Naomi Klein’s Excellent Adventures
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador, 2007); No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (1999/2000; 2010, Fourth Estate).
If you’re a teacher, what your students are wearing tells you something about what’s going on in the culture. In the 1980s and 90s, I noticed that walking into a classroom was like hitting a stretch of highway crowded with advertising billboards. The students were wearing T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other paraphernalia that brazenly bore the names of the corporations that manufactured them. Unlike earlier displays of brand logos, such as the discreet crocodile insignia of a Lacoste shirt or the little horseman and mallet that decorated Ralph Lauren’s Polo shirts, which were meant to subtly but publicly indicate the wearer’s good taste and purchasing power, the new T-shirts were emblazoned with giant corporate names and company colours — Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, and others — that tended to cover most of the surface of the garment being worn.
Puzzled as to why the students wanted to turn themselves into walking advertisements, I’d occasionally ask them what it all meant. Often as not, they would deny it meant anything and blandly declare, “It’s just a fashion thing.” Yes, I’d mildly persist, but how and why does a “fashion thing” become a fashion thing? And does the “thing” mean anything? Mainly, what I wondered was, How did the corporations get the consumers to not only advertise the corporation, but to pay for the privilege of doing so? The students were pretty resistant to my pointy-headed attempts at sociological analysis, and my “lessons from everyday life” tended to fall flat.
Lots of subsequent “fashion statements” have come and gone since the era of big logos. In the first decade of the 21st century, I’ve noticed that students and other “dedicated followers of fashion” (to recall a phrase from an old pop song by The Kinks), tend to express their fashion sense less by haberdashery and bodily decorations (tattoos and other skin piercings), and more by technological accoutrements, such as iPods, cellphones, and all sorts of mobile computer gadgets. It’s fairly de rigueur these days to be armed to the teeth with technology designed to facilitate multi-tasking, although spoilsport teachers often ask the students to turn off all electronic devices while the classroom is in session on the grounds that education is engaged in concentrating on the subject at hand or, what might be called, “mono-tasking.”
All of these passing observations (by myself and others) remained idle speculation until the beginning of the new millennium when a then 29-year-old Canadian journalist, Naomi Klein, in a brilliant stroke of “pattern recognition,” published No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (1999/2000; 2010). It quickly became a multi-lingual, million-copy bestseller, and it told readers a lot about the corporations that plastered their brands on the backs and fronts of their consumers, focusing as much on production and ideology as on the more familiar discussion of consumption. In the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of No Logo — and it should be noted that a tenth anniversary edition of any work of non-fiction is a pretty rare publishing event these days — Klein points out that from the beginning of her writing career, she’s always been interested in the relationship between power and business, or what was once called “political economy.” (Small disclosure here: although I don’t know Klein, we were both members of the editorial collective of Toronto’s This Magazine at the end of the 1980s; she was the publication’s precocious managing editor; I was its Vancouver-based West Coast correspondent.)
Among the first articles Klein published as a journalist “were [those] about the limited job options available to me and my peers — the rise of short-term contracts and McJobs, as well as the ubiquitous use of sweatshop labour to produce the branded gear sold to us.” What’s more, Klein also picked up on “how an increasingly voracious marketing culture was encroaching on previously protected non-corporate spaces — schools, museums, parks — while ideas that my friends and I had considered radical were absorbed almost instantly into the latest marketing campaigns for Nike, Benetton and Apple.”
The notion about Klein’s ability to connect-the-dots hidden in otherwise disparate phenomena is borrowed from the title of Pattern Recognition (2003), a novel by Vancouver writer William Gibson, who’s best known for his “cyberpunk” speculative fiction. Klein mentions Gibson’s book in her retrospective reflections on the genesis of No Logo, and the kind of aha!-experience to which it refers. It’s something like the sociological acuity found in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) and other of his novels, but Klein’s recognitions tend to be more pointedly political. As she recalls, “I decided to write No Logo when I realized these seemingly disparate trends were connected by a single idea — that corporations should produce brands, not products.”
This was the era when corporate epiphanies were striking CEOs like lightning bolts from the heavens: Nike isn’t running a shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports, Starbucks isn’t a coffee shop chain, it’s about the idea of community. Down on earth these epiphanies meant that many companies that had manufactured their products in their own factories, and had maintained large, stable workforces, embraced the now ubiquitous Nike model: close your factories, produce your products through an intricate web of contractors and subcontractors and pour your resources into the design and marketing required to project your big ideas… Some called these restructured companies ‘hollow corporations’ because their goal seemed to be to transcend the corporeal world of things so they could be an utterly unencumbered brand.
In her 2010 No Logo essay, Klein explains that the move from the sociology of marketing to her later works doesn’t at all represent a break in her thinking. “For me,” she says, “the appeal of X-raying brands such as Nike or Starbucks was that pretty soon you were talking about everything except marketing — from how products are made in the deregulated global supply chain to industrial agriculture and commodity prices. Next thing you knew you were also talking about the nexus of politics and money that locked in these wild-west rules through free-trade deals and at the World Trade Organization (WTO), and made following them the precondition of receiving much-needed loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In short, you were talking about how the world works.”
The enormous success of No Logo was rooted not only in Klein’s astute recognition of social patterns and their causes. It was also the result of intrepid on-the-scene reporting. “She ventures into sweatshops in the Philippines, attends classes for anticorporate crusaders and goes ‘culture jamming’ with groups who deface billboards in the middle of the night,” as one enthusiastic reviewer described Klein’s global beat (James Ledbetter, “Brand Names,” The New York Times, April 23, 2000). The reviewer also noted that “the book’s conclusions are largely grim. Klein links the development of multinational branding to the growth of international sweatshops, corporate censorship and the disappearance of the steady job,” but added, “She is careful not to equate her criticisms with a false nostalgia for an ad-free past; instead, Klein takes the fairly unassailable position that our lives ought to have at least some ‘unbranded space’.” Although the classrooms where I was teaching were no longer among those unbranded spaces, Klein’s book helped make sense of how they got to be crammed with displays of brand loyalties.
Klein notes that by the time No Logo came out (a first Canadian edition appeared at the very end of 1999, other editions shortly afterwards, in 2000), a popular political movement had emerged and “was already at the gates of the powerful institutions that were spreading corporatism around the world. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits and G8 meetings from Seattle to New Delhi.” Klein was soon amid the demonstrators and occasionally spotlighted as a spokesperson for what was called the “anti-globalisation movement.” Klein regards the term as a misnomer. The spectrum of the movement, she says, ranged from anti-corporatism at the reformist end to anti-capitalism at the radical end. It was, far from being “anti-global,” insistently internationalist. Klein’s point is that “globalisation” was a bland euphemism for a “ruthless strain” of corporate capitalism.
For the next few years Klein joined protestors before the “gates of the powerful” and huddled in the conference rooms of various “counter-summits,” as an advocacy journalist and political participant. The reportage appeared as Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalisation Debate (2002). As a collection of columns and talks, while it drew far less attention than No Logo, it helped develop the images and metaphors of Klein’s thinking.
“When I first noticed that the image of the fence kept coming up in discussion, debates and in my own writing, it seemed significant to me,” Klein writes. Despite the promise that post-Communist global economic integration would mean barriers coming down, the opposite appeared to be happening. “The economic process that goes by the benign euphemism ‘globalization’ now reaches into every aspect of life, transforming every activity and natural resource into a measured and owned commodity,” Klein observes. An insatiable market continually redefines as ‘“products’ entire sectors that were previously considered part of the ‘the commons’ and not for sale… The invading of the public by the private has reached into categories such as health and education, of course, but also ideas, genes, seeds, now purchased, patented and fenced off, as well as traditional aboriginal remedies, plants, water and even human stem cells.”
What’s more, the fences and gates are increasingly literal. There are now, says Klein, “armies of locked-out people, whose services are no longer needed, whose lifestyles are written off as ‘backward,’ whose basic needs go unmet. These fences of social exclusion can discard an entire industry, and they can also write off an entire country” or even a continent. As for the protestors at global summits, they too find themselves behind actual fences, and “heavy-handed security measures… become metaphors for an economic model that exiles billions to poverty and exclusion.”
But in addition to the fences, there were glimpses through “windows,” occasions where Klein experienced the feeling that “some sort of political portal was opening up — a gateway, a window, ‘a crack in history’” (the phrase is that of the Mexican revolutionary, Subcomandante Marcos), but most of all, a perspective where “the prospect of a radical change in political course does not seem like an odd and anachronistic idea but the most logical thought in the world.” If you’re of the party that wants to change the world, hope is probably an occupational hazard, as well as a necessity.
Naomi Klein begins her alternate history of the unregulated global free market, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), on the ground, interviewing survivors at a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shortly after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina that devastated the city of New Orleans. Although the efforts of President George Bush’s federal emergency teams fell woefully short of performing the intended rescue of citizens and reconstruction of their habitations, one of the most curious things to emerge from the catastrophe, Klein reports, was educational reform.
The idea came from Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman. The then 93-year-old doyen of free market economists (he died a year later, in 2006), author of Freedom and Capitalism (1962) and many other books, penned an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 5, 2005) lamenting the destruction of New Orleans’ schools, but also seeing the ruins as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.”
Friedman’s radical idea, Klein explains, “was that instead of spending a portion of the billions of dollars in reconstruction money on rebuilding and improving New Orleans’ existing public school system, the government should provide families with vouchers, which they could spend at private institutions, many run at a profit, that would be subsidized by the state.” The notion of “charter” or voucher-funded schools was an old hobbyhorse of Friedman’s, who regarded the entire concept of a state-run school system as smacking of socialism. The idea of implementing this “radical reform” in the midst of a disaster is what Naomi Klein’s book is about.
The idea was seized upon by right-wing think tanks, supported by the Bush administration, and “in sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.” Within 18 months of the hurricane, with most of the city’s poor population still “in exile,” as Klein says, the school board-run 123 public schools had been reduced to 4; the half-dozen existing pre-storm charter schools had burgeoned to over 30. The teachers’ union’s contract had been revoked and the union’s 4700 members had all been fired. Naturally, since a lot of what Klein has to say in this 600-page book is going to hinge on such facts, it’s useful to note that her claims and interpretations are consistently documented, although her interpretations no doubt are subject to debate.
Neither the discussion of the New Orleans catastrophe nor the appearance of economist Friedman are tangential to Klein’s concerns. Noting that The New York Times was soon calling New Orleans “the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools,” Klein defines “these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities” as the eponymous “disaster capitalism” whose history she is tracking.
Nor is Friedman just a passer-by. For more than three decades, Klein notes, Friedman and his many followers had been perfecting this disaster strategy, “waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players.” She cites his Capitalism and Freedom as articulating “capitalism’s core nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine.” There, Friedman wrote that “only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real changes. 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.”
Friedman became, unarguably, the most influential post-World War II economist in the world, displacing John Maynard Keynes, who had provided the outlines of the “welfare state” in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until the ascension, in the 1970s and 80s, of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the offices of British Prime Minister and U.S. President, respectively, that Freidman’s theories became official, mainstream, economic policy, emphasising reduction of the size of government, cuts in public spending, and the privatization of as much of the previous functions of the public sector as possible.
Friedman’s ideas, however, had received their try-out a decade earlier in Latin America, and from his academic base at the University of Chicago, he and like-minded colleagues had produced a generation of so-called “Chicago Boys,” economists who soon populated influential governmental posts throughout the region. Klein isn’t making the claim, as she is sometimes accused of doing by critics, that Friedman was personally engaged in or even supportive of every instance of economic shock therapy. For instance, his commitment to more or less unfettered free markets would mean that he disapproved of various moves by the International Money Fund and other institutions as government interference, even when the IMF policies followed his prescriptions and were administered by economists trained at Chicago. Rather, Klein’s point is that Friedman was the inspiration for a variety of free market “disaster” initiatives, irrespective of whether the governments taking them were nominally democratic or authoritarian. What’s more, Friedman was often on hand for advice on just such occasions.
The first instance of the exploitation of a large scale shock or crisis occurred in the mid-1970s, when Friedman acted as an adviser to the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, who, in a violent coup, covertly supported by the United States, had overthrown the democratically-elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Klein describes Friedman’s proposals for tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation (even Chilean public schools were replaced with voucher-funded private institutions) as “the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere.” Since so many of Pinochet’s economists had studied under Friedman at the University of Chicago, the transformation, which Friedman dubbed “shock treatment,” was known as a “Chicago School” revolution.
The economic shock treatment in Chile was accompanied by more literal versions “performed in the regime’s many torture cells.” If “disaster capitalism” is the primary pattern Klein detects in her book, the use of torture and execution is a secondary, frequently interwoven, pattern that she identifies in a plethora of historical instances. “Many in Latin America,” Klein declares, “saw a direct connection between the economic shocks that impoverished millions and the epidemic of torture that punished hundreds of thousands of people who believed in a different kind of society.” Again and again, throughout Latin America in the 1970s, Klein documents authoritarian, violent takeovers of government, quickly followed by the shock of extreme capitalism implemented by policy makers trained by Friedman’s Chicago School.
Klein, who began writing her book while the U.S. was in the midst of its self-proclaimed “Shock and Awe” attack on Iraq and the subsequent free market “reconstruction” of the country, gives herself a broader investigatory mandate than the gruesome events of Latin America. In New Orleans, Iraq, Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Poland and Russia in the post-Berlin Wall period, East Asia during its fiscal crisis of the late 1990s, and even in China and post-apartheid South Africa, she traces similar shocks and reconstructions. The circumstances of disaster she examines are various and “economics was by no means the sole motivator,” she admits, nor were the traumatic episodes always overtly violent, “but in each case a major collective shock was exploited to prepare the ground for economic shock therapy.” In almost all the cases she explores, there is little evidence that the free market policies improved the lives of the inhabitants affected by them.
Klein’s book, finally, is conceived as “a challenge to the central and most cherished claim in the official story — that the triumph of deregulated capitalism has been born of freedom, that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy itself.” In making that challenge, she also offers some sensible cautions: “I am not arguing that all forms of market systems are inherently violent. It is eminently possible to have a market-based economy… [that] coexists with free public health care, with public schools, with a large segment of the economy — like a national oil company — held in state hands.” It’s equally possible, she adds, to require decent wages, workers’ rights, and redistribution of wealth. “Markets need not be fundamentalist.” But in instance after instance, she demonstrates that the imposition of radical free market policies seldom occurs in conditions of enhanced democracy; indeed such policies, whether implemented by authoritarian regimes or the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, tend to be accompanied by a brutal curtailment of freedom.
What follows Klein’s initial overview is an ambitious account that need not be reprised in detail here (but needs to be read in all its devilish detail), a panoramic story that ranges from military coups in Brazil and Chile in the 1960s and 70s to the terrorism, wars, tsunamis and hurricanes of the last decade. Whether or not one entirely agrees with the delineation of the macro-economic “patterns” that Klein claims to recognize, her book offers a bold thesis, substantial research as well as first-hand reporting, and popular readability, all at the right political moment in the decade. For her generation, Klein conveys something of the urgency and astuteness that a previous era of radical readers had found in the work of Noam Chomsky.
The reception of The Shock Doctrine is also noteworthy. Klein had again written a best-seller, one that was widely reviewed, promptly translated into multiple languages, and named to numerous book-of-the-year lists. Succeeding editions carried an impressive roster of endorsements from economists, historians and political journalists, as well as writers and other cultural figures. Novelist Arundhati Roy hailed the book as “nothing less than the secret history of what we call the ‘free market’”; William Kowinski saw it as a possible revelation of “the master narrative of our time”; John Berger praised Klein as “an accusing angel.”
Even discounting for the hyperbole, thoughtful analysts reckoned that Klein had recognized something important. The British social critic John Grey saw Klein’s critique of neo-liberalism as both timely and devastating. “Many of the ideas of the far left,” he writes, “have found new homes on the right.” Once upon a time, it was the communist revolutionary Lenin who believed that conditions of catastrophic upheaval were crucial to social transformation; today, “the devastation of entire societies has been a key part of the neo-liberal cult of the free market,” says Gray.
Throughout the world, Gray argues, “policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale. Anyone who has watched a country lurch from one crisis to another as the bureaucrats of the IMF impose cut after cut in pursuit of the holy grail of stabilisation will recognize the process Naomi Klein describes in her latest and most important book to date.” The Shock Doctrine, he says, is one of those “very few books that really help us understand the present.” Disaster capitalism, Gray foresees, writing exactly one year before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of a global Great Recession, “is now creating disasters larger than it can handle.” (John Gray, “The End of the World as We Know It,” The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2007.)
The 2001 Nobel Prize winner for economics, Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank and Bill Clinton administration economist, and currently a Columbia University professor, also thought “Klein’s ambitious look at the economic history of the last 50 years and the rise of free-market fundamentalism around the world” a significant accomplishment. “Klein provides a rich description of the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries, and of the human toll,” Stiglitz writes, adding, “she paints a disturbing portrait of hubris, not only on the part of Milton Friedman but also of those who adopted his doctrines, sometimes to pursue more corporatist objectives. It is striking to be reminded how many of the people involved in the Iraq War were involved earlier in other shameful episodes in United States foreign policy history. She draws a clear line from the torture in Latin America in the 1970s to that at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay,” the two most notorious allegedly anti-terrorist prisons of the last decade.
As for the economics of the book, Stiglitz admits that “Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one. There are many places in her book where she oversimplifies. But Friedman and the other shock therapists were also guilty of oversimplification, basing their belief in the perfection of market economies on models that assumed perfect information, perfect competition, perfect risk markets. Indeed, the case against these policies is even stronger than the one Klein makes.” Some of that case is made in Stiglitz’s own subsequent book, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (2010).
Stiglitz recognizes that Klein isn’t a professional economist but a journalist, and what he likes about her work is that “she travels the world to find out firsthand what really happened on the ground during the privatization of Iraq, the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the continuing Polish transition to capitalism and the years after the African National Congress took power in South Africa, when it failed to pursue redistributionist policies.” Stiglitz anticipates that Klein will be viewed by opponents as a mere conspiracy theorist. He points out that it’s “not the conspiracies that wreck the world but the series of wrong turns, failed policies, and little and big unfairnesses that add up.” Not conspiracies, but a mind-set: “Market fundamentalists never really appreciated the institutions required to make an economy function well, let alone the broader social fabric that civilizations require to prosper and flourish.” (Joseph Stiglitz, “Bleakonomics,” The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2007.)
Klein’s book also had no shortage of detractors, even among left-liberals who otherwise provided much of the chorus of praise. Perhaps the most dismissive of the criticisms was a lengthy essay in The New Republic (Jonathan Chait, “Dead Left,” July 30, 2008), but Klein was also shrugged off by the Left Business Observer (“Awe, Shocks,” March 2008), and frequently seen as a dupe of conspiracy theories (Tom Redburn, “It’s All a Grand Capitalist Conspiracy,” The New York Times, Sept. 29, 2007).
The most substantial of the critiques, Jonathan Chait’s, is also notable for a tone that mixes ill-disguised resentment (and perhaps some envy) at Klein’s prominence as a social critic, with a dismissal of her intellectual capability that tends to equate her with the nitwit teenagers who featured in the 1989 movie comedy, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In that justly forgotten nerdish epic, the boys make use of a fortuitously available time machine in a desperate bid to pass their history exam. “It seems like a very long time — though in truth only a few years have passed — since the most sinister force on the planet that the left could imagine was Nike,” is Chait’s heavy-handed sardonic opener.
There’s a thumbnail sketch of Klein’s progress from “red diaper baby” (she comes from a leftist family, and is married to Avi Lewis, a younger member of a prominent Canadian social democratic lineage) to spokesperson for the “defining causes” of the era (she writes for The Guardian, The Nation and other lefty publications), and “darling of the left.” But under it all, Chait’s point appears to be that Klein is a simply a “classic Marxist-materialist” analyst, with a bit of derivative Frankfurt School cultural critique tossed in. It’s not clear whether Chait’s claim that she “managed to make old notions feel new” is an observation or a complaint, and it’s never said what exactly is wrong with Klein’s rediscovery of the evils of capitalism.
The main charge against Klein is that her book “has a single, uncomplicated explanation for everything that ails us,” namely “the worldwide spread of free-market absolutism as it was formulated by Milton Friedman.” That is, the great flaw of The Shock Doctrine is its over-simplifications, “an extremely crude sort of Marxist economicism” that “leaves little room for the non-economic varieties of conflict, such as ethnic or sectarian strife.” In the end, Chait says, “Klein’s relentless lumping together of all her ideological adversaries in the service of a monocausal theory of the world ultimately renders her analysis perfect nonsense.”
Other critics, such as Tom Redburn, also charge Klein with seeing “everything” as an opportunity “for a particularly ruthless form of capitalism to succeed where it otherwise would never take hold.” He admits that “there’s a measure of truth about the dark side of globalization in all this, but that’s a lot to lay on poor Milton [Friedman].” The unsigned critic of Left Business Observer thinks that there’s little new or “secret” in Klein, and that it’s simplistic to put such varied instances into a single theory. The LBO reviewer is a bit more-leftist-than-thou, chiding Klein for not including more pre-1970 history (particularly the Vietnam War) and for being nostalgic “for the Keynesian welfare state model,” implying that more than Scandinavian-style social democracy is going to be required to solve the deeper crisis.
Since Klein is a literate person, she’s perfectly capable of responding to her critics and has (see www.naomiklein.com; her specific rejoinder is posted on Sept. 11, 2008). Perhaps the most eloquent feature of her reply is the simply the citation of unemployment statistics in countries that have undergone economic shocks and shock treatment, whether it’s the quarter of all Russians who were living in desperate poverty in the mid-90s, or the doubling of unemployment in post-apartheid South Africa, or the extraordinary unemployment and absolute poverty numbers in post-communist Poland and other former Soviet Bloc countries.
Nor is Klein about to disappear. She continues to wade into the daily debate. A Wall Street Journal article declared, in the wake of the 2010 Chilean earthquake, that countless Chilean lives had been saved thanks to the strict building codes instituted by Milton Friedman, whose “spirit was surely hovering protectively over” the country. Klein pointed out that there “one rather large problem with this theory”: the building codes were instituted in 1972 by the socialist government that was overthrown by Pinochet’s coup the following year. And, in any case, she adds, Friedman was ambivalent about building codes, seeing them as “yet another infringement on capitalist freedom.” (Naomi Klein, “Milton Friedman did not save Chile,” The Guardian, Mar. 3, 2010.)
It may be that Klein’s “pattern recognition” of “disaster capitalism” is over-extended. Still, I’m disposed to give her the benefit of the doubt in most instances, and I’m not much interested in whether her manner or fame are irritating to some. If anything, the years of the global capitalist crisis since The Shock Doctrine was published tend to bear out Klein’s and others’ arguments about unregulated free-market capitalism. The accuracy of Klein’s “pattern recognition” is important, but it’s outweighed, in my view, by the overall substance of her narrative.
For myself, Klein’s work in the last decade inspires two reflections, perhaps also a bit simplistic, about history and memory. Whether or not Klein has absolutely correctly recognized the patterns of the past half century, her tour of benighted and brutalized places on the globe (as if everywhere, including the “homeland,” are now among Conrad’s “dark places of the earth”) is a historical reminder of the horrors of our time. If overt torture doesn’t occur in every historical episode Klein examines, her insistence on its ubiquity seems appropriate.
One reviewer chides Klein for repeatedly implying “that there is something immoral about using crises to advance the right-wing agenda without explaining why this is so.” I suppose Klein could say more about why it’s morally dismaying that the richest country in the world thinks it is acceptable that 50 million of its citizens have no access to health care. On the other hand, the U.S. insistence on the privatization and outsourcing of everything from health care to the interrogation of its war prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere may not require additional moral disapprobation to be understood. By now, you would think, the effects of unfettered capitalism are clear enough to warrant a measure of Beckettian gloom.
As one of the readers of The Shock Doctrine who has lived through all of the historical events adumbrated in its pages, I’m surprised by both how much I’ve forgotten and how much I never understood. Even though I don’t think of myself as someone given to the instant amnesia that characterizes much of contemporary mentality and mindlessness, I’d more or less completely forgotten that Boris Yeltsin had come to power in post-Soviet Russia in a bloody coup. Further, I realized, reading Klein, that I either hadn’t paid sufficient attention or actually understood the attempted shock therapy program meant to catapult Russia into contemporary capitalism and away from the faded social democratic dreams of the deposed Mikhail Gorbachev.
What’s more, I’d worked as a journalist in Poland a quarter century ago during the Solidarnosc period, and had interviewed the shipyard workers of Gdansk, with their yearnings for a democratic syndicalist future, but I hadn’t really followed the subsequent radical free market policies that crushed those vague yearnings without necessarily enriching the country’s inhabitants. I knew something had gone economically wrong in post-apartheid South Africa, but I wasn’t sure what. Much of Klein’s writing works as an aide-memoire to our own times.
In terms of writing in the last decade, the most prominent literary figures among Naomi Klein’s Canadian compatriots are undoubtedly Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje. But I think a case can be made that Klein is not only her country’s bestselling author of the last ten years, but also its most relevant writer.
Berlin, March 7, 2010.