More frightening than Naomi Klein’s thesis in The Shock Doctrine is the fact that it rings true. Her claim is that governments use national trauma, the likes of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, as the pretext to realise social and economic policies which would otherwise have been unacceptable. According to this economic theory of shock therapy, outlined by Milton Friedman in the 1982 preface to his 1962 Capitalism and Freedom, “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” As people in democratic societies are generally reluctant to acquiesce to radically liberalising policy changes; the sale of state assets, deep cuts in social spending, and the removal of state interference in trade, governments have come to rely increasingly on disaster capitalism.
#ShockDoctrine: Shock is used to reduce people and nations to a childlike state, more inclined to follow leaders who claim to protect.—
Unit of Labour (@UnitOfLabour) March 07, 2016
In its most brutal form the shock doctrine is the application of rapid re-formation in the aftermath of electroshock therapy in the case of human subjects (be that medicine or torture) and shock and awe tactics in the case of warfare. The United States’ ongoing War on Terror presents the best and most recent examples of these uses of the doctrine. Both Afghanistan and Iraq were the targets of vastly technologically superior asymmetric warfare, reducing them to a state of shocked ready compliance. Changes in legislation in Washington altering the status of prisoners of war to ‘unlawful combatants,’ effectively removing their protections under the Geneva Convention and International Human Rights Law, permitted the use of torture.
Rather than producing docile and compliant populations and fertile, receptive territory for the expansion of the free market, the employment of these barbaric measures against Afghanistan and Iraq produced radicalised popular resistance and basket-case economies and puppet régimes. Stemming from Cold War US covert – and not so covert – operations in Latin America, with the development of the CIA’s MKUltra torture project, this programme of shock and economic intervention has resulted in the same pattern over and again; swift and brutal military domination, heinous levels of repression and human rights violations, rapid economic change in favour of the free market, and ultimately revolt and failure.
Given its remarkable lack of success, it is surprising that the ideologues of economic shock theory – the much discussed Neoliberals – have not abandoned the idea altogether. They have done anything but give up on it. In Western democracies, where military shock would be considered as yet unsavoury, another approach has been favoured – crisis management. Crisis need not be the result of a Blitzkrieg military offensive. Any crisis will do, so long as it is of sufficient magnitude to traumatise a population. Terror attacks and natural catastrophes are routinely used.
Austerity economics, the standard economic policy of the West at this moment in time, too is a phase of this programme. An international debt crisis which could have been addressed with more – not less – government control over the banking and finance sectors, and more equitable taxation, was ramped up instantly as a systemic crisis of capitalism threatening our way of life. In the name of tightening our belts and living within our means, to save the world, far-reaching spending cuts were introduced, largescale programmatic deregulatory policies were rolled out, and state assets we sold off wholesale resulting in greater unemployment, reductions in standards of living, and a loosening of working conditions. What happened was that a trauma was manufactured so as to implement the economic objectives of the shock doctrine, moving wealth from the bottom to the top with the false promise of trickle down benefits.