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Review of The Shock Doctrine

April 26, 2010
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is a must-read for anyone in the modern West.  Okay, that’s a broad statement, so let me try one more focused: it is a must-read for Red-state Christian America.  Too long have we blindly thrown our weight behind the idea that capitalism would bring peace, freedom, and prosperity to the benighted Third World, and have we, with dangerous syncretism, imagined that its onward march was the vanguard of the Kingdom of God, trampling over secularists in our race to declare its victories as the offspring of our Christianity’s genius.  We glibly reassure ourselves that we are “pro-life” because we decry the crimes of abortion doctors, all the while ignoring the blood of the neoliberalism crusade’s millions of victims.  Naomi Klein calls on us all to wake up and smell the ugly stench of reality.  What makes this book so compelling is that it transcends standard debates about whether the “free enterprise system” or state-run enterprise works better, by examining the actual track record of the Chicago School, pure capitalist notion of free markets, and concluding that this “free enterprise system” has never existed.  We are accustomed to treating “the government” and “private companies” as two antithetical actors, and yet this assumption is no longer true, if it ever was.  

Take Lockheed Martin, for example--the US government is their biggest client, and Lockheed receives a greater share of the federal budget than do several large governmental agencies like the Department of Commerce.  What we have now is a corporatist state, an unholy alliance of government force and market greed, each of which is dangerous enough on its own, but which together are a truly terrifying combination.  In this combination, the government imposes a “free” market by force on unwilling citizens, then helps make sure that big corporate or political supporters get the lion’s share of that market, at the expense of most of the citizenry.  These corporate giants then come to wield the lion’s share of political power as well, which they continue to use for their benefit.  At the same time, this alliance means that, as things like war and disaster relief become for-profit enterprises, large corporations position themselves both to exploit and to encourage political and social chaos worldwide.  
Klein’s core thesis is that all of this has been the direct result of the attempt to apply Friedmanite Chicago School economics, a thesis that does not need to rely on tendentious causal connections or vague post hoc ergo propter hocs, since in many cases she can show how self-avowed Friedman proteges were the architects of these enterprises, which were enthusiastically hailed by Friedman and his cohorts.  Shortly after I started reading this book, I looked at some of the reviews on Amazon and decided to check out the small cluster of 1-star reviews, just to see what the opposition was saying.  A common complaint seemed to be: “This woman must not have read Friedman!  Friedman’s ideal wasn’t all this stuff that she’s portraying--dictatorships and oligarchical economies and a powerful corporatist state--he wanted freedom!”  Yes, but these people must not have really been reading this book.  The point isn’t what Friedman’s ideal was, just as the point isn’t what Marx’s ideal was.  With both, the problem is that their ideal, while great on paper, simply did not reflect the way real societies function, with real power interests that will protect themselves.  Especially if read with Polanyi’s argument about the inherent unnnaturalness of the self-regulating market in mind, The Shock Doctrine strongly suggests the conclusion that Pinochet-style violence, repression, inequality, and corporate dominance is the inescapable result of the attempt to apply Friedmanism in the world as we know it.  Forget the facile equation of capitalism and “freedom” or “democracy”--a democratic society, Klein shows, will revolt against the attempt to impose such an economic system, and so it can only be imposed by force or chaos, and then freedom is out of the picture.
How did we ever trick ourselves into believing that if we just removed the impediments to letting society be run by greed, we’d have a free and peaceful world?  Greed means that Lockheed Martin will fund war propaganda to get us to invade Iraq, and who’s to tell them that’s off-limits?   
Now, this book has some flaws, of course, which can get quite annoying at times.  For one thing, Klein doesn’t always seem to realize the radicalness of her own thesis--the thesis that we can no longer dichotomize business and government, since the two have increasingly merged their interests, personnel, and operations.  Repeatedly, she falls back into talking as if we’re dealing with a straightforward government vs. business, public vs. private battle, in which the public sphere is always the good guy, and private business is always the bad guy.  All of the problems, on this narrative, stem from not enough government--if only the government were bigger and stronger, all would be well.  And this gets tiresome--for some reason, whenever some crucial task currently administered by government isn’t getting done, it’s because the government is underfunded and sapped of resources, but whenever some crucial task currently administered by a private company isn’t getting done, it’s because they’re lazy, corrupt, and inefficient.  This is a rather dubious picture.  However, that said, the book does force us to rethink some of our equally dubious conservative assumptions--namely, that a private company will always do a job better than the government will, or that governments cannot do a fair bit of good in restraining baleful inequalities within society.
Also, Klein is terribly one-sided in her telling of the story.  She never really gives Friedman, et. al., a chance to tell their side of the story; when she does quote them or give a bit of their perspective, she immediately makes snide mockeries.  I think this tale could be even more compelling than it is were she to give them a fair hearing, to say, “Here’s what this movement wanted to achieve.  They really wanted these great goals, and they really thought these things would happen, and here’s why.  But here’s why those dreams failed when they met reality.”  Without that kind of sympathy and perspective, this ends up sounding propagandistic at times.  
Of course, another related criticism is that, as would surely be the case in any book of this size and scope, there are some places where the argument seems much weaker, and somewhat strained.  Was there really foul play going on here?  Was the story really that simple there?  Are we really to believe that this policy was such a bad thing?  She has some really damning material when she’s discussing Chile and the South American juntas, and also when she discusses post-9/11 developments and the Iraq War.  Most of the stuff in between contributes valuably to her thesis and narrative, but in some of it, it feels like she’s overreacting.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly for us Christians, this book is handicapped by the fact that it is written in an almost relentless torrent of moral passion, but a passion without any clear basis.  As a Christian, I can offer all kinds of reasons why most of the phenomena described in this book are indeed evil and appalling and should be resisted.  But what’s her basis?  At times, it seems to be an unswerving devotion to democracy.  Time and time again, her objection to Friedmanism is that its adoption in a society has to be undemocratic--it will not be supported by the majority of the people, and so the rulers have to find some way of imposing it against their will.  I’m not convinced this is automatically wrong.  After all, the purpose of rulers is to rule, is to make hard decisions that may not be popular, and if the rulers are in fact wiser than the ruled, that may mean they will take the right course of action, even if it is not generally supported.  But there is a difference between governing and oppressing, and in most of her examples, the actions taken were not merely undemocratic, but violent and deceptive.  So, a Christian can get angry about this as well.  She also seems to operate on the assumption that there’s a huge range of tasks in a society that ought to be provided by the government rather than for a profit.  Many of us may not entirely agree with her here, but I do begin to see the benefits of leaving the profit motive out of the picture when it comes to basic services for a society, even if that doesn’t mean it’s best to put the central government in charge of them.    And as Christians, we should agree that there is something wrong and dangerous about companies making a profit off of disasters, violence, and people in great need.  Biblically, the principles are clear--if your brother is weak and poor, you can’t try to make money off of him; you have to help him at your own expense.  Capitalism says, “Aha!  This person or this country has been brought to its knees--now’s the chance to make a killing!”  Finally, she is operating on the assumption that the people of a country have a right to a fair share of the products of their country, and that huge income inequality is an unjust state of affairs. I have a feeling that many people from my background will not share these assumptions, but I confess that I’m finding it rather difficult to object to them.  
In conclusion, this book is a wake-up call for Christians in the Western world who are accustomed to take it as one of those inevitable facts of life that the two-thirds world is poor and oppressed, and who subconsciously (or even openly) attribute it to the native incompetence and wickedness of these peoples: “We’re Protestant Christians, and so we’ve figured out how to prosper; they’re not, so it’s no wonder they’re condemned to keep wallowing in poverty.”  This book alerts us to the fact that this poverty and oppression is the result of particular decisions and policies largely emanating from our shores, policies that we have enthusiastically supported as long as they made us richer, and that we have a responsibility to repent of.


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