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Profiting From Disaster
on 25 May 2008
Ideology aside, I consider this to be one of the most important books of our time. The reason I started off the way I did is that many people will react to Naomi Klein's book based on their political leanings. In fact, before starting this book, I was inclined to disagree with her premise -that Chicago School economics can be directly tied to oppressive regimes in many parts of the world. This book, however, thoroughly proves this disconcerting truth. The Shock Doctrine is also a brilliant expose and an elegant model which enables us to understand modern history in a new way.
I had originally seen a short video online that summarized the ideas of this book, and my first reaction (again, before reading the book) was that this must be a typical leftist rant, making an abstruse analogy between an economic system with which the author disagrees and real life practices like torture and shock treatment. As someone who was raised, or at least self-raised as basically a libertarian, I did not want to believe Klein's argument. In fact, the only reason I bothered to read the book is that I liked her earlier book, No Logo so much. She is one of the few writers on political and economic subjects whom I actually enjoy reading. Her style is so lucid that, even if I don't agree with some of her ideas, I understand where she is coming from and enjoy following her reasoning.
Alas, there is nothing abstract, symbolic or abstruse about The Shock Doctrine. Nor is it any kind of conspiracy theory, as one reviewer oddly remarked. Everything in this book is well documented, and most of the references are anything but obscure. You can find almost everything that is written about here by going back over newspapers of the last few decades. The fact is, recent oppressive regimes in South America, Eastern Europe and Asia built their systems around the ideas of Milton Friedman and Chicago School economics. This is not a theory or an accusation, but a matter of public record. The only thing that we can dispute and speculate over is whether or not Milton Friedman (and his Chicago School disciples) really approved of the actions of tyrants like Pinochet. In the end, does this really matter?
Again, when I first saw the video based on this book, I was skeptical, especially when I watched graphic footage of people being tortured and then told that there is a nearly perfect analogy between the literal shocking of political prisoners and the economic "shock therapy" inflicted on many nations. The reason this book overcame my skepticism is that these practices really were carried out in a symmetrical manner. That is, individuals were being tortured (by people who studied manuals on shock therapy, devised by a real life "mad doctor" named Ewen Cameron) at the same time their governments were conspiring with Chicago School luminaries.
Advocates of free market economics have always said that we must separate economic and political freedom. For example, we can be horrified by the actions of a Pinochet and yet admire the "economic freedom" that exists under such a regime.
I think one of the most impressive achievements of The Shock Doctrine is the way it discredits this widely held assumption. Even assuming that Chicago School ideas represent the ultimate in economic freedom, is it right, even by libertarian standards, to force such freedom on people who don't want it? The idea of forcing people to be free is an oxymoron, and yet this seems to be the mentality of the U.S. government, World Bank and other supposed defenders of freedom when implementing their strategies in the Third World.
Hardcore libertarians will argue that nothing in this book is a refutation of free market capitalism because none of the examples given are true examples of pure laissez faire capitalism. As someone who would have said this myself twenty years ago, I would now simply ask, what difference does it make? Similar arguments are made by dogmatic Marxists concerning the atrocities of Mao and Stalin (they weren't "really" communists). If we are shown, time after time, that a given ideology is used as a justification for implementing policies that include torture, the murder of dissidents and wide-scale corruption, it may be time to rethink that ideology.
Naomi Klein is an advocate of a "Third Way" between capitalism and communism. Examples of this include the relatively free but socialistic Scandinavian nations. Personally, I don't find these rather bureaucratic societies very attractive, being something of a hardcore anarcho-capitalist in my heart. Yet if people genuinely want a society that looks like modern day Sweden or Venezuela, do I (or the U.S. government) have the right to say they can't have it?
The Shock Doctrine illustrates something that goes beyond politics and ideology. I don't really believe that the people in government, industry and the World Bank, who are responsible for many of the atrocities Klein documents, are actually believers in Chicago School economics, laissez faire or any other system. What they want is wealth and power, and they use ideology as a justification for their actions.
If we put aside the political theory and look at the actions and strategies this book catalogs, we see a clear pattern. These people, as Klein documents, use war, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and the like as opportunities to exploit the masses. This is not a mere hypothesis, for there are ample quotes in the book where this doctrine is openly admitted by those who carry it out. Klein stops short of conspiracy theory, the kind that claims that catastrophic events (such as 9/11 and even natural disasters) were orchestrated by those who later exploited them. Whether Klein's more moderate position or the conspiratorial one is closer to the truth is ultimately of secondary importance. The fact is, those at the top of the power structure use disasters as opportunities to increase their wealth and power.
The beauty of this book is that it presents a coherent picture of American (and allied nations) foreign policy and, to some extent, domestic policy -- the Patriot Act and the Katrina tragedy are also described -- that clearly explains the modus operandi of the power elite. It doesn't matter what kind of political system you think is ideal. This is what is really happening. The book concludes on an upbeat note, as hard to believe as that might seem. There is evidence that as people wise up to the shock doctrine strategy, it will become less effective. Hopefully, many people will read this book and the process will be accelerated.