The Shock Doctrine
Naomi Klein’s main thesis in The Shock Doctrine intends to attack the central claim of capitalism, “that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy” (p. 22), by instead demonstrating how, “this fundamentalist form of capitalism has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion…the rise of corporatism-was written in shocks” (p. 22-23). Klein argues that disaster capitalism (new market), and corporatism (new political ideology), have developed based on Milton Friedman’s Chicago School Economics model. This model encourages “waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, and then quickly making reforms permanent” (p. 7). In order to implement his model, Friedman advocated taking advantage of moments of collective trauma, where citizens are disoriented and fearful, in order to engage in a reconstruction which, “began with finishing the job of the original disaster by erasing what was left of the public sphere and rooted communities, then quickly moving to replace them with a kind of corporate New Jerusalem” (p. 10). Disasters create a clean slate to build upon. The exploitation of human emotion after a disaster has created the shock doctrine.
Klein uses the metaphor of torture to develop her argument on the psychological effects of shock on a community, which allow disaster capitalism to prosper. Klein associates directly that the shock doctrine attempts to, “achieve on a mass scale what torture does one on one in the interrogation cell” (p. 20). This metaphor is especially interesting to me because as a psychology and rhetoric major, I have extensive background in both the psychological studies she is referring to as well as an attuned eye for gaps in logic. Therefore, I will use this précis in order to closely read the effectiveness of this metaphor in relation to Klein’s larger argument. This metaphor is an interesting rhetorical maneuver because it is both logically inaccurate, yet still remains to be surprisingly emotionally compelling. I was intrigued by the ability of this metaphor to oddly persuade me despite the constant red flags of its flawed logical reasoning. Due to this peculiar experience I had with the metaphor, I will first examine the faulty logic in the metaphor and then will examine why it is still so compelling.
Klein defines torture as “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” (p. 19). By this definition, there does seem to be a direct correlation between the function of torture and the disaster capital because in both cases the person is in a psychological state of shock, which allows them to agree to things they normally wouldn’t agree to. Torture is aimed to eliminate the two main factors that inform a person they are still alive, “continuous sensory input, and our memory” (p. 43). Directly attacking these two basic factors of being human was in effort to “unmake and erase faulty minds, then rebuild new personalities on that ever- elusive clean slate” (p. 34). This end goal is where Klein connects the concepts between torture and disaster capital- on the idea that trauma can recreate a clean slate on which they can build upon. After looking at the actual effects of torture, however, it is clear that this metaphor is very weak.
In order to expose the lack of logic in this metaphor, I will use examples of the two main types of torture discussed. First I will discuss the effects of isolation- intended to “deprive people of their sense of who they are and where they are in time and space, [so] adults can be converted into dependent children whose minds are a blank slate of suggestibility” (p. 48). Isolation was a torture technique that deprived the mind of stimulation, causing it to force itself upon itself (p. 48). Isolation not only caused regression to childlike states, but also led to schizophrenic like symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions. Secondly, I will talk about the effects of electroshock therapy intended to “depattern” old psychological patterns to make way for new ones (p. 36). Electroshock therapy has been known to produce devastating deficits on a person’s cognitive function leading to profound amnesia and regression to a childlike state. By erasing memories and instantly subtracting years from their life, shock therapy provided “a means to blast his patients back into their infancy, to regress them completely” (p. 38). By Klein’s descriptions, both of these torture techniques attempt to make the blank slate by creating schizophrenic hallucinations, an irreversible childlike state, and a complete loss of all human memory. The scientists were never successful at “remaking” anyone, and instead only destroying them. Therefore, even if they are creating a blank slate, torture tactics just seemed to destroy and not rebuild. Where is the connection between the blank slate of torture and the blank slate of collective trauma?
There is no connection between torture tactics and collective trauma because in order for corporatists to move in and capitalize on fear, the people must remember the fear. The people must remain adults so that they can implement the imposed changes. Collective traumas do the opposite of creating a blank slate on people’s minds; they leave a scar on their minds that allow them to justify the new changes. Corporatists are only taking advantage of the fact that everyone feels the same way about change at the same time- everyone is sad and everyone agrees they have to rebuild. While the people are busy grieving is when they install permanent changes without people noticing because any growth seems better than nothing. Disaster capitalism takes advantage of people who have an increased mental burden and have matured in their perspectives of what is important in life. The only real blank slate in disaster capitalism is the physical buildings that have fallen and must be rebuilt from scratch. The types of psychological trauma that occur from torture versus disaster is so different that they do not both create the same type of blank slate for which to rebuild. The shaky connection between torture and disaster capitalism based on the connection between the trauma and the blank slate is shattered by Klein’s inability to match the function of the trauma in both situations.
Although Klein’s metaphor is logically flawed and it is evident that torture really bears little resemblance to the mechanisms operating in disaster capitalism, why did I find myself originally so compelled by this rhetorical maneuver? After some introspection, I realized that human nature is to be emotionally aroused by conspiracy theories. Klein presents the economic Shock Doctrine as a conspiracy of big business to take advantage of the powerless victims of disaster. She presents the electroshock therapy in torture as a conspiracy of how Ewen Cameron used innocent patients as his guinea pigs for torture treatments without them consenting to it. Cameron turned patients into prisoners of their own mind. The shock of the scandal arouses human emotion. By using the word “shock” in regard to the torture and the disaster capitalism and by laying out the intense machinations fraught with evil intentions, the audience is compelled to feel taken advantage of. Hearing about how others were in a moment of weakness and so brutally taken for a ride by psychiatrists (Cameron) and economists (Friedman), Klein shocks the audience. By disrupting previous knowledge, Klein shocks us into anger so that we become a blank slate for which she can write her theories. She opens the book in this emotionally stimulating manner specifically to shock the audience and create the tabula rasa she needs to have them agree with her claims. Klein’s metaphor does not have to make that much logical sense because its only function is to incite disorientation and fear in the reader to impose these new changes. The torture metaphor is used as a technique to implement the shock doctrine on her readers. It is compelling strictly due to its emotions and how it sets up the reader to agree to her theories on capitalism.