Through the lens of the shock doctrine

Review of:

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Random House, Toronto, 2007.


I’ve been seeing the shock doctrine at work my whole political life without knowing it, it seems. Like Naomi Klein, I was born in the 1970s, which she dates as the doctrine’s beginnings. I had just finished high school when my province, the Canadian province of Ontario, elected a mini-shock doctrine government that engaged in what Naomi Klein calls the three planks of the economic aspect of shock, the Chicago School, Milton Friedman approach: privatization, deregulation, cuts to social programs and protections.

Later, I saw the shock doctrine – and people fighting it – in Chiapas, where, in 2000, the Zapatista communities were ringed with tens of thousands of soldiers, who would constantly, visibly drive around their communities in displays of force, on trucks and jeeps bristling with soldiers with weapons drawn. I saw it again in Colombia in 2001, in paramilitary-controlled Putumayo, where a series of spectacular massacres had brought peasants under the control of the government and paramilitaries and shocked them into forced acceptance of the poisoning of their lands by aerial fumigation.

Then, again, in Palestine in 2002, I witnessed the most carefully calibrated shock, to terrorize children and parents with tanks and bulldozers and bullets. A friend, a reporter, traveling into Gaza recently described entering through a long, pitch black tunnel. He was being watched, he knew, but he could see nothing, for dozens of meters as he walked along in sensory deprivation. Gaza itself has lived sensory deprivation on a massive scale, since Israeli warplanes destroyed its power plant last year. Two planes, this same reporter was told, flew one run, fired their missiles, circled back, fired again to make sure. Palestinian emergency crews rushing to the scene were intercepted by American-made Israeli helicopters and turned back. An Israeli torturer told a Palestinian child prisoner: “Your world looks big now, but I will put this hood over your head and then your world will become very small, and then we will talk again.” (See the book "Stolen Youth" for more information on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children).

In Haiti in 2005, I saw the shock of another coup, designed to look just like a previous shock in 1991, with some of the same players, calibrated again to humiliate and degrade. A military and police force with close training ties to the US and Canada worked with a local elite to destroy a democratic government with a popular base. The coup took place on the bicentennial of the country’s independence, an extra humiliation inflicted on the whole society to add to the physical and political shocks. If in the Southern Cone dictatorships Naomi writes about, electroshock and disappearance were the symbols of torture, in Haiti the weapon was rape. From 1991-1994, the first coup, in addition to high profile massacres and assassinations that killed thousands, paramilitaries used rape repeatedly against political opponents. The same pattern occurred since 2004, with one study by Athena Kolbe and Royce Hutson estimating 35,000 rapes and 8,000 murders under the most recent coup regime.

Before reading the book, I’d understood these conflicts as being about racism and capitalism, the imposition of an economic and social model to benefit a few and all the violence required to force that model down people’s throats. For me, the book took the lens I’d developed and sharpened it immensely, revealing aspects of conflicts and social problems that are hard to make sense of otherwise. Organized chronologically, the book tells the story of the shock doctrine: the idea that violence, or shock, can be used to unmake people, or societies, and rewrite new rules, more favorable to the powerful, on a blank slate. Against that, Naomi advocates for a more real, impure, un-idealized, system: messy democracy, which leads, if people actually have a say, to progressively more economic equality.

To the believers in the shock doctrine, reality, full of real people with preferences of their own and ideas about the common good, is impure. And only violence can restore purity, on which a perfect capitalist solution can be placed. Of course, that capitalist vision is not the mathematical perfection of economics textbooks, but a world of corruption and impunity, in which a few people grow spectacularly wealthy and live above all rules and laws, while others are starved, bombed, tortured, and threatened.

The book made me see everything I’ve seen and done these past few years in a new light. The book does the same for the author’s own journeys. She describes how the book began when she spent about a year in Argentina (around 2003) and saw the echoes of the dictatorship of 1976-83, the lingering effects of the shock that the torture and disappearances of 30,000 people had inflicted on the society. In the years since, she traveled all over Latin America, to South Africa, to tsunami-afflicted Southeast Asia, to occupied Iraq, and to post-Katrina New Orleans.

Where others might have written a travelogue, Naomi’s genius was in seeing, in each of these situations, a different stage in the process of shock and recovery. Argentina was coming out of shock inflicted decades before. South Africans were reeling from economic shock inflicted while they were trying to recover from the many shocks of apartheid, not as far along in the process of recovery. Iraq was the place for experiments in whole new levels of shock, and New Orleans was where the lessons of those experiments were applied. This ability to build a narrative out of what might otherwise be viewed as random or disparate tragedies or horrors, is the true strength of the book. It also happens to be, as she points out, one of the best ways to defend oneself from shock, which depends on surprise.

The book has 7 parts. Part 1 describes the basics of the shock doctrine through the story of Ewen Cameron, a Montreal psychiatrist who carried out experiments on his unwilling patients for the CIA in the 1950s, destroying their personalities with electric shock, sleep and sensory deprivation, and drugs. Cameron is the doctor of physical shock. The economic shock doctor of the book is Milton Friedman and his ‘Chicago Boys’, whose attempts to impose ‘pure’ capitalism on socialist or mixed economies offer a precise analogy to Cameron’s attempts to erase personalities through torture. Cameron’s experiments ended up in torture manuals that guided the destruction of many people’s bodies in poor countries. Friedman’s doctrines ended up in economic policy documents that guided the destruction of these countries’ economies. The first laboratories of the shock doctrine were the dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America – Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay (and Indonesia). These laboratories are described in Part 2, along with, in Part 3, a description of how the shock doctrine was adopted in the West, starting with Thatcher’s UK and Reagan’s US.

In Part 4, Naomi illuminates aspects of history that have not had nearly enough attention. China’s Tiananmen square revolt and massacre was as much about the violent imposition of capitalism as it was about the violent suppression of democracy, she shows, citing author Wang Hui’s book China’s New Order. Poland’s working people, like Russia’s, dreamed not of capitalism but of socialist democracy and had those dreams crushed by violence and economic shock therapy. South Africans, after fighting apartheid for decades and setting out their economic vision in a document called the “Freedom Charter”, were out-negotiated by the elite who maintained the economic inequality of apartheid by presenting economic issues as “technical”, and by the US and international financial institutions who threatened them with economic collapse. The Southeast Asian “Tiger” economies were melted down and sold at fire sale prices to American corporations in the context of an entirely manufactured “crisis”.

Parts 5 and 6 establish the book as a solid and important document of a history that is now unfolding. As the victims of economic shock began to recover from the disorientation and organize across national lines in the “anti-globalization movement” that Naomi was a participant and chronicler of, a new and even more devastating series of shocks hit, and were exploited to take disaster capitalism to a new level. 9/11, the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Asian Tsunami, and Katrina are all analyzed here in terms of their use for disaster capitalists.

In Part 7, Naomi uses the same methods she’s used throughout the book – her knowledge and connections to movements in different parts of the world – to show how people are resisting, waking up from shock. This section is much more powerful than a call to arms – it is a report of what people are actually doing. The Brazilian landless peasants’ movement, the Argentine occupied factories, the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, the shock-weary Lebanese who refused to be goaded into civil war in 2006, the dictatorship-weary Spanish who refused an authoritarian solution to the Madrid bombing in 2004.

In addition to illuminating hidden aspects of recent history and presenting a new way to view them, the “Shock Doctrine” provides a framework for analyzing other times and places. Afghanistan, for example, is a society that has been under continuous shock since 1979: first a 10-year occupation by the USSR, followed by a civil war, followed by the Taliban, followed by a 6-year US/NATO occupation. The result is a country with basically no infrastructure, some of the worst health and nutritional outcomes in the world, total poverty, millions of landmines, and as of this writing, hundreds of people being murdered in a US counterinsurgency war every week. Like they do on much of Africa, the wealthy countries debate not how to stop the shocks, but how to divide up the task of further torturing the country.

Using the shock doctrine to analyze the past, consider that the Nazi military doctrine of “blitzkrieg” was a kind of shock doctrine: air power and a rapid, concentrated, armored push for the enemy capital before a defence could be organized or mounted. This is not at all unlike what Naomi quotes of American “Shock and Awe” doctrine, which is to “seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events… rendering the adversary completely impotent”.  Military historian Liddell Hart analyzed WWII in terms of the ratio of space and force. “Blitzkrieg” worked in France, but not in the USSR, where the Nazis were overstretched and ultimately defeated, at a tremendous cost to their victims.

How will the present “shock doctrine” fail? The shock doctrine ideal is of a “hollow state” which, rather than actually doing things, acts as a cash source for corporations which make super-profits but don’t actually deliver the goods in many cases. The hollow state’s "holes" are being filled in Latin America by organized workers and peasants and indigenous movements. These have, in some places, managed to get rid of “shock doctrine” governments and are trying to work out how to move forward. In the Middle East, the holes left by the hollow state – in providing health facilities, schools, security, emergency relief are being filled by religious-based movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Mahdi Army in Baghdad. These movements arose in a context of shock, and won’t easily be shocked out of existence (the Israelis certainly tried in Lebanon in 2006, as did the Americans in Iraq with the ‘surge’). At home, Michael Moore’s “Sicko” reveals as eloquently as Naomi’s chapters on Katrina the hollowness at the core of the American social systems. If an organized movement could fill that hole, and the other holes of the socially collapsing US (as people in New Orleans are trying to do, Naomi reports), it might be possible for us to survive the next shocks that are on the horizon.

A central message of “The Shock Doctrine” is that the power of shock, torture and war is in overwhelming and disorienting their victims, preventing them from seeing the interests and agendas that lie beneath. When she spoke to torture survivors, Naomi found that the ones who understood these political and economic agendas, who could understand the meaning of seemingly senseless and total violence, were better able to cope. Starting with the shock, Naomi skillfully and patiently exposes these filthy agendas, naming names and showing evidence of massive crimes. By doing so, she might help our shocked world cope – and fight – better, as well.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He can be reached at [email protected]


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