Monday, May 3, 2010

Shock Doctrine

"In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism's core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that 'only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.' Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the 'tyranny of the status quo.' "


In her book, the Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein chronicles the destructive path of capitalism, spearheaded by Milton Friedman. Ultimately she explains that free-market capitalism is the bearer of democracy and freedom--an idea that has been used to justify all kinds of U.S. policy and action--and in fact is the bearer of bad news for everyone as free-market capitalists deliberately try to find ways in which to insert their ideology wherever possible, whenever possible, particularly taking advantage of contexts in which societies are at a loss or in disarray. According to this passage, the shock doctrine is the manner in which Friedman and his followers planned to take advantage of particular contexts and societal downfall to promote their free-market capitalist agenda, as the savior of the future of humanity.

The word "nostrum" can be a "cure" marketed under false claims and is of no value to the ill person. It is important that Klein preceded the quote with the description of the shock doctrine as capitalism "tactical nostrum," with "tactical," something deliberate and connived, and "nostrum," false advertising. By using these particular words, Klein is already setting up the notion that Friedman, as the fierce proponent of fundamentalist free-market capitalism, whose ideology is neither founded nor helpful and deliberately so. As such, he is villanized along with his ideology. This sets up Klein's argument and story as a legitimate analysis and inquiry.

Klein's decision to include this particular Friedman quote is interesting because the meat of the quote is not uniquely Friedman. Nothing in the quote itself is expressing free-market ideology or capitalism as a global necessity--and we all know there are plenty of quotes from Friedman that would demonstrate those notions. The vagueness of the quote, therefore, seems to be Klein's deliberate choice to create a framework for her story that easily highlights the irrationality of Friedman's theories. One can't necessarily disagree that change occurs only when people are in panic, when people are desperate because their lives (livelihood and/or physically) are in danger of ending as they know it. And also, actions are taken based on preexisting notions, ideas, and theories because swiftness of actions is preferred so as to minimize the damage of a crisis. And, perhaps, it is not a bad idea to be developing these notions, ideas, and theories per chance that the crisis occurs. However, in the two sentences after the quote she puts Friedman down as an irrational, conniving person. First, Klein contrasts the very rational idea of stockpiling goods and water in disaster preparation with stockpiling free-market ideas. The structure of this sentence--most people do statement A; a few do statement B, the opposite--implies that because Friedmanites aren't doing the rational stockpiling (goods and water), they are doing something irrational, namely, the stockpiling of free-market ideas. Then she affirms this dichotomy by added that Friedman was "convinced." "Convinced" has a connotation of having to be persuaded, to prove to oneself or other, an effort in believing in something. I think in this context, Klein uses the word "convince" to underline the possibility that free-market capitalism is not a truth, but rather an ideology that requires serious critical analysis and questioning.

Another interesting choice for Klein is her inclusion of "tyranny of the status quo" at the end of the quote. This also undermines Friedman's ideology because this implies that the status quo must be tyrannical, restrictive, or oppressive. Friedman was staunchly against government actions such as the New Deal which was implemented in light of the crisis of the Great Depression, but I can hardly imagine that most people felt the New Deal part of a tyrannical and oppressive status quo. It seems, in fact, that "imposing rapid and irreversible change" at the time of the New Deal (i.e., not having a New Deal at all and letting the market supposedly fix itself), would not only have been wholeheartedly opposed but severely and permanently damaging to American citizens. All together in this passage, on page 7, Klein delegitimizes Friedman before we even really start the book and this sets her up for a powerful and convincing story.

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