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.