Book review: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

The Shock Doctrine with its 558 pages is a massive body of work that demonstrates Naomi Klein’s superb analytical ability and eloquence. Every line, from the title to the last page of the Acknowledgments section has been thoroughly thought out and structured with great precision and skill. And while I clearly feel disturbed and agitated after completing this book, I commend Klein for writing it. It has been an eye-opening albeit dark and intense journey. The following review summarises and attempts to analyse The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Klein begins her book with an introduction titled Blank Is Beautiful: Three Decades of Erasing and Remaking the World. She describes her experience at the Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, established after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. She quickly introduces the topic of her book and goes into more detail about what the so-called “shock doctrine” really is:

“The original disaster – the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane – puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners. Like the terrorised prisoner who gives up the names of comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect”[1].

According to Klein, American economist Milton Friedman, “grand guru of the movement for unfettered capitalism and the man credited with writing the rulebook for the contemporary, hypermobile global economy”, was one of the many people who saw an opportunity for profit in the disaster-ridden New Orleans[2]. Friedman and his followers of the Chicago School of Economics have been imposing their ideas on countries that suffered war, unrest, nature disasters for more than three decades. Their scheme has always been the same: they would wait for a major crisis to occur, then, while the shocked citizens are still recovering from the disaster, they would sell land and state property to corporations, subsequently introducing reform and new laws to secure their influence. Klein calls this tactic “disaster capitalism”. The introduction then gives more information on Friedman’s background and his early experiments with the exploitation of disasters and shock, as well as examples of countries where the shock doctrine has been successfully carried out.

It is scary to think that many events of the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have a connection – people with common ideas and goals were in control of several economies all across the world. Those ideas, while not inherently evil, have resulted in numerous loss and tragedy. Klein also acknowledges this connection:

“Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market “reforms”[3].

Klein’s comprehensive introduction also serves as a good summary of the book’s contents. It clearly identifies the problem at hand – the shock doctrine – its origins and implications. However, it also shows one of the fatal weaknesses of the book – it is extremely repetitive.

The book, divided into seven parts, provides many examples of how and where the shock doctrine has been applied in the past decades, and attempts to analyse the reasoning behind what Klein calls a “fundamentalist form of capitalism”[4]. In Part 1, Two Doctor Shocks: Research and Development, Klein draws a major connection between Milton Freedman’s shock doctrine, the 1950s experiments in electroshock, and the development of US torture techniques. Back in the 1950s, Dr Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at the McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute in Canada, performed a research funded by the CIA. Dr Cameron conducted horrendous experiments on his psychiatric patients. After keeping them in isolation for weeks, Cameron would then administer extreme doses of electroshock and experimental drug mixtures that would ultimately reduce his patients to infantile states – with severe consequences to their health and changing their lives forever. Cameron’s patients were used without their knowledge and consent “as human guinea pigs to satisfy the CIA’s thirst for information about how to control the human mind”[5]. The results of his experiments were later used to develop the US torture techniques. Klein believes that these experiments can give insight into the logic behind disaster capitalism – Cameron was convinced that inflicting shock to the human brain had the potential to erase minds and rebuild them with new personalities. While Cameron failed to achieve his objective, the shock doctrine took his ideas to heart. In a similar fashion, shock from disaster, war, and unrest, as well as forcefully created political and economic reforms, drives the citizens of the shocked country to become susceptible to ideas and changes they would have never agreed to otherwise. Ultimately, disaster capitalism shares Cameron’s inability to differentiate between destruction and creation. Friedman introduced his formula under the premise of returning societies to “a state of pure capitalism”:

“First, governments must remove all rules and regulations standing in the way of the accumulation of profits. Second, they should sell off any assets they own that corporations could be running at a profit. And third, they should dramatically cut back funding of social programs”[6].

The 1973 Chilean coup d’état created a perfect environment to test out that formula: the shock of the coup was followed by Friedman’s economic shock therapy (tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation) and the US torture techniques to control anyone who attempted to oppose the new regime.

Parts 2 to 7 in detail describe several cases of the shock doctrine’s powerful implementation. Part 2, The First Test: Birth Pangs, continues to tell the harrowing story of how the shock doctrine was first carried out in Chile under Pinochet, and how it then spread to Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, putting them under the control of US businesses and financial institutions:

“[I]n the Southern Cone, the first place where the contemporary religion of unfettered free markets escaped from the basement workshops of the University of Chicago and was applied in the real world, it did not bring democracy; it was predicated on the overthrow of democracy in country after country. And it did not bring peace but required the systematic murder of tens of thousands and the torture of between 100,000 and 150,000 people”[7].

In Part 3, Surviving Democracy: Bombs Made of Laws, Klein draws parallels between the shock doctrine and Margaret Thatcher’s political course in the 1980s Britain. Klein explains that the Chicago-style shock therapy was impossible in democratic countries such as the UK, which were bound by endless rules and regulations and the public’s strong opinions, which were reflected in the polls and directly influenced the outcome of the elections. Then something unexpected happened. In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, an overseas territory of the UK. The Falklands Islands were not strategically important and the battle is not a wide-known fact. However, it presented an opportunity for Margaret Thatcher to introduce her free-market project under the cover of a radical program that would bring forth a “capitalist transformation” to a Western liberal democracy. Thatcher’s success proved that the shock doctrine did not require “military dictatorships and torture chambers” and that its limited version could be introduced in a democracy.

Part 3 also talks about yet another crisis in Latin America, where Jeffrey Sachs used Bolivia as a testing ground for his version of the shock doctrine: “[H]e had helped stage a radical neoliberal transformation within the confines of a democracy and without a war”[8]. Sachs received a lot of praise for his accomplishments, however, according to Klein, he himself never explained that the “illegal drug exports were generating more income for Bolivia than all its legal exports combined” and that was precisely how “his reforms triumphed over inflation”[9]. Klein believes that many of his claims were false, however, Sachs proved Friedman’s crisis theories:

“Bolivia’s hyperinflation meltdown was the excuse that was needed to push through a program that would have been politically impossible under normal circumstances”[10].

Klein suggests that a hyperinflation crisis can simulate effects of a war and create fear and confusion that would put the citizens into shock and make them more agreeable. This crisis was beneficial to the US and its financial institutions and brought upon what Klein calls “The Debt Shock” (publicly known as the Volcker Shock – the impact of extreme interest rates brought by US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker):

“When limitless sums of money are free to travel the globe at great speed, and speculators are able to bet on the value of everything from cocoa to currencies, the result is enormous volatility.  And, since free-trade policies encourage poor countries to continue to rely on the export of raw resources such as coffee, copper, oil or wheat, they are particularly vulnerable to getting trapped in a vicious circle of continuing crisis. A sudden drop in the price of coffee sends entire economies into depression, which is then deepened by currency traders who, seeing a country’s financial downturn, respond by betting against its currency, causing its value to plummet. When soaring interest rates are added, and national debts balloon overnight, you have a recipe for potential economic mayhem”[11].

According to Klein’s findings, many of Chicago School of Economics graduates have later landed high-ranking jobs at the World Bank and the IMF, which explains why the “structural adjustments” were such a drastic measure. When disaster-struck countries turned to the World Bank and the IMF for help, they were met with Friedman’s disciples who were trained to “see their economic catastrophes not as problems to solve but as precious opportunities to leverage in order to secure a new free-market frontier”[12].

In Part 4, Lost in Transition: While We Wept, While We Trembled, While We Danced, Klein tells about 1980s Poland and how the Solidarity union was exploited once it won in the elections and came to power in the country. It was once again a perfect opportunity to test the shock doctrine, but this time in a more peaceful, democratic environment:

“Poland became a textbook example of Friedman’s crisis theory: the disorientation of rapid political change combined with the collective fear generated by an economic meltdown to make the promise of a quick and magical cure – however illusory – too seductive to turn down”[13].

China in the 1980s has also become a case study in the shock doctrine, however, very different from Poland. 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was used to introduce a series of reforms that would change China into the number one place in the world for contract factories: “Shock and terror unleashed one of the most lucrative and sustained investor booms in modern history. Another miracle born of a massacre”[14]. Other chapters in Part 4 explain how the shock doctrine was carried out in South Africa, Asia, and Russia. Klein describes what happened in Russia as “Iraq without the explosives”[15]. The shock therapy’s utter fail was quickly scrambled behind the idea that Russia was not prepared for the introduction of democracy:

“Washington’s think-tank economists hastily disavowed the Frankenstein economy they helped create in Russia, deriding it as “mafia capitalism” – supposedly a phenomenon peculiar to the Russian character”[16].

In Asia’s case, the crisis was caused by a cycle of fear and complete lack of financial help during its early stages. Klein explains that everything was going according to the IMF’s plan, which was to create extreme economic makeovers for Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines. The “Reveal” was the highlight of this plan – the global stock and currency markets would be introduced to the unknowing public. “The story of Asia’s crisis usually ends there – the IMF tried to help; it didn’t work. Even the IMF’s own internal audit came to that conclusion”[17].

Part 5, Shocking Times: The Rise of the Disaster Capitalism Complex, is a striking illustration of how the shock doctrine was put into practice back from where it originated, in the US. Klein mentioned 9/11 before, in her introduction, and she once again argues that 9/11 was the ticket Friedman and his followers needed to “leverage the privatisation of the infrastructure of disaster creation and disaster response”[18]. The war on terror allowed the homeland security industry to grow to a size larger than any entertainment industry in the US. Klein is surprised to discover that the security boom – “a merger of the shopping mall and the secret prison” – is not analysed in an economic context[19].

Part 6 of the book, Iraq, Full Circle: Overshock, as it name implies, covers the shock doctrine’s implementation in Iraq. Klein is especially passionate about this part as she has been to Iraq in 2004 and experienced the bombings first-hand. According to what she learned from the locals, at the time the Iraqis were more concerned with surviving than the imminent privatisation. While the invasion of Iraq took place under the premise of fighting terrorism and finding weapons of mass destruction, in reality, it was only a small part of a much bigger and complex project that, among other things, aimed to spread capitalism and create a free-trade zone in the Middle East.  The war in Iraq created a model economy; however, it was far from what the politicians envisioned – an export-ready model for privatised war and reconstruction: “Now a new frontier can open up wherever the next disaster strikes”[20].

Part 7, The Movable Green Zone: Buffer Zones and Blast Walls, examines how the shock doctrine was executed in Shi Lanka after the disastrous tsunami in 2004. According to Klein, the “plan to remake Sri Lanka predated the tsunami by two years”[21]. The tsunami presented a grand opportunity to claim now empty beaches and sell them off to the tourism industry: “Because the storm did such an effective job of clearing the beach, a process of displacement and gentrification that would normally unfold over years took place in a matter of days or weeks”[22]. The government created a buffer zone, supposedly a safety measure against future tsunami – houses could not be built within two hundred meters from the high-water mark. However, this rule did not apply to the tourism industry. “Hotels were being encouraged to expand onto the valuable oceanfront where fishing people had lived and worked. Resorts were completely exempted from the buffer-zone rule”[23]. Klein states that after the tsunami Thailand, the Maldives, and Indonesia all have been exploited in the same fashion.

In her conclusion, Shock Wears Off: The Rise of People’s Reconstruction, Klein revisits her thesis and previously given examples of the shock doctrine, its aftermath and backlash generated in countries it has been implemented. Klein also gives a summary of the condition each previously mentioned country was in at the time she wrote the book. Compared to the introduction and other parts of the book, the conclusion seems to lack in impact and is surprisingly short.

This book was meant to be shocking. It was meant to stir the reader’s emotions and cause distress. Nevertheless, I believe there has to be a fine line separating the author’s logic, judgement, and emotions. While the notes at the end of the book clearly demonstrate an impressive amount of research, Naomi Klein establishes and presents her case in a highly opinionated, often emotional fashion. Many of her statements reflect her own personal beliefs and are delivered in a form that lacks objectivity. While I agree with some of her statements, I do not always agree with their delivery. I have also found the book highly repetitive. An experienced reader, as well as anyone familiar with historical facts mentioned in the book, should not be challenged by its contents. That being said, it is possible to lose focus and interest in the material due to constant repetitions and points that have been dragged out beyond any meaning. In the end, despite the significance of its contents, The Shock Doctrine can be perceived simply as a book about a global conspiracy that has been around for decades – disaster capitalism. The author, Naomi Klein, is bent on delivering her version of the truth while twisting and turning the facts to fit her thesis. According to Klein, Milton Friedman is at the epicentre of all things and while she also mentions other names such as Jeffrey Sachs, she remains firm in her conviction to blame Friedman. Nevertheless, this book is essential to understanding the ideas that have shaped the global economy of today. Milton Friedman’s influence and the negative impact of his legacy is unquestionable.

One of Klein’s powerful statements deeply resonates with me. “Warfare is always partly a performance, always a form of mass communication”[24]. As a person involved with the media, I understand the great responsibility placed on me – the responsibility to get to the heart of things and to report them critically, objectively, scientifically. Will the world continue to spiral down the path laid out by overly ambitious and greedy economists or will it finally find a new way – an ideology that is different from neo-liberalism and disaster capitalism – a way to right all the wrongs of the previous decades? It remains to be seen.

Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin Books.

[1] Klein, 2007, p. 16, [2] Klein, 2007, p. 4, [3] Klein, 2007, p. 10, [4] Klein, 2007, p. 18, [5] Klein, 2007, p. 28, [6] Klein, 2007, pp. 56-57, [7] Klein, 2007, p. 102, [8] Klein, 2007, p. 151, [9] Klein, 2007, p. 150, [10] Klein, 2007, p. 155, [11] Klein, 2007, pp. 159-160, [12] Klein, 2007, p. 162, [13] Klein, 2007, p. 181, [14] Klein, 2007, p. 193, [15] Klein, 2007, p. 239, [16] Klein, 2007, p. 240, [17] Klein, 2007, p. 273, [18] Klein, 2007, p. 288, [19] Klein, 2007, p. 306, [20] Klein, 2007, p. 382, [21] Klein, 2007, p. 391, [22] Klein, 2007, p. 401, [23] Klein, 2007, p. 388, [24] Klein, 2007, p. 332.