Friday, 14 August 2009

Other takes on Shock Doctrine

I clearly have been reading the Guardian too long, and listening to the BBC excessively, because in the end I found some critics of Klein able to put aside bias and examine her arguments.

Here are some of my favourites, in order of pokiness:

NYT (a short triumphant slam)

"In the end, I suspect that Ms. Klein’s goal in writing “The Shock Doctrine” is not so much to persuade others to join her anti-globalization, anti-corporatist cause as it is to reinforce the dreams of those already convinced of its righteousness.

“We did not lose the battles of ideas,” she said in a recent speech to the American Sociological Association. “We were not outsmarted and we were not out-argued. We lost because we were crushed. Sometimes we were crushed by army tanks, and sometimes we were crushed by think tanks. And by think tanks I mean the people who are paid to think by the makers of tanks.”

That must be a comforting thought. If only it were that simple."

The New Republic, Jonathan Chait (probably definitive take-down, most close to my own ideas)

"Klein repeatedly implies that there is something immoral about using crises to advance the right-wing agenda without explaining why this is so. After all, Friedman wanted to overhaul the New Orleans public education system because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that vouchers would work better. If you thought your house was horribly designed, and a tornado flattened it, would you rebuild it exactly as before?The notion that crises create fertile terrain for political change, far from being a ghoulish doctrine unique to free-market radicals, is a banal and ideologically universal fact."


"With the pseudo-clarity of a conspiracy theorist, Klein dismisses out of hand the possibility of incompetence. There were memos warning the Army of looting, she ominously notes--scanting the possibility that bureaucratic lethargy, rather than conscious intent, prevented the memos' warnings from being acted upon at ground level. That widespread bungling and mismanagement also followed Hurricane Katrina strikes Klein as proof of intentionality. "The fact that exactly the same errors as those made in Iraq were instantly repeated in New Orleans," she remarks, "should put to rest the claim that Iraq's occupation was merely a string of mishaps and mistakes marked by incompetence and lack of oversight."


"The other piece of data that Klein cites to support her charge that Bush administration officials profit from the disasters that they cause is Vice President Cheney's holdings in Halliburton. "When he leaves office in 2009 and is able to cash in his Halliburton holdings," she charges, "Cheney will have the opportunity to profit extravagantly from the stunning improvement in Halliburton's fortunes." This is a spectacular accusation--that the driving force behind the Iraq war stands to gain millions of dollars from it. You might wonder why John Kerry did not make this an issue in 2004, or why liberal pundits have not crusaded against Cheney's blatant self-dealing. The answer, of course, is that it is completely untrue. Cheney has signed a legally binding agreement to donate to charity any increase in his Halliburton stock. (Honest-- you can look this up on Lord knows Rumsfeld and Cheney have committed enough actual misdeeds not to need indicting with imaginary ones."


Klein's strength as a writer is her interest in the ground level of things. Free-trade advocates rely heavily on abstract theory, lecturing us on comparative advantage and the relative virtues of Portuguese wine versus English wool; but Klein, no armchair radical, jets off to wretched places in the Third World and paints a picture of the reality of free trade in chilling detail. That picture ought to give pause to the most committed free-trader, even if she is hardly the only one to have noted these consequences. Yet when it comes to the right-wingers who constitute her book's main subject, Klein's reportorial spirit is nowhere to be found.


"What makes Klein's thesis so odd, and so awful, is that in fact there is an unlimited supply of raw material, an abundant basis in reality, for the sorts of arguments that she wants to make. The last two decades certainly have seen the global spread of absolutist free-market ideology. Many of the newest adherents of this creed are dictators who have learned that they can harness the riches of capitalism without permitting the freedoms once thought to flow automatically from it. In the United States, the power of labor unions has withered, and prosperity has increasingly come to be defined as gross domestic product or the rise of the stock market, with the actual living standards of the great mass of the population an afterthought. Corporations, which can relocate nearly anywhere around the world, have used their flexibility as a cudgel against workers, who do not enjoy the privileges of mobility. Domestic policy has aggressively sharpened income inequalities, and corporations have enjoyed unfettered influence to a degree not seen in a hundred years. And the president did start a war without paying the slightest bit of attention to the country that he would be left occupying or how its people would react.

All these things are true. And all these things are enormous outrages and significant problems. It's just that they are not the same outrage or the same problem. And Naomi Klein's relentless lumping together of all her ideological adversaries in the service of a monocausal theory of the world ultimately renders her analysis perfect nonsense."

TLS, Paul Seabright (great political economist, tries to engage but ends up slamming her)

"Cherry-picking the evidence is particularly important for Klein's favoured strategy of guilt by association, when she implies, for instance, that since many torturers have been keen on free markets, free-market ideology leads intrinsically to the use of torture. It is not clear what, on this theory, explains the use of torture by Communist or otherwise anti-capitalist governments. Since she never mentions it, she may not be aware that it has ever happened."

LRB (long, academic, sympathetic but damning)

"She claims that economic ‘reform’ in 1990s Russia was ‘one of the greatest crimes committed against a democracy in modern history’, thwarting an ‘authentic democratic revolution’. Here she is making the same mistake of which she rightly accuses Friedman. She is confusing the absence of obstacles with the presence of preconditions. Authentic democracy will not spontaneously emerge simply because tyranny has been knocked down and all the ‘distortions’ have been removed.

Klein might defend herself by saying that the ‘democracy’ she apotheosises is exclusively a democracy of protest, never a democracy of governance, and therefore invulnerable to criticism for unfairness, stupidity or abuse of power. But this response would not sit well with her understandable but unrealistic hope that ordinary citizens around the world will soon ‘become the authors of their national destinies, at last’.

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