part of a movement to impose unfettered capitalism worldwide through a campaign based on electroshock therapy and deploying the full might of the U.S. military.
This violent movement is spearheaded by the late economist Milton Friedman and his followers. In this grand drama Klein casts the Nobel laureate as the "grand guru of the movement for unfettered capitalism." Further, "the fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disasters to advance" and "like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers, a closed loop."
Chile was "the first Chicago School state, and the first victory in its global counterrevolution." But Friedmanism is also just plain revolutionary. Readers learn, for example, that "the people of the 'evil empire' were also eager to join the Friedmanite revolution," evidently due to some kind of psychological conditioning that Naomi Klein managed to escape.
"The movement that Milton Friedman launched in the 1950s," she explains, "is best understood as an attempt by multinational capital to recapture the highly profitable, lawless frontier that Adam Smith, the intellectual forefather of today's neoliberals so admired – but with a twist. . . this movement set out to systematically dismantle existing laws and regulations to re-create that earlier lawlessness." That's why we get charter schools in New Orleans, all part of "orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities."
Klein offers her book as "a challenge to the central and most cherished claim in the official story – that the triumph of deregulated capitalism has been born of freedom, that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy. Instead I will show that this fundamentalist form of capitalism has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion, inflicted on the collective body politic as well as on countless individual bodies."
Readers will get the feeling Klein knows that the various coups, wars, and slaughters have causes of their own, apart from "the fight for pure capitalism," the glass slipper into which she shoe-horns her breathless narrative. Events in Latin America, for example, must reckon with such Marxist revolutionary groups as the Tupamaros, Montoneros and the Shining Path. These get short shrift here. Cuba is an ongoing crisis but Klein gives a wide berth to the place and its Maximo Lider, who delights in executing dissenters, torturing poets and imprisoning homosexuals.
Klein cannot allow that anybody in Latin America, or anywhere else for that matter, might see any merit in free-market capitalism all by themselves, without being kidnapped by the CIA and brainwashed in a cell at the University of Chicago. The Shock Doctrine avoids such influential works as The Other Path, by Hernando de Soto, a best-seller in Peru. Klein also makes no attempt to show how Col. Mengistu's attempts during the 1980s to collectivize agriculture in Ethiopia on the Stalinist model fits the forced imposition of free markets.
On that theme, if the fundamentalist Friedmanite movement is "counterrevolutionary," then what revolution, exactly, does it counter? It's pretty clear Naomi Klein believes the one in the USSR was a big part of it. But didn't that one claim a few victims?
The Black Book of Communism pegs the number around 100 million. Klein calls this book "contentious" and in her response to its question "is the ideology blameless?" she explains: "Of course it is not. It doesn't follow that all forms of Communism are inherently genocidal, as some have gleefully claimed, but it was certainly an interpretation of Communist theory that was doctrinaire, authoritarian and contemptuous of pluralism that led to Stalin's purges and to Mao's reeducation camps."
With that collector's item does Naomi Klein dismiss the movement responsible for the more death, poverty and misery than any in history. This movement still prevails in the world's most populous nation, and in holdout gulags like Cuba, so repressive victims flee at the first opportunity, risking their lives and leaving loved ones behind. For Naomi Klein this is all in the past and the time has come to attack "the contemporary crusade to liberate world markets," headed by Milton Friedman, leaving little doubt that she believes this one is much worse. The author also believes that size matters.
The Shock Doctrine is heavily front-loaded and tries to make the case with sheer bulk and 60 pages of footnotes. Klein's global tour bongs every left-wing gong, from Mossadegh's Iran to Guatemala in 1954, South Africa and especially Chile under Pinochet, all very predictable, understandable, and without much significance. Chile gets prime treatment but Klein avoids recent revelations of Allende's KGB backing, recently documented by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin in The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. Klein's book also suffers from epigraphitis but the lurid style entertains in places before ending with more of a whimper than a bang.
The Shock Doctrine can be seen as the flip side of Robert Higgs' Crisis and Leviathan, which documents the ways government exploits crises to advance its power. Klein does not mention it. She is preaching to the choir but her socialist classic remains valuable in other ways. It serves as a left-wing style sheet, freighted with dismissive quotes and the attempt to convey importance through generous use of upper case, as in this passage:
"The Volker Shock would be followed by the Mexican Tequila Crisis in 1994, the Asian Contagion in 1997 and the Russian Collapse in 1998. When these shocks and crises started to lose their power, even more cataclysmic ones would appear: tsunamis, hurricanes, wars and terrorist attacks. Disaster capitalism was taking shape."
Klein invokes Orwell on the brainwashing issue but her own caricatures recall the English Socialism history textbook from 1984: "These rich men were called capitalists. They were fat ugly men with wicked faces. . . The capitalists owned everything in the world and everyone else was their slave. They owned all the land, all the houses, all the factories, all the money. If anyone disobeyed them they could throw them into prison, or they could take his job away and starve him to death."
Yes, there's something happening here. The debate whether the free market or government command and control best serves human needs and promotes human freedom is over. Freedom and socialism threw down, and freedom won. Liberty prevailed because the victims of socialism wanted it, not because of economic shock therapy administered by Milton Friedman. The loathing from such a loss is what fuels books like The Shock Doctrine. Shorn of their foreign utopias, the left is reduced to anti-capitalist demonology and conspiracy theory.
These used to involve octogenarian Nazis hiding in Paraguay, an alliance of KuKluckers, the Vatican and the CIA, or a cabal of Jewish bankers calling the shots. Now it's all come down to one Jewish economist, Milton Friedman. That's a shock doctrine all right.