Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010

Shocking and Awful

The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

By David Luhrssen
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In 2007, before the Great Recession swept the world, Naomi Klein authored a perceptive work of politics and economics, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein’s book is the basis for The ShockDoctrine, a provocative documentary by Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) and Mat Whitecross (The Road to Guantanamo) that will premiere in the U.S. at Sundance and on-demand through Sundance Selects on Jan. 28.

A columnist for The Nation, Klein constructed an intelligent alternative to the history most of us have been told by connecting such seemingly separate events as the psychiatric experiments at McGill University, Pinochet’s Chile, the Thatcher-Reagan Revolution and the invasion of Iraq into a coherent pattern. Linking them is the theory tested by the psychiatrist Ewen Cameron, a Canadian on the CIA payroll in the 1950s. Cameron developed the Mengele-like concept of engineering shock to leave victims open to suggestion and manipulation, eager to comply and relieved of the memories that form the narrative of self-understanding. By the 1960s the “shock treatment” of psychiatry and the CIA interrogation manual migrated to the University of Chicago economics department and into the writings of its guru, Milton Friedman.

Once dismissed as a crank, Friedman became a tool of Nixon’s foreign policy when his acolytes involved themselves in the plot to undermine Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende. Once the military regime of Gen. Pinochet seized power in a violent coup, the “Chicago boys” implemented their program of radical capitalism, including free trade, minimal regulation of finance and industry and reduced taxes and spending—especially on social programs. The effect of those policies only deepened Chile’s poverty while fattening the wealth of an economic elite. Within a few years, the new Argentine junta also appointed Friedman’s boys to reorganize their country’s economy to the detriment of most of its citizens.

Friedman applauded military coups and the destruction they entailed as a form of shock, leaving society amenable to a radical reordering of values. The irony was that Friedman always insisted that unrestrained free market capitalism and democracy were inseparable, and yet his ideas were imposed through mass murder, torture and prison camps. It took the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, precipitated by periods of malaise in their nations, for Friedman’s dogma to be implemented in democracies. Although countervailing institutions and interest groups prevented the U.K. and the U.S. from become Friedmanland, his idea became the prevailing ideology of Americans who don’t realize they have an ideology. The paradigm precludes health care reform and government investment in the economy even when the economy is in free fall.

As shown in The Shock Doctrine, a Friedman acolyte, America’s governor of occupied Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, imposed the Chicago dogma on a place without democracy with Blackwater assault rifles after a successful campaign of “shock and awe.” The Iraqis, however, weren’t entirely shocked or in awe, and the Bremer project became a debacle.

Built around fascinating archival footage and a series of lectures by Klein, The Shock Doctrine also shows how Friedman’s toxic ideas rationalized the heedless greed of Wall Street, which went about its business under Clinton and Bush with little regulation and less oversight. Will America learn a lesson from the recent past? Or will the tea party brigade tempt us to forget who and what was to blame?

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