Sunday, December 2, 2007

On The Shock Doctrine

On Wednesday, November 28, 2007 I heard Naomi Klein speak at NYU to a standing room only audience about her most recent book, Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein actually was sharing the stage with my colleague Lisa Hajjar, an expert on torture and international law. The main argument Klein put forward was that the Chicago School of economic theory initiated by Milton Friedman advanced a program of what became known as neo-liberalism (and is now called neo-conservatism) that was so unpopular in developing countries that it could be advanced only by the use of brute force. Torture was not used to gain information but to terrorize populations so that they would not resist the economic policies imposed by dictators influenced by an ideology that nurtured cronyism and corporatism.

The argument is an intriguing one but it is not ultimately sustainable because it ignores the role nationalism played in establishing these military regimes, the nationalism of the U.S. as well as the developing countries. Hajjar began her talk by trying to elide the difference between Klein's analysis and Hajjar's own focus on the nationalism informing the Israeli use of torture, subtly mentioning national security as an independent ideology also allowing governments to impose practices that otherwise would be opposed but without mentioning the absence of neo-liberalism in many contexts. During the Q and A I asked Klein about this. To paraphrase, I suggested that there are numerous examples of torture that is not being done to advance neo-liberal agendas; and there are numerous examples of neo-liberal reforms that did not require torture. In fact some populations accept torture and other repressive policies used on their fellow citizens out of nationalist fervor, and not because they are afraid. I also mentioned the U.S. Congress's rejection of the immigration bill last summer as an example of the majoritary's nationalism trumping the alleged neo-liberal values of economic elites.

Klein replied that by privatizing homeland security, neo-liberalism has absorbed
nationalist values. Homeland security and nationalism is another avenue to make money--and the private security firms in Iraq would be another example. Her point was that capitalists have figured out how to make money off of nationalism--a lot of money--and therefore the business community no longer sees nationalism as antagonistic to their agenda.

For reasons I'll explain below, I don't buy this dismissal of the role of nationalism in perpetrating state violence, and nationalism's incommensurability with liberalism, but Klein seemed to know a lot and I bought her book. Although her central political point is not supportable, the narrative masterfully weaves together microanalyses of historically independent episodes from the CIAs mind control research in 1950s Canada to the compromised role of the Ford Foundation in supporting Friedman's South American economic shock troops to detailed stories of neoliberal programs from Chile to South Africa to Poland and Russia. The theory is wrong but Klein's facts are one important piece of the story about government repression and she is an outstanding writer.

Here's the problem: Klein is partly right but neoliberalism is not the complete story, and not even the most important one in most contexts. Everyone from Israel to Iraq tortured for reasons that had nothing to do with neoliberalism, and the U.S. "war on terror" has nothing to do with neoliberal agendas, though these accommodate the war. Klein does not want to discuss noneconomic motives for torture and state violence because focusing on the nationalism explicitly invoked by the various political and military leaders who are her protagonists in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Poland, and Russia, is not good for Klein's 1990s "anti-globalization" agenda. Klein comes out of the anti-NAFTA, anti-GATT, anti-WTO movements that were advancing the very parochial, nationalist commitments of the juntas who were torturing people.

This is not to say that so-called indigenous peoples protesting in Seattle favored torture or any other policies of the death sqauds, but it is to say that the belief in a "native" people that should be protected from "outsiders" was also an ideology the Nazis shared and that in less dramatic circumstances appears in political contexts worldwide.

For instance, in today's elections, Putin did not receive 61% of the vote in Russia because people are pleased with his economic reforms, or because he is torturing people, but because he has been bellicose in defying the U.S. on Russian defense (recently withdrawing from a treaty that would have limited Russian army presence near European borders), renationalization (not privatization) of oil, and feeding bigotry against non-Russian residents. And in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is telling voters that voting against the Constitutional change that would make him a dictator is the same as voting for George Bush. In other words, dictators are gaining power from majorities to deprive people of civil rights from the people themselves because of nationalism and not merely compliance under the threat of force.

Klein's story is one of WTO strong arm tactics against suffering developing economies, but the truth always has been that rich countries have had more money to devote to protecting their domestic industries than have poor countries. As long as the WTO could be enforced across the board and rich countries did not evade the rulings it promised to help developing countries, and now this promise is bearing fruit as developing countries are using the WTO mechanism to file complaints against the U.S., a fact Klein ignores. For instance, in July, 2007 Brazil filed a claim against the U.S. for subsidizing agricultural exports.

The Left seems still to have an easy time talking about economic inequality and political economic structures of oppression, but a very hard time grappling with nationalism and embracing cosmopolitanism. Today's Left would not be responsive to servants of aristocrats worried about the fading of old world culture alongside the demise of feudalism, but reveal a misplaced sentimentality for "indigeneity," a code word for nativism or nationalism. (For more on the nationalist and not economic motives for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, see this posting.) Perhaps a way to bring together Klein's persuasive account of the state robberies that required extreme violence with the nationalism that accompanied this is to refuse to use the Chicago
School's language of liberalization altogether. As Klein points out, the main thrust of the plans was privatization. Robbers also like to privatize. This has nothing to do with liberalism.

Instead of a compatbility between liberalism, neo- or otherwise, and nationalism--the ostensible narrative--Klein's is a story of nationalism and force, assisted by a lie that these were outcomes of open markets and choice. If only these reforms really were liberal, and not the expression of U.S. military priorities determined by its Cold War with Russia, as well as the nationalism and greed motivating the repressive forces in other countries as well. Klein herself begins with the CIA's Cold War development of shock therapy but then fails to see how the facts she discovers mark a trail of nationalist and not just economic pathways of violence.

Again, this is a compelling book presenting fascinating material with clarity, intelligence, and passion.

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