Is There a Shock Doctrine?

I visited my daughter Sarah in Tucson last spring, where she is enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arizona. She took me to one of her favorite coffee shops, “Revolutionary Grounds,” which has excellent coffee and a great shelf of liberal to Marxist books on a variety of subjects. There was a whole section devoted to books by Howard Zinn, certainly to be expected, and another shelf for books by Noam Chomsky, also to be expected, and a fascinating selection of books on politics and society in Latin America, emerging nations, colonialism and decolonization, and the like. I was impressed, especially in the fact that it is hard to find such a strong collection of leftist political publications in Washington, D.C., where I have lived and worked for more than twenty years.

Naomi Klein

My daughter told me about Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine. In it Klein asserts, more than demonstrates, that the neoliberal free market ideology that has arisen to virtually unquestioned prominence in the period since the 1970s were implemented in the aftermath of disasters, real or imagined, natural or concocted. The advocates of this ideology, many of them trained at the University of Chicago where Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman reigned for many years, have been unrelenting in their efforts to capitalize on these crises and may have even manufactured them to gain a toehold in pushing through unpopular agendas.

From the assassination in Chile of Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1973 and the rise of rightwing dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, Klein sees crisis as the mobilizing vehicle for radical neoliberal changes. Between these two major events, Klein focuses on the baldfaced use by Margaret Thatcher of the Falklands War to ram through privatization of key industries in the UK. She views the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq as the most comprehensive and full-scale implementation of the shock doctrine ever attempted. Although not discussed in the book because it took place after the book’s publication, Klein would view the assault on the social safety net currently underway, using as a pretext the federal deficit and national debt, as another instance of the shock doctrine in operation.

The question I keep pondering having now finished reading The Shock Doctrine is this: how much of what we see happening around us is deliberate, planned, and conspiratorial? And how much of it is simply “the fine art of muddling through,” in the words of political scientist Charles E. Lindblom? It seems to me that Klein has done enormous service in showing the trends in recent politics and economics. But her work may go too far. I am enormously hesitant to explain by conspiracy theory that which might be explained in another manner. I understand the meaning of carpe diem very well, and suggesting that people use circumstances to their advantage is very different from suggesting that they engineered the circumstances to enable the changes they envision. I should add that Klein is very careful in her book to not walk to far toward the edge of the conspiracy cliff, although a lot of other people are doing so and using her work as supportive of any number of wild conspiracy theories.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet reviewing Chilean troops.

So I ask my core question: Is there a Shock Doctrine? My response, and it might be satisfactory only to myself, is yes and no. Yes, there has been a neoliberal trend gaining steam and power in the last thirty-plus years. There is no question about that. That trend has gained traction from ideas generated in neo-liberal, libertarian, and conservative think tanks, universities, and intelligentsia. Its proponents in the political world around the globe have indeed used crises to press for the adoption of ideas supporting this trend. The Shock Doctrine is certainly true in that sense.

The next part of the idea, again more vocally pressed by people other than Klein, says that these crises have been constructed to create an opportunity for neoliberal transformation. I would offer a cautious no to accepting the argument in that regard. This conspiracy theory, like almost all conspiracy theories, seems too all powerful, too amorphous, and too ominous to be fully believable. Taking nothing away from Naomi Klein’s analysis, which is overall quite valuable, I tend to agree with one reviewer who concluded that there is too much of a penchant for explaining this trend through conspiracy when “others might discern little more than the all-too-human pattern of chaos and confusion, good intentions and greed” (Washington Post, November 25, 2007).

I’m curious what others think about The Shock Doctrine and its place in recent public discourse. Please let me know. I truly believe Naomi Klein deserves real credit for bringing into public discourse a set of ideas that deserve serious consideration, discussion, and incorporation into the democratic commons.

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5 Responses to Is There a Shock Doctrine?

  1. Jim Fleming says:

    Amazing that Tucson would have a better radical book shop than DC. I wonder too for every neo-liberal conspiracy theory, if there are ne0-Marxist, Keynesian, Statist, equivalent theories. So how about a book on “shock doctrines?”


    • launiusr says:

      There may be a really good one in Washington, but I haven’t found it yet. If anyone knows of one, please let me know. I want to Busboys and Poets on Saturday and found that the books had basically been moved out for other merchandise. I find that sad, but not surprising.


  2. John says:

    I really don’t believe in over-riding conspiracys (SP?). I find it difficult to credit enough people with enough intelligence to effectively empower a conspiracy. Most folks just muddle through, trying to slant their circumstance to favor their pet bias.
    I only regret that John Wayne or Tom Selleck will never be president. Too damn many liberals; I think I’ll start a conspiracy to shut down liberal thinking! Ah well; I’m probably not smart enough.


  3. Roger:

    Is there a paragraph missing from your post? There appears to be a jump between paragraphs 1 and 2. Maybe it’s just me, but I found reference to Naomi Klein to be coming out of nowhere.

    Oddly enough, a lot of folks I know assume that the social services safety net is under attack as part of a GOP plan to undo the Great Society and the New Deal. I doubt that many would use the perjorative “conspiracy theory” to describe this. It’s just accepted as being what is currently happening (and has been happening since Reagan).



  4. John P. Jones says:

    Oh no, David. That one actually is a conspiracy that I organized a few years ago. I began it when I got back from VietNam and realized that the perpetrator of the Great Society was the same perpetrator of the event that claimed around the lives of about 50,000 of my fellows. After all, can anything good come from Duvall County?


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