Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In my typical poky way, it took me awhile to get to Naomi Klein's slashing political / economic analysis of global neoliberalism across the second half of the 20th century, and by the time I did it all might have been obviated anyway by a turn toward nativist (I use the term ironically) authoritarianism in the US, a turn that suddenly makes neoliberalism look not so bad. That's one of their tricks, because neoliberalism is actually pretty bad. At some point in the past 50 years our wealthy friends and neighbors appear to have decided Keynesianism was a problem—probably because it worked, in terms of leveling and providing economic opportunity for more folks. Neoliberalism, in its conception, bases most of its hoodoo on the mystical magical wisdom of "The Market," and makes those folks work a lot harder and longer—generations and centuries—before it does much good, if it ever does. But at least The Shock Doctrine is still a good read, if you don't mind getting mad every day.

Maybe the biggest jolt is how Klein keeps finding ways to light up the word "shock." She goes all the way back to the coming of electroshock therapy (EST) after World War II, a treatment regime designed to atomize one personality and replace it with another (subsequently discredited though EST has been somewhat recredited in recent years, as the understanding of its effects has changed). Klein's poetic riffing on the point might even seem fanciful, at least until she starts to lay out the kinds of systematic torture practiced under Augusto Pinochet and other dictators in South America in the '70s. Partly what's so horrifying is that they were all doing the same things—the levels of centralization suggested by that are chilling and, yes, shocking. And much of it involved electricity.

The animating point for the book, indeed, could be the resemblance of those tactics at that time to what had been happening during the occupation of Iraq by the US in the 2000s under Bush/Cheney. Same stuff, basically, down to details: late-night kidnaps ("disappearings"), heads covered by hoods, sensory deprivation, and lots of electricity as a common currency of pain (starting with cattle prods and becoming more elaborate). It turns out to be no coincidence, of course—there's a playbook, in use for decades around the world. Yet the torture itself is beside the point, except as a tool to coerce fear and wide-scale obedience. What matters more in the long term is the way democratic impulses are systematically undermined and overridden, when they haven't served the interests of shadowy worldwide oligarchs. It's a pattern repeated over and over, as documented by Klein here. A calamity occurs, a coup, an invasion, government collapse, even a natural disaster. It creates confusion, chaos, muddled thinking in the public discourse—shock. Neoliberals then ride to the rescue in consideration for control of state-owned functions. These privatizing rescuers (whose single merit is that they hold capital) are awarded unbelievable bonanzas such as entire national water and power industries. Russia and the reign of Putin are one of the best examples.

Klein traces the origins of this pattern in Chile, from September 11, 1973, the day of the coup by Pinochet that installed military dictatorship in Chile and ensuing widespread economic miseries (with the neoliberal overlords of course growing rich from it). She traces the pattern all through South America in the '70s and '80s, followed by Poland, South Africa (the most heartbreaking story of them all), the former USSR, Asia, and finally the US by way of Iraq. Klein synthesizes the histories, fortified by an aching mountain of references, into a more or less easily grasped big picture of tremendous deceit and bad faith on a huge scale. Even as neoliberalism appears to be continually failing—certainly in the short term for the majority of people—its claws are sunk deep into our political and financial systems, bleeding all of us white by slow degrees.

Or that was the story anyway until 2016. At first, last year, it was easy to take the surprising rise of Donald Trump, eventually all the way to the US presidency, as more of same. In the first place, it was as plain a shock as I've seen in public life, short of 9/11 or JFK (which I don't really remember that well)—a shock most of us still feel, though that seems to be the only thing we agree on. (Even his supporters were surprised—even Trump was surprised.) But into the emotional void created by this shock I'm not sure what we are seeing is neoliberalism anymore, though it might be neoliberalism finally taking its mask off. Donald Trump's GOP has no evident concern for public welfare, beyond the needs of its donor class, whose requirements are more than ever antithetical to the rest of us. To pay for their tax cuts, for example, millions of people are likely to lose healthcare and other essential services. This GOP (whose culture has been in place longer than Trump's age) ignores and tramples on all the usual conventions of deliberation for momentous legislation, and indeed tries to schedule votes to occur before the bad news has a chance to travel far.

They're not even pretending anymore, in other words. The results can be gauged by the way reviled figures such as George W. Bush and his speechwriter David Frum, and many others, have been embraced as heroes for making statements critical of the Trump regime. The expectation is that Trump means us no good whatsoever. This GOP represents people with plenty who just want more, and they're willing to take from the neediest and most vulnerable because they have the power to make it legal. We know those tax cuts will do little to stimulate the economy. Voter suppression continues apace and increasingly gives the unscrupulous the edge. We are entering a period of raw battles for survival, and not just of ideas. We could very well see nuclear war, unimaginable levels of grotesque violence and death, epidemics, crushing climate change, and worse. As you can see, this book still has the power to put a person in a very bad mood, more convinced than ever that something is deeply wrong with the way we've organized ourselves.

In case it's not at the library.

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