Reflecting on 'The Shock Doctrine'

I have finally finished reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – only about two years after I started it!  I do just need to point out that this isn’t because the book isn’t good or engaging (it’s both): it’s more about the fact that shortly after I started reading it I found myself unemployed, living under a Tory-led coalition government enacting ‘austerity’ measures in order to save our economy, and I’d reached the chapter about Thatcherism…  (and I grew up in the 1980s, in Cornwall…) That’s a combination of factors guaranteed to make most people hide under the bedclothes in the morning, so I put the book aside until I was in a more stable place, and have been slowly knocking off the rest of it since. 

Her central thesis concerns the way that, from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, the governments and other institutional structures of the nations of the western hemisphere (and she is especially concerned with the influence of the US in this) have used moments of crisis – economic, environmental and military – to institute policies and practices that benefit a private, global, capitalist elite, based on ideas coming from Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.  So, crisis points are used as opportunities to start over – by privatising companies when trying to kick-start economies, using international, private contractors rather than local companies to rebuild former war zones, cutting back on government in order to shock people and the market into solving their problems for themselves.  It’s an economic Darwinism that takes no account of history or geography, or any kind of context at all. The book is a pretty powerful read, and actually, it’s probably best read at a slower pace so that you can digest and engage with it – and also so that you don’t get swept up by it.  Naomi Klein is both passionate and good at rhetoric, and while I share a lot of her concerns I don’t want to go so far so fast that I jump on her bandwagon without thinking it through.

I really appreciate the fact that, as she’s coming to a close she does say, ‘Look, I’m not saying this is all an epic global conspiracy, but…’ And it’s true, in the upper echelons of governments, economies and societies, people do tend to overlap all the time.  They want to play and work with their friends, and to help them out – that’s a pretty natural part of living in a community and getting along with people. The problem comes when you don’t think about how all the things you’re doing as you do that affect other people (and you affect a lot of other people if you’ve reached the point of being part of a national or international elite).  It becomes an even larger problem when you’re part of the elite in a society, or group of societies, which puts financial gain at the top of a list of Good Things, because you become in danger of entering a zone where the people don’t matter, the money does.  

What I like about the book is that it wants to challenge that mentality – but doesn’t just offer one way or an ideal way of doing it, preferring to provoke you to think about it yourself.  I like that she circles to noticing that actually, after a while, societies become inured to shocks – or rather, they learn to ride them out, developing ways of dancing along to the insecurities of the world, relatively comfortable in a discomfort that never ends, surviving.  She uses the Latin American countries who were the first testing grounds of the ‘shock doctrine’ as her example here, as they form new systems based around local cooperatives and natural, geographical alliances; where the people have the power and are developing new – or more persistent – ways of making the power they have effective.

It feels kind of similar, in attitude, to the ambitions of the Occupy movements over the last year: that desire to find a different kind of system, a different way of doing government and society.  It rejects the ‘Big Society’ idea of Cameron’s Tories, which wants to scale back government, but embraces the idea of community and society as something that can work, in a way that aims to rethink what a government looks like and how we, the people, engage with it and become ‘better’ citizens.  We can debate what it should look like, and challenge each other every step of the way (which will have the added benefit of helping to keep each other honest), but the point of the idea is that it will never look exactly the same for very long – that we finally grow up and say, ‘It’s ok, being secure is not the most important thing in the world – having a decent, human life is.’




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