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Book review- The Shock Doctrine


Certain books outlive their prime years not only due to their authors’ brilliance (which in this case was never in doubt), but also due to the core issues they analyze and address. The Shock Doctrine, currently in its 10th year of publication since its release in September 2007, falls in that category. Although yet to achieve the status of a timeless classic, it certainly is a must-read for academicians, students, politicians and policy makers. Written in a trademark documentary, investigative journalism style that Klein has mastered over the years, the book delves deeply into the consequences of the onslaught of globalization, free trade agreements and unbridled corporate power witnessed across the world since the advent of “Reaganomics” and “Thatcherism” in the 80s.

The Shock Doctrine seeks to draw parallels between the concept of medical shock therapies and economic shock therapies that were first introduced in the Chicago School of Economics by Milton Friedman, the modern-day guru for classical economists, conservative politicians and big corporates across the world. While these parallels might appear to be exaggerated in some instances, the book clearly brings to light how policy makers and politicians across the world have used natural disasters and man-made disasters to privatize crucial sectors of the public space to profit-making enterprises who today enjoy unbridled power. Analyzing the impact of the pure version of Chicago school doctrine in Chile during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and later on in Russia, China, US and most recently in post-war Iraq, Klein provides a brilliant post-mortem of the destructive implications of globalization and neo-liberalism.

Choosing to call this model “corporatism”, Klein argues how governments across the globe either under the garb of democracy (like Reagan and Thatcher) or during times of wars, natural and man-made disasters (Bush-era, the Communist Party in China, Soviet Union’s sell-off of public assets, or Iraq’s own sell-off of national assets to global corporations) have stripped down government functions to a bare minimal and thereby outsourced their basic functions and responsibilities towards citizens to profit seeking corporates who rake in hundreds of billions of dollars during every humanitarian crises. The rise of unbridled corporate power that began with the onset of globalization in the 80s and 90s, has today given birth to an altogether new sector called the “disaster-capitalism” complex, represented by firms like Halliburton and Blackwater besides the established biggies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. This in Klein’s view is the advanced form of the “military-industrial” complex that former US President Dwight Eisenhower had warned against before stepping down from Presidency.

If the fall of Soviet Union in the early 90s, allowed the US to impose its version of liberalisation and deregulation under the garb of World Trade Organization and Free Trade Agreements, the post 9/11 era allowed military power to be used with sheer impunity to turn war-time and humanitarian crises into profit-making opportunities. This conclusion is brilliantly backed by the numerous examples Klein highlights and dissects  – Iraq after the war, New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, South Africa after the end of Apartheid and China after Tiananmen Square massacre – all of which were turned into “opportunities” for business enterprises to take over the ever shrinking public sphere. Even military functions like maintaining jails, military barrack construction or post disaster government responsibilities such as rehabilitation and resettlement are handed over to private players who make whopping profits at the expense of tax payers’ money. Klein brilliantly unmasks the dubious plans and policies of these corporations and lobbyists who very smoothly slide between the public space as politicians of ruling parties (the Neoconservatives like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney) or as industry lobbyists after retirement.

Written in a typical Klein style, backed by hard-hitting facts and ground level research from post-war Iraq, Argentina (interviews with workers of its shut-down factories), Sri-Lanka and New Orleans, The Shock Doctrine is certainly a brave book that presents a horrifying and sadly true picture of the after-effects of the imposition of an extreme form of capitalism that is the norm today. Although Klein does not articulate an alternate view which in her opinion could replace this disaster stimulated growth model, she advocates a return to the Keynes model of the New Deal that would allow the public space to thrive along with private interests. In order to absolve herself of any possible biases, she also rightly criticizes the excesses of the authoritarian left and communist philosophies implemented by Stalin, Mao and Polpot. The book at times might come across as an over-simplification of the link between the rise of corporatism and crises, but it certainly does justice in highlighting the outcomes and human misery imposed on citizens to whom basic services and functions such as health, education and housing are now sold as commodities and not basic human rights.

The beauty of the book lies in its simple and free-flowing style, easy to understand examples and finely nuanced conclusions drawn by Klein to explain some very highly complicated policy decisions. Doing an impact analysis of any policy decision usually is a mundane read for the layman. Klein’s success lies in avoiding this very mundane storytelling style and instead relying on in-depth research through extensive reading and bringing to the fore hard facts from ground zero of war-zones. This book is difficult to put down after the initial few pages –  a cracker, and a very brave attempt at taking on the powers that be. But Naomi Klein is no ordinary person, so the book’s tone, tenor and thrilling pace comes as no surprise. Over the years she has developed a fearless persona with her hard-hitting articles on climate change and her social activism on issues of civil rights and climate justice. The Shock Doctrine is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago, and with the rise of right-wing forces across the world accompanied by the rise in Islamophobia it will remain a reminder of the downward slide the world has got itself engulfed in with its blind embrace of neoliberalism that thrives on a platform of toxic mix of radicalism and a monolithic form of nationalism.

Pranav is a Mumbai based sustainability analyst. Besides earning his daily bread with a typical 9-5 job, he likes to travel and exercise. He also is an avid reader, passionate writer and a foodie. He likes writing on topics related to climate change, sports, movies, politics and travel. He has his own blog –www.pranav84blog.wordpress.com which he tries to update once in a while.


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