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.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

That Shock Doctrine Review...

... those theoretically-possible-but-in-practice-unlikely individuals who've been paying that much attention to my posts will have noticed that I'm starting to look a little tardy on my promised Shock Doctrine review. Suffice it to say that I've got a lot on at the moment. I'm also finding it slightly hard going, which is in itself a somewhat damning indictment. Given the subject matter, this is the sort of stuff I'd usually devour. Sadly, I haven't really seen much to divert me from my first impression, which was that she was desperately forcing all the available facts into her slightly rickety framework of "shock therapy".

The basic idea is that, like 1950's shock therapists, free market fundamentalists subscribe to the idea that a sufficient amount of brutalising will leave their subjects, in this case national economies, sufficiently traumatised that they will be re-born as blissfully clean slates upon which a new and improved structure can then be erected. As a motif for dealing with the spread of "free" markets since the 80s, this is actually a pretty promising start, containing as it does a large dollop of existential truth - there does seem to have been a startling amount of violence involved in spreading "economic liberty". Starting with Pinochet and working on out, she chronicles all the usual suspects (Argentina, Russia, South Africa) and goes on into the present day, with particular attention paid to post-Tsunami Sri Lanka and, of course, the corporate feeding trough that is Iraq.

The point of all this is to explode the myth that all these polices were spread by the free choice of those they effected, presumably for the benefit of whichever lunatics there are out there that actually bought that one. The whole project of refuting that idea is a large part of the book's structure, which seems to me a shame. This is partly because it all seems a little pointless: I don't doubt that people exist who believe down to their core that corporate capitalism is everywhere introduced into economies by jolly armies of anticipatory consumers - I'm just not sure that many of them are going to find their way to reading copies of The Shock Doctrine. The more worrying problem, though, is that Klein's slavish adherence to her central thesis pushes her to the equally ludicrous mirror image conclusion that free market capitalism has at all times been forced through from above by shocking populations into submission.

This ends up with her suggesting some pretty silly things. Thatcher, for example, looks like a pretty convincing counter-case: psychotic free-market reforms and privatisation from a democratically elected government. Not a problem: Britain was shocked into a more maleable state, you see, by the violence of the Falklands war: "with a large enough political crisis to rally around, a limited version of shock therapy could be imposed in a democracy" (139-40) . The implicit analogy is to the much more sweeping powers that Bush used to privatise defence and homeland security after 9/11. In that case you can make a much more credible argument for the power shock, but the Thatcher example is pretty weak tea. Getting your supporters drunk on nationalism by beating up a foreign scape-goat and then using the political clout you've gained at home to bash your enemies may be unsavoury, but it's qualitatively different to ramming through your reforms while everyone's too stunned to know what's happening.

This sort of Procrustean approach damages her arguments at the micro-level too. Describing the torture programmes in Argentina, for example, she tells us that prisoners that were willing to betray their comrades "represented the ultimate triumph for their torturers" not because this represented a final 1984 style surrender, but because "they had succumbed to the cutthroat ethos at the heart of laissez-faire capitalism - 'looking out for number one'" (113). Again, this is a ridiculous over-reach for her otherwise quite sensible idea of capitalism introduced through violence - individual torturers, having all presumably read and inwardly digested Capitalism and Freedom, are apparently trying to fashion their victims into the rational economic actors it depicts. I don't know what real torturers do tell themselves to soothe their consciences, but somehow I doubt it's that they are in fact lecturers at the world's most violent business school.

This may all sound like nit-picking, but after the first couple of hundred pages of having Klein's totalising views thrust at you - CAPITALISM IS ALWAYS INTRODUCED THROUGH VIOLENCE, DEMOCRACY NEVER WANTS CAPITALISM - it starts to grate. Will Hutton wrote a great review in which he puts this point far better than I could:

"Nothing good can ever come from globalisation, which is just more capitalism. Democracy, however, is a halcyon world of political and economic co-operation, citizen voice and engagement, with a freely arrived- at assertion of the common interest in which most think along the same lines as, say, Naomi Klein. She and free-market economist Milton Friedman, whom she has in her sights, are mirror images of each other in the absolutist categories in which they think...

...The fact that the neocons were wedded to an economistic and wrong view of democracy does not mean that the left should be automatically against all forms of market and conceive of democracy as a surrogate for socialism.

Rather, democracy is shorthand for a network of painfully constructed institutions: a free press, free unions, an independent legal and judicial system, the rule of law, the capacity to whistleblow, audit trails, transparency of decision taking, political parties, constitutional checks and balances to hold executive government to account, local power and free elections."

And that's really the point - one which I assume every reasonable person already knows. Democracy and markets are both really hard things to make work. To function properly they require all the conventions and institutions that Hutton describes and more. Klein's tends to ignore this sort of nuanced analysis, preferring an approach where she can lay every conceivable sin at the doors of free marketeers, which, as Hutton points out, makes the whole thing seem rather confused. This is particularly apparent in her depiction of the free-market ideologues she criticises, who come across alternately as Machiavellian geniuses - effortlessly twisting the affairs of we lesser mortals to their nefarious ends - and bumbling idiots - unable to understand that their beloved "free society" can never exist outside of their delusions. So long as we understand that these folk are basically evil and - one more time - have nothing to do with democracy, Klein's happy to grind her axe any which way about exactly what sort of comic-book villains they may be.

And this sort of good vs. evil story-telling is probably the saddest bit for me. I remember reading No Logo shortly after the invasion of Iraq, and reading the afterword she'd added post-9/11, in which she railed against just that sort of thinking: "It's an idea we've heard from both sides since September 11, a return of the grand narrative: chosen me, evil empires, master plans and great battles. All are ferociously back in style... Thankfully, anti-corporate and pro-democracy campaigners are engaged in no such fire and brimstone crusades." Reading* The Shock Doctrine, I'm uncertain as to whether that's still true.

* I do emphasize that I've yet to finish it. I'm just stalled at the moment what with everything else, and thought I should try and get this out the way now.


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