Thursday, September 20, 2007

Shock Treatment

Every now and then, somebody writes a book, which really pinpoints some principle effectively. The writer (or writers) haven't invetned the principle per se; they've just codified it. Gladwell's Tipping Point is certainly an example, but it seems a terribly obvious discovery. Besides, he just populairzed the idea, which had been described in the '60s. Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is a better example. Whether you like Chomsky or not, you'd have to admit that the idea of manufactured consent is readily verifiable. If you hadn't noticed it yourself, as soon as it's explained to you, you can seize upon it and recognize it unfolding around you. Unfortunately, recognition of this particular principle may be accompanied by a chill or two (or probably should be), as you recognize the deleterious impact of this principle reverberating through our society on any given day. Just go check out the home page of CNN right now if you like.

Well, darned if Naomi Klein hasn't hit on a doozy. It's every bit as chill-worthy as the principle of manufactured consent and just as readily identifiable. For a quick introduction, check out this Alfonso CuarĂ³n-directed video promoting Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine. The New York Times describes her thesis thusly: "That unconstrained free-market policies go hand in hand with undemocratic political policies."
In her book she argues that the shock therapy prescribed by Western economists during the last 30 years could not have been imposed without political shock therapy, namely brutal repression and a suspension of democratic rights. Western countries, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, essentially exploited disasters — hyperinflation, the tsunami, the war in Iraq — to force through radical changes like privatization, deregulation and severe cuts in social spending. These policies, imposed by foreign and American disciples of the laissez-faire economist Milton Friedman, she maintains, caused grinding poverty and hardship for millions while often permitting multinationals to buy up a country’s most valuable assets for going-out-of-business prices.

Even the shock of 9/11, she said in an interview, was “harnessed by leaders to end the discussion of global justice.”
In short then, political leaders either incite shocking events or take advantage of them to defeat ideas and to install the policies they wish to. Blindingly obvious in a way, isn't it? Lest anyone it, though, Klein quotes thought leaders, who have been quite explicit in prescribing this modus operandi.
Economist John Williamson in 1993: “One will have to ask whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform.”
But the most damning quote comes in the video and it's from that darling of the conservatives, Milton Friedman. She describes his advice of advancing economic policy while people were still reeling from a disaster, a method he himself called "economic shock treatment." Says Friedman, "Only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change."

The video explicitly details some of the changes, which have been implemented immediately following various recent crises. Consider also, of course, more broadly, this principle, aside from economics: the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, which has been incorporated post-9/11, as well as the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act. As Klein says,
A terrorist attack puts us all into a state of shock. And in the aftermath, like the prisoner in the interrogation chamber, we too become childlike, more inclined to follow leaders who claim to protect us.
It's what many of us have thought since 9/11. How the Bush administration has taken advantage of our national shock treatment. Klein's pretty effectively codified it here. Depressing, huh?

She does end the video with some hope:
Shock wares off. It is by definition a temporary state. And the best way to stay oriented, to resist shock, is to know what is happening to you and why.
Amen, sister.

Excerpts from her book on the Guardian's site

No comments: