Talkin' trash to the garbage around me.

28 October, 2007

Nothing's shocking



I just finished Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and even though the story isn't new (for those of us familiar with the story of neoliberal development over the last 30 years), the book still has a lot to recommend for it besides Klein's engaging prose.

Reaching back some 60 years to the immediate aftermath of WWII, Klein describes how the Friedmanite free market ideology has been imposed on a global scale. While the details of the story are familiar, it's Klein's narrative that is eye-opening, telling the tale as a succession of shocks - catastrophic events (be it a military coup, a brutal invasion, or Mother Nature lashing out), structural readjustment and other policies designed to radically re-tool a nation's economic apparatus, and the literal shocks associated with torture, among other means to guarantee the compliance of a recalcitrant population.

Klein's real contribution involves her identification of disaster capitalism, a more sinister outgrowth of the military-industrial complex and monopoly capital that has dominated the latter half of the 20th Century in the U.S. While I'd balk at Klein's assertion that this is a new form or phase of capitalist development, there are certainly some novelties that are worth discussing. Capital, of course, is constantly in need of new markets. With economic globalization nearly a done deal, Western capitalists have instead begun to turn to devouring the state apparatuses that have for so long provided the support necessary to stay in business. Basic functions of the state (in particular, security services) have been outsourced to private contractors, available for hire (a means by which the state serves to redistribute public moneys to private citizens in the form of profit). With the basic functions of the state being privatized, indisputably resulting in rising levels of economic and social inequalities, and a shrinking tax base brought on by "small government" fundamentalism, these services will soon be only available to those who can afford them. The economic instability that neoliberalism has wrought increases the need for such security services, placing the system in a position where the is a perverse - indeed amoral - incentive to promote instability in order to maintain profitability. I'm by no means doing Klein's argument justice here.

That's not to say that there's some teleological principle at work here, but once a market has been created, actors within that sphere are nothing if not vigorous in defending the turf they've staked out. In many ways, it seems like the tide is ebbing away from the neoliberal highwater mark. That said, the marked change in the dynamics of capitalist development following 9/11 are definitely worthy of our attention, and Klein's book is a welcome addition to the story for a non-academic audience.

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