Naomi Klein is what one might call a social activist. The issue that moves her is that of present-day capitalism that pays little regard for the common people even while it grotesquely enriches the well-off. The 2009 video above (beware: 1 hour 18 minutes) is based on her book The Shock Doctrine (2007), an international and New York Times bestseller.
As you will hear her argue eight minutes into the film, “The thesis of the Shock Doctrine is that we’ve been sold a fairy tale about how these radical policies have swept the globe. They haven’t swept the globe on the backs of freedom and democracy; they have needed shocks, they have needed crises, they have needed states of emergency.”
The book was highly controversial. Critics like John Willman of the Financial Times described it as “a deeply flawed work that blends together disparate phenomena to create a beguiling — but ultimately dishonest — argument.” Indeed, as you watch the opening sequences of the video, about experiments in sensory deprivation and electroshock therapy, you can’t help but feel that if this work is about economics, then she is about to make an audacious leap of logic.
Nor does it let up. It continues trying to pull evidence for her hypothesis from a variety of political events from the coup against Chilean President Allende to the United States’ treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The problem that Klein has is that she tries too hard; the entire video is itself an exercise in shock tactics, and once conscious of that, you very quickly begin to resist the message. All these political events she is citing, you tell yourself, are highly complex issues with multiple causes. Isn’t she oversimplifying?
Many critics said she was. But Nobel Laureate and former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz reminded readers that “Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one.” The book, he wrote, provides “a rich description of the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries,” but while the author might have oversimplified, in fact, “the case against these [economic] policies is even stronger than the one Klein makes.”
Chiefly, Klein’s point is that the kind of hard-nosed capitalism ascendent through the last few decades would never have been agreed to by any electorate that had full awareness of what was happening and could exercise democratic rights. Benefitting the few against the interests of many was not something that could be honestly sold in a free democracy. The only way it could be introduced would be in the aftermath of a political, social or economic breakdown, when people were confused or when the will to resist was weak. Even then, in many places, it could not be sustained without repressive measures; as people awoke to the extremely unbalanced effects of such an economic system, they tended to rebel.
Do her examples really show this? Some more convincingly than others; all more complicated than just a handful of sentences could describe. Nonetheless, it’s worth reminding ourselves that to say “it’s more complicated than that” is a form of denial or dismissal — the trick in that expression being to refocus the mind onto other causative factors, thus letting go of the explanation (albeit that it is one among several) that Klein wants us to mull over. If you discipline your mind not to stray, it’s not that hard to concede that perhaps she does have a point. Hers may not be the only explanation, but quite plausibly, hers is a substantial one.
It is after all, what the video calls itself: an alternative history — a fresh look at what happened from an unconventional angle. Alternative readings can have the huge advantage of allowing us to see something that’s been there all the time but obscured by convention.
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One country not covered by Klein is China. There too capitalism, and often state capitalism, has gone mad. The hardships inflicted on ordinary people as a result are such that in a typical year about 90,000 riots and civil disturbances are recorded.
I know it’s very difficult to get a sense of this number. One is likely to say: China is such a big country. However, think of it this way: It’s one riot per 15,000 people. It’s equivalent to Singapore, with our 5 million people, experiencing 333 riots, sit-ins or protests a year, or one a day.
In China too, one suspects that such an economic system producing this degree of misery and frustration is only possible because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a tight grip on politics. If the Chinese people had a free vote, they would want a very different social and economic order.
Writing about China and the government’s latest suppression of the latest riots, Straits Times correspondent Peh Shing Huei made an insightful point on 15 June 2011:
But therein lies the problem for the CCP. It is getting so good at managing protests that the fear is it could be slipping into a comfort zone.
It has gone beyond just learning to live with protests. It has, seemingly, mastered the art. And in the process, one wonders what incentives remain for the party to seriously take on the reforms necessary to address the concerns of the protestors — official corruption, abuse of power and land seizures, among others.
— Straits Times, 15 June 2011, China too good at quelling protests, by Peh Shing Huei
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It’s not hard to find possible parallels within Singapore history either — and surely with a Gini Co-efficient in the high 40s, we’re one of the most economically unequal places on earth, testimony to our adoption of the same hardline take-no-prisoners economic philosophy. We smashed our independent labour unions quite soon after independence so they would never demur against the economic reshaping being instituted. We muzzled the media so they would glorify the government’s version of capitalism however extreme.
Then when, in the 1980s, a group of socially-conscious liberal Catholics set out to help factory workers know their rights, the Internal Security Act was used, and they were detained without trial. And tortured. They were called “Marxist conspirators” by the government. I would venture to suggest that these 22 persons should wear that label with pride. They were tagged “Marxist” because to those determined to push robber-baron economics, anybody who stands in their way is Marxist or Communist or Socialist. But the verdict of history may well be that “Marxist” is good.
In that sense, Singapore’s history supports Naomi Klein’s thesis — that this extreme form of “free-market” capitalism (one where government is derelict in its social responsibility to mitigate the social effects of corporate and individual greed) is incompatible with a free society, popular dogma and the parallel use of the descriptor “free” notwithstanding. The former can only succeed when the latter is crippled.
Yawning Bread wishes to thank reader Kute Steiner for drawing my attention to this video. Kute Steiner first mentioned it in a comment but I thought it was more important to highlight it in an article of its own.