Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Henry Holt, 2007.

In Chapter 2 of my book Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization I provide a users' guide to the rhetoric of globalization and explain how to manufacture bogus arguments about globalization that readers will lap up like warm milk. Here's how it goes:

First, don't base your argument on facts, base it on images and metaphors. They are more readily manipulated that facts.

You need evidence, so use exceptional cases and pretend that they are typical cases. Arrange these exceptional cases like breadcrumbs that will lead the reader inevitably to an extravagant conclusion that neither metaphor nor selective evidence can possibly support.

And then say that you don't really mean to draw such an outrageous conclusion, even if your carefully chosen facts seem to lead there. You can deny with confidence because the damage is already done. Your reader is hooked.

In Globaloney I show how Adam Smith used this technique to make the case for global free trade based upon what he saw one day in a little Scottish pin factory. Smith was the master of this sort of rhetoric and Naomi Klein shows that it still works.

Metaphor: Economists give the name "shock therapy" to economic reforms that are implemented all at once rather than phased in a little at a time. The common argument for shock therapy is that vested interests can resist and distort gradual policies. It is necessary to break those interests to achieve real change, hence the all at once approach. Poland had shock therapy. The shock was a hard one, but economic and political reforms did take hold. Russia went the gradual route and you can see how successful they have been in breaking up the power of the oligarchs and political elites.

There is also a medical treatment called shock therapy (electro-shock therapy, actually), which, we are told, aims to wipe out a person's personality so that she becomes a clean slate and can be reprogrammed from scratch. The people in charge presumably have the power to decide what the new personality looks like and they reprogram to suit their interests. My descriptions of economic and psychiatric shock therapy are both oversimplified, but you get the point. And you can probably see where this is going.

Since the names of the two therapies are the same, they must be the same. The logic of electro shock must have informed the practice of economic shock therapy? The strategy of shock therapy therefore is to erase a nation's personality and replace it with the neoliberal caricature that serves the interests of the evil doctors who run the world economic system. Since shock therapy is introduced during crises and disasters, it is necessary to take advantage of disasters, or perhaps even to manufacture them as an unethical psychiatrist might manufacture a nervous breakdown to create the opportunity to electro-shock treatment.

Now you need evidence, and Klein provides dramatic examples of shocks that range from Chile under Pinochet, Tiananmen Square, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and now Iraq. Is it a accident that all these disasters were followed by the introduction of market fundamentalist reforms and an invasion by transnational corporations? Coincidence? You be the judge! Doesn't it seem like someone must have been pulling the strings? Someone with an interest in creating disasters in order to take advantage of them.

And of course Klein's readers draw the conspiracy theory conclusion because they are probably already leaning that way. Besides, that's where the breadcrumb trail leads. So Klein can disavow this conclusion in confidence that her point has been made. Nice!

I've been following the press reaction to The Shock Doctrine and it is pretty interesting. In an interview in the Financial Times Klein defends her use of the shock therapy metaphor not because it is particular accurate, but because it was fair game. The economists in favor of all-at-once reforms are the ones who invented shock therapy as a metaphor, she says, I just turned it against them.

Joseph Stiglitz wrote a tortured review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He doesn't seem to want to say anything really nasty about Klein's book, perhaps because they are both icons of the anti-globalization movement and are fated to share the stage of anti-G events. But he has trouble saying much that is good about it, either. Stiglitz is an academic (and Nobel laureate) not a journalist like Klein and he's aware that his comments will be held to a high standard, so he ends up justifying Klein's opposition to neoliberalism not based upon her own overstretched metaphors but because of important institutional economic factors that Stiglitz has written about in his books. She's right, he seems to say (or maybe partly right about some things), but for the reasons that I've written about elsewhere.

The core of Klein's argument is not bullshit. Change does tend to come as a response to crisis and, when crisis strikes, everyone tries to turn it to their own advantage by capturing the issue and bending or spinning it using metaphors and dramatic special cases. The key word here is everyone. It isn't just that businesses try to make a buck or that neoliberals with a political agenda try to transform chaos into order of their own design. Every interest does this, not just the ones that Klein chooses to highlight. You can see this in the reaction to 9/11. Writers and politicians of all stripes and all ideologies used that crisis as a tool to sell their products, services, policies, ideas and campaigns. And it is still going on. Naomi Klein, obviously, is doing it herself with this book.

The problem of issue capture in the aftermath of a crisis is a serious one because crises are always with us and they are more immediate and personal (and therefore more exploitable) in this age of information technology. So the opportunity for and payoff to issue capture have both increased. Is this book playing the game it seeks to expose by manufacturing a crisis crisis and then spinning it into an anti-globalization narrative? Hmmm. Well, I never said that. But just follow the breadcrumbs ...