The Shock Doctrine

Yesterday, I picked up Naomi Klein’s new book, The Shock Doctrine. It is something I’d been hearing about for some time, as I work with her brother, and Naomi gave a teaser with the keynote at our annual fundraising dinner this past February (video here). I’ll leave the summary to what is on the website, and point only to an interview on CBC’s The Current from yesterday and a feature on her in the Globe from the weekend. This is a book you will be hearing a lot about this Fall, so just go to your local bookstore and get a copy. Now.

I’m only a couple chapters in at this point, but already it is a reminder that Naomi is one of the best writers of our generation, with lucid prose that sucks you in, peppered with brilliant turns of phrase, but also a knack for connecting the dots in new ways that reframe contemporary debates. On the latter, what I remember from No Logo was not so much new information but a novel meta-narrative weaving information and stories together. Few writers have both the intellectual depth and writing skills to pull this off.

Thus far, the response from the Right has been tempered. The book is very well researched and my sense is there is nothing left to take a major shot at. But I’m expecting a lot of bombast in the weeks to come, since the book attacks the core of free market fundamentalism. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as negative responses are not necessarily that effective given the wholesale reframing undertaken by Klein.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the Shock Doctrine film by Alfonso Cuarón (of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Prisoner of Azkaban fame) & Naomi Klein.


  • Thanks for the heads up. I remember reading an interview with Naomi Klein in Democracy Now about the history of corporations, and she made very interesting points..
    I think Greg Palast’s article on the IMF structural reforms are what really tuned me in to this problem (I linked to it in my name).
    Also the Amazon review has a link to a speech of hers on Youtube.

  • Some of you will have seen the review in the Globe by the American Todd Gitlin. Here is my e-letter to him under the heading: Your intervention into Canadian public life.

    Dear Todd Gitlin,

    I suppose I have been one of your admirers since the student anti-war movement. So i was surprised to read your intervention in the Globe and Mail today reviewing The Shock Doctine. How you could have assumed that everyone of your readers knows about the problems of capitalism simply amazes me. But then, I have to conclude you have not been following Canadian public life too closely.

    In the last 25 years a campaign has been underway to eliminate any voices or analysis that do not recognize the superiority of the Reagan/Thatcher vision of society. It has succeeded beyond any expectation of the forces behind it. The Canadian left is marginalized and has no access to the commercial media, and the Canadian BBC has caved as well.
    Some 40 years ago, Pierre Trudeau emerged, a left liberal, with a background in labour issues, and became prime minister in part because of the impact of the new left on world politics. How far back we have gone, as a result of our success, those years ago, when your leadership was known around the world.

    That is why Ms. Klein has become an important figure for those of us who have tried to show that capitalism still has its own problems. In her book Klein shows the excesses of capitalism in the context of the Iraq war and Katrina. She connects the dots and offer an analysis unavailable elsewhere of the pure capitalist approach to settling social problems. Shock, and awe, hell. Shock and privatize, yes. Ms. Klein understands that, of course, ideas matter, and that, in the capitalist resurgence, the key figure was Milton Friedman. By the way the FT has a review tosay of four economics biographies that reaches the same conclusion.
    if I understood what you had to say, she reviewed a book of yours. You did not like the review. Given the opportunity you chose to settle a score.
    You realize of course that close readers will question your own intellectual honesty by choosing this tack. I am simply saddened to see what you, a hero to many, have become: petty and self-centred. The ideals you once represented deserve a better performance.
    Sadly, rhe sailor’s saying resonates: beware a fallen beacon.

    Yours truly,

  • Yesterday’s National Post included an excerpt from The Shock Doctrine and a response by Terence Corcoran. Today, it was Peter Foster’s turn to take a run at a second excerpt from this book. Apparently, two more are on the way. It’s nice of the National Post to give Naomi Klein so much publicity.

    Both Corcoran and Foster argue that Milton Friedman’s proposal to scrap the IMF devastatingly refutes Klein’s portrayal of the IMF as an implementor of Friedman-style policies. However, neither denies that the IMF did, in fact, impose such policies on many debtor nations.

    The point that seems more salient to me is that transformative political changes often occur in response to crises. Is the “shock doctrine” really unique to free-market capitalism or is it part of how any socioeconomic order (capitalist, socialist, or otherwise) establishes itself? I guess I will have to read the book to find out.

  • «Ms. Klein understands that, of course, ideas matter, and that, in the capitalist resurgence, the key figure was Milton Friedman.»

    As to that my impression is that Ayn Rand is far more important, because her work has carried a profound moral message, that progressive policies are not just wrong, they are theft and violent exploitation against the rich, who are the more deserving members of society.

    This message is very welcome to the rich and their groupies, as it is very flattering, and by portraying them as victims of brutal exploitation by the hordes of malicious losers makes the rolling back of the New Deal and social democracy a moral, ethical task, a redress of an injustice, a righteous end that justifies underhand tactics like the “noble lie” by Leo Strauss.

  • I have just across reviews of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Treatment which simply swept me off my feet.
    May I say it was like a tsunami against laissez faire. Truly I felt like in the words of Keats’ immortal sonnet “On Looking first into Chapman’s Homer” :’Then felt I like a watcher of the skies/When a new star swims into his ken’ Your thesis in this book exploding the myth of “free market” democracy reminds one of the Keynesian verdict on laissez faire in his Essays in Persuasion in The End of Laissez-Faire :

    “Let us clear from the ground the metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive “natural liberty” in their economic activities. There is no compact conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the Principles of Economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened ; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear-sighted than when they act separately.”

    This is the politics and economics of social justice. And hence it was natural for the Father of the Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi to give a dire warning : “Economic equality is the master key to non-violent revolution. A non-violent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and hungry millions persists.The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor, labouring class cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good.”

    But, alas, even after more than half century of freedom in India the gulf is ever widening and with all the glitter of globalisation hunger, starvation and suicide deaths are increasing amidst agricultural surplus, and sometimes fifty million tonnes of grain in godowns rots but cannot be sold at subsidised prices for fear of pushing the market prices down. That is the harsh economic reality !

    Isn’t the world today is embroiled in an economic turmoil caused by the globalisation process? It is a veritable confusion worse confounded by the North versus South polarities of trading policies, developmental disparities and stark reality of opulence contrasted with destitution. These are increasingly brought in close encounters of an unforeseen variety in an inter-connected global environment with unprecedented, unpredictable and unnatural fusion of economic systems mixed in a strange brew of socio-ethnic and cultural cross-currents buffetted hither and thither by perennial human greed.

    This topsyturvy economics leads one inevitably to Herbert Marcuse’s classic indictment in his One Dimensional Man (ABACUS, Sphere Books, 1972) of the modern technological society which is even truer today than in the sixties : That in a modern technological society so called “free” institutions and “democratic liberties” are used to limit freedom, repress individuality, disguise exploitation, and limit the scope of human experience. One wonders if it would be ever possible to find a glimpse of light in this ever darkening tunnel. Even Plato would be stumped for an answer.

    The world is sorely in need of a consensus based in the least developed country. Only then it can realise “what the thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice the problem of riches” as noted by R.H. Tawney. Keynes, godfather of the IMF, identified the market failures and why markets could not be left to themselves and called for global collective action. That is why as far back as in 1933 in his essay The End of Laissez-Faire he declared :

    “Many of the greatest economic evils of our time are the fruits of risk, uncertainty, and ignorance. It is because particular individuals, fortunate in situation or in abilities, are able to take advantage of uncertainty and ignorance, and also because for the same reason big business is often a lottery, that great inequalities of wealth come about.”

    The trouble with globalisation with its inbuilt market system dictated by the IMF, WTO occasionally jerked into an unwelcome sharp brake and detour as in the case of cotton and sugar subsidies recently is that it is desperately in need of moral legitimacy. Market rewards merit is the common refuge of its policies. But it is fatally undermined by the advantages gained from inherited wealth and windfall gains: an essential feature of the market system. Remember Keynesian observation: big business is like big lottery?

    Market by its very nature is predictable so to say that those who go into the market system with most are likely to come out of it with the most. Which is what made Margaret Thatcher proclaim: that the godly prosper and the sinful go bankrupt. Perhaps Hayek may not wholly approve of this precept because according to him markets allocate benefits according to only one principle-unpredictability. But there is a makebelieve or a curious split in his economic assumption vis-à-vis its political application.24

    I think the theme of globalisation has a weird air about it of a new-fangled economic voodoo, just as there has been for long in operation in America of what Senator Fulbright called in his Arrogance of Power “That there is a kind of voodoo about American foreign policy. Certain drums have to be beaten regularly to ward off evil spirits-for example, the maledictions regularly uttered against North Vietnamese aggression” (p.32)25 In place of ‘North Vietnamese aggression’ one can replace WMDs of Iraq and international terrorism. And there is no doubt that this too would prove in course of time a Bushgate.

    Prof.Gunnar Myrdal was perhaps unwittingly more prophetic than he envisaged when he conjectured a scenario that “Indeed, if the whole Indian subcontinent with what will soon be a population of one billion people should sink into the ocean tomorrow, this would cause only minor distrubance to the curves of international trade, production and consumption, wages and other incomes, values of financial stocks, etc., in the developed world.” p.389, The Challenge of World Poverty, Penguin 1970.26

    In view of the aforesaid dismal context of globalisation one is not enamoured of copybook phrases like ‘globalise or perish’, but would rather opt for the good old precept of Voltaire: Il faut cultiver notre jardin27 till the world at large, North as well as South is inspired en masse to engage in economic activity in the age-old spirit of the ancient Indian maxim vasudhaiva kutumbakam- world as a family.

    But when? One cannot help recalling wistfully Keynes’ Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren (1930) wherein he perorates almost in a poetic vision: “But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to outselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” (Essays in Persuasion, p.372)28

    Can Naomi Klein suggest any nostrum (not in a pejorative sense) to see a ray of light in this gast darkening Platonic den? Permit me to give a link to my article: Bal Patil Asks, Whither Globalisation?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *