July 21, 2008


Dead Left: a review of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism By Naomi Klein (Jonathan Chait, July 30, 2008, New Republic)

Her achievement, and it is no small feat, has been to revive economicism--and more grandiosely, materialism--as the central locus of left-wing politics.

From the time of Marx, and through the Depression, the left concerned itself primarily with economic inequality. The analysis of injustice in terms of class conflict and the forces of production was the canonical one. But the postwar boom--the authors of the Port Huron Statement famously described themselves as "bred in at least modest comfort"--turned the left's attention to foreign policy and national security in the Cold War, and to civil rights, and to feminism. By the 1980s, left-wing politics had withdrawn almost entirely into academia and other liberal enclaves, which it ruthlessly policed for any dissent from the verities of multiculturalist dogma and identity politics.

This evolution can be seen in Klein's own family. Her grandfather was a Marxist fired by Disney in 1941 for trying to organize animators. Her father fled the United States for Canada to avoid service in Vietnam, and joined Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her mother directed the anti-pornography film Not a Love Story. And Naomi Klein, like most campus leftists of the 1980s, directed her ideological energies toward the denouncing of various -isms within academia. (She later recalled, with admirable remorse, that she was known as "Miss P.C.") [...]

The Shock Doctrine has a single, uncomplicated explanation for everything that ails us. It identifies the fundamental driving force of the last three decades to be the worldwide spread of free-market absolutism as it was formulated by Milton Friedman and the department of economics at the University of Chicago. The free marketers, Klein argues, understand full well that the public does not support their policies, which she summarizes as "the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations and skeletal social spending." And so they have decided that the free-market program can be implemented only when the public has been disoriented by wars, coups, natural disasters, and the like. The "shock doctrine" is the conservative plan to implement pro-corporate policies through the imposition and exploitation of mass trauma. [...]

The notion that crises create fertile terrain for political change, far from being a ghoulish doctrine unique to free-market radicals, is a banal and ideologically universal fact. (Indeed, it began its dubious modern career in the orbit of Marxism, where it was known as "sharpening the contradictions.") Entrenched interests and public opinion tend to run against sweeping reform, good or bad, during times of peace and prosperity. Liberals could not have enacted the New Deal without the Great Depression. [...]

Klein locates the beginnings of the shock doctrine in Chile, where in 1973 a military coup led by Pinochet displaced a democratically elected socialist government, and implemented economic policies urged upon him by Friedman and other Chicago School free-marketers. Chile offers the closest example of a case study that fits Klein's thesis. But even here the facts do not fit quite as tightly as she would like. Through most of her narrative, Klein depicts Pinochet as a pure puppet of Friedman. "For the first year and a half," she writes, "Pinochet faithfully followed the Chicago rules." But a half-dozen pages later, while explaining away the impressive economic growth that followed under Pinochet, she writes that "it's clear that Chile never was the laboratory of 'pure' free markets that its cheerleaders claimed."

In fact, Chile under Pinochet (roughly contemporaneously with New Zealand) ended up pioneering the Third Way rather than free market absolutism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 21, 2008 2:25 PM
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