Over ‘the Christmas’ (that uniquely Irish definition, like ‘the bed’ and ‘the lungs’) I read the new book by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Among other things, Klein’s new book explores the means by which neoliberalism has come to rely on techniques of shock and catastrophe to implement economic privatisation and market deregulation. This thesis stems from her time in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, gathering data on the means by which the US invasion has managed to screw up that country by creating a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which to write the new economy. She traces the development of the idea of the shock from the CIA’s attempts to come up with new means of torture after the second world war.
Working directly from a manual on torture and interrogation, the US military sponsored university researchers to develop a technique of breaking people down, de-individualising them and then exploiting their psychic weaknesses to rebuild them. Disturbing accounts of prolonged ECT and drug administration are recalled. Klein goes on to note how similar techniques on a macro scale were taken on by, amongst others, the Chicago School of Economics, and mostly developed by Milton Friedman. These techniques are still used across the world today in state-sponsored acts of individual violence.
These shock techniques of confusing a population and its economy to an extent whereby their resistance to new ideas could be overcome was successfully used in South America in the 1960s and 1970s. Chile, Uruguay, Argentina. Klein takes these examples, extends them to as diverse populations as the Russian revolution of 1992-3, Mexico in the late 1980s and the south east Asian economies in the late 1990s, when speculative capital broke successful and protected economy after economy for the sake of quick profit. Her most devastating use of the shock doctrine analysis comes from the example of Iraq where the US tried to create a blank slate for the likes of corporations like Bechtel, Halliburton and DynCorp. This blank slate would privatise previously state run companies, sub and sub-sub contract new services in the private sector and de-democratise (I’m struggling here) large swathes of the country. This represents little short of the transfer of public wealth to private companies through ‘cost plus’ contracts and limited tendering. Similar processes have taken place in Sri Lanka after the recent tsunami and New Orleans after the hurricane.
As good as the analysis and research process is, there is something missing from the book: there is a common thread amongst all of the examples she gives but the hopping from one example to another betrays her journalistic roots. It feels more like a series of articles put together with a few linked-in paragraphs than anything else. I suppose that is how many journalists get to publish books so I shouldn’t be too surprised. Besides that, Klein’s book is a master work of the new left and provides the strongest, most accessible critique of neoliberalism I have come across.
Tomorrow: in a stunningly parochial turn of Klein’s central thesis, I look for an Irish example of the shock doctrine.