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The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

The Business Press and Me: A Case of Unrequited Love

On a recent visit to Calgary, Alberta, I was taken aback to see my book on disaster capitalism selling briskly at the airport. Calgary is ground zero of North America's oil and gas boom, where business suits and cowboy hats are the de facto uniform. I had a sudden sinking feeling: did Calgary's business class think The Shock Doctrine was a how-to guide - a manual for making millions from catastrophe? Were they hoping for tips on landing no-bid contracts if the US bombs Iran?

When I get worried about inadvertently fueling the disaster complex, I take comfort in the response the book has elicited from the world's leading business journalists. That's where I learn that the very notion of disaster capitalism is my delusion - or, as Otto Reich, former adviser to President George Bush, told BBC Business Daily, it is the work "of a very confused person".

Many publications have seen fit to assign business journalists to review the book. And why not? They are the experts. Unabashed fans of the late free-market evangeliser Milton Friedman, these are our primary purveyors of the idea that ballooning corporate profits are on the verge of trickling down to the citizens of the world in the form of freedom and democracy.

So in the Times, for instance, the book was reviewed by Robert Cole, who writes the paper's personal investor column and is author of the volume Getting Started in Unit and Investment Trusts (Chapter 7 - Taxing Questions: Pepping up Your Prospects). Cole was none too pepped by The Shock Doctrine, which disappointed him as "too easy to dismiss as a leftist rant". In the New York Times, the task of explaining why "it's all a grand capitalist conspiracy" fell to Tom Redburn, author of its Economic View column. "That's a lot to lay on poor Milton," Redburn sniffed.

No one took it quite as hard as Terence Corcoran, the business editor of Canada's National Post. Disaster capitalism is apparently my "fevered creation". And how could I have said those things about Friedman, a man Corcoran has described as "the last great lion of free market economics"?

In the Financial Times, the unbiased dissection was carried out by John Willman, the paper's UK business editor (who, on the side, advocates shifting healthcare costs to families in Britain and tuition increases in Scotland). Willman declared the book "a polemic" and warned "impressionable readers" not to be fooled by my 60 pages of endnotes. While Cole claims I rely on "partisan contributions from the cuttings library", Willman accuses me of a far greater crime: relying on cuttings from the FT. "She quotes the Financial Times when it suits her, for example, but not when it would be inconvenient."

It's true. I do, in fact, quote the FT when it suits me. In The Shock Doctrine, I cite the paper 26 times. And this is what hurts most about the attacks from the world's business editors: even as they find new ways to dismiss me, I remain a devoted reader of their pages. Sure, financial editors have to do PR for capitalism. Their reporters, however, have a crucial market role. Investors require reliable information, and it's their job to supply it. Without this honest reporting, I would never have understood how economic shock therapy programmes relied on external disasters - the very disaster capitalism I now learn, from these same pages, does not exist.

It was from the FT that I learned of the so-called Davos Dilemma. Columnist Martin Wolf describes it as "the contrast between the world's favourable economics and troublesome politics". He explains that, in recent years, the economy has faced "a series of shocks" - from the dotcom crash to September 11 to chaos in the Middle East. And yet the market is in "a golden period of broadly shared growth".

A great deal of light is shed on the Davos Dilemma by the FT. For instance, it reported that Lockheed Martin - the biggest single winner from the economy of disaster - has begun "buying companies in the $1,000bn-a-year healthcare market". It's just one glimpse into the exploding economy of privatised disaster, with Lockheed poised to profit not only from making weapons but also from treating the people injured by them - a new era of morbid vertical integration.

The FT has long explored how politicians harness disasters to push through unwanted economic policies. In 1998, for instance, it published an article by Jeffrey Sachs outlining how the IMF took South Korea's democracy hostage, withholding a desperately needed loan until all presidential candidates committed in writing to a harsh austerity plan. Some months later, Hurricane Mitch swept Central America. I learned from the FT that, with countries still knee-deep in rubble, foreign lenders were demanding privatisations.

In the first months after the US "shock and awe" attack on Iraq, the FT reported on US envoy Paul Bremer's shock therapy programme. The paper stated his decrees "make Iraq one of the most open economies in the developing world and go beyond even legislation in many rich countries". It's a concise summary that I often draw upon.

But now, after all these years of fruitful (if one-way) collaboration, the FT calls my thesis "ultimately dishonest". Stinging as this may be, I stand behind the honesty of the FT's reporting, which has been so very helpful in the evolution of my world view.

I wish disaster capitalism were a product of my fevered imagination. I have recently, however, come across more evidence to support its existence. It comes from Paul B Farrell, author of publishing sensations such as The Millionaire Code and The Lazy Person's Guide to Investing. "Hot tip: Invest in 'disaster capitalism'," begins his review in Dow Jones Business News. Farrell acknowledges that an economy built on disaster "is a hot-button political issue. But for the moment, let's put aside partisan politics ... Let's look at this strictly as investors and briefly consider what may also be a guide for aggressive investors". Many unmentionable stock tips follow.

It is just as I had feared - The Shock Doctrine as a how-to-guide. At the end, however, Farrell shows some misgivings. "Is 'Disaster Capitalism' merely a hot short-term investment opportunity for you? Or is it a national 'crisis,' a warning bell, a 'shocking' call to ... rein in the 'military-industrial complex' mindset that's pushing America into a disastrous, self-destructive future?"

Moral confusion in the business pages? Where am I supposed to get my news now?

This article was first published in The Guardian

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