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Book Review: The Shock Docrtine

I had heard about “The Shock Doctrine” many years ago. But I somehow easily lumped this book’s author, Naomi Klein, as a spokesperson for the ultra-Left. And, in my opinion, the ultra-Left has one thing in common with the ultra-Right: neither know how to run a well functioning society. So I had no inclination of reading this book regardless of how popular it had become.

Then a Medium contributor who I have been following, Vitoria Nunes, recommended the book to me. She told me that Klein is a Marxist with some interesting stories.

“Marxist?” I thought. Admittedly I have not read Marx’s works, but I have read a couple of synopses. His basic tenet is that pure capitalism will eventually create a failed society. And I agree with this tenet. So that kind of makes me a Marxist, too. So maybe I should read the Marxist book of this century, right?

Klein starts her book with the mind control experiments in the 1950s and 1960s at McGill University. These experiments were funded by the shadier sides of government as a means to empty and reform a person in some kind of Cold War psychological science experiment. Except the experiments — with lots of electrical shocks — usually broke their victims, with no reform whatsoever. Klein uses this story as a metaphor for societies. The McGill victims are the middle and lower classes; the McGill doctors are the ultra-conservative economists and politicians.

Before reading this book, I believed that ultraconservative forces were winning a few battles here and there to shape our world into their utopia. But they were often met by counter forces that limited how far they could really go. They were far from winning any war.

Klein’s main real-life example was the 1973 ouster of Salvador Allende as the president of Chile, replaced by the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Before reading “The Shock Doctrine,” I concluded that the CIA had helped put this coup together, encouraged by American business interests. If the CIA had not set up this coup, Allende would have brought communism to Latin America, something the USA had feared. In other words, economics was much secondary to Cold War politics.

But Klein took this story to make economics more important than politics. I was paying attention!

Had “The Shock Doctrine” ended with this Chilean coup, I could have easily tossed the book aside.

But Klein then goes from Chile to Bolivia to Argentina to South Africa to Poland to Russia to South Korea to Iraq and quite a few more places in between those places. Country-by-country, Klein provides the pattern on how to implement an ultraconservative economic agenda in this world. Here is the general plan:

1. An ultraconservative force (Klein called it “neoliberalism” which is a term I find confusing) has been proactive in implementing its agenda. It advocates for “privatization, deregulation, and union busting.”

2. This ultraconservative force cannot win its agenda by any democratic means. So, its modus operandi was to wait for the right kind of crisis, swoop in to bypass democracy, shock the citizenry, and then implement its agenda. It finds willing politicians to comply to its wishes, usually by supplying funds to help with the immediate crisis.

3. For the new government to implement the new economic agenda, it has to employ some degree of force. Freedom of speech and civil rights are suppressed. Shutting down vocal opposition and scaring the masses into not protesting allows the economic agenda to be implemented.

4. A few people get very rich as the new economy is rolled out.

5. Most of the population suffers more after the new economy is rolled out.

6. The economic engineers downplay the fact that democracy has been lost, almost as if unfettered markets are more important than democracy.

I was about ready to convert to the Klein philosophy, but I thought I should check some things out. I went looking for the detractors of “The Shock Doctrine.” My brief search (admittedly only from Wikipedia) found these threads:

1) One detractor said Klein did not apply an academic approach to her work. From her Wikipedia article, Klein does not seem to have a bachelor’s degree, let alone a Ph.D. So many academics would be quick to dismiss her work for that reason alone. But The Shock Doctrine has at least 500 citations. When Klein quotes a conservative politician or economist in a public setting saying something like: “We need to use crises to subvert democracy to implement a conservative set of economics,” Klein provides a citation for us to follow.

2) One detractor claimed Klein said Margaret Thatcher started the Falklands War as a means to bring an ultraconservative agenda into the U.K. No, Klein did not say Thatcher started the war. Klein said that after the victory, Thatcher used her political capital to take on policies that would have been very difficult to implement before the war. In essence, the U.K. temporarily lost its democracy because the War was the only real issue in British voters minds. Winning the war made Thatcher a hero: she realized the political opportunity to effect her kind of change, and she took it.

3) One detractor said Klein misunderstood the terms “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism.” So whatever she was writing about was bunk. Maybe, but maybe this kind of detractor could have made a better point at how much better the people were after the “shocks” were applied.

So, with such feeble detractors, I changed my stance. I now believe that there are ultraconservative forces that are reasonably successful in implementing their agenda. And their agenda is not beneficial to most of us. Klein has convinced me that this political force is stronger than I had originally thought.

As I was going through the book, I was becoming more curious about Klein’s solutions to this mess. She hinted at workers’ co-operatives as one solution. But I just could not see many of the coal mines in England or Poland that were shut down for poor economic performance suddenly being viable because the workers are making the big decisions. In my world, workers are not well versed in commerce—especially commerce that requires making connections outside one’s home country.

Klein hints at the political/economic models of northern Europe as a solution. Why didn’t Poland adopt those models, with lots of safety nets, instead of the American way? For sure, northern Europe really does not have the financial clout to help in a crisis. But still, these models have proven themselves for producing productive and happy citizens. Why not just take the American cash—and then build something more European? Why are European statespeople not educating the world more about their system of governance? Why?

Klein wrote her last chapter centered around 2007. Here she gives examples of world citizens successfully standing up to Big Government and Big Business before the ultraconservatives can apply their shock doctrine. Klein was optimistic for the future. But it has been 14 years since “The Shock Doctrine” made its debut to educate the world of the workings of the ultraconservative (or neoliberal) agenda.

So are we in a better place in 2021 than we were in 2007? I’m not sure.

Published on Medium 2021

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