Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jonathan Chait's review of The Shock Doctrine for The New Republic

I see Shock Doctrine as an activist's foray into conspiracy theory.

Klein's position is rooted in the activism of the Battle of Seattle. With her penchant for research, it's small wonder that she has written a book that explores a central item in the "truth movement" argument that 9/11 was an "inside job." But Shock Doctrine is a stepping stone, not a monument.

Jonathan Chait keeps his criticism of Klein's Tiananmen Square position that the government was defending and the protesters were criticizing capitalism far (i.e., page 5) from his own observation (page 10) that nowadays dictators (like the Chinese) use capitalism for their own ends and that therefore capitalism does not equal freedom or democracy.

"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 [by his own magazine, the New Republic] 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."
At the beginning, Chait accuses Klein of being a "totalistic thinker" because "everything always adds up" and drives the point home at the end by concluding that all the items in the paragraph just quoted stem from different causes.

"And all these things are enormous outrages and significant problems. It's just that they are not the same outrage or the same problem." Oh, really?

Can it be because his own magazine championed the delusion that capitalism=democracy and the Fraser Institute dictum that economic freedom is more important than economic justice.

Maybe he needs to do some adding up of his own.

Ironically, that leaves Chait where the conspiracy theorists usually thrive--without an agenda for real action.

Neither Chait nor Klein talks about climate change or the nuclear renaissance, the disappearance of species as consequences of our "culture." I don't think I would add up quite the same column of disasters and market failures as Klein, so my conclusions differ from hers.

For his part, Chait doesn't appear to have grasped the importance of anti-globalization, an affectation that I would have to attribute to "playing dumb" rather than to real stupidity.

But it does lead him to a supercilious tone, more like conservatives of the snotty school like Mark Steyn and Anne Coulter, e.g. "...the most sinister force on the planet that the left could imagine was Nike." The Battle of Seattle (1999) made "the streets of Seattle run brown with Frappucinos." Clever, I guess, but not really an insight. Fails to acknowledge that the Doha round is falling apart at the seams as he writes.

His tone is also patronizing as if he were her thesis advisor.
"Her indictment had two main counts. The first was that many corporations profited from the cruel treatment of Third World labor. This observation was undeniable, and the publicizing of these evils has produced reforms of which activists can rightly be proud. The second charge was that corporations have encroached upon and monetized every aspect of modern life and culture. Klein wrote that she could envision a future "fascist state where we all salute the logo and have little opportunity for criticism because our newspapers, television stations, Internet servers, streets and retail spaces are all controlled by multinational corporate interests." This aspect of her argument needed a bit more thinking through."

This masks incredible oversimplification for example when he says that after 9/11, "the new American adversaries were not corporations but individuals--George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz. And they were motivated not by profit, but by ideology." Does that correspond to anyone you know? any conversation you have had about the subject?

Note that he also treats the sudden discontinuity that occurred around 1980 as an "evolution." i.e., "By the 1980s, left-wing politics had withdrawn almost entirely into academia and other liberal enclaves, which it ruthlessly policed for any dissent from the verities of multiculturalist dogma and identity politics."

This evolution can be seen...blah blah" In 1979, anti-nuclear politics was driving the nuclear industry and its associated military-industrial complex to the wall.

"Almost alone among political journalists, Klein has devoted herself to writing about the war against Iraq as a political project driven by neoliberal ideology and economic interest..." Where has he been? Read Fisk, Pilger, Jamail. If all you read is the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New Republic, your interpretation of reality is bound to include a strong dose of making excuses for the American president.

Can it be that what really gripes Chait's ass is that "she writes for The Nation and The Huffington Post, and abroad, where she is even more popular. A poll of readers of Prospect and Foreign Policy in 2005 ranked her eleventh on a list of the hundred most influential public intellectuals in the world."

I think the shock doctrine smacks of conspiracy theory--which is not to say that conspiracies don't occur. They do, and they can be as serious as treason on the state's side or exploitation and oppression on the peoples'. Chait eventually zeroes in on this and makes the classic point: "With the pseudo-clarity of a conspiracy theorist, Klein dismisses out of hand the possibility of incompetence."

For his part, Chait fails to recognize that the specific "incompetencies" in Iraq, in Israel, in New Orleans were predictable and ideologically crafted like the presumably unintended, but inevitable consequences of a tragic flaw.

The consistent pattern in these screwups points neither to intention nor to incompetence but to the core nature of the neoliberal ideology which, in its extreme form, does reduce the state to a war-making corporate machine and leaves it to the "volunteer sector" to clean up the mess that remains when the market's "invisible hand" has finished with its magic.

I think Chait makes some telling points about neoconservatism, Friedman, and the shock doctrine itself.
"First, neoconservative ideology dates not from the 1990s but from the 1960s, and the label came into widespread use in the 1970s. Second, while neoconservatism is highly congenial to corporate interests, it is distinctly less so than other forms of conservatism. The original neocons, unlike traditional conservatives, did not reject the New Deal. They favor what they now call 'national greatness' over small government. And their foreign policy often collides head-on with corporate interests: neoconservatives favor saber-rattling in places such as China or the Middle East, where American corporations frown on political risk, and favor open relations and increased trade. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has always had an uneasy relationship with neoconservatism. (Russell Kirk delivered a famous speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he declared that 'not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.') And the Cato Institute is not neoconservative at all. It was virulently opposed to the Iraq war in particular, and it opposes interventionism in foreign policy in general.

"Finally, there is the central role that Klein imputes to her villain Friedman, both in this one glorious passage and throughout her book. In her telling, he is the intellectual guru of the shock doctrine, whose minions have carried out his corporatist agenda from Santiago to Baghdad. Klein calls the neocon movement 'Friedmanite to the core,' and identifies the Iraq war as a 'careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology' over which Friedman presided. What she does not mention--not once, not anywhere, in her book--is that Friedman argued against the Iraq war from the beginning, calling it an act of 'aggression.'"
So did a good many business leaders at the Davos business forum.

Chait adds that "Friedman opposed the war because he was a libertarian, and libertarian conservatism is not the same thing as neoconservatism. Nor are the interests of corporations always, or even usually, served by war."

True enough. However, there is a class of corporations that thrive on war and are almost entirely independent of any real sense of the word market. They operate government to govenment, business to business, and as models of the infamous private-public partnership. We have learned to speak of "no-bid contracts" as if they were some kind of norm.

Chait comes off sounding like a staunch anti-Marxzist, status quo liberal in the New Republic tradition of Bill Clinton, Joseph Lieberman, and the Democratic Leadership Council.

Does he propose anything that can or needs to be done? Not at all. Vote Democrat and go shopping.

He makes some interesting points, but the conclusion that "her analysis [is] perfect nonsense" is not well-tempered, nor does it provide a useful perspective for developing a strategy for action.Recommend this Post

Sphere: Related Content