Democracy, Suspended Until Further Notice
The last half century shows how deliberately - and effectively - the shock doctrine strategy has been deployed by governments to overcome democratic resistance to profoundly damaging policies. And some kind of democracy-avoidance strategy is needed, because many neoliberal policies are so unpopular that people reliably reject them both at the polls and in the streets. With good reason: as the tremendous hoarding (and hiding) of vast sums of wealth by a small and unaccountable global class of virtual oligarchs makes clear, those who benefit most from these radical social restructurings are a small minority, while the majority see their standard of living stagnate or slip, even in periods of rapid economic growth. Which is why, for those who are determined to push through these policies, majority rule and democratic freedoms aren't a friend - they are a hindrance and a threat.
Not every neoliberal policy is unpopular, of course. People do like tax cuts (for the middle class and working poor, if not for the super-rich), as well as the idea of cutting "red tape" (at least in theory). But they also, on the whole, like their taxes to pay for state-funded health care, clean water, good public schools, safe workplaces, pensions, and other programs for the elderly and disadvantaged. Politicians planning to slash these kinds of essential programs and services, or to privatize them, are rightly wary of putting those plans at the center of their electoral platforms. Far more common is for neoliberal politicians to campaign on promises of cutting taxes and government waste while protecting essential services, and then, under the cover of some sort of crisis (real or exaggerated), claim, with apparent reluctance and wringing of hands, that, sorry, we have no choice but to go after your health care.
Doing It Fast and All At Once
The bottom line is that hard-core free marketers or "libertarians" (as billionaire Koch brothers describe themselves) are attracted to moments of cataclysm because non-apocalyptic reality is actually inhospitable to their antidemocratic ambitions.
Speed is the essence in all this, since periods of shock are temporary in nature. Like Bremer, shock-drunk leaders and their funders usually try to follow Machiavelli's advice in The Prince: "For injuries out to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less." The logic is straightforward enough: People can develop responses to sequential or gradual change. But if dozens of changes come from all directions at once, the hope is that populations will rapidly become exhausted and overwhelmed, and will ultimately swallow their bitter medicine. (Recall the description of Poland's shock therapy as unfolding in "dog years.")
The Shock Doctrine [http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine] was controversial when it came out in 2007. I was challenging a rosy version of history that many of us have grown up with - the version which tells us that deregulated markets and democracy advanced together, hand in hand, over the second half of the twentieth century. The truth, it turns out, is much uglier. The extreme form of capitalism that has been remaking our world in this period - which Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has termed "market fundamentalism" - very often could advance only in contexts where democracy was suspended and people's freedoms were sharply curtailed. In some cases, ferocious violence, including torture, was used to keep rebellious populations under control.
The late economist Milton Friedman called his most famous book Capitalism and Freedom, presenting human liberation and market liberation as flip sides of the same coin. And yet the first country to put Friedman's ideas into practice in unadulterated form was not a democracy - it was Chile, in the immediate aftermath of the CIA-supported coup that overthrew a democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, and installed a far-right dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.
This was not an accident - the ideas were just too unpopular to be introduced without the help of a strong-arm despot. Richard Nixon had famously growled after Allende won the 1070 elections: "Make the economy scream." With Allende left dead in the bloody coup, Friedman advised Pinochet that he should not blink when it came to economic transformation, prescribing what he termed the "shock treatment' approach. Under the advise of the famed economist and his former students (known in Latin America as "the Chicago Boys"), Chile replaced its public pay-as-you-go, and privatized kindergartens and cemeteries (and did many other things US Republicans have been eyeing for decades.) And recall: this was in a country whose people were distinctly hostile to exactly these policies - a country which had, before the coup, democratically chosen socialist policies.
Similar regimes were installed in several Latin American countries during this period. Leading intellectuals in the region drew a direct connection between the economic shock treatments that impoverished millions and the epidemic of torture that ravaged hundreds of thousands in Child, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil who believe in a fairer society. As the last Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano asked: "How can this inequality be maintained if not through jolts of electric shock?"
Latin America received a particularly strong dose of these twin forms of shock. Most "free-market" makeovers were not so bloody. Radical political transitions such as the collapse of the Soviet Union or the end of South African apartheid have also provided disorienting cover for neoliberal economic transformations. The most frequent midwife by far has been large-scale economic crisis, which time and again has been harnessed to demand radical campaigns of privatization, deregulation, and cuts to safety nets. But in truth any shock can do the trick - including natural disasters that require large-scale reconstruction and therefore provide an opening to transfer land and resources from the vulnerable to the powerful.
The Opposite of Decency
Most people are appalled by this kind of crisis exploitation, and with good reason. The shock doctrine is the polar opposite of the way decent people, left to their own devices, tend to respond when they see widespread trauma, wihc is to offer help. Think of the staggering $3 billion privately donated in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or the millions offered in response to the 2015 quake in Nepal or the 2004 Asian tsunami. These disasters, like so may others, provoked extraordinary gestures of generosity from individuals around the world. Thousands upon thousands of regular people donated money and volunteered their labor.
As the American historian and writer Rebecca Solnit has so eloquently described, disasters have a way of bringing out the best in us. It is in such moments that we often see some of the most moving displays of mutual aid and solidarity. In Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, despite decades of interethnic civil war, Muslims saved their Hindu neighbors and Hindus save their Buddhist neighbors. In flooded post-Katrina New Orleans, people put their own lives at great risk to rescue and care for their neighbors. After Superstorm Sandy hit New York, a remarkable network of volunteers fanned out across the city, under the banner of Occupy Sandy - it grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement - to serve hundreds of thousands of meals, help clear out more than a thousand homes, and provide clothing, blankets, and medical care to thousands of people in need.
The shock doctrine is about overriding these deeply human impulses to help, seeking instead to capitalize on the vulnerability of others in order to maximize wealth and advantage for a select few.
There are few things more sinister than that.
- Naomi Klein
Excerpted from the chapter Masters of Disaster,
from No Is Not Enough
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