With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
This may be one of the most important books on the 21st century state of the world, an analysis of the global socio-economics that makes sense of the chaos of post-9/11 Iraq, of the collapse of democracies of Latin America since the 1960s and 70s, and the democratic false dawns of Russia and South Africa since the 1990s. The Shock Doctrine's exposé of U.S.-driven disaster capitalism, from the period of the Cold War until now, spotlights the connections between cruel national narratives and the manipulations that helped create them for the benefit of particular U.S. stakeholders. Reading Naomi Klein's work in post-Brexit Britain, one senses this is less history book than a warning of what's to come.
Broadly, The Shock Doctrine focuses on the impact caused by the ideas of post-WWII U.S. economist Milton Friedman and the (in)famous Chicago School which he originated and inspired. Aided by statesmen like Henry Kissinger and Friedman acolytes like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the influence of Friedman's ideas have led to the economic orthodoxy that now dominates institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – those gatekeepers of monetary funding for nations who receive support in return for stripping away protections and wealth-re-distribution mechanisms for its citizens. This orthodoxy has replaced Keynesian ideas of State-funded support with a new trinity of (1) privatization, (2), government deregulation, and (3) deep cuts to social spending. The effect is a massive growth in inequality in both the Global North and South, with the rich getting richer, and increasing numbers of everyone else getting poorer.
The Shock element happens, as Klein notes, because the removal of State-aided support is generally so unpopular with national populations. Only in circumstances of national trauma, such as after 9/11 or during Hurricane Katrina, can a programme be enacted by stealth, while a nation's collective consciousness recovers. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina saw the U.S. government replace state schools with voucher-based charter schools, to a degree considered impossible via democratic mandate. 9/11 similarly saw a new Homeland Security industry of mass surveillance, legalized torture, and private military institutions such as Bechtel, Halliburton, and Blackwater, replace public ones. As Klein says, In just a few years, the homeland security industry, which barely existed before 9/11, has exploded to a size that is now significantly larger than either Hollywood or the music business . . . Although the stated goal was fighting terrorism, the effect was the creation of the disaster capitalism complex – a full-fledged new economy in homeland security, privatized war and disaster reconstruction tasked with nothing less than building and running a privatized security state, both at home and abroad.
We are, for example, well-versed in the supposed mediocrity of George W. Bush, but his radicalism is based on making Texas the beacon for privatized prison systems, part of what Klein describes as the hollowing out of national democracies, of democracies functioning in name only, while private organizations make huge profits for their CEOs and shareholders in their place – often with the support of public money and the funded politicians who enable it. The result is inscrutable CEOs colluding with national politicians and statesmen to ensure national policies that enrich these stakeholders at the cost of their general populations. The Iraq war is arguably the most tangible example of a cause fabricated by certain statesmen, costing America billions of dollars in contracts to particular companies with close links to the politicians who ignited it: Dick Cheney of Halliburton, James Baker of the Carlyle Group, Richard Perle of Boeing and Donald Rumsfeld of Lockheed and Gilead Sciences. The clash of interests is undeniable; the freedom for Iraqis meanwhile was always illusory. The U.S. Presidential Envoy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, blocked democratic elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein when polls indicated the Iraqi population wanted greater government-based job-creation, with little interest in the development of the private sector. Bremer in response hand-picked members of an Iraqi Government Council to oversee the mass privatization of the Iraqi state, which in turn contributed to resistance movements as jobs were cut in their hundreds of thousands under the edict of this foreign, occupying power.
It is with the recurrence of these policies of disaster capitalism, of removing tariffs and stripping populations of the state-legislated protections, which brings me to today, and the UK, and Brexit. Some weeks ago, I watched Jacob Rees-Mogg promote the idea of removing all tariffs, a post-Brexit act that would flood the UK with potentially cheap imports while inevitably undercutting British manufacturing to a degree that potentially replicates what happened in Chile after 1973 – when their economy imploded under the Milton-Friedman-advised dictator General Pinochet. Allied to Theresa May's vision of the UK as a tax-haven – of minimal wealth re-distribution and minimal protections for its population – it reiterates and re-imagines past countries who required brutal wars or dictatorships to enact the severe withdrawal of social support mechanisms. Why would so many British citizens vote for this future, as intended by these ghosts of Milton Friedman, elite conservative politicians like Rees-Mogg and May, as well as Farage? Does it highlight how we remain in a post-2008 state of shock? Is Britain, as a post-Thatcher country, already so damaged by the ideas of Milton Friedman as to have reached rock-bottom, at least for substantial parts of its population? Brexiters were right to want to take back control – many Remainers would agree with this aspiration. But the real control isn't wielded by the E.U., as Klein's book emphasizes, but by those forces operating within a hollowed-out democracy, where the 1980s deregulation of housing and job markets, and the receding of wealth re-distribution started. What Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine implies is that the worst may be yet to come, if Brexit occurs and more shock treatment is prescribed by doctors Mogg and May, Johnson and Gove, Redwood and Farage, for the benefit of a few and the suffering of many.