What trajectory took you from writing about brand culture and documenting the recovered factories in
I was living in
There was something else, too, about watching the war from
I wrote my first column about
So, when I set out to write this book I never saw it as a change of topic. I believed that I was tracking the transition from free trade light to free trade heavy, from the arm-twisting and the quasi-peaceful imposition of this model to the overtly violent imposition of what I call ‘disaster capitalism’. This use of pre-emptive war and large-scale natural disasters to build corporate states from the rubble took place in the most anti-democratic situation you could imagine – when people were scattered, disoriented, in shock.
I thought I was going to write a book about a change, but when I looked back at the history of neoliberalism, I realised that at all of the key junctures where this ideology took its leap forward – including Chile in 1973, China in 1989, Poland in 1989, Russia in 1993, and the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and 1998 – the same logic of exploiting a moment of trauma was at work.
In the introduction to The Shock Doctrine you cite Milton Friedman’s claim that ‘only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change’ as the core tactical nostrum of contemporary capitalism. But many Marxists have articulated similar ideas about crises as an opportunity for change. Do you think this is also dangerous, or can crises offer the potential for positive transformation?
I think it is always dangerous, whether on the left or the right, when people say that things have to get worse before they get better. That is when the left loses its core identity of being pro-humanity and starts almost delighting in loss of life, and in pain, because that will bring about the great cataclysm. Both the left and the right have suffered from this way of thinking, but the right have been in the ascendancy for at least 35 years, so they are the ones currently capitalising on crises.
Milton Friedman’s work was shaped in opposition to Keynesianism and developmentalism rather than Marxism. More specifically, he set himself against what he perceived as the Keynesians’ successful exploitation of the crisis of the Great Depression, the market crash of 1929, which led to the imposition of the New Deal and projects like it around the world.
As far as Friedman was concerned, as he wrote in a letter to Pinochet, that is where history took its wrong turn. He contested the idea that the Great Depression was caused by deregulated markets and argued that it was caused by too much regulation of markets. He also studied how the Keynesian forces were ready with their ideas for that crisis. I think the right-wing project around the world needs to be understood as an attempt to emulate that, using extremely well funded corporate think tanks as ovens to keep ideas warm for when that crisis breaks out.
Bringing this question back to the case of
While crisis was important to the Argentinean experiment, the way of thinking of the people involved was very different to that of the shock therapists and the blank-slaters who are always dreaming of the clean sheet to start over. The people whose stories we were documenting in
Some of the most exciting economic alternatives at the moment have this quality of ‘starting from scrap’, which I think emerges from learning from the past mistakes of the totalitarian left.
You mention the shift from shock therapy to shock-and-awe, but there are also attempts to soften the image of neoliberalism. Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who pioneered shock therapy, wrote his latest book on The End of Poverty. Is there any more to this than a rebranding exercise?
A lot of people are under the impression that Jeffrey Sachs has renounced his past as a shock therapist and is doing penance now. But if you read The End of Poverty more closely he continues to defend these policies, but simply says there should be a greater cushion for the people at the bottom.
The real legacy of neoliberalism is the story of the income gap. It destroyed the tools that narrowed the gap between rich and poor. The very people who opened up this violent divide might now be saying that we have to do something for the people at the very bottom, but they still have nothing to say for the people in the middle who’ve lost everything.
This is really just a charity model. Jeffrey Sachs says he defines poverty as those whose lives are at risk, the people living on a dollar a day, the same people discussed in the Millennium Development Goals. Of course that needs to be addressed, but let us be clear that we’re talking here about noblesse oblige, that’s all.
Do the tools exist for reconstructing a more just society exist?
Many of them do, and we see how deliberately they’re attacked in these moments of disorientation. Look at what has happened to
Two years after Katrina, the subsidised housing projects that allowed low-income people to live in downtown
These are the bridges, and it is the bridges that get bombed first by this ideology – the public housing, the public health facilities, the public schools. The central message of my book is that we’ve been told that our ideas have been tried and failed but, in fact, it is the opposite. Our ideas work, but they cost. They are very good for economic growth but they really eat into super-profit, and that is why there has been such an aggressive attempt to paint them as failures.
It sounds as though you’re also talking about the degradation and closure of public spaces, but this can go wider than using traumatic events. Take the example of the preparations for the Olympics. It is not a ‘shock’, but the mega-event of the Games ends up being used to displace communities and gentrify whole neighbourhoods.
That’s a good point, and it fits into the idea of states of exception. Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister who worked with Jeffrey Sachs to impose shock therapy in
What opportunities for hope do you see in today’s world?
The project kind of came full circle. It began in
This idea of co-operatives did not fail – it was never tried. Solidarity never got a chance to enact its real economic programme in
I find it tremendously hopeful to realise that these ideas that we have been told are impractical did not fail. The notion that our ideas are already discredited is the major source of weakness on the left. It is what makes us tentative in key moments. Pulling these lost worlds out of the narrative of our last 35 years shows that what the vast majority of people wanted in
Knowing how shock works can help you to steal yourself against it. Once prisoners understand how shock works as an interrogation technique they can resist these methods. I think the same is true on a mass scale. Societies that have learned from their past traumas – and many Latin American societies fit into that category – are more shock resistant, and its harder to exploit them in moments of trauma.
What we witnessed in
Meaning: we know how shock works and we were not going to return to a state of fearful regressed acceptance of people in positions of authority. I draw my hope from that example.