Monday, February 23, 2009

The Shock Doctrine 2: The Torture Lab

Edit: Go check out Matt's post on this chapter, including some more linkage to the shock experiments Klein wrote of.

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about, click the Shock Doctrine tag below to take you to the first installment and the introduction.)

Chapter 1 of The Shock Doctrine may be one of the hardest things I've ever had to read. Naomi Klein is investigating the ideology of torture, and drawing comparisons with the ideology of radical capitalism.

I call it radical capitalism because in some sense, so far, the point that I've taken from the book is that this type of Chicago-boys disaster capitalism is a revolutionary ideology. And the problem with ALL revolutionary ideologies, whether they be this type of capitalism, the communism in opposition to which it was defined, or even radical feminism, is that they require a blank slate upon which to build. And it is impossible to create that blank slate without utter destruction of what was there before.

(Once again, I will refer to Obama's pragmatism and the quote from his inaugural address, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.")

Erik asked in comments on my first post if capitalism was the last ideology, and I don't know. What I do know is that if news reports like this one are to be believed, the neocons haven't given up yet on their radical capitalism, and are blaming Bush, in fact, for not being ideological enough. And so we still discuss.

Matt noted in his first post that this kind of capitalism was "(Creative) destruction in order to cleanse the world of corruption." And in this chapter Klein delves into literal shock therapy and torture to draw frightening conclusions.

Torture is not incidental to Iraq war policy, Klein shows. Instead, it is an outgrowth of the very same ideology, which Klein sums up so well:

The problem, obvious in retrospect, was the premise on which his entire theory rested, the idea that before healing can happen, everything that existed before needs to be wiped out. (57)

By telling the story of Gail Kastner, a woman experimented upon and broken by CIA-funded experiments at McGill University, Klein brings painfully home what was done to people. Again, she knows how to make the story stick and make it personal. And the most frightening thing that she tells us isn't just that our governments conspired to torture innocent civilians who made the mistake of seeking help for anxiety, but that the people who did this believed they were doing good.

It is easy to write off the neocons as evil. Dick Cheney provides a particularly easy punching bag for those of us on the left. But Klein shows us both that these policies were in effect long before the rise of Cheney and Bush (the shift not being in policy but being in openness about policy), and that these people quite often do think in a strange way that they're helping.

Because yes, capitalism is predicated upon greed and the people who force it on the rest of the world are thinking about their own enrichment. But they are also true believers, and this is what's so scary.