On Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’

Published on CounterPunch.org, by ALEXANDER COCKBURN, September 22/23, 2007.

Leftists used to think that at least as a general axiom, if not by a precise deadline, capitalism was doomed. When I first arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, there was enough exuberance in the air even for mild-mannered reformers to be pushing plans for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, World Bank and kindred institutions …

… There are huge third world economies that have been ravaged by neoliberalism that haven’t endured “the shock doctrine”, in the torments that phrase, as defined by Klein. India in the early Nineties was not on the receiving end of physical ’shock and awe’ bombardment. Tortures were not inflicted by electric shock devices or techniques of sensory deprivation. Death squads have not rampaged through the countryside. If Friedman counseled the Congress Party or the BJP this is not recorded by Klein, who only gives India one brief mention.

Yet the neoliberal policies advanced by the World Bank and other multilateral agencies and also enthusiastically seized upon by home grown politicians and government officials–many springing from a Keynesian (or further left) tradition–have certainly been sweeping and savage in consequence. Month after month on our CounterPunch site P. Sainath has described the immiseration of half a billion peasants from circumstances that were bad in the first place, along with the suicides of ruined farmers–a total now running well above 100,000. India has no place in Naomi Klein’s model of the “shock doctrine” and “the rise of disaster capitalism”, which suggests that model’s limitations.

Capitalists try to use social and economic dislocation or natural disaster–New Orleans is only the latest instance – to advantage, but so do those they oppress. War has been the mother of many a positive social revolution, as have natural disasters. The incompetence of the Mexican police and emergency forces after the huge earthquake of 1985 prompted a huge popular upheaval. In Latin America there has been shock attacks and shock doctrines for 500 years. Right now, in Latin America, the pendulum is swinging away from the years of darkness, of the death squad and Friedman’s doctrines. Klein’s outrage is admirable. Her specific exposes across six decades of infamy are often excellent, but in her larger ambitions her metaphors betray her. From the anti-capitalist point of view she’s too gloomy by half. A capitalism that thrives best on the abnormal, on disasters, is by definition in decline. As Cassius put it, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings” … (full long text).

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