Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Shock Doctrine 1: Blank is Beautiful

The introduction to The Shock Doctrine had my blood boiling by the end of the first page. Naomi Klein quickly drops us in post-Katrina New Orleans, and moves from a young man at a shelter (run by Scientologists, a possibly-irrelevant detail that simply shows off Klein's adept writing) to the churning brains of Republican congressmen and business developers who can't wait to tear down what's left of New Orleans and remake it in their image.

I love New Orleans--lived there for four years during college--and people who fuck with it evoke rage in me much like people who hurt my friends. I want to kill. And this is what Klein is going for. Her book isn't just a history of an economic movement, it's a call to arms, an incitement to engagement and action.

From the developers, she introduces us to Milton Friedman, noting that the famed Chicago free-market theorist called himself a preacher, and indeed his dogmas spread like many religions: winning converts at the top of society and then being forced on those at the bottom whether they liked it or not.

Klein's thesis for the book, laid out so simply in her introduction, is that Friedman's theories of free market capitalism were dependent on disaster for implementation. A major collective trauma (think Katrina) is inflicted on a society, and then quickly the capitalists step in with their prescriptions for help: Privatize, deregulate, and cut social spending.

In New Orleans, the school system, never that great, is now a collection of charter schools, the teacher's union contract gone. Most of the former teachers were fired, and some were rehired by the private charter schools at reduced salaries. And we all know about what happened to the public housing, right?

"Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change," Klein quotes Friedman, and this thought makes me cringe even more watching our economic crisis unfold.

Yes, the stimulus package just passed certainly is not Friedmanite policy, and for that I am thankful, but if it doesn't work and things only get worse, we may well end up with Republican majorities again and then, think of what could be implemented on a shocked and hungry America.

Klein says that the disaster capitalist Friedman disciples were "part of a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain and the way Christian-Zionist end-timers pray for the Rapture."

That sentence reminds me sharply of Max Weber's connection between capitalism and Calvinism, that Protestant movement that encouraged hard work in this world for a reward in the next. I'm sure there'll be more that will make this connection as I read on, but for now, it bears noting that the reason free market disciples came to power in this country was a marriage of convenience with the religious Right.

I've said before that when Bush and his cronies said "democracy," we should hear "capitalism," and when they said "freedom," we should hear "free markets." Klein also points out that the fight against communism which led to the fetishizing of capitalism in this country among everyday people was never framed as what it was: a fight FOR capitalism.

Klein isn't arguing for socialism, she's arguing for an examination of capitalism, one that is even more important right now. She notes that Friedmanite capitalism had, like many ideologies, a "signature desire for unattainable purity."

We cannot allow ourselves, in dealing with the current economic crisis, to fall prey to the same kind of thinking. Compromises will happen; mistakes will be made. What progressives have that neoconservatives don't is a concern for the welfare of everyone, and we can't let everyone suffer because of a desire for ideological purity.

(Make sure you read Matt's post as well. And please, comment, read along, discuss, point out things you think I missed...let's make this a real dialogue.)