Shock Doc

by Susan G. Cole

Naomi Klein has a remedy for the injustices of neo-liberal policies. Read her new book and call your member of parliament in the morning. It’s not easy talking about the excesses of capitalism, even when you’ve got an army of facts to back you up and a reputation for having inspired an entire generation to take up activism against global capital’s greedy excesses.

Naomi Klein has a remedy for the injustices of neo-liberal policies. Read her new book and call your member of parliament in the morning. It’s not easy talking about the excesses of capitalism, even when you’ve got an army of facts to back you up and a reputation for having inspired an entire generation to take up activism against global capital’s greedy excesses.

As Naomi Klein tells it, people aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to celebrate the release of her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Random House). Things have been particularly nasty in the U.K.

“It’s been brutal in Britain,” she tells me on the phone from Edmonton, where she’s promoting the book. “The response has been really dismissive there—a lot of men of a certain age acting like I spoiled the party. Even the lefties are furious. But I just got a fan letter from Harold Pinter this morning, so I’m feeling a lot better.”

She should take some heart from the fact that her new release is a jaw-dropping accomplishment. Its stunning premise uses shock therapy as a metaphor to describe how massive corporate privatization has been imposed all over the world. The book starts in Montreal, where Klein encounters a victim of the original shock therapy experiments conducted by Dr. Ewan Cameron in the 1950s. The CIA-funded Cold War-era experiments, conducted on unwitting Canadian psychiatric patients, used electroshock treatment in an attempt to erase a person’s whole personality, with a view towards recreating that person from scratch.

Klein takes that process of shock and applies it to Latin America in the 1970s, where state repression put entire populations into such a state of paralysis that they couldn’t react to governments’ decisions to sell over entire economies. She goes on to apply the metaphor in impressive ways—to South Africa when the ANC took power, to Lech Walesa’s Poland, to Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and to parts of Asia in the late ’90s.

In each case, various shocks made the populace compliant. A recent example comes out of the post-9/11 U.S., when U.S. President George W. Bush used the terrorist attacks to build a labyrinth of private security companies that have made huge amounts of money while trampling all over citizens’ civil rights.

Or consider post-tsunami Thailand, where a devastated population was left helpless to fight the removal of local fishers from the beaches and subsequently witnessed the ensconcing of high-end tourist traps in the area. Post-Katrina New Orleans saw the impact of the shock doctrine, too, when its public education system was decimated and replaced by charter schools.

Klein’s research is staggering. The army of facts harnessed to prove her thesis is wholly persuasive and her thesis is enough to fill any reader with outrage. We knew Klein was smart—No Logo and its ability to bring millions to a new consciousness about globalization proved that much.

But Shock Doctrine takes Klein to new places. She’s gone after individuals—specifically, economic theorist Milton Friedman and his University of Chicago acolytes. Friedman preached that very limited government intervention and absolutely free markets created rich social dividends. His views on taxation and deregulation influenced governments around the world, including the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Klein is going on this kind of attack in a climate dominated by men.

"It’s such a male world that I’m in, that I’m writing about and debating in,” she observes. “Being a woman within it is a double-edged sword. Certainly, there have been personal pieces written about me that wouldn’t have been written about older male economists.

Sometimes they’re dismissive. A headline in one of the British papers read: ‘Miss Angry’s Brand New Target.’ I definitely feel that the gender dynamic has been used to trivialize the work. But it can work both ways—being young and a woman makes me threatening, but it also makes me more appealing at the same time.”

One of the mysteries surrounding the right’s academic henchmen is their motivation. Unlike the Donald Rumsfelds and Dick Cheneys of the world, they don’t personally profit from the agenda they proscribe. Klein doesn’t speculate on what drives them, but she’s quick to point out their contradictions.

“There’s a willingness there to sit down and say nothing when Republicans intervene with massive corporate welfare, for example. So the so-called ideologues don’t have the same enthusiasm for critiquing a regime that’s driving up the deficit.” You can trace the roots of the ideas of other bona fide ideologues, she points out. “Ayn Rand’s dad’s property was seized. Milton Friedman’s mentor, Friedrich van Hayek, had a personal history, so he equated Naziism with big government.”

She is prepared to say that one of the core problems with neo-liberal ideology is that it doesn’t factor humans into the equation. “Friedman was asked, when it came to the dictatorships in South America, whether a free market was worth the pain,” she recalls. “And he responded: ‘That’s a silly question.’”

You can tell that a book’s going to hit hard when it pisses off both the right and the left, and Klein admits she’s losing allies of all political stripes. But actually, her work does more than challenge pre-existing political dichotomies. It rewrites the political map. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is a Communist government in Russia, a worker-run state in Poland, the fascist Pinochet regime in Chile or Bush in America—they’re all susceptible to the doctrine. Different kinds of shocks—be they political oppression, or natural disasters, or terrorist attacks—pave the way for drastic actions by governments that promote economic private interests at the expense of citizens.

Even Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress gets heat for neglecting the implications of allowing South Africa’s economy to be hollowed out by private business interests Klein’s got the entire political spectrum covered. One of the more startling elements of The Shock Doctrine is Klein’s criticism of Amnesty International. We’ve heard criticisms of Amnesty before—human rights scholar Catharine MacKinnon has complained that Amnesty has refused to look at systemic violence against women because those violations did not specifically meet the organization’s mandate to take on state oppression. However, Klein has a different criticism.

“The neo-liberals (the term used to describe the theories of Friedmanites) refer to their privatization policies as ‘technical,’ separating monetary policy from the reach of politicians,” explains Klein. “Human rights groups do something similar, by working to legalize rights … without looking at the why behind policies. It’s not a sinister plot. Amnesty had to prove its neutrality, so they make a point of adopting cases equally from within totalitarian and communist governments, so they wouldn’t get sucked into the ideological warfare.

It’s just like the way anti-war protesters don’t like to talk about the economic issues behind wars, because they don’t want to alienate people in the peace movement. So, we’re still living with that legacy.” While women’s issues per se are not the focus of The Shock Doctrine, the relevance of Klein’s theory to women’s lives is clear. Women suffer more when economies are privatized and governments reduced. I

n Klein’s analysis of the monetary crisis in Asia, for example, she makes an important link between the shock doctrine and the rise of sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. In 1997, after the full-fledged economic depression sank in, the International Monetary Fund came in and the forced governments of Thailand and Cambodia to adopt policies that eviscerated their economies, throwing the poor into even greater poverty. That’s why, Klein says, families started to sell off their daughters.

“These are human disasters that rarely leave the business pages,” she laments. “We need to hear these human stories. The 1997 crash in East Asia was the equivalent to the Great Depression and was created by a run on currencies. Alan Greenspan (former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve) saw this as an opportunity to push his agenda onto East Asia, which resulted in a fire sale of the countries’ financial assets. “I want to talk about what it means to put a country through this kind of shock. There was a lot of scapegoating of the Chinese in these populations. There were more rapes of Chinese women, explosive growth in the sex trade and an unprecedented rise in human trafficking.”

Typical of the disconnect between economic policies, human rights abuses and the experiences of real people was the behaviour of Madeleine Albright (then U.S. secretary of state) when she came to visit Thailand. “She had two agendas,” says Klein. “One was to cheer on the banking sector and the other was to lecture the village people on the perils of prostitution and drug use.”

Carting Klein’s powerful ideas on a promotional tour is not without its challenges. Our interview took place just as she emerged from a stint in the U.S. promoting the book. “It was an exciting experience,” she assures me, when I express worry over how the U.S. media treated her. “It showed that it’s possible to do an end run of the mainstream media and still get the word out. I only talked to Democracy Now, The Nation and The Huffington Post, and the book still made the New York Times’ extended best-seller list.

“But it’s been frustrating, too. I’m happy to be nourishing those people who need to be fuelled—I have no problems preaching to the choir—but this is a contested book, and I really wanted debate. And that hasn’t happened. As far as reviews are concerned, it’s only been given to men to review, and that drives me crazy.”

Ask Klein a question and words and concepts flow freely in accessible ways. That’s amazing, given that economics can be hopelessly dry. But when I ask her about her stardom, she takes a deep breath, and the pause before the answer is longer.

“Stardom—it’s a strange word. This is about politics, not celebrity. What I’m doing is so much more contested territory than anything having to do with celebrity. I do feel a responsibility to take this forum while I have it—the clock’s running out on it. I’m being given space to talk about capitalism, and that freaks everybody out.” It does help that she has a supportive family.

Her mother, Bonnie Sherr Klein, is a celebrated feminist filmmaker and an activist for people with disabilities; her father, Michael Klein, is a physician involved with Doctors without Borders. Her in-laws only expand her political pedigree. Her father-in-law is Stephen Lewis, the former ambassador to the United Nations, who most recently was special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and her mother-in-law is the well-known and much-loved feminist Michele Landsberg. But it’s husband Avi Lewis that Klein credits for getting her through the gruelling process of getting the word about The Shock Doctrine out into the world.

Male writers always have a support system for doing this kind of work, she tells me. “I have a rare husband who put his career on hold to tour with me. He’s taken three months off. Most women don’t have that. That’s why there are so few women doing what I’m doing. It’s not that I’m so special.” Klein’s The Shock Doctrine may be completely convincing, but I don’t believe that last statement for a second. For more information on Disaster Capitalism, check out