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Connecting the Privatized Dots

category north america / mexico | economy | review author Tuesday February 19, 2008 01:18author by Randy - Capital Terminus Collective supporter Report this post to the editors

a review of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine

Cover of Klein's new book
Cover of Klein's new book

During the late 1990's, Canadian Naomi Klein labored in relative obscurity as a newspaper columnist covering the rise of anti-corporate activism. Sales for her book about this burgeoning movement, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, were expected to be modest. Then in November of 1999, protestors shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington. Newscasters breathlessly wondered, "Who is this new generation of radicals? What do they propose, and what are they against?" A scant two months later, No Logo hit bookstore shelves, and quickly scaled the bestseller lists.

Klein's follow up, Fences and Windows, was disappointing. It struck this reviewer as a collection of disparate articles and essays, cobbled together to capitalize quickly on her initial success. But with her third book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein's many strengths are once again in evidence. A single narrative connects familiar, but seemingly unrelated topics (such as right wing authoritarianism in Latin America, the resurgent popularity of "free market" economics globally, and the return of aggressive US militarism) in a manner that illuminates their commonality.

Her thesis is that the "Chicago School" economics of Milton Friedman have not only served as the ideological underpinnings of an anti-working-class offensive during the era of globalization, but that Friedmanites (and even Friedman himself) were physically on the scene for most of capital's significant--and often bloodiest--assaults, from Pinochet's brutal coup of the 1970's, to the World Bank's subversion of Solidarity's electoral victory in Poland during the 1980's, to Iraq of today. Policies that to the casual observer may appear simply wrongheaded, or at worst mean-spirited, from New Orleans to Sri Lanka to the Middle East, are brought into focus as a deliberate course of action whose goal is to reverse the gains of the 20th century labor movement, and restore "free markets" to their former iconic position.

The Friedmanite's efforts, of course, are loaded with contradictions. Politicians under the sway of Chicago School theory are as apt to embrace totalitarian regimes that routinely torture, as electoral "democracies" supposedly characteristic of a "free" society. Also, in the quest for lucre, market religion is something to impose on communities in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It was never intended to serve, and does not serve, to constrain the actions of multinational corporations: these giants manipulate markets with protectionist measures, even as they insist that the wages of workers must be allowed to freefall. As Klein ably illustrates, "freedom"- -whether of markets or people--is simply a token buzz word: the ultimate aim is profit.

The Shock Doctrine is not without problems. To begin with, given the cost of the hardcover Metropolitan Books edition, I expected a better job of editing: the anarchist publisher AK Press routinely produces works with fewer distracting typos and formatting errors. More significantly, I found Klein's analogy between actual physical torture on the one hand, and economic "shock therapy" on the other, to be strained. (She posits that, just as an interrogator seeks to wipe clean the slate of the subject's mind via means such as sensory deprivation or electroshock, so Chicago School economists look for societies in turmoil and crisis--the social blank slate-- on which to conduct their experiments.) The use of torture by government thugs and freelance agents does appear to have increased during the epoch in question, but causality between laissez faire economics and this brutal practice, was not demonstrated to my satisfaction. Finally, when Klein laments the lack of democracy on the global agenda, I suspect her of romanticizing elections, rather than championing a directly democratic system of community assemblies. (She is less than specific on this point.)

Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the book is a useful tool for understanding the world of today. In addition to connecting the known in a logical manner, Klein's research unearths new understandings: though I was aware that mercenaries carry guns in Iraq, previously I had not realized the extremes to which the making of war has been privatized, encompassing food preparation and distribution, automobile maintenance, ad infinitum in a dizzying array of contracts financed from government coffers, and bestowed upon wealthy players with the right connections. For such details, and also for the overarching narrative, progressives--even those who already have a revolutionary perspective--will do well to peruse Klein's latest.

From the pages of Anarchist Atlanta #7, currently being distributed.

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