Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Naomi Klein's new book...

The Guardian's promoting a very glammed-up Naomi Klein and her new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. What particularly caught my eye today, and what I'm very glad she's bringing some attention to, is her dissection of the supply-side push behind the war on terror. The War on Terror has become a feeding trough for selling shady IT wares to the government - everything from facial recognition and data mining software to specially commissioned Boeing 737s for purposes of extraordinary rendition. Because it's Naomi Klein, it's incredibly rich in the sort of human details and just-right images that make you want to keep reading. The idea of all the new spook technology start-ups on Capitol Hill looking like Silicon Valley during the bubble was a particularly nice image - US government as clueless venture capitalist, handing out money to any project, the more ludicrous the better. A small-pox detection scheme? Yeah, thanks, we'll have a couple.

It's here where she scores her really big points. The whole premise of the idea of the government contracting out its top-secret IT security needs to private business - that only they have the expertise to deal with this sort of thing - is obviously fundamentally flawed. As she points out: "contractors have a powerful economic incentive to produce whatever techniques are necessary to produce the sought-after information, regardless of reliability." Apart from it's being tragic, it would actually be funny: "Oh well, I don't know much about data mining, but I'm in the market to lock up some suspicious looking types without trial, and that system you're selling does sound good! How will I know if it works? Oh, you'll tell me! Super! Anyone else who actually knows anything going to be able to have a look! No? Fair enough, who should I make the multi-billion dollar cheque out to?"

These are important issues and I'm looking forward to reading the book. Klein's has one of the most readable styles of journalism around. What I'm slightly worried about is how it's going to fit into the general thrust of the book. As she explains in the first article, the big idea is that serious free market reforms are always piggy-backed onto disasters that leave the population in a state of shock - far from being the harmonious process you'd normally expect, free-market capitalism relies mainly on trauma to establish itself:

"The bottom line is that, for economic shock therapy to be applied without restraint, some sort of additional collective trauma has always been required. Friedman's economic model is capable of being partially imposed under democracy - the US under Reagan being the best example - but for the vision to be implemented in its complete form, authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian conditions are required."

It's a nicely formulated proposition, and in that guise it's obviously true. For all the talk about decentralization, free-market restrucuring is often a very top-down kind of process - think strucutural adjustment. My worry is that she may end up pushing it too far - from the looks of the extract she's gunning to set up some deep and theoretically satisfying link between free market capitalism and trauma:

"This desire for godlike powers of creation is precisely why free-market ideologues are so drawn to crises and disasters. Non-apocalyptic reality is simply not hospitable to their ambitions. For 35 years, what has animated Friedman's counter-revolution is an attraction to a kind of freedom available only in times of cataclysmic change - when people, with their stubborn habits and insistent demands, are blasted out of the way - moments when democracy seems a practical impossibility. Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture - a flood, a war, a terrorist attack - can generate the kind of vast, clean canvases they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world."

OK, nice prose and everything, but at this point I may have to respectfully depart the bandwagon. Seems to me that political opportunists have always used disasters to push through their reforms - of late it's been the rabid free-marketeers, but it wasn't always thus. As she points out: "John Maynard Keynes proposed [a] mixed, regulated economy after the Great Depression. It was that system of compromises, checks and balances that Friedman's counter-revolution was launched to dismantle in country after country." If I'm not mistaken, that's two examples of people imposing their economic visions after a disaster. The Keynesian one may be preferable for those of us who aren't holding Halliburton stock, but lets be fair here, it's not like Milton Friedman (or, for that matter John Maynard Keynes) was the first guy to come up with the idea of reshuffling the pieces after they've been messed up.*

I also can't see Friedman being anything other than appalled at the post 9/11 style of conducting national surveillance. Say what you like about libertarians, they aren't much into approving huge spending for governments to spy on their own people. Take a look at the presidential primaries. The guy who's been putting issues like surveillance, the corporate domination of the war on terror and the expansion of executive privilege most firmly on the agenda is Ron Paul, and he's nothing if not free market.

This might seem like a small quibble (it's not like Milton Friedman's memory is short of influential folks who are prepared to be much more than fair), but I think it's an important one. While I love it dearly, my feeling has always been that No Logo pushed its argument a little too hard and allowed itself to be dismissed as a hyperbolic rant, when in fact it was very directly keyed in to some of the more important trends of its time. Sadly, it picked up the dreaded "anti-gloabalization" moniker and everyone decided that it was all just a craze by a bunch of kids who didn't really understand anything about how the world worked. I'd rather the same thing didn't happen here, because, once again, this is really rather important.

* And don't go thinking that the Great Depression doesn't count because it was a failure of free market capitalism. There were any number of sagacious looking folk around saying that it was all because of government regulation. They just lost that time.

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