When Hurricane Katrina swept into New Orleans in late August 2005, it destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure, including many of its public schools. Soon after, a network of conservative think tanks led by Milton Friedman, the founder of modern neo-liberal economics, pushed the Bush administration to impose a charter system in New Orleans. Charter schools-publicly funded schools run by private entities-are a politically polarizing issue in the United States, and Friedman saw in the still-reeling city a window. “[Katrina] is a tragedy,” he wrote in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal. “It is also an opportunity to radically reform [New Orleans’s] educational system.” The Bush administration was enthusiastic, and within 18 months New Orleans had become, according to the New York Times, “the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools.”
In her bold new history of post-World War II capitalism, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein points to the transformation of New Orleans’s educational system from a largely public to a largely private enterprise as an example of what she says is contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum: “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting marketing opportunities.”
In The Shock Doctrine, Klein sets for herself a sweeping and seemingly quixotic task: to establish that the belief in privatization and unregulated free markets that Milton Friedman formulated at the early 1960s-and which was later propagated in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and post-communist Europe-is intrinsically opposed to democracy; is, in its fervency and ambition, as fundamentalist and utopian as Marxist central planning; and flourishes best in states of disaster, a fact recognized and acted upon by its architects. “This book is a challenge,” Klein writes, “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.”
The Shock Doctrine is a sprawling book, touching on, among many other subjects, hyperinflation in Latin America, Israeli profiteering in the occupied territories, economic anarchy in post-communist Russia, war profiteering in Iraq, and resort building in post-tsunami Indonesia. While these topics are radically divergent, Klein shows how in each case public assets have been transferred into means for private gain. The crux of the matter in each case-public risk and private profit-would appear in essence no different from a 17th-century British mill dumping effluent into the Thames. Except, as Klein points out, that the U.S. and like-minded governments and institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund) have been the power and the support behind the public-to-private transfer.
The Shock Doctrine is written in a populist vein, and Klein’s language, while lucid, can be hot: She is fond of the phrases “corporatist crusade” and “corporatist supremacist ideology,” and she sometimes imputes cynical motivations to governments, corporations, and individuals that either do not seem plausible (Milton Friedman was not craven, as Klein implies), or are not sufficiently supported by evidence. Moreover, Klein’s use of a chilling metaphor-a method of CIA torture in which electro-shock treatment is used to induce a psychological “blank slate” among subjects-as a leitmotif for her discussion of disaster capitalism is dangerously suggestive. Though Klein does not explicitly say so, the torture metaphor, in concert with her strong language, seems to imply that business and government leaders actually look to create disasters, so as to have a blank economic slate upon which to operate. In a telephone interview with The Independent, Klein denied this, but more conspiratorial-minded readers may be swayed by her noisier rhetoric and decide that, for example, the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq purely out of cynical concern for American economic interests.
Despite her sometimes-intemperate style, Klein has written an impressive and important book. As the eminent British political philosopher John Gray wrote in a review published in London’s Guardian, “There are very few books that really help us understand the present. The Shock Doctrine is one of those books.”
As part of the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival, Naomi Klein will discuss The Shock Doctrine in a free lecture at Victoria Hall Theater on Saturday, September 29, at 8 p.m. For more information, call 8933535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.