The Shock Doctrine

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Naomi Klein Has Her Enemies

Finlo Rohrer, BBC News Magazine, September 13, 2007

Having made her name in the vanguard of the anti-globalisation movement, the writer and activist is now taking on "disaster capitalism", and looking to an older audience.

That most august journal the Economist has chosen to do battle with her in the past. In 2002 it described her as having all the "incoherence and self-righteous disgust of the alienated adolescent".

Venture into the blogosphere and there are more vitriolic views. On one message board she is dismissed as suffering "mindlessness and intellectual sloth" and of pandering to "elitist commies who want us all living in cubicles, not owning motor vehicles and eating government-provided tofu".

Klein's 2000 work No Logo is the reason for the fuss. A monster seller, it brought a left-wing take on the economics of globalisation to an audience that often didn't venture into the business pages of the paper. In the dying days of the last millennium, Seattle was gripped by protests against a World Trade Organization meeting that saw Gap and Starbucks outlets destroyed and police clashing with activists.

No Logo - a critique of branding and the role multinationals were playing in poor labour conditions in the Third World - was published soon afterwards and read by those hoping to understand more about the phenomenon dubbed "anti-globalisation".

Now Klein is about to release The Shock Doctrine. Its central theory is controversial. There is a rapacious section of capitalism that is seeking out disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the chaos of the Iraq war to push its neo-liberal economic ideology and make "superprofits" by radical privatisation at the same time.

"It's the story of how crises and disasters have midwifed the modern free market. But that's not really fair to midwives," Klein jokes.

'Don't call me a...'

Dressed in a sombre jacket and jeans, Klein, as many have observed previously, bears little resemblance to the foot soldiers of the movement that adopted No Logo as its bible. If it were a case of storming the gates of capitalism, she seems like someone who might knock first. The Economist's description of a "part pop star, part crusader" does not ring true.

"I'm not much of a celebrity figure. I don't go to parties or do stunts," Klein insists. Much has been written about her roots in Canada, of her activist grandparents and parents, and of her early love of the trappings of the consumerist society. But she would much rather be known for her work than her personality.

"For No Logo I was thinking about younger readers, 19, 20 years old, who are becoming politically aware. I wanted to give them the facts and figures and arguments to back them up. I'm not writing for such a young audience any more although I'm determined not to lose that readership.

"I don't feel my work is polemical. People like to call me a polemicist because it makes it easier to dismiss."

In the era when the mainstream media is increasingly held to account by bloggers as much as anybody, Klein wants to stress that all of the research and documents for the book will be put online. It seems unlikely that this will stop the bloggers subjecting her work to a frisking, but she is undaunted.

"There is a healthy exchange between right-wing and left-wing blogs. I get attacked and people defend me. What right-wing bloggers say about me doesn't concern me."

What does concern her is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Tsunami damage in Sri Lanka and Thailand, the rise of the Russian oligarchy, war in Lebanon and the political upheavals in South America.

They are all examples, Klein insists, of opportunities being seized by right-wing academics and businessmen to impose radical economic restructuring, through privatisation and other neo-liberal reform, on shocked communities.

Inspiration in e-mail

A group e-mail sent to activists in the wake of the tsunami inspired the book, she says.

"He described how the shock of the disaster was being exploited by international lenders and the US State Department and the national government in Sri Lanka to move the coastal people into inland camps and hand the coast over to developers."

It followed on from an essay dealing with allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the reconstruction of Iraq.

"In Iraq I saw this interplay between three distinct forms of shock, the shock and awe invasion, the economic shock therapy imposed by Paul Bremer and the shock of torture which was used to get the country in line when it began rebelling.

"[Corruption allegations were] just a parade of seemingly unconnected scandals that are forever written off as incompetence, maybe greed, and that's one of the main goals of the book, to take this serial scandal culture and put it in a stronger analytical framework.

"It is never presented within a context of this being a natural result of an ideological programme of rampant outsourcing."

The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who died in 2006, features heavily in the book. Described by some as the defining economist of the post-war era, his teaching at the University of Chicago inspired a generation of economists to try and bring free market policies to South America, as well as heavily influencing both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

He believed free market capitalism and democracy were inextricably linked and advocated stagnant economies the world over must be reformed and opened up to rigorous competition for the benefit of their citizens. It seems unlikely he was a fan of Klein's work.

But to supporters and opponents alike, Klein has a final plea.

"I just want to share this information, I don't want to rant."

Jacket Cover