RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Shock effects

There is the general and there is the specific. The general, overarching thrust of Naomi Klein's latest book, The Shock Doctrine is a brilliant exploration and expose of the manner in which free market capitalism exploits crises - whether they come in the form of tsunamis, wars or hurricanes - to accelerate its agenda and overwhelm its opponents.

The specific examples she gives to illustrate her point reveal an audacious intellect. They range from Latin America (which Conor Foley will write about here tomorrow) to Russia to China. Needless to say if you are hostile to the general thesis then you are not going to find a whole lot to agree with in the specifics. Klein is taking on capitalism. To some that itself comes as a bit of a shock. There are, of course, other perfectly valid reasons why one might disagree with particular elements in the book. But I'm not qualified to go to the wall on China.

What I can say with some confidence is that she is bang on when it comes to the effects of hurricane Katrina.

In the first few days after the hurricane New Orleans looked like Haiti with skyscrapers - all the promises of western capitalism and all the reality of a failed state. But what for the Crescent City's poorest inhabitants was a traumatic, even fatal, event, was for others a great opportunity. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans," said Republican Congressman Richard Baker from Baton Rouge less than two weeks after the storm, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We couldn't do it, but God did."

Before the month was out the Republican House Study committee was circulating a list of "Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices". In this chapter Klein debunks one of the central pretexts of privatisation - that the free market invariably distributes goods and services more efficiently than the state. She reveals how Kenyon, the arm of a huge funeral conglomerate, failed to pick up bodies for days and emergency workers "were forbidden because handling bodies impinged on Kenyon's commercial territory" and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave a religious group $5.2 million to build a base camp for emergency workers in St. Bernard Parish.

The group, the Lighthouse Diasaster Relief, never built the camp because it never knew what it was doing. "About the closest thing I have done to this is just organise a youth cam with my church," its director, Pastor Gary Heldreth told PBS New Hour. The issue here is not whether the state could have done this any better but if it could really have done it any worse.

"When Katrina hit," explains Klein. "FEMA had to hire a contractor to award contracts to contractors." Throughout Klein illustrates how those who profess how the most ardent supporters of "small government" do not necessarily mean less government spending, simply less democratic control. Thin layers of bureaucracy giving not more efficiency - in fact, with respect to the most needy, it provides much less - but more profit for just a few. The price to the taxpayer is dear and they get little for their money.

In her chapter on homeland security she gives lie to the ostentatious displays of patriotic fervour so characteristic of the right following 9/11. For while Bush and co wrapped themselves in the flag they were busy abandoning state control of the very national security apparatus needed to keep people safe. Their loyalty was not to their nation - which would have been bad enough - but to their class - which is obvious enough to be no longer contentious. 9/11 didn't start all this. On September 10th 2001 Donald Rumsfeld had pledged to slash each Pentagon department by 15% and outsource all he could. But it did accelerate it.

Less than a month after the attacks the then US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, called together her senior staff and ask them to think about "how do you capitalise on these opportunities". In an interview with the New Yorker six months later, she said the US no longer had a problem defining its post-cold war role. "I think September 11 was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen. Events are in much sharper relief."

Klein's book also clarifies and sharpens. It brings scholarship, passion and originality and reframes the debate about the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and crisis.

All this week, we will be debating The Shock Doctrine on Comment is free. Read all the blogs in our series and exclusive extracts from the book here. Visit the Guardian Unlimited microsite here.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc