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The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

by Naomi Klein

In Dr. Seuss’s story “The Sneetches,” the star-bellied Sneetches discriminate against those plain-bellied Sneetches with “none upon thars.” That is, until arch-capitalist Sylvester Monkey McBean rolls into town with a machine that puts stars on the bellies of Sneetches. Once all the Sneetches are with star, McBean produces a machine to remove them, starting a vicious cycle that continues until his pockets are lined and the Sneetches finally decide to look past their own bellies.

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein’s much-anticipated follow-up to No Logo, is, like “The Sneetches,” about capitalists being capitalists. The Sylvester McBean of Klein’s story is Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning neo-liberal economist from the University of Chicago, and his many acolytes, who spent the last half-century implementing their often destructive version of economic reform in virtually every corner of the globe, promising prosperity but producing mainly profits for rich multinationals.

Klein brings a new perspective to what is otherwise common knowledge. She shows how Friedman and other economists from the Chicago School, along with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the CIA, the U.S. government, and other, primarily American, business interests, largely succeeded in remaking the economic world order. To ensure the success of the project, these forces enlisted brutal dictators or coerced elected leaders to create crises – whether financial or political – that would allow free-market types to more easily implement their program of downsizing and deregulation.

Klein’s argument is most compelling when she brings The Shock Doctrine into the more recent past, incorporating the events of 9/11, the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and even last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah conflict into her narrative. However, the considerable attention she gives to the torture techniques used during the horrific experiments carried out on psychiatric patients at McGill University in the 1940s and ’50s is unwarranted, since the subject seems only tenuously connected to her central topic, and is given too much space, especially in a book that already comes in at 561 pages, not including copious footnotes and eight (!) pages of acknowledgements.

Fans of No Logo are very likely to enjoy this book. The Shock Doctrine confirms that Klein, much like those Chicago School economists, has developed a successful formula. Collect facts and quotes found mostly in stories from the popular media (and the occasional academic publication). Toss in a few interviews and some vividly reported anecdotes. And then piece it all together to reveal a big picture that others seem to have missed.

Another major part of Klein’s appeal is her unique approach to writing a very political text. This book is definitely a polemic, but it somehow seems more serious than other similar titles. She doesn’t try to score cheap points by making jokes at the expense of the neo-conservatives or questioning the intelligence of those who practice this shock doctrine. Instead she methodically lays out her case, like a boxer trying to wear down his opponent with 12 rounds of stiff jabs. This is underscored by an almost frighteningly unwavering sense of right and wrong. There is no equivocating in The Shock Doctrine. Klein offers no possible alternate explanations for anything, which is itself a little shocking considering the scope of her theory. And there is little mention, and virtually no criticism, of what the left did or did not do to try to stop all of this from happening time and again.

Perhaps Klein’s best quality is her timeliness. No Logo helped define the anti-globalization movement that had its heyday with the Battle for Seattle but was largely forgotten after 9/11. Now, The Shock Doctrine plainly explains our current circumstances and how we got here.

In the last chapters of the book, Klein points out that significant change seems to be occurring: South America, led by the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, is starting to reject the neo-colonial influence of international financial institutions; working people affected by the tsunami are starting to fight to reclaim their land in Thailand; and in Iraq, the war appears ready to collapse under the weight of runaway profiteering (catalogued by Klein) and the U.S.’s inability to stop the counterinsurgency.

What the book lacks is any real sense of what could be next. What happens when all of the Sneetches have the stars on their bellies erased?