The Shock Doctrine

New Left Review 48 carries an interesting review by Michael Hardt (co-author of “Empire”) of Naomi Klein’s new book The Shock Doctrine. Makes me want to read the book. Klein, according to Hardt, draws a parallel between the electric shock therapy of the 1950s and the neoliberal doctrine of economic shock therapy. Electric shocks to the brain were thought to disorient patients and destroy their existing psychic structures, creating a clean slate from which to build up a new, more amenable personality. The same is now being done on an economic scale – create a disaster, e.g. in Iraq, destroy the existing society, traumatise the population through massive violence (“shock and awe”) and build a capitalist paradise from scratch. Klein traces the history of this practice back to Pinochet’s coup in Chile, through Thatcher’s Britain, post-Communist Russia, China, etc., and extends it from planned catastrophes to unplanned ones from which capitalism benefits, e.g. the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

But just as the electric shock treatments ultimately proved unsuccessful because the patient’s underlying personality could not be destroyed, so the economic shock therapy has failed. In Iraq, despite the destruction of all the old structures, huge privatisation, widespread layoffs, etc., the old expectations of decent employment and good wages still resurface, much to the frustration of the occupiers.

Hardt’s review draws some interesting parallels with other thinkers, making reference to Marxist primitive accumulation, to Joseph Schumpeter’s theory that capitalism progresses through creative destruction, and Rosa Luxemburg’s argument that violence is inherent to capitalism due to its constant expansion. But Hardt points out that while the other thinkers view such characteristics as an unavoidable part of capitalism, Klein describes disaster capitalism as an aberration, a particular doctrine espoused by neoliberals over the last thirty years but not necessarily the only way capitalism can operate. If this is true, then all that is needed is to change the system to make it more peaceable. If the violence and shock treatment are more intrinsic, then we need a new system altogether.

2 thoughts on “The Shock Doctrine

  1. Finally someone (Hardt) with a bit of knowledge of these matters put Klein’s book in proper perspective. The “shock doctrine” – does her branding of what is an inherent aspect of capitalism lead us to the conclusion that there was a “soft” capitalism preceding this? What about 19th C. colonialism? Or are we to believe that this “new” version of capitalism was developed from a failing earlier form and its renewal?
    I skimmed her book but will need to return to it to answer these questions.

    However I did read the last chapter and her proposals for a human economy refer to: small, though inspiring, worker managed takeovers in Argentina; larger, though more dispersed and agricultural, land takeovers in Brazil, that may have been successfully marginalized; and similar endeavors of “peoples economic power” across the world. While all these efforts at creating a new economy are worth supporting of course, they are nonetherless inconsequential to world capital movements.

    It comes down to this (and it was revealed in a Canadian interview whose link I lost): Klein’s perspective is that of a liberal Canadian with Keynesian proclivities. Reforming the state, or resurrecting FDR as left-Democrats in the USA hope for, can’t be a program for saving this planet from utter destruction. The old imagery of placing a bandage on a wound is insufficient here. At least a bandage might do some good in keeping the wound free of bacteria. The call for neo-liberalism-lite, or capitalism with a human face, is more like praying for the wound to heal itself.

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