Naomi Klein

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This Changes Everything
Capitalism Vs. The Climate
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
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September 15: Toronto September 16: Montreal September 18: New York

Crooks & Liars Book of the Month: The Shock Doctrine

Mark Groubert, Crooks and Liars, January 19, 2008

Men like Jonas Salk, Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover, these men thrive upon the continuance of segregation, violence, and disease. The purity they dost protest a need for, they dost feed upon. Thank You, Masked Man.
- Lenny Bruce


A divinely inspired work, Naomi Klein has tapped into the zeitgeist of modern day destruction capitalism. In 400-plus pages and extensive footnotes, she melts the myths surrounding the so-called global free market. Apparently, it is neither global, nor free and anything but a market. The Shock Doctrine, based on her historical research, and four years of boots-on-the-ground investigation by Klein, reveals the shocking truth that connects Pinochet’s Chile, the Falklands War, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Asian financial crisis and Hurricane Mitch all in terms of rapid fire corporate restructuring of these societies and their economies. Along the way, we go through Poland following communism, South Africa after apartheid, Sri Lanka recovering from the tsunami, Iraq after mission accomplished and New Orleans’ privatization post Katrina.

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The Shock Doctrine reads like an economic disaster film, Die Hard With a Calculator, if you will. Its antagonist is the late economist Milton Friedman and his gang of Chicago Boys, economic free marketeers trained by the University of Chicago to spread their gospel to an unreceptive and reluctant world.

Friedman argued that “only a crisis – actual or perceived –produces real change.” The shocking truth is that most of the world’s economists now believe this. (He was given a Nobel Prize to make sure of the fact.)

At first you won’t believe this parallel history laid out by Klein and then later, near the end of the book, you will be unable to see the world in any other way than through the prism of Shock. It is the political equivalent of reading Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky for the first time. Whole swaths of recent history have been reinterpreted for the reader, who if you are like me, will be stunned that the connections hold up so solidly.

Klein flawlessly fuses the political torture of shock therapy with the economic torture of the shock doctrine. One of her themes is that these two techniques which originally operated on separate tracks, have now merged into one super runaway train.

Somehow global free market capitalism has become the new economic eugenics movement. How the hell did we get here?

In the 1950s an American psychiatrist by the name of Ewen Cameron performed barbaric experiments on thousands of unsuspecting patients at McGill University in Montreal. His theory was that massive amounts of shock therapy, LSD, paralyzing drugs and sensory deprivation combined for long periods of time, could strip the human mind of all its knowledge, memory and emotion leaving it as a clean slate on which he could implant new information. Aka: brainwashing. He placed his patients into drug-induced comas for months on end shocking them with 30-40 times the normal power of electroconvulsive charges.

Cameron had gotten the idea for these ghastly experiments following his involvement in the so-called Doctor’s Trials – the Nuremberg war crime tribunals for the Nazi doctors held following WWII. Ironically, he was sent by the U.S. Army to sit in judgment of the medical crimes performed by the German doctors. Ironic, because as a secret operative for the OSS, Cameron himself was involved in scientific work during the war. We learned later that Dr. Cameron, along with British intelligence, was involved in the extensive interrogation of Nazi Rudolph Hess, who many felt was mentally incapacitated by his interrogators.

Cameron, fascinated by these techniques, decided to continue them upon his return to North America. Working at Albany State Medical School, Cameron carried out his heinous experiments just north of the border in Montreal to avoid U.S. law. For the record, this was not some rogue medical quack. This was not a college student like Josef Mengele had been at Frankfurt University. Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron was one of the most famous doctors in the world. He was President of the American Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and the President of the World Psychiatric Association.

We now know that Cameron’s experiments, from 1957 – 1964, were paid for by the CIA and later became part of Project MKULTRA, the CIA-directed mind control program. (In 2004, 77 of these victims received cash settlements from the government of Canada.) This led to the publication of the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual used throughout South and Central America in the 1970s and 80s to help repressive regimes implement the economic policies of the Chicago Boys. With the help of right wing ideologues like Bush advisor Elliot Abrams, (alleged torture tape destroyer) Jose Rodriguez Jr., the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, and the British-born son of a Greek shipping tycoon named John Negroponte, listed on paper at the time as the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, the Central American regimes implemented the KUBARK program with ruthless efficiency.

In fact, many members of these regimes learned how to torture while enrolled at the School of the Americas located at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Today, we find the pages of this program dog-eared in the torture facilities of Guantanamo Bay and other CIA black sites around the world.

The blunt reality is that the American government tortures in our name every single day all around the world. (The so-called good German may have a modern day counterpart in the Americal liberal.)

In Chile in 1973, the CIA and US economic interests combined to topple the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and help install General Augusto Pinochet. Milton Friedman and his capitalist cronies seized the opportunity to try out their economic theories on an actual country for the first time. But according to Friedman’s theories, the collective memories of Chile would first have to be wiped clean by physical and economic shock therapy. Repression, financially and socially, was harsh and heavy. It took Chile decades to recover.

Klein takes us off-road through Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, El Salvador and Nicaragua. All the techniques are the same. Just the names are different. Military takeover, repression, forced capitalism, more repression. The results are the same. Hyper inflation, massive reduction in social services, elimination of democracy, immense wealth for a tiny elite.

The shock doctrine is shown taking hold in Poland, South Africa and even China, the perfect host as their state repression is already in place.

Klein shows the repeated pattern of hollowing out governments, selling off its resources, cutting off social programs, enriching the rich, and then enforcing it all with guns.

The post-disaster versions of the shock doctrine are possibly the cruelest of all. Klein shows that money directed toward tsunami relief in Sri Lanka is redirected to the construction of luxury hotels for the tourist industry. Its victims, fisherman and their families, are forced inland to makeshift camps where they are left to survive without access to their generational livelihoods.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is examined through the lens of disaster capitalism. From Yeltsin to the rise of the oligarchs to the ascent of Putin, the end of the Soviet Union has never been that closely examined. Klein lays out the scenario of the feeding frenzy following the fall of the Wall with numbers to back it up. In 1998 Boris Yeltsin’s approval rating fell to 6%. As this drunken bear was impeached and stumbled repeatedly on television, he was continually propped up by political capitalists in the West (including Bill Clinton), who salivated over the industrial wealth of the former Soviet state machinery.

Over 2 billion dollars a month in Russian wealth was moved out of the country. Billion dollar companies were sold for millions. Yukos, the massive oil company with more oil than all of Kuwait, was sold for 300 million bucks. (It grossed 3 billion a year in revenue prior to the sale.) In 1989, there were 2 million Russians below the poverty line. By the mid-90s, there were 74 million. 3.5 million children were homeless. (There were none recorded under the Soviets.) From 1994-2004 drug use has gone up 900% and alcoholism has since doubled. In 1995, there were fifty thousand people who were HIV positive. In 2005, there were one million reported cases.

Like its former client state Iraq who suffered under Saddam, the media mantra was repeated. “You don’t want to go back to Stalin, do you?”

Indeed for many, the answer, while under their collective breath, was yes.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Jeffrey Sachs, the hot young economist, called for a Marshall Plan to help prevent that nation’s descent into chaos and fascism. None of those pleas were answered. In fact, Sachs was laughed at. “The IMF just stared me down like I was crazy,” he said.

It was explained to Sachs that the whole point of the Marshall Plan, the massive post war aid to rebuild Germany, was because of the Soviet Union. Now that it was dead, who the hell needs a Marshall Plan?

West Germany was set up as a model capitalist state to drive a stake into the heart of socialism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the floor model was no longer necessary. The showcase home was not needed to sell other homes. In other words, the competition was gone. Macy’s had driven Gimbels out of business.

As long as there was a Soviet Union, there was a Gimbels and Macy’s had to offer more to attract customers. As soon as the Soviet Union went under, Macy’s was the only department store left in the world so it didn’t have to offer massive sales any longer. Nor for that matter, did it have to offer benefits, pensions, job security or health insurance.

Without Gimbels, Macy’s didn’t have to kiss customer ass any longer.

Macy’s grew colder. Less hospitable. Lazier. More arrogant.

Macy’s became the embittered divorcee that now lives alone, sleeps late, doesn’t shave and drinks a lot.

If I get really rank with the clerk, I walk. What can the guy do at Gimbels? He can always reject me from that store. But I can always go to Macy’s. Communism is like one big phone company. If I get too rank with that phone company, where can I go? I’ll end up like a schmuck with a Dixie cup with a thread: ’Hello, hello, hellooooooo.’
Lenny Bruce, 1959

Wow, if Lenny were alive today. He’d drop dead.

(Some of you may be too young to remember how polite the phone company got when Ma Bell was finally broken up into Baby Bells and they had to compete for your financial affection?)

I have made the argument for years that many of the world’s current political ills have been caused by the immense power vacuum left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This vacuum has been metaphorically filled by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which for better or worse, was being repressively dealt with by the Soviets over the past fifty years. Afghanistan’s resistance changed all that. The ripples were felt all the way back to Moscow and surfing that wave was Osama bin Laden. Obviously, bin Laden is a minor military foe compared to the mighty Soviet Empire, but with the vacuum he’s the new Fidel.

See, its one thing to have a threatening enemy, but with the Soviet Union, it was also a threatening enemy economy. There is no Islamic militant economy, so they are merely a military threat. (And one without thousands of ballistic missiles for that matter.) This scenario while dangerous, is something that disaster capitalism can actually profit from.

Gimbels was a huge economic threat to Macy’s. They challenged Macy’s very existence as a department store. In the grand theme of things, the Islamic militants are merely the shoplifters.

What Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism, I have referred to in recent years as Darwinian capitalism. Without the Soviet Union, capitalism was suddenly free to lapse into its more savage form. The survival of the fittest economic system. It trickles down to the corporate workplace where the guy in the next cubicle is your enemy. It is he you have to overcome. He who stands in the way of your raise. Your promotion. Your kid’s college tuition. Your co-worker is your enemy under Darwinian capitalism. You must destroy him if you are to survive in the economic jungle.

Today, it is indeed the survival of the fittest.

As Michael Fleischer, Paul Bremer’s deputy stated when he addressed a group of Iraqi businessmen, “Will you be overwhelmed by foreign businesses? The answer depends on you. Only the best of you will survive.”

In the end, we need a new Soviet Union. Possibly the European Union can get muscular and help keep us in check.

Lord knows we need it.

Buy this book. Steal this book. Somehow get this book. Do whatever you have to do, but Read This Book.

It just might save the world.

A WGA screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he currently writes for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications while on strike.

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