Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review: The Shock Doctrine

[Naomi Klein. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007.]

This latest book by world renowned journalist and activist Naomi Klein has achieved something quite notable -- not only has it managed to get wide swathes of liberal, left-liberal, social democratic, and radical publics to pay attention to it, it has also managed to attract a fair amount of approval from across that diverse and fractious spectrum. It is approval often accompanied by criticism, but it is approval nonetheless.

It achieves this, in part, by tackling a subject that has been of concern for all of these groups, and doing so in a rather clever way. The Shock Doctrine is, at heart, a lay history of neoliberalism. It tells the story of how neoliberalism made the transition from a fringe idea espoused by a handful of wacky economists in Chicago (and quietly nurtured in the cold, cold hearts of the more reactionary scions of the capitalist class) to world dominance. Which it still holds, notwithstanding events of the last six months that some might argue to be very un-neoliberal but whose actual significance remains, I think, to be determined by future struggle.

To tell this story, Klein focuses on the tactic by which neoliberalism has primarily been imposed -- that is, shock. Its proponents wait for (and sometimes seek to create) conditions which cause shock in the population of the targeted country. Then they rush through harsh measures to maximize the amount of human activity organized in the service of private profit, destroy alternatives the provide some measure of protection from the viciousness of the market, and minimize the obstacles to the tyrants in charge of private-profit institutions doing exactly whatever they please in pursuit of those goals. Populations almost never choose such measures democratically and usually resist efforts to impose them, and that is where the shock comes in. If the population is otherwise distracted by some sort of horrible circumstance, like economic collapse, war, or political repression, then these measures can be put in place before anyone can react. Often, though not always, the immediate aftermath also involves some severe political repression.

The metaphor of shock allows Klein to show the inherent links between the supposedly distinct projects of economic neoliberalism and political violence, from Pinochet's Chile to George Bush's Iraq. For decades, neoliberals have worked hard to promote the illusion that their economic policies are somehow not soaked in blood. But Klein shows that economics do not exist off in their own little sphere unconnected from human life as an integrated whole. And for neoliberalism, that means showing how tightly related policies like deregulation and privatization are to practices like torture. Klein personifies these two kinds of shock -- economic violence at the social level and direct violence at the personal level -- through looking at two prominent figures in their history. A key guru for neoliberal thought was Milton Friedman, an academic economist who tended the flame for unfettered capitalism during that position's leanest years. A key figure in the development of political torture was Canada's Dr. Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist who engaged in savage CIA-funded experiments in erasing people's minds at McGill University in Montreal. His work fed into torture manuals within the U.S. national security establishment, which then served as a basis for training thugs for right-wing regimes around the world in applying the more up-close and personal side of shock.

After setting out her thesis, Klein's approach is a fairly straightforward chronological examination of the different places and times in which shock has been used to impose neoliberal reforms on stricken populations. She begins with the very first laboratory for the ideas of neoliberal economists, Chile. Democratic socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet with the support of the U.S. government and Chilean elites, largely with a mission to impose the kind of unrestrained capitalism advocated by Milton Friedman. Tens of thousands of leftists and other supporters of the Allende regime were disappeared, tortured, and killed. Klein traces the evolution of shock through its use in other South American countries, on into Thatcher's Britain, Eastern Europe, South Africa, Asia during the crisis of the late '90s, and through the creation of a section of capitalist enterprises more directly dependent than ever before on the ongoing generation of profit from shock and disaster in the post-9/11 United States. This has most dramatically taken shape in the recolonization of Iraq, but she also traces it through flooded New Orleans, tsunami-ravaged Southeast Asia, and Israel.

This is an important book. Klein is an excellent writer and she is very skilled at presenting important left ideas in accessible lay terms. Her analysis has limitations, some of which are quite serious, but her ability to produce something that could provoke critical discussions of neoliberalism in relatively mainstream spaces while not completely abandoning a critical edge is remarkable and very much worthy of respect. And despite its limitations, the analysis presented here is a lot more sophisticated than what might immediately spring to mind from the phrase "social democratic analysis of neoliberalism."

Before I talk about my unease with her uncritical embrace of social democracy, though, I want to mention my other major discomfort with her analysis. I understand how important a tool it can be to produce a narrative that draws people in by talking about individuals. People relate to people in a way that we don't relate to dry statistics, massive institutions, and impersonal social forces. So I understand the urge to focus on Milton Friedman and Ewen Cameron, and other individuals in more limited ways through the book. It is also a way to give what could easily have been a book that jumped all over the place a strong narrative through-line. From the point of view of writing craft, all of these things are understandable and, in the case of this book, well-executed. In addition, I'm sure Klein has been careful in making specific claims that are accurate, citing only credible evidence, and so on. However, I think in terms of the picture of how history works that this paints, not so much by direct statement as by emphasis and implication, it is a bit more questionable. It seriously underplays a number of the other elements contributing to the rise of the neoliberal offensive beginning in the early '70s. Those elements include the kinds of shifts within capital that orthodox Marxists like to talk about, as well as the role of the social movements of the '60s and '70s in forcing capital to change its tactics for accumulation (as per autonomist analyses). From what I understand, changes in global relations of white supremacy were also relevant to how states and capital responded. In any case, I think the history that Klein writes is decent history, but there was also a lot more going on, and we need to understand all of that other stuff too.

So. Back to social democracy. Like I said above, her analysis of neoliberalism is far, far more substantive than I've generally run into in conversation with folks who identify as social democrats. Partly this is because of her emphasis on history. Whatever the limits of her political framework, the very act of outlining how something actually happened can be incredibly important in an investigation moving towards saying useful things. Many folks I've run into who are concerned with neoliberalism (which they name in a variety of ways) do not tend to think about it in this kind of concrete, historical way.

Her framework still matters, of course. Part of what is offputting about it is the way in which she seems to derive it, or at least the way she presents it for public consumption. She situates herself within a very old story, a story with its roots in the Cold War in which there are two opposing bands of fanatics, one devotees of the totalitarian state and the other worshippers of the cold, cruel market, and only a small, noble band of independent voices staking out some middle ground can lead humanity out of this impasse. To be clear, in the context of the rigidly polarized political environment of the Cold War, this was not a valueless rhetorical/political move. At times, it helped people doing innovative and interesting work escape the tendency to be sucked into the orbit of one side or the other. However, much more frequently it was a rhetorical device deployed by Cold War liberals and social democrats to frame themselves as the best possible option and thereby put down radicals of all stripes and keep people concerned about the state of the world effectively within the capitalist camp. (I can't help, in this context, but think of Klein's husband's grandfather, David Lewis, who played a prominent role on the social democratic side in the vicious, mutually destructive civil war in the Canadian labour movement between the Communist Party and the CCF in the '40s and '50s.) I think this latter use is particularly relevant to how Klein uses it, because in this book it functions as a way to limit political imagination rather than carve out space for it. She posits this essential spectrum between statist Communism and untempered capitalism and poses the "mixed economy" as the answer to be found somewhere in the middle of this linear scale. I think limiting our imagination to this linear scale is dangerous, and Klein does a disservice to movements by talking in these terms...though in some ways her final chapter points in a better direction without letting on that it is doing so, as I'll talk about below. Despite that, judging by her earlier work, she is capable of advancing an anti-authoritarian left opposition to all of the options that are imagineable on that spectrum, and it is disappointing that she chose not to do so.

There's more going on, however, than an individual author accepting a readily available framework that just happens to make her work more palatable to a broad spectrum of book-buyers than might be the case with a more politically imaginative and challenging approach. I think buried in this choice, which is not clearly discussed in the book, is a real challenge to those of us who see it as inadequate.

I say this because of the current conditions of crisis in the world. Though in North America they have yet to receive meaningful expression within the context of the state, we are sure to see a revival of classical tools of social democracy as part of responses to today's crises, particularly those components understood as "economic," by those segments of elites who are less prone to see batons and tanks as the only answer to everything. Coupled with reinvigorated popular struggle, this could lead to limited but real gains for ordinary people.

I would argue that given the likelihood of this, radicals are caught in a bind. It would be politically foolish and also just plain despicable to oppose reforms that could ameliorate even in limited ways the rising wave of suffering brought about by the current crises. That is especially true since we have little else to offer. Certainly non-state (or, better yet, anti-state) community-based mutual aid approaches are superior in the long term, and they should be an important focus for organizing, but at least in most contexts in North America such alternatives are nowhere near a place where they can be presented as a meaningful alternative to social democracy rather than a critical supplement that plant the seeds for future challenge. We just aren't there yet. So, like it or not, I think we have to support reforms that are shot through with problems but that are winnable and make things better for ordinary people.

But we can't do so uncritically. Keyensianism and social democracy more broadly have huge problems, and we can't do what Klein has done and just jump on board with nary a critical word. There are others who could probably give a more complete list of reasons why, but here are a few:
  • As the history of the second half of the twentieth century in the West shows, state intervention that meaningfully distributes resources towards ordinary people and facilitates our wellbeing is both a victory for getting our needs met and a tool by which we are ruled.
  • Like all forms of capitalism, the social democratic variant continues to depend on predation. Klein certainly doesn't ignore the history of colonialism as many social democrats do, but she ignores what it means. "Primitive accumulation," to use Marx's phrase, isn't peripheral to capitalism, it is central, and no real world version of social democracy has ever touched that. Yes, the vaguely defined "mixed economy" model that she advocates may well tame the beast domestically, though even there it has never been as successful as its advocates claim, but it has historically done very little to challenge external predation (or external-within, as in the indigenous nations colonized by the North American settler states, or African America within the U.S.). Klein presents the "mixed economy" of Western social democracy as a sort of equal complement to "developmentalism" in the global South. The embrace of both, she implies, would lead to a better world. She isn't exactly wrong, and certainly developmentalism put the South in a better position to struggle than neoliberalism, but it did not undo basic pattern of massively unjust global relations that are the legacy of colonialism. And it completely ignores the settler states that are still actively colonial, like Canada and the U.S.
  • It modifies but leaves intact the unceasing quest for accumulation and growth as a fundamental organizing principle for the organization of human activity. Our planet simply cannot take much more of that, even in the unlikely event that social democrats manage to slow the process a bit.
  • It ignores the way in which the state form is and always has been integral to capitalism through its role as enforcer and its part in organizing certain central forms of difference infused with power. This allows us to be divided and managed. It separates humanity into different orders that can be treated differently, which gets ruthlessly used in the service of accumulation. Keynesianism historically entrenched this process rather than challenging it.

A much more fully elaborated list is possible, but that'll do for starters.

So the challenge presented by Klein's book by the very fact of its refusal to engage with the limitations of Keynesianism directly is how the rest of us should do so. Given that some sort of quasi-social democratic response is likely to emerge if the current crisis deepens sufficiently; and given that we probably will have no choice, under the circumstances, but to support it; and given that we also have no choice but to move forward in ways grounded in our understanding of the serious shortcomings it will inevitably have -- given all of these things, what should we do? Klein's avoidance is no answer, but I'm not sure that radicals have better answers at the moment. In particular, the question of how to relate our resistance to the ways that states (and nations) organize our lives is crucial but seldom dealt with well.

There is a hint of a way forward in the final chapter of the book. In this chapter, Klein presents examples of what she calls "shock resistance" -- resistance to the use of shocking circumstances to impose neoliberalism. She slips these in as if they were the natural expression of the Keynesianism and "mixed economy" model -- that is, social democracy that is in no way distinguished by her from the actually existing social democracy of the 20th century -- when in fact they are nothing of the sort. They might be compared to some of the places that New Left radicalism pushed corners of social democracy in some European contexts, but I don't know enough about that to say for sure. No, all of her examples are not social democracy, at least in the way that term has been embraced by political parties in the 20th century, but communities taking back (in contradictory, partial, ever-in-process ways) power from both capital and state. The contradiction, if you see it, between her examples and the ideological framework she uses provides a jolt that can unsettle the reified, essential market and reified, essential state that her analysis assumes. She attributes to each certain fundamentalist supporters and posits some middle ground found in a linear way between those poles. But her examples show that it is actually a question of reorganizing our lives in much more fundamental ways -- that there is much, much more possibility than the linear axis she explicitly presents. Of course her examples by necessity relate to existing market relations and state relations, as everything in our current world must, but they are the seeds of ways of living that are held in thrall by neither.

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janfromthebruce said...

excellent analysis. I have noted too that socialistic countries have no problem with colonial ways of being - getting resources from other states, and often by force (benevolent or not). Exploitation is exploitation.

the red toque said...

scott! this is definitely your analytical niche: responsibly ripping apart the reformist left. i haven't read the book yet, but i suspect klein (or perhaps her publisher, agent... all of the above) is pulling an NDP by marketing more to the centre.

Scott said...

Hi Jan, and thanks!

Hey RT...hmmmm, I hope that having a "niche" doesn't make me too predictable! :) Anyway, you may be right about Klein, although to be fair it may also have to do with the fact that she kind of rooted her earlier work in a particular vibrant movement which no longer really exists in North America. Without that gruonding, she had nowhere outside the mainstream that was adequate for anchoring this particular book and she kind of defaulted to a more mainstream position.