Reyhan Harmanci, San Francisco Chronicle
, September 26, 2007
Crisis has always been a catalyst for change, but these days "shock and awe" seems to have become a key facet of U.S. policy. In the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, it's easy to see how trauma can impair critical assessment of public policy.
Moving from examples of electroshock therapy on individuals to the larger way violence can stun a nation into a similar state of confusion and docility, critic, economist and author Naomi Klein ("No Logo") lays out a case for what she terms shock doctrine, which is the title of her new book.
Klein defines shock doctrine as "the use of public disorientation following massive collective shocks - wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters - to push through highly unpopular economic shock therapy." She weaves together a history of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman-inspired economic events of the past half-century or so, showing how the shock doctrine was tried in Latin American countries such as Chile and Argentina, and in situations such as the Falklands War, which led to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's subsequent success in pushing through her controversial economic reforms. Klein then discusses the Iraq war in relation to incidences of collective shock - and comes up with alarming conclusions about the consequences of "disaster capitalism."
Klein, though, didn't set out to name a new doctrine. "It was actually a pretty backwards process," Klein says in a phone interview from Boston. "I ended up writing a different book than I set out to do."
In the course of researching a book about Iraq, Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Klein dug into the history of free market economies. "I didn't come to the theory of the shock doctrine until I was well in and reading about what I thought had been a peaceful period," she says. "I came across this cache of literature by high-level economists at the World Bank, and in these technocratic documents there were transcripts of conferences and internal World Bank policy." In these documents, a line of thinking emerged about the benefits of implementing unfettered capitalistic economic policy in the wake of a crisis.
The multiple uses of shock turned out to extend further than Klein had initially thought. What works for a nation also works on a person, and vice versa. "When I started doing research about '50s interrogation techniques, to understand the shock metaphor, that research was less metaphorical than I thought," she says. "But (Susan) Sontag's teachings show that language and metaphors that people choose are important. ... If you're casting yourself in the role of a chemo or shock therapist, something dangerous is going on."
"Economists are really upset at me, though, for taking their metaphors seriously," she says. Yet "The Shock Doctrine" makes the case that people should pay attention to what their leaders are doing and saying in a disaster, otherwise when the shock wears off, they may find laws changed and precedents made in unfamiliar, unpopular and undemocratic ways.