A review of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine
‘Everything you never wanted to know but to enter the present century, asked…’
The movement of history unfolds unmistakably between the pages, in fact shocking, of the Shock Doctrine. The shock that comes from reading it, is not the shock ‘treatment’ developed with CIA funding that is documented in this fearless work. Rather, it is the shock of staring in the face of your own present as it unfolds in the movement of history and finding yourself indelibly marked.
Perhaps in 2009 the book, now almost 3 years old, is not in need of another review after being on the New York Times Bestseller and while of baby-age already translated into 27 languages. And yet, I couldn’t help myself: it’s significance as for me personally, so for Americans and for the global community is so great, as Rachel Maddow signals when singling it out as the most important work to come out from American publishing in years. In saying the global community, I do not hint at any homogenizing cultural gesture, but rather the pregnant fact of the each-day-increasing economic and otherwise interwoven state of the world, which is ours.
There is historicism and then there is history, as Walter Benjamin never tired of delving into; there are stories of the select few, which, no matter how many protests they themselves make, are withering relics always already sold on selling boredom and hence, anti-history to generations of minds. Then there is history in itself, writhing alive and burning, not only the mind, but the very selfhood of the people part of whom they (yes, they, as plurality of living history) always are.
Naomi Klein’s work is not only an integral part of the latter, and as such living and necessary for survival history must, it not only tells in painstaking and breathlessly courageous detail our history, it also points the ways ahead, warning, arming and showing us an already existing direction in which, as a people, we can rebuild a different path.
Undoubtedly, we should know more than the names of the countries where United States has in the last half century supported violent upheaval. But this explosive current history, although discussed and protested, is often so overwhelming for increasingly disempowered global citizens, themselves often rootless, it can be difficult to make sense of. This is precisely the function of the brazen lies told by too many politicians and/as corporate profiteers. If we know our history, we must do everything to change its course.
Argentina, Afghanistan, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua and Uruguay
to mention those discussed in the Shock Doctrine. The trajectory here is one torture, sponsored not only by the CIA, but other giants of the U.S. government and for-profits, whose peculiar feature is the overcoming of distinctions between physical, economic and psychological torture, that never leaves out American citizens.
I admit that I am the kind of sometimes student, part-time instructor, activist and writer that cannot bear the news to such an extent that despite my piecemeal academic knowledge, I grossly lack being comprehensively informed about the state of the world today, and yesterday, not to mention (even if I dream) the future. I fear irremeably and not always consciously that knowing too much (and too little) about the problems will paralyze instead of aiding my ability to respond. I’ll save the suspicious and too obvious comments about the growing numbers of people who feel precisely this way, despite levels of education. Klein’s work is a wake-up call, specifically for this tentative us, including so many artists and poets.
Her writing presents the cold-bloodedness of our too recent historic events in a way one can comprehend, while not being able to deny, and then again from which we can begin to act, instead of simple reeling in shame and shock. This is perhaps the most significant factor, which breaks the very chains they are designed to create: shock – an “accidental by-product” of the hapless state of the world today, but the intended effect of the dominant contemporary politico-economic doctrine, as Klein shows.
The metaphor here, is not a metaphor at all, it is rather a direct, documented relation of metonymic implementation. From its very birth in the mental hospital’s shock lab of Doctor Ewen Cameron – in Montreal, funded by the CIA — to its openly documented use in Iraq, shock treatment has been used as a new torture technique.
Along the way, we get a glimpse, also via the self-description and understanding of the doers, of these tactics, developed not from a similar but the same origin, into economic policy measures from Moscow to New Orleans designed to shock people into regression: disorienting and debilitating, so that our land and what little wealth we might have can be stolen by the super rich. No matter the repetitions or the denials, human beings cannot avoid being struck by the unacceptability of torture for profit. And yet, in the disaster capitalism complex, Klein’s apt phrase for contemporary global corporatism, there is more than just insult added to injury.
The victims are required to pay for their torture.
There is an intentionality in the use of torture, unabashedly disregarding laws, directly for profit by the American government, as well as American and international corporations, the marriage of which is documented here by Klein, that is enough not only to indict and condemn corporatism once and for all, but to chill the blood of any human being able to think through the events around them. Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans have a conscience.
Klein combs through the hurricanes and wars of unthinkably plain gruesome truths, and let’s numbers and facts tell a story that’s as inciting to think through as it is simple.
“A 2007 study calculated that the number of terrorist attacks since the start of the Iraq war had increased sevenfold” (539). This is no surprise when “the Red Cross has said that U.S. military officials have admitted that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the detentions in Iraq were ‘mistakes’” (468).
When the war began, I helped plan the biggest protest in my small college town they’d seen in 18 years, and after the bombs started dropping, hopeless, guilty and miserable, I gave up paying attention. I felt implicated, guilty. Klein’s sobering break down of the systematicity of exploitation revives my ability to pay attention if not pursue the same issues again:
“The Iraqi commandos, originally trained by [U.S. commander James] Steele, were officially working under Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, which had insisted…that is ‘does not allow any human rights abuses of prisoners….’ But in November 2005, 173 Iraqis were discovered in an Interior Ministry dungeon, some tortured so badly that their skin was falling off, others with drill marks in their skulls and teeth and nails removed…not everyone made it out alive…” (471).
Naturally, we the people, want immunity from the crimes our government and corporations profit from. (I went as far as Berlin.) And despite the mounting crimes, somehow we’re different?
“A right-wing journal in the U.S. pronounced Blackwater ‘al Queda for the good guys.’…Wherever the disaster capitalism complex has landed, it has produced a proliferation or armed groupings outside the state. That is hardly a surprise: when countries are rebuilt by the people who don’t believe in governments, the states they build are invariably weak, creating a market for alternative security forces, whether Hezbollah, Blackwater, the Mahdi Army or the gang down the street in New Orleans…(90 percent of Blackwater’s revenues come from state contracts.)” And that state is ours. “The actual state, meanwhile, has lost the ability to perform its core functions without the help of contractors…When Katrina hit, FEMA had to hire a contractor to award contracts to contractors” (527). This is not the end of the problem but just the beginning, the most damning effect of emergency services privatization, in the U.S. as around the world, is that it just does not do its job in providing services to those most in need, as Klein documents throughout the book.
The account in these pages traces the violent birth of disaster capitalism, that is the contemporary state of corporatism feeding on violence, nature and man-made alike. Unlike “shock treatment,” our current history is chilling to the mind and boiling to the blood at once. Klein, at first perhaps surprisingly, asserts that some disasters such as 9/11 are not planned by insiders, because they have no need. The current path we have been steered onto is one that generates disasters without necessary planning by those who profit from it, no conspiracy required. Profiteering from misery seems to have no bounds, while alongside its scale, a private state arises that, however ignorantly, looks more and more as a case of life imitating Orwellian art (forgive the now necessary cliché.)
“The emergence of this parallel privatized infrastructure reaches far beyond policing. When the contractor infrastructure build up during the Bush years is looked at as a whole, what is seen is a fully articulated state-within-a-state that is as muscular and capable as the actual state is frail and feeble. This corporate shadow state has been built almost exclusively with public resources…Yet the vast infrastructure is all privately owned and controlled. The citizens who have funded it have absolutely no claim to this parallel economy or its resources” (527).
Klein would never stop here; and she does not. Instead, she discusses the successful resistances, small and large that have been mounted by people healing from shock around the world, as it inevitably occurs, perhaps after a few years, perhaps after 30 or more. Some of us however, have no claim to hope. And so, with only the faint wish of spreading the word and thought and…much more I have no right to hope for, I end where we should begin.
“We leave an imprint each time we enter into a history.” W. Benjamin
 (All quotations refer to the Shock Doctrine, unless otherwise specified.) After documenting the mass torture of the juntas brought to power in Latin America with U.S. support, in chapter 8, “Crisis works,” Klein sums up several examples:
“The newly liberated country [Argentina] was rigged to detonate, thanks to the planting of a so-called debt bomb. As part of what the outgoing junta had termed a ‘dignified transition’ to democracy, Washington insisted that the new government agree to pay off the debts amassed by the generals. During junta rule, Argentina’s external debt had ballooned from $7.9 billion the year before the coup to $45 billion at the time of the handover—debts owed to the IMF, The World Bank, the U.S. Export-Bank and private banks based in the U.S. It was much the same across the region. In Uruguay, the junta took a debt of half a billion dollars when it seized power and expanded it to $5 billion, a huge load in a country of only 3 million people. In Brazil, the most dramatic case, the generals, who came to power in 1964 promising financial order, managed to take the debt from $3 billion to $103 billion in 1985. By the mid-eighties, several economists had observed that a true hyperinflation crisis simulates the effects of a military war – spreading fear and confusion, creating refugees and causing large loss of life” (196).
 Let’s play a game. Guess how much tax payer money one paramilitary corporation, Lockheed Martin, got in the year 2005 alone?
$25 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars, more than the entire legislative branch of government combined (p.537).
 Natural disasters are up 430 percent since 1975 (p.539).
 The Arcades Project. p. 516