Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Perfect Crime

You know how it is. Every time you write a rhyme, people think it's a crime to tell them what's on your mind. Naomi Klein is such a thought-criminal, if Will Hutton's allergic gyrations are any guide. That sort of liberal always hates Klein, for being more than the left-flank of neoliberalism (Hutton has almost completely lost his critical edge, and is these days a Eustonian). Hitchens' sort of illiberal hates her too: for recommending that Iraq's economy be transformed into a giant windfarm collective under the control of Islamofascist hordes. However, Naomi has a posse: her latest book, The Shock Doctrine, a fine distillation of the works of David Harvey, Mike Davis, Arundhati Roy, Eduardo Galeano, and John Berger, is richly decorated with recommendations from best-selling journalists, novelists, actors, activists, and theorists. Tim Robbins, John Cusack, John Le Carre, Arundhati Roy, Seymour Hersh, Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel and John Berger all love this book. Cue 'luvvie' humour from critics.

The book is an activists' guide, rather than an effort to instruct Will Hutton on how to make neoliberal capitalism nicer. It explains for a popular audience how capital currently fights the class war, describes the doctrines that mobilise elites on its behalf and hints at some strategies for resistance. It isn't geographically or historically comprehensive: rather it's narrative seems to be modelled on Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (in fact, Klein says as much in the acknowledgments). The 'disaster capitalism' model argues that capitalist leaders use the shock of catastrophe - hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorist attacks - to introduce 'shock therapy'. And if you resist, you get the third shock: tanks, torture, imprisonment, police batons, whatever it takes. Starting with one of the US government's many exercises in secret human experimentation during the Cold War, those carried out by Dr Ewen Cameron on psychiatric patients. Meet Gail Kastner: she has little of her memory left, because under the CIA's MKUltra programme she was pumped full of so much insulin she suffered multiple comas, given uppers and downers, and put through a storm of electrical shocks. It was designed to annihilate her personality, to wipe the slate clean: it reduced her to hallucinations, baby-talk, terrifying incoherence and a long period of mental instability. Had it not been for a spate of revelations in 1992, she would never have understood what had happened to her, because her memory of the events had long since been lost. These programmes, says Klein, not only helped mould the torture routines used in such places as Abu Ghraib: they also stand as a metaphor for the neoliberal assault. The ideologues working under Milton Friedman's extremist teachings had little success in propagating their anti-socialist doctrines through democratic means, but were provided by the Nixon administration with an experimental arena. Use Chile, itself a recent victim of CIA-assisted shock and awe, as a laboratory for this economic model, they were told. And they did, and Western capital learned a new trick or two. After waves of terror across Central and Southern America, with the destruction of labour and socialist organisations, similar systems were erected in Bolivia, and in Nicaragua, and in El Salvador, and in Argentina and Brazil and Guatemala... In the advanced capitalist countries, a series of financial and monetary shocks accomplished the same, and resistance was dealt with by as much force as was commensurate with the opposition.

And then, praise be: the Soviet Union spent its last roubles failing to conquer Afghanistan. No more exploitable oil or gas fields were located in time to save the system. As Naomi Klein relates it, the reformists under Gorbachev tried to remodel the system based on the Scandinavian model of social-democracy, but were quickly out-manouevred by the shock doctors, who rapidly put the whole former Soviet economy into a centrifuge and exposed it to numerous sophisticated measures to pour wealth into the pockets of a few rich bastards. (Actually, let's be a bit more creative than this. 'Rich bastards' is so 1970s, so let's design some new socialist invective. I'll give an award to the best contribution in the comments box. Anything relying on a vampire/leech metaphor is likely to be accurate, but old. A bunch of conjugated swear-words won't win anything except a few more in reply). And as populations learn to cope with shock, those perpetrating them have to rely on greater disasters - knowing that these are always in abundant supply, they prepare policies and 'remedies' in advance: as in New Orleans, where the business elite and right-wing think tanks prepared the privatisation of schools and the busting of local unions and the roll-back of labour conditions and the turning of the whole pleace into a bleached-blonde whitebread tourist zone. There is actually a great deal of focus on right-wing think-tanks, which reflects Klein's belief in the necessity of countervailing leftist institutions. I think the role of these is probably exaggerated, or at least given undue prominence. And in general, as interesting as the shock metaphor is, Klein omits some surprising things. For example, I notice the four-page discussion of Thatcher using the rupture of the Falklands War to stay in power and impose neoliberal ideas: well, alright, but could that have succeeded without its inauguration by the previous Labour administration? And wasn't the 1976 run on the pound and subsequent intervention of the IMF during the Labour government more befitting the 'shock' model than the little imperial wet dream over the Falklands? And would Thatcher have won had it not been for the SDP splitting the left vote? Further, although Klein maintains that the level of violence perpetrated on populations exposed to these shocks depends on how vehemently they protest, it is more likely that it depends on how much institutional weight and social depth they have, how well they are able to defend themselves. Ruling minorities generally don't like to fight powerful popular movements head-on if they can avoid it.

Still, although there are plenty of criticisms one could make about the limits of this book, it is a powerful piece of analysis and reportage, exposing the brutality of capitalist ideology, and the inherently anti-democratic and violent nature of the ruling elites. If capitalism was ever about continuity, stability, welfare, rising living conditions and so on, that is all finished with: disaster capitalism is that rapacious stage in which global conditions are going to follow the model not so much of North Korea, as the Northern Marianas. It is tempting to say the book is doom-mongering, and it is true that there isn't as much devoted to elaborating a strategy for resistance as there is describing the efforts of those who are resisting - but I don't get the sense from this book of a pervading sense of doom. There isn't actually a note of despair in the whole text: it's a powerfully optimistic book, despite the challenges described.

See also: a full talk by Naomi Klein on the book; and Alex Cockburn's criticisms.