Naomi Klein

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Shock and Awe

Dana McNairn, Monday Magazine, October 3, 2007

Naomi Klein’s latest book has an unsettling premise, complete with a disturbing Canadian contribution, in what has already been dubbed “bleakonomics” by no less a luminary than Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

In a scorching critique of U.S. economist Milton Friedman and his Chicago School economics, Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Knopf, 672 pages, $36.95) argues through meticulous research how governments and corporations have used (or invented) violence and disasters to push through free market reforms on stunned and shocked populations still reeling from calamity. Klein argues that the U.S. government and its attendant spy agencies deliberately unleashed Friedman’s “economic shock treatment” in Latin America in the 1970s. Thus, when democratically elected leaders—like Salvador Allende in Chile—were overthrown by military coups and replaced with dictators, the Chicago Boys would swoop in to deregulate, privatize and dismantle public services. Klein calls this the “shock doctrine.” These patterns of “stratification” have been repeated everywhere that the Chicago School ideology has triumphed: the “dirty wars” in Chile and Argentina, the Falklands War, the “collapse” of the USSR, “Asian Flu” in Indonesia and Thailand, Hurricane Katrina and the “War on Terror” in Iraq are just a handful of examples she carefully dissects to make her point.

Klein hangs her “shock doctrine” premise on the notion that radical laissez-faire capitalism is similar to the shock therapy administered by psychiatrists. This is where the Canadian connection arrives, circa Quebec in the late 1940s. Klein calls Dr. Ewen Cameron’s hospital lab a “torture chamber,” with his use of electroshock therapy to “break down” his psychiatric patients at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute so they could be “reprogrammed.” Unsurprisingly, few patients were able to psychologically withstand the relentless drug cocktails, massive electroshocks, sensory deprivation, isolation chambers and drug-induced comas. Klein says that because the CIA funded Cameron’s grisly experiments, they ended up with new torture manuals based on “science.”

This opening chapter is clearly emotionally charged, but Klein attempts to connect the dots with her two “shock doctors,” Cameron and Friedman. “Countries are shocked—by wars, terror attacks, coups d’état and natural disasters,” she writes. Then “they are shocked again—by corporations and politicians who exploit the fear and disorientation of this first shock to push through economic shock therapy.” People who resist are shocked for a third time, “by police, soldiers and prison interrogators.”

Klein argues that Friedmanian free market rules do exactly what they were designed to do: they don’t create a perfectly harmonious economy, complete with the much-lauded “trickle-down” effect, but rather, turn the already wealthy into the super-rich and the organized working class into the disposable poor. Further, she describes these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, like war, as exciting marketing opportunities or “disaster capitalism.”

Monday Magazine recently spoke with Naomi Klein while she was on a book tour in Calgary. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Monday Magazine: Milton Friedman wrote: “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” What went through your mind when you came across that?

Naomi Klein: That line certainly took on more meaning the more I researched. At first, I didn’t know enough about the crises in the 1980s and ’90s, so I just made a mental note. Later, when I had made the connection, it was really unsettling because Friedman wrote that in 1982, after Chile and Argentina. He had failed to persuade Nixon about the benefits of crisis economics and was really disenchanted with the whole democracy thing and voting [laughs].

MM: What was your “a-ha” moment with Cameron’s experiments and what you were seeing reporting from the field?

NK: There was not just one a-ha, but a lot of pieces clicking together. With the Kubark—a 128-page CIA torture manual from the early 1960s—and the sensory deprivation, stress positions, you can’t help but think of Abu Ghraib. You see the pictures. Whereas in the 1980s there was no context for understanding where modern torture practices came from, with Iraq, now we have context . . . I had the help of a great many researchers who helped to tighten and strengthen my thesis, who all contributed to many little “a-ha” moments.

MM: All right, with your thesis, where is the line between conspiracy theory and informed analysis?

NK: [pauses and sighs] Conspiracy is speculation and informed analysis is reporting. There is a lot of debate around this book. I recognize that it’s contested terrain. But I consider the conspiracy label a political smear and an attempt not to deal with the issues. Any claims I’ve made are backed by technocratic literature, by Friedman, by Michael Bruno, a senior economist at the World Bank. The World Bank and IMF had all of this exploration of the intersection between crisis and economic transition, versus the official story that people in these countries desired or somehow demanded deregulation and privatization. There will be more crashes, more infrastructure weaknesses and this makes for a recipe for disaster. It’s not cooked up. They’re just looking for their moments to pounce.

MM: So then what’s new in this book? Wouldn’t the average person, reading a daily newspaper, say, “Look, I already know this?”

NK: [pauses] Well, that’s why it’s resonating. It’s screaming in [people’s] faces. I wrote about disaster capitalism a few months before the levees broke. So, I’m saying let’s start where we are now. Yes, it’s headline news. It’s straight from the headlines. [But] it’s not just that the White House has been hijacked by a bunch of crazy people . . . this has been going on for a long time. We make ourselves more shock-resistant by knowing our history.

MM: “Shock wears off.” What do you mean by that?

NK: Shock is temporary. People can get used to anything, but shock wears off. At the end of the book I talk about the former shock labs—Thailand, New Orleans, Latin America—coming out of shock. We have this Hollywood version of how things change and happen. Shock wears off, but not when you expect it, like at the clean moment of liberation . . . shock labs live with the legacy of fear for years after. Just because you have the vote and democracy doesn’t mean you aren’t terrified. Look at the United States. Look at Tiananmen Square; it was the ultimate expression of shock as a use of social control. [The authorities] were willing to do anything, even in front of the eyes of the world. It was a complete breaking of the social contract. China in essence said, “We are crazy enough to do this.” Look at what’s just happened in Burma. “Shock and awe” has failed in Iraq because that society is over-shocked.

MM: In the short film you collaborated on with Alfonso Cuarón about the doctrine of shock, we see the actual words—but only implied in the book—“Information is shock resistance. Arm yourself.” What do you mean by that?

NK: I mean that shock is a disorienting strategy. You need to know what’s happening to you, how shock works, so it stops working when you have a narrative. That’s why they keep prisoners apart or in isolation, so they don’t talk to each other. Stripping a prisoner naked is like stripping an individual of his narrative. But if you understand it, you can stay sane in these moments.

MM: This sounds like you have plans for an extremely large print-run. If No Logo was called a “movement bible,” are you saying this book needs to be in the hands of every single activist everywhere in the world?

NK: [laughs] Well . . . it’s resonating. It’s a different moment than No Logo. It’s more sober. People want to learn from their mistakes and do better . . . I have an Iranian friend who spent eight years in prison, eight months in an isolation box for her left-wing views. She couldn’t stand up or lie down. Eight months of that, listening to a constant barrage of Islamic propaganda. But she didn’t break because she told herself, over and over again, “This is why they’re doing this to me. They have to do this to me.” She was only 18, too. That’s the information that we use to arm ourselves, to protect ourselves . . . I’m in Calgary, right? So last night I told an audience there that Shock Doctrine is really a how-to guide for getting rid of their class of disaster capitalists [laughs]. They applauded that.

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