The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein

The Shock Doctrine - cover

When I was handed The Shock Doctrine by a fellow colleague, I wasn’t expecting to read it right away. I had just seen the movie Amazing Grace and was in the process of learning more about modern day slavery, being very curious as to why slavery still exists in the world. But when I got home with my stack of slavery books, this red and white cover with its “shocking” title was staring me in the face. I couldn’t resist. Maybe it was the fact I’m Canadian and couldn’t resist something that’s red and white. And maybe it was the words themselves calling to me. To be honest, some were screaming.

Naomi Klein’s thesis is simple – “This book challenges the central and most cherished claim in the official story – that the triumph of deregulated capitalism has been born of freedom that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy. Instead I will show that this fundamentalist form of capitalism has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion, inflicted on the collective body politic as well as countless individual bodies. The history of the contemporary free market – better understood as the rise of corporatism – was written in shocks.” (p.22)

Klein’s first task is to show us the essence of shock, and where the modern form originated. In the 1950’s, a Canadian psychiatrist named Ewen Cameron began some experiments at McGill University in Montreal. He received funding from the CIA, as they were very interested in his results. Cameron’s hypothesis was in order to cure his patients of their problems, he would “unmake” them, reverting them back to a childlike state, and then begin to remake them in the order that he saw fit.

Cameron’s theory was that in order to unmake a person’s brain, a series of shocks needed to be inflicted upon the brain. Shocks included disorientation as to time and place (eg. inconsistent meal times, inconsistent lighting and darkness), drugs, and electro therapy. Indeed, his shocks did reduce his patients to a childlike state. The interesting fact is that none of them ever became better afterwards than before. Cameron’s experiments were a bona fide failure. When his experiments and links with the CIA finally broke in a scandal, it was clear that “the CIA and Ewen Cameron had recklessly shattered lives with their experiments for no good reason – the research appeared useless.” (p.42). But the CIA was more interested in what purposes they could use Cameron’s research for.

Klein’s next step is to introduce us to Milton Friedman, a man lauded by President George Bush as “a hero of freedom” (May 9, 2002 – Eisenhower Executive Office Building). Friedman’s main tenet of economics was a completely free market, wholly outside of government control, a market that included massive privatization, deregulation of prices (lack of governmental control), and large cuts to government services. Government companies would be privatized and bought up by the “free market”. The free market would determine its own prices, and the shrinking of government services would be taken up, again, by the free market. The only problem, a rather large one, is that the free market is almost completely controlled by massive multinational corporations.

Throughout his extensive career, Friedman and/or his ideas helped to push the economies of several countries as close to that precipice as possible. As Klein shows, he was a utopic visionary in regards to his theories, but where they led and who used them was a different story. Klein quotes Eduardo Galeano on this point: “The Theories of Milton Friedman gave him the Nobel Prize. They gave Chile Pinochet.”

On September 11, 1973, Pinochet launched a coup against President Salvador Allende and the freely elected socialist government of Chile. He then proceeded to arrest around 13 500 civilians. Thousands ended up in two large football stadiums, which became “places of death” (p.89). Hundreds were executed, and their bodies would show up on the sides of highways or in canals.

The Chicago Boys , which Bush mentioned in his speech about Friedman, worked feverishly after the coup to deliver a long economic document to the military leaders. Known as “The Brick”, it “bore a striking resemblance to …Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom: privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social spending” (p.90), the hallmarks of Friedman’s economic philosophy. Now this philosophy may not be evil in and of itself, but it seems that wherever in the world these hallmarks are desired to be implemented, it takes shocks such as a coup, or shocks such as torture, to make them happen, because as Klein shows, the people, normal everyday human people, will not normally put up with them.

The pattern was repeated in several other South American Countries during this time – Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. White American men were known to show up in torture rooms, helping the torturers with specific techniques. Chicago trained economists (more Chicago Boys, or “Friedmanites”) were in the back rooms of each new government, helping to push forth Friedman’s tenets. And in each country, the poor grew poorer, unemployment was rampant, and money lined the pockets of the rich and those in power (p.102-110). One curious symbol of change was in Argentina, where the Ford Falcon was used by the new government to pick people up off the streets, or to drop off the dead bodies (p.105).

The philosophy is simple: open the markets up, and within time, “the ‘natural’ laws of economics would rediscover their equilibrium.” (p.92). This didn’t happen. In 1974, inflation in Chile reached 375 percent, twice what it had been under Allende. Local businesses closed, unemployment hit an all time high, and hunger became widespread. The experiment was a disaster. The remaking, again, didn’t work. But not according to present day President Bush, or Friedman.

Klein, throughout the rest of the book, shows how the shock doctrine has been used again and again the world over during the last 40 years :

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and the ANC won the political war, but lost the economic one as laws were penned in the background that “pinned down the limbs of the new government” (p.244). They had the state, but no power.(p.243) Some privatized companies were even bought with South Africa’s own money.

In Poland, Solidarity won the election, but quickly succumbed to Chicago School economic policies as well. “Now in the grip of Chicago School economists, the IMF and the U.S. treasury saw Poland’s problems through the prism of the shock doctrine. An economic meltdown and a heavy debt load, compounded by the disorientation of a rapid regime change, meant that Poland was in the perfect weakened position to accept a radical shock therapy program.” (p. 211)

In Russia, “Gorbachev knew that the only way to impose the kind of shock therapy being advocated by the G7 and the IMF was with force – as did many in the West pushing for these policies (p.264). Yeltsin provided the answer after he came into power. And in order toget the kind of foreign aid that Russia desperately needed, free market thinking had to be instituted. The Russian press even called Yeltsin’s economists/ “fans of Milton Friedman” (p.267) “the Chicago Boys”.

In the coasts of the tsunami of 2004, people were kept off of their homelands for many spurious reasons, only to find that huge resorts had been built up where they used to live. Some land grabs were even twinned with armed private security (p.483). The shock was natural, but for the business men and politicians, the “open land” was the answer to their prayers. (p.483)

And in Iraq, the shock of all modern shocks, everything that could possibly in any way, shape or form was contracted out to private companies, a Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axiom . “Mohammed Tofiq..made repeated requests for generators, pointing out that Iraq’s seventeen state-owned cement factories were perfectly positioned both to supply the reconstruction effort with building materials and to put tens of thousands of Iraqis to work. The factories received nothing…American companies preferred to import their cement, like their workforce, from abroad, at up to ten times the price.” (p.420)

The Shock Doctrine has sickened me. I had heard anecdotes before, and stored the info in the back of my brain, but now it is finally there in black and white. I have read about corporations before, and have been struck with their greed. But it has become more than greed. Greed has turned into blood; the issues have turned from green to red. When governments, and in this book mainly the US government, speak one thing (democracy, freedom, free markets, forces of good), and then behind the scenes they take down, or highly contribute to the demise of, freely elected governments, and allow, nay, desire, corporations to come in and swallow up the people’s and country’s resources, allow new governments to torture and kill people, and it is ALL done (let’s not kid ourselves that any other motives exist) in the name of Mammon and Power, greed has turned into blood. In the words of Davison Budhoo, in his letter of resignation after 12 years as a senior economist with the IMF,

“…resignation is a priceless liberation, for with it I have taken the first big step to that place where I may hope to wash my hands of what in my mind’s eye is the blood of millions of starving peoples…. The blood is so much, you know, it runs in rivers. It dries up, too; it cakes all over me; sometimes I feel that there is not enough soap in the whole world to cleanse me from the things I did do…” (p.313) (commentary at www.newint.org)

What The Shock Doctrine has shown me is that there is real blood, dripping all over our continent, our buildings, our organizations, our markets, our democracy, our fingers. The resources and money of country after country has been pillaged and brought back to North America. And we have allowed it to happen. Who votes for these automatons? Whose cultures did these imperialists come from? Who buys all of the stuff? Who allows themselves to be entertained in the Coliseums of movie theatres, living rooms, and sports stadiums, and who reads the gossip magazines, plays the video games, tans their skins, and intoxicates themselves on disposable cash? We have. We have willingly allowed ourselves to become slaves in many respects – mostly because we never knew that the poverty we’ve seen on TV is our own passive fault. The Shock Doctrine doesn’t allow that ignorance to exist any longer. The words are right there in red and white. And they’re so loud I can’t ever ignore them again.


2 comments on “The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein

  1. I am glad you read this.
    This is part of the reason my FB profile says that I’m a left-wing evangelical. I realize now that when Psalms says, “Ask of Me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance,” that it is OUR wealth that God wants to give to His children “there.” We have been hoarding their inheritance, and worse, oppressing our brothers and sisters by our politics and corporate ‘freedoms.’ Capitalism is NOT the gospel (but possibly an enemy of it). People who bring this kind of ideology to hurting parts of the globe are NOT missionaries. 😦
    It all makes me rather passionate, and sad.
    I’m glad you read the book.

  2. […] it just greed? I learned awhile back now when I read The Shock Doctrine that greed is not enough to explain the moral vacuum of the decisions that are made on this globe. […]

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