By Chris Nineham
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The Shock Doctrine

This article is over 14 years, 9 months old
Naomi Klein talks about her new book with Chris Nineham and discusses some of the controversies it has raised.
Issue 318

The Shock Doctrine shows in chilling detail how the free market has been backed up with violence over the last 30 years. I suspect it has stirred up a debate already.

It would have been silly of me to spend four years writing a book the thesis of which is, “This is a war, this is a very real battle and there are very real casualties” and then think that the book would be greeted with applause and pats on the head.

There have been lots of misrepresentations. It has been called a polemic and a conspiracy theory, when the truth is it is based on extensive research and all of my claims come from admissions from the players themselves. I have nothing against polemic but this isn’t one.

On the other hand, my activist friends have been excited to see how often the word “capitalism” has been appearing in the mainstream press. It’s an ideology so dominant that it’s invisible.

I did an interview for the BBC World Service and they brought on Otto Reich – a high-up official in the Bush administration who did terrible things in Latin America – and they introduced him as “pro-capitalist Otto Reich”, which I’m sure is a first for him. So though it’s too early to tell how this is all shaking down there are some interesting things happening.

There are three central arguments in your book. One is that the free market tends to create instability; two is that it thrives on instability and shock; and three, perhaps the most controversial argument, is that the high priests of neoliberalism sometimes orchestrate shock and instability.

There is a tremendous ease and comfort with crises among those high priests you’re referring to. I don’t actually think that they sit and plan crises, but they absolutely don’t try to stop them. You can see that from the relaxed attitude about fixing the levees in New Orleans or the actions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during the Asian financial crisis.

The architects of the Iraq invasion did believe they would be greeted with flowers, but I also believe they knew there was the possibility they would not and that they were comfortable with both outcomes – which is to say that they rigged the war so that they couldn’t lose.

Capitalism has a history of disaster and catastrophe of various kinds. What do you feel is new about the current period and the rise of disaster capitalism?

It is less about saying this is a new policy, more an alternative history of the rise of the dominant ideology of our time.

Neoliberalism is a particular evolution of capitalism and we happen to be living with a lie about how this ideology spread around the globe. And it’s a very corrosive lie. The story goes that the Berlin Wall collapsed and everybody wanted their Reaganomics along with their Big Macs. The way in which the story has been told has cleansed the shocks, the violence and the crises from the story.

I wanted to put them back, partly to say to my allies on the left that we should not be apologetic about our alternatives. The flip side of the claim that neoliberalism swept the globe peacefully is the claim that socialism was defeated peacefully and democratically, and it wasn’t. It was shocked out of the way and it was defeated by army tanks and think tanks.

You make a terrifying case about the amount of violence the state uses to protect the market. So it jarred on me a little that elsewhere in the book you call for another go at the Keynesian project, implying the state could be used to make the market more humane.

I’m a believer in mixed economies and I’m a democratic socialist. I do believe it is possible to have far less violent versions of systems which contain elements of the market within them.

Salvador Allende’s project in Chile was a combination of cooperatives, markets and nationalised commanding heights. If we think that it has to be a totally absolutist project the left uses violence employing projects of its own.

If we look at what’s happening in Latin America, the huge social movements are opening up some space and putting pressure on politicians like Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez. The alternatives which are emerging are very much like the alternatives which were attempted in the 1970s.

I interpret the history of violence you outline as a warning to those activists in Venezuela, Ecuador and elsewhere. There is some space at the moment but the powers that be are capable of moving to try and close down the space in a very brutal way.

Well they don’t need my warning if they know their history. At the end of the book I talk about the ways in which these countries are trying to protect themselves from the kinds of shocks many were given in the 1970s.

That’s everything from pulling students from the School of the Americas to Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa’s plans to shut down a huge military base to an incredible purge of the IMF.

If the US want to bomb one of these countries they can do it. But they have their own credibility to contend with. In these sort of backdoor ways that have been used in the past you can see very clear attempts by some of these left wing governments in Latin America to close the doors where there is the IMF and the debt shocks or the School of the Americas and the training of seditious militaries.

You argue that the growing disintegration of Iraq is not a product of mistakes by the US or centrifugal tendencies within Iraqi society itself, but a logical consequence of shock and awe and the free market.

I don’t think the architects of the invasion of Iraq wanted the country to fall apart. Paul Bremer wrote dozens of statements about how opening Iraq up to the most unregulated form of trade ever attempted was going to be a magnet for free enterprise and the country would essentially rebuild itself. It was trickledown economics gone insane. That was the plan – these are not sophisticated thinkers.

But I think it was anticipated that there was always the possibility it would go wrong, and that the war and the reconstruction were so privatised there could be a different kind of boom which turned the war itself into the next frontier for super-profits. That is what happened.

Perhaps there is another dynamic at work. I believe the Iraq war has been a disaster for the US and the British establishment. Sometimes increased reliance on violence and terror can turn people against the system. The international anti-war movement, for example, was generated by outrage at shock and awe.

That’s true. I’m not really in a position to comment on the anti-war movement in Britain. But one problem with the anti-war movement in North America was the fear of seeming unpatriotic after 9/11. It really distorted the honesty of the movement.

It used slogans and iconography which were designed in response to this fear. The economic analysis was dropped because it was seen as divisive. I wrote the book because we need to be drawing the connections between the violence and the economic system it serves, and even if it means that there are fewer people out for demonstrations it would be a more sustainable movement.

We don’t want activism that is just a short blast and then followed by disillusionment.

I think we have to be very careful about that argument, and the impact of mass movements. It is right to make the connections, but we shouldn’t make them a condition of activism.

There were very similar misgivings expressed during the Vietnam War, and that was a hugely successful movement. I think we have to say to people that we have made a difference already. The anti-war movements in Britain and the US are part of the reason why Bush is in deep trouble and why the British government is considering bringing the troops out of Iraq.

We never get credit for our victories. People say the anti-globalisation movement is in crisis, but I think the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank are in crisis. The plans to create a free trade area of the Americas is in crisis. Those victories are never acknowledged as a result of mass action.

The result of those protests in Seattle was part of a global movement, and the fact that governments in the global south feel they can no longer sign these agreements and stay in office is a massive victory for people’s power.

Your first book, No Logo, had a huge impact and helped set the agenda for the movement. Do you have similar aspirations for The Shock Doctrine?

My hope for the book is that it helps make all of us more shock resistant. In moments of crisis we look for the signs, we stay oriented, and part of the way we stay orientated involves being connected to history.

In some ways the left has been too willing to abandon its pre-9/11 thinking and allow the “war on terror” to change the way we talk and think. I think it’s a different time. When I published No Logo there was a huge emerging movement and the book was swept up in that.

Now there are new concerns. I went to a fantastic meeting in New Orleans of tsunami survivors from India and Katrina survivors and there was a fabulous organiser from New Orleans called Saket Soni who helps to organise those workers corner by corner where the day labourers stand.

In this meeting Saket said they have disaster capitalism and we need disaster collectivism. So we are starting to see an emergence of a movement around these shocks and people are developing a theory around the right to reconstruct, the right to return, the right to have accountability for the money that’s raised in these moments. Who knows what this will turn into?

The Shock Doctrine is published by Allen Lane, £25

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