Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Uncertainty principle: Shock Doctrine 150 pages in

The shock of The Shock Doctrine comes largely from its walloping, great big bias. My worry is that few of the readers of this book will notice the very many sins of omission, the suggestive sleights of hand and the unsupported assertions. Moreover, I fear many readers of this book will not care.

My concerns began on the second page, where quotes of American politicians are run alongside the accusations from “ordinary” people. The Americans sound evil and manipulative, and we are left with the belief – though no evidence is offered – they are likely murderers.

The other shock is that of deja vu: there's little on the first 150 pages you won’t find elsewhere.

In particular, I remember reading many of the same accusations and quotes about 1970s Chile when first a student 15 year ago. Indeed, Klein’s core thesis derives from arguments made by Chilean politician Orlando Letelier, murdered in Washington by the Pinochet regime in 1976.

Letelier said the right-wing, monetarist policies applied by the Pinochet government were a part of the administration's murderous repression; the two should not be separated.

This is one theme of Klein’s book: right-wing monetarist policies can only work if they are backed by state violence. Providing some shock treatment of her own, Klein indulges in pages and pages of gruesome depictions of torture (so long as the torturers can be associated with the US government; torture chambers of other dictators are relentlessly ignored.).

While Klein may force the reader to wade through pages of torture, she spares detailing any evidence if it does not back her thesis. As a historian, she makes George W. Bush seem sophisticated.

Readers are treated to a history of Pinochet’s rise, and Allende’s overthrow, that eliminates all complexity and can be summarised in the following statements: US corporations dictate American foreign policy; US corporations objected to Allende’s election; the American government engineered Allende’s overthrow; the American government, and corporations, used Chile as test bed for experimental right-wing economic experiments.

Given such simplicities, I ended up reading Klein’s work on Chile in close proximity to the internet, as I felt I was being told only half the story. For instance, I find it curious to read about US foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s and not find a single mention of either the Cold War, other than a couple of lines dismissing the conflict in Latin America as an American scam.

Now, I am no expert at Chilean history but I do like to be treated like an adult. I can cope with complexity and I think other people can as well. Klein must think otherwise, for she declines to tell readers that Allende received payments from the KGB, and omits any mention of the difficulties Allende faced when ruling the country. Instead, she blames all of Allende’s problems at the feet of American governments, and those nasty U.S. corporations.

There is a peculiar form of colonialism that emerges from such an analysis. The Chilean people are mere pawns in a great game presided over by grand schemers in Washington. Even when Chilean people act, they are merely puppets on strings pulled by Kissinger, Nixon and others in Washington (Read this as a healthy corrective). Ideologically, the Chilean people have no control over their own affairs: instead the evil genius of Milton Friedman, himself a puppet of US corporations, engineered the failure of the mighty Chilean economy and the accompanying death of torture of thousands of people.

As history, it’s bunkum. As economics, it's appalling. Klein treats any leftist economic programme as a success, and any right-wing economic view as awful, if not evil. Her economic analysis is restricted to stylised sneers and a footnote on page 83.

But like Chomsky, who loves attacking journalists who don’t toe his line, Klein’s focus is on the messenger. This is an ideologue fighting an ideological battle, rather than an educator trying to explain what happened. Through a succession of paraphrases, selective quotes, sleights of text and inappropriate comparisons, Klein pours most of her scorn on an academic. Friedman is like a torturer, she says at one point. Like the Nazis, at another.

This is left-wing populism at its worst, for at least Chomsky’s polemics have some originality. After 150 pages of this intellectual abuse, I wonder why I should read on. I fear that most readers of the book thrill to that the "secret" history of the twentieth century has been "revealed", whereas all that's happened is another schlock hack has made another buck.

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