The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

The front cover of my copy of The Shock Doctrine boasts a quote by John Le Carré, he states that the book is “impassioned, hugely informative, wonderfully controversial, and scary as hell”. I could not agree more with his assessment.

The Shock Doctrine

The Shock Doctrine

Published by Penguin in 2007 Klein sets out to chart and assess the damage caused by the rise of what she calls “disaster capitalism”. This type of economic model relies on the people in power, the capitalists, exploiting disasters for personal gain. These disasters can be man-made or environmental in nature, accidental or orchestrated. Either way, Klein states that “a few are making a killing while more are getting killed. Scared yet?

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Klein begins the book with an investigation into the world of psychology. She described how efforts were made in the past to wipe slates clean by taking people back to their basic form. This was done in order to build them up again minus mental illnesses or troublesome behaviours. What went on was horrific, and the patients at times, were little more than prisoners. These experiments were carried out in main stream institutions, by celebrated psychologists and psychiatrists. Klein met with some of their previous patients and she described how many did not even know what they went through until decades later through a series of coincidences. If any current students ever complain about ethics committees again show them this chapter!

But what has this to do with economics? Basically Klein explains how they took this research into treating mental illness and applied it to interrogation and torture techniques. Yay go humans! Klein details how torture was used to shock people into submission so they would accept changes or ideologies. She goes into quite a bit of detail so if you are squeamish, prepare yourself. This tactic then escalated into wars, both civil and international. All with the goal to shock, wipe the slate clean and start again.

In the background Klein details the existence of a school of economics called the Chicago School. Dominated by a gang of middle class men, the Chicago school’s ideology was that the market was all that you needed and that everything should be privatised. This should be done after a period of shock, natural disaster, war etc. so that people will accept the changes more readily. Things will get worse for people, unemployment, coercion and the like, but then the system will right itself and there will be prosperity for everyone. The public sector is bad, the private is all that you need was at the centre of their mantra. The man who spearheaded the development of the School was Milton Friedman. He hated Keynes, won Nobel Prizes and became an economic superstar.

Klein painstakingly documents what happened to countries who adapted the model and their periods of shock. Countries like Argentina, Chile, Poland, Russia, UK, South Africa and Thailand, among many others, either chose to, or were made to, adopt the model. She takes us through the background of the shock, the shock itself, and the enforcement of the Chicago school models. Success was not guaranteed and it lead to the suffering and deaths of many more people. The proponents of the model claim that if it isn’t working then it is your fault for not adapting it enough and you need to push on with cuts and selling off state assets. This is quite fortunate for the advocates, as she points out.

Time and time again Klein shows us the same formula being applied and similar outcomes being achieved. I had always wondered about what people did during times of crisis in the past. But now I understand as I have lived through many of these contemporary events. The answer is that you get up, go to work, come home make dinner, go for drinks, watch tv, and so on. You just live through it. For many of the people in these countries that was not possible and many did fight back, but it is scary to think of people around the world tackling these underhanded privatisation tactics on their own.

I was also astounded by the level of interference by the US in world affairs. Yes, I know they have the reputation but seeing it in the book, all laid out geographically and in chronological order was astounding. The mess that Iraq is in is absolutely infuriating. Klein focuses quite a bit on Iraq as she explained that it is the place where Disaster Capitalism has been applied in its purest form, and what a mess it is. It is basically a playground for corporations, and Klein is very critical, as she should be, of the events that took place there. Klein also reminds the reader that while the US  claims these interventions are needed for the security of the country in reality it only benefits a minority of US firms. These firms also avoid tax in the US so the ordinary US citizen does not benefit either.

Of particular interest to me, being Irish, was what Klein had to say about the IMF and World Bank. The answer as you probably can see by now, what not good. Set up initially to prevent countries from falling into economic ruin and to promote growth, these organisations have been taken over by Chicago School zealots who now call for privatisation and the selling of State assets before it will help troubled nations. Klein details why this is so problematic and why these organisations have lost their way to become shills for big business. I have to say after reading this book I am not looking at the demands being placed on Ireland with a cynical eye.

As you can see from above the book is quite heavy. It deals with serious topics and in depth economic discussion. Klein does a good job at simplifying the concepts and making them accessible to a wide audience. She also manages to keep the book away from tumbling into conspiracy theory territory and backs up her discussions with evidence. However I did not feel that I was able to critique her analysis of the economic fallouts and growth periods.  She highly praised left-leaning leaders such as Hugo Chavez and detailed the efforts of Hezbollah without much criticism of their means and efforts. I very much doubt they are fault free so this may be a bit of a blind spot for Klein or maybe she is saving their critque for another day.

This is a scary book. The thoughts of unfettered market forces and greed having so much of an impact on people’s lives are uncomfortable ones. But behind all these examples Klein gives hope. There are whistle-blowers, journalists, and ordinary people who are willing to put themselves at risk to expose these dealings. Countries are recovering from shock therapy and long term thinking, rather than short term personal gains do take over once more.

You can get The Shock Doctrine on hardback, paperback or audiobook.

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