The main argument is a school of economists, headed by Milton Friedman, have exploited disasters to make sweeping changes to multiple countries. Once the shocks happen, the state is effectively gutted, with social security removed, assets privatised and trade restrictions removed. Klein highlights the history of this devastating economic policy, from the initial ‘experiments’ in Chile to the widespread destruction of Iraq. The main comparison is to the 1950’s psychological experiments by Ewen Cameron, where he would shock a patient with electricity, drugs and lack of stimulation in order to ‘wipe the slate clean’. Once they were blank, they could be rebuilt to normal. Of course, instead of bringing the patient back to normal, it simply destroyed their ability to function in the real world. Similarly, countries where the shock doctrine was implemented, struggled massively for several years, unable to get back on track.
Although Klein recounts the history of the policy, the inescapable conclusion is that shock that shock will devastate the resources of the country and drain the coffers. Even worse, the ones who benefit from this policy is a small section of elite businesses. A handful of people run away with the profit. The ordinary people suffer, every single time. Focusing on profit instead of people is a terrible, terrible way to operate.
It’s the lack of human compassion that gets me angry. Throughout the book, Klein gives examples of natural disasters, right up to the floods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In every moment, the disaster capitalists first thought is not to provide assistance, but it is to exploit the system as much as they can. Set conditions up for maximum profit instead of helping those in need. It’s a complete lack of empathy that pervades the system and instead serves only to fill the pockets of those looking to exploit the needy.
It’s also explicitly anti-democratic. Even when the people call out for the removal of the strict policies, the restrictions go ahead. In Sri Lanka and in Peru, mass protests against the economic ‘reforms’ failed to stop them pushing ahead. In Iraq, the country was plundered and elections were stopped so foreign businesses could continue to exploit the resources.
The whole book is sadly still relevant. For the past 8 years, the UK has suffered under austerity. Our NHS is about to be sold off for profit and all the institutions of the welfare state that are being dismantled. The conservative government is using the economic crash of 2008 to bring in these reforms. It’s not as sweeping as the shock doctrine, but slower. The same principles remain: sell everything off cheaply. Get rid of the welfare state.
Austerity has become so embedded in the national conversation that it seems natural. No one dares question the dogma. Klein’s book shows that when the government sells off parts of the state, it cheapens the rest of society. With the rise of the right in the UK after Brexit, it is depressing to see the same economic disasters happening again. The stock market is a prime example of this, as when it crashes small amount of people make a lot of money. Milton Friedman’s theories have become embedded in society and its hard to resist them.
Klein’s book argues why the theories should be resisted. When disaster capitalism is allowed to run rampant, people starve, unemployment rises and torture becomes commonplace. The theories developed by Ewen Cameron were later ratified by the CIA and turned into a torture manual, used by the CIA in Iraq and elsewhere.
It’s dangerous and reckless. The feeling I had reading this book was the lunatics have run the asylum. The theories are not just about people making money, they are dangerous for society as a whole. Now, when we face the rise of the right and climate change, we need to resist them as much as possible. This book is essential reading for any person in the world today. If we know about the tactics used, we can resist them. They still exist in the modern world and Klein’s book remains sadly relevant. The book ends on a hopeful note, pointing to the power of communities to build and recover. Klein says:
The best way to recover from helplessness turns out to be healing- having the right to be part of a communal recovery… As the corporatist crusade continues its violent decline, turning up the shock dial to blast through the mounting resistance it encounters, these projects point a way forward between fundamentalisms.
We can build a better world. We just need to come together as one.