Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine as shock therapy

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine chronicles the rise of disaster capitalism, which is the notion that Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of free market capitalism relied on the exploitation or creation of catastrophic events in order to implement free market reforms that would unacceptable under normal circumstances. Klein writes, “Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by antidemocratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to provide the ground for the introduction of radical free market ‘reforms’” (11). The “reforms” are implemented in rapid succession immediately following the crisis, during the period when the country is still in shock. Friedman’s term for this process is “economic ‘shock treatment’” (8). As examples of economic shock treatment, she cites the United States’ restructuring of New Orleans following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, as well as the earlier example of the CIA-assisted coup in Chile in the 1970s, which overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende and replaced him with the corporatist dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Klein uses torture as a metaphor for this economic shock treatment, since torture is “a set of techniques designed to put prisoners into a state of deep disorientation and shock in order to force them to make concessions against their will” (19). She then describes (at some point, I can’t seem to find the exact quote) the process of free market reform as involving three separate shocks: the first shock is the disaster which establishes the necessary conditions for reform, the second shock is the economic reform itself, and the third shock is the literal electroshocks applied to dissenters who get in the way of the reform.
I think Klein’s analogy of free market reform and torture is pretty apt, and she successfully establishes some pretty solid parallels between the metaphorical shock and the literal shocks used to rewrite problematic personalities. However, it sometimes feels like she stretches this analogy too far, and ends up talking about torture far more than necessary. Her characterization of free market reform as a three-step shock process seems a bit contrived, and it’s not entirely clear to me why the third step warrants so much attention, and why it is even included as a step at all. While the first two steps in free market reform are plausibly characteristic of most attempts to implement Friedman’s theories in the real world, the “third shock,” torture of political dissenters, is not something that is unique to Friedman’s capitalism. Torture has historically played a large role in the establishment of any dictatorial regime, including socialism, which is essentially the opposite of laissez-faire. Despite this fact, Klein seems to think it’s necessary to endlessly go into detail about specific acts of torture that occurred during the establishment of corporatist governments in particular, as if these descriptions would reveal something fundamental and unique to free market reform. It seems like Klein’s characterization of torture as the third shock is just a thinly veiled excuse to include excessive descriptions of torture. It’s actually kind of insulting, because it feels almost like Klein is attempting to subtly apply the very same psychological shock tactics that she criticizes in order to make her argument about disaster capitalism. In Chapter 1, The Torture Lab, Klein provides a very personal and disturbing account of Gail Kastner, who was subjected to brainwashing experiments funded by the CIA. Klein’s description of the experimental conditions, as well as the lasting effects on Kastner’s life, is pretty nightmarish and unsettling. This chapter, in addition to providing an in-depth description of the torture which Klein claims is analogous to capitalist reform, also shocks the reader by very effectively discrediting the United States government and possibly undercutting/destroying the reader’s assumptions about the world. You know, if you’re that kind of reader who has faith in the American government and believes the CIA to be not entirely evil. This initial shock has the effect of making the reader more receptive to Klein’s later claims, when she gets into the actual substantial part of her argument on disaster capitalism.
But don’t get me wrong. I like The Shock Doctrine a lot. It’s my favorite so far.

--Elaine Mao


  1. Quick addendum: I'm not trying to suggest that Naomi Klein should have not included the personal accounts of the torture. Those accounts made The Shock Doctrine a lot more compelling and emotionally moving for me, and I think they do serve a purpose in illustrating just how violent and horrific the spread of capitalism was. I just feel like perhaps she could have done a better job integrating the "third shock" into her overall framework rather than just kind of clumsily tacking it on.

  2. I agree with your added comment Elaine. I think that the fact that Klein includes in depth accounts of individuals (such as Gail Kastner) and the significant affect torture and shock had on their lives as a whole, causes the reader to become a lot more aware of the brutalities that can come from capitalism. I believe that often times when we talk about neoliberal policy, or economics and “The Market” in general, we tend to distance ourselves, and forget that these policies will in fact affect the public, sometimes in extremely unfortunate ways. Having taken micro and macroeconomics, and also an economic demography class, I am amazed how my understanding of the subject has changed just between those classes. The market is affected by so many factors— Immigration, fertility and mortality rates, education etc…— it’s not just about labor, or the amount of revenue circulating within a country. Some of the authors that we have read (particularly more recently) have “shocked” us in the sense that our awareness of economic policy in terms of its affects on the people, has been heightened, or somehow has been affected. For example, Davis, although he uses statistic after statistic when explaining the state of poverty throughout different parts of the world, to some, creates eye-opening arguments, and instills a sense of urgency within the reader. Others however, might find Klein’s accounts more gripping and captivating; everyone can somehow relate to some for of pain or loss (hopefully not torture). I personally appreciated her detail and found myself becoming more and more immersed intellectually, as well as emotionally, with each page. Lastly, I am not really bothered that the “third shock” was not integrated within the text as well as the other two. Dale said something very interesting in class that further allowed me to be at peace with this “flaw”. He explained (and I hope I understood correctly) that the “red thread” that justifies spontaneity and non-violence of the order is the broader story of this text, and this is the story that is also being mobilized. Furthermore, he stated that the moment in which people want to sell you the story of market fundamentalist ideology, and violence’s that create the impression of what is happening on the other side, the side that we cannot/do not immediately see, also frames that story. Focusing on the broader picture through this notion of a “red thread” helped me to fill in some of the gaps/concerns that I was left with, especially when it came to the “third shock”.


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