Introduction and summary

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a book by Naomi Klein, a young Canadian author who became an icon of the anti-globalization movement when she was only 30 with the publication of No Logo. The Shock Doctrine is a much more ambitious book than her last offering, and with it Klein has made a grab for the mantle of academic respectability. Running to 560 pages in the paperback edition, the book boasts 70 pages of footnotes that Klein has described as her "body armour" in the controversy over her thesis.1 They are defences that she well needs, because her book attempts nothing less than to rewrite the history of the international system in the last 35 years.

Klein's basic argument is deceptively simple. She argues that from the early 1970s, when Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile, to the present day, politicians and economists who count themselves as disciples of Milton Friedman have spearheaded a global conspiracy to foist unpopular free market economic policies on unwilling populations. Their tool has been the "shock", severe social and political trauma such as a campaign of state terror or a major natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina which renders society too disoriented to resist, a disorientation that is only exacerbated by the rate of economic change.

An extra layer to her argument is the role of torture in these forced transformations. She argues that the imposition of a state of disorientation on society at large is experienced in microcosm by victims of state abuse. She cites CIA manuals on interrogation which instruct the abusers to systematically break down their victims' sense of self and their ties to the real world so that they lose the will to resist. Lurking in the background is the role of electroshock therapy, a method of psychological treatment pioneered by Dr Ewen Cameron at McGill University in Canada. Cameron aimed to treat the severely psychologically ill by completely destroying their sense of self through electroshock so that he would have a "blank tablet" on which to help them create a new, saner self.

Klein argues that this process is analagous to the one followed by the "disaster capitalists" all over the world; by inducing severe social trauma, they hope to create a blank slate on which to create a free market paradise that will deliver huge corporate profits. The people who live in the countries affected will experience high unemployment, low wages, the disappearance of public services and dangerous living conditions, but the disaster capitalists comfort themselves that eventually the market will reach equilibrium and these problems will vanish. In the meantime, state repression and torture - microcosms of the process affecting society at large - serve to keep individual dissenters in check.

It is going to be impossible to ignore Klein's book for decades to come, especially as the global recession sparks greater interest in the winners and losers of the global economic system. The book is bound to become a classic of radical analysis, matching William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and even Vladimir Lenin's Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism in long-term influence. The book is wonderfully written and the mountain of evidence is too great to ignore entirely; if you read this book, you will learn from it. But I cannot grant Klein her wish to be seen as both groundbreakingly polemical while also securely grounded in the facts, and if you care to read on I will explain why.

The evidence

No-one can fault Klein for the range of her ambition or her diverse reading. Her book sports chapters on Chile, Bolivia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Russia, South Africa, China, Israel and finally Iraq, the country which she says played a central role in the creation of her thesis when she saw parallels between economic developments there after the American invasion and what had happened in Argentina years earlier. "Disaster capitalism" is the common theme that she says ties together the disparate historical experiences of these countries since 1970, as politicians inclined towards radical free market economics - by choice or due to compulsion from institutions like the International Monetary Fund - have sought to shock their reluctant populations into submission.

The book largely consists of case studies in disaster capitalism. The first section focuses on Latin America, where she claims the United States was guilty of a "blatant intervention" in the affairs of Latin America because it funded scholarships for students to visit the University of Chicago to study economics under Milton Friedman. Chicago was known as the home of free market evangelism, a place where the world was viewed through the lens of market economics, another of the doctrinaire views of human affairs masquerading as a "science" that the last century was plagued with.

Latin American students sent there on the American taxpayer's dollar returned to their home countries to become the "Chicago Boys", advisors to juntas like that of Augusto Pinochet. They advised their masters to follow programmes of slashing social services, removing wage and price controls, and lax investment rules, believing that the result would be spectacular economic growth after a period of "structural adjustment" during which there would be a high human cost. In their view, it was best to deliver an insult all at once by imposing all of these measures concurrently so that the economy would quickly reach equilibrium after the initial shock. And, Klein says, wherever they advised such measures, state terror and torture was always needed to implement them.

She sees essentially the same narrative in the former Soviet bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Poland and Russia were persuaded by Western donors and lenders to implement rapid economic change and "austerity programmes" to create free economies, resulting in the transfer of state companies into a small group of private hands. This was possible because of the rapid political and social change that the countries were undergoing at the time. Similarly, she argues that in South Africa, the political negotiations that ended apartheid were so dominant and shocking that the African National Congress failed to pay sufficient attention to the economic negotiations going on in the background, allowing the white minority to solidify its control of the country's economy.

Klein brings her argument right up to the present day by analyzing the United States after 9/11, paying particular attention to the war in Iraq. She argues that the creation of the "homeland security" industry since 9/11 has created a large sector of the economy that has a direct stake in disasters; an outbreak of smallpox or a terrorist attack is good for companies that sell smallpox vaccine or surveillance equipment. She argues that this development is especially ominous because of the Bush administration's tendency to oursource anything and everything, including security functions and even military services, a tendency typified by the huge number of Blackwater mercenaries taking U.S. pay in Iraq. This industry feeds on war and disaster, providing security and services to those who can afford it and misery to those who cannot.

She makes a particularly interesting point with regards to Israel. It has been a standard point of radical analysis that the existence of the military-industrial complex in the United States is dangerous because it means that companies profit from war, and hence are likely to encourage war to break out. In reality, the linkage is more subtle, and Klein shows an awareness of this in her analysis of Israel: it is not that defence firms actually brings wars about - they haven't the power to do that - but that the existence of industries that profit from war mean that the prospect of waging wars is less painful than it might be. Israel's economy is based to a staggering extent on exporting technologies relating to counter-terrorism and security rather than trading with their Arab neighbours, meaning that they have "lost the peace initiative" and lost a significant motivator towards peace.2

It is in Iraq that Klein sees the pinnacle of the "disaster capitalism complex". She argues that a small number of companies such as Blackwater and Halliburton profited both from the destruction of Iraq and then rebuilding it, a form of "vertical integration" that was facilitated by the U.S. government's reliance on these companies through a system of no-bid contracts. Rather than merely reacting to disasters caused by foreign political movements or natural catastrophes, the constellation of companies around the Department of Defense were now creating their own disasters by assisting the invasion of foreign countries. And, she says, the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib were an inescapable consequence of their hubris.


Klein has some valid points and covers a lot of interesting ground, but her central thesis is not at all supported by the evidence she marshals. By attempting to cover so much ground in one book, she fails to sufficiently prove her case in any one particular instance; much less does she demonstrate that she has found the key to the history of the right-wing in the last 35 years. Whilst she adopts the apparatus of the historian - footnotes, quotes, historical narratives - she fails to write something that qualifies as a work of history. Indeed, the one thought that kept recurring to me as I read The Shock Doctrine was: this is why we train professional historians.

The periods and cases that Klein chooses to examine act as an early warning. She rips examples totally out of their context, imposing her own interests on the narrative and completely ignoring contrary evidence. Anything that looks like a "shock" imposed by a right-wing government gets an analysis; the decades of a country's history on either side of the "shock" and other explanatory factors are completely ignored. Once the period of the "shock" is over, she is no longer interested in the country in question. This is called cherry picking. She successfully lays out her own, superficially plausible version of what happened in every case; what she entirely fails to do is be convincing. Additionally, her choice of case studies reads too much like the standard left-wing enemies list - Thatcher, Pinochet, apartheid, Israel, George W. Bush - for us to believe that its selection was guided by the evidence and not by her already-existing predilections.

It is her intensely monocausal and focused approach that makes her book so unconvincing. Anyone who claims that they can explain the history of dozens of countries across several decades by a single explanatory factor has to count on the support of those more credulous than themselves, whereas the rest of us might be wise to question if things are really so neat. The fact Klein almost exclusively cites marginal and partisan works of history in her footnotes means there are substantial holes in her scholarly "armour".

Her knowledge of American politics seems alarmingly lacking despite being an object of continued analysis. She seems unable to tell the difference between neoliberals, neoconservatives and traditional conservatives; neoconservatism, in her view, began with the election of a Republican Congress in 1994. I cannot even see a possible way that one could plausibly argue that this is the case, and thankfully for Klein's sake she merely states it without attempting to justify it. One cannot help but think that she merely labeled all of these people as enemies some years ago and does not consider it necessary to distinguish between them; even more alarmingly, she does not consider it necessary to be credible on this count to win over her readers. One is left wondering just who exactly these readers are hence supposed to be.

There are also problems with the detail of her argument. If we leave aside the fact that she is only interested in shocks inflicted by right-wing governments, there is also the fact that her definition of "shock" seems highly malleable. The murder of tens of thousands of people across Latin America's Southern Cone, the brief imprisonment of trade union leaders in Bolivia, the British invasion of the Falkland Islands, and Boris Yeltsin's shelling of the Russian Duma are all counted as "shocks" despite their obvious differences and scales. At times it feels like Klein is redefining relatively minor events as "shocks" so she can compare them to events that were unquestionably more dramatic and broad in their impact.

The reason Klein is forced to play fast and loose with context and to conflate cause and effect is because she has commited herself to a monocausal explanation. Her book is in the tradition of historical materialism, seeing everything from an economic perspective and denying the impact of other factors; although because she cannot adequately explain how the economists promoting "shock therapy" would gain from it personally, she allows ideas a role by the backdoor. This role, however, is limited only to them, presumably marking economists as a superhuman breed not swayed by the economic motives that animate everyone else in her book.

The other exception are the left-wing activists who opposed shock therapy, who form the other side of this battle; always pure, always animated by noble ideas, and always thwarted from creating their utopia by the vast global conspiracy of right-wingers and disaster capitalists, these figures are as inhuman and un-historical as the evil manipulators of investment and financial markets. By reducing the history of 35 years to a simple morality play of if-onlys and but-maybes, Klein does a great disservice to the history and autonomy of the substantial part of humanity that she examines. Ripped out of reality and context, they are all merely pathetic victims of globalization, which appears as the only source of evil in the world. The beauty and plausibility of Klein's idea may be its simplicity, but it warns us that we are in the presence of a story far too neat to explain what it purports to. Human beings and their problems are rarely so simple.

1. "Naomi Klein's new book a lightning rod", The Star (Toronto),

2. It is of course not Israel's fault that its economy developed in this way, as predicating its economy on trading with the hostile Arab countries was a recipe for extinction. Israel is one of the most interesting examples of a country using its comparative advantage for economic growth, and the post-9/11 boom in private security, intelligence and counter-terrorism companies was bound to benefit Israel disproportionately because of its decades of experience in these matters. This is not conspiracy; it is just the market.

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