Monday, December 10, 2007


I'm half-way through the audiobook version of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. This excellent work (well summarized here) demolishes the economic mythos promulgated by Milton Friedman, who argued that political freedom depends on rolling back New Deal reforms in this country, and on undercutting similar reforms in other countries. Friedmanites attempt to win this argument through the technique of loud and repeated assertion, through the manipulation of data, and (as Klein documents) through more underhanded means.

As we shall see, real-world experiment has not been kind to their doctrine.

My vision is not keen enough to distinguish Friedmanist economic views from those of the Libertarians. This confluence is the reason why I consider the Ron Paul movement such a danger. Paul remains wedded to an ideology which has repeatedly failed -- indeed, the thing collapses even as we speak.

When the dictator Pinochet applied Friedmanism in Chile, even that country's business community, which had supported Allende's ouster, barked in pain. To quote from the afore-cited review:
Pinochet bought it along with a team of Chicago School alumni called “technos.” They embarked on a free market binge with disastrous results. In the first year, inflation hit 375%, thousands of Chileans lost jobs, the country was flooded with cheap imports, local businesses closed and hunger grew along with public and small business discontent in this free market “paradise.” In desperation, “it was time to call in the big guns” with Milton Friedman coming to Santiago to reinforce his message that for things to improve they first had to get worse. It was classic shock treatment and Chicago School baloney with Friedman preaching patience and promising an “economic miracle” if his prescription was followed.

Pinochet agreed, and slash and burn followed with visions of paradise at the end of the rainbow. It was pure untested fantasy, and the results showed it. After one year of hardened shock therapy, Chile’s economy contracted 15%, unemployment rocketed to 20%, and contrary to Friedman’s rosy scenario it lasted for years with no social safety net help for desperate Chileans.

Klein notes Chile today is still cited as a model that free market “Friedmanism” works in spite of the clear evidence it doesn’t.
Now we hear similar agonized barking from many sectors of the American business community. A surprising number of corporations have come to support socialized health insurance. The dollar nose-dives, stagflation looms, belts tighten, and America doesn't make much of anything.

Yet the Friedmanites and Libertarians refuse to concede an inch. They have achieved the beatific vision. They know the One Answer To Everything: End all government regulation of business; end public funding of schools and retirement; spend public monies only on the military and the enforcement of private contracts, even when those contracts favor the powerful over the weak.

A few days ago, a Libertarian visitor to Air America traced the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1990s to the creation of the FDIC, while exonerating Reagan's deregulation of the industry. Friedman himself relied on an ultra-deceptive argument in order to blame the Depression on FDR. A really clever sophist can find reason to blame "gummint regulation" for your cat's hairballs. Fact does not matter; history does not matter; environmental crisis does not matter; human misery does not matter; reality itself does not matter. Only the One Answer matters.

In the past I've said that Libertarianism (or Friedmanism) failed in a massive experiment called the 19th century. It also failed in Pinochet's Chile and Yeltsin's Russia and George Bush's Iraq. Nevertheless, the defenders of Libertarianism -- like the die-hard defenders of Communism -- will forever tell us: "Our ideology has never failed, because our ideology has never been properly tried. All previous attempts to implement this system did not go far enough." The ideological robots programmed to repeat this formulation remind me of Medieval doctors devoted to the idea of using leeches. If the patient did not improve, they kept applying the leeches, because they knew that the trick should work.

In theory.

In theory, Friedmanism/Libertarianism will always advance the cause of individual liberty. Yet in every instance when Friedmanism has made headway, individual rights have suffered. Witness Pinochet, his police state, his mass executions. Witness Operation Condor. Witness Yeltsin and the rise of the "Family" and the oligarchs. Witness the Holocaust revisionists attracted to the cause of Ron Paul.

And witness George W. Bush, who is certainly more wedded to Friedmanism than were Eisenhower and Kennedy. Do we have more liberty -- more privacy, more freedom of movement -- now than in the days of Ike and JFK? Did Truman, LBJ or even Nixon ever attempt to legalize torture?

Despite this record of failure, the Friedmanist spell continues to enchant millions of Americans. Despite an impressive record of success (and despite the fact that they fund us), the mixed economies of Western and Northern Europe continue to disgust millions of Americans. The disgust they feel for the European model (nationalized health insurance, social welfare, strong unions, regulation of large corporations) is more visceral than is the animus felt toward Soviet-style communism. When was the last time you heard right-wingers mount an ideological argument against China or Vietnam? Oh, they'll make the effort if forced to do so, but their hearts won't be in the job. Bring up Sweden, Germany or France, and watch the fires of true hatred ignite in the right-wing soul.

My problem with Klein's book concerns her side-trips into the work done by the notorious Ewen Cameron at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute. Klein's fascination with these ghastly experiments, funded by the CIA's MKULTRA program, is understandable. She is a Canadian feminist. Cameron worked in Canada and most of his victims were female. Alas, these sections of her book have only a tenuous connection to her critique of Friedmanism -- a link dependant on the double-meaning of the word "shock." Sorry, but economic shock and electroshock are two different things.

Klein has thus produced a strange and schizophrenic work. The end result feels as though someone has spliced pages from a Rachel Ray recipe book into a history of Athens, on the grounds that both Ray and Pericles have Greek blood. (Then again, books now carry such hefty price tags that I can't complain too much about getting two volumes for the price of one.)

The Cameron material seems to be getting the lion's share of reviewer attention. I think that this dark and frightening episode is one those tales destined to be retold every twenty or thirty years. The library in which I sit right now has several books about Cameron on its shelves -- including a little-known work which defends the monster. But few have read those books, and many who once knew the story have forgotten it. Thus, Naomi Klein's latest work carries the shock -- pardon the expression -- of the new.

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code provides another example of this "twenty-to-thirty years" phenomenon: It espouses a theory which seemed fresh to an audience too young to recall the furor over The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. When the Code is forgotten (2030 or thereabouts), the same theory will inspire yet another bestseller, and the game will begin again. In that very same period, readers who are now but teenagers will learn for the first time of the evil wrought by Ewen Cameron, and they will ask why nobody told them this story before. I hope that Klein's work will then receive a reprinting and an update.


AitchD said...

Naomi didn't take the necessary two or three years to write an unimpeachable book. She took the Instant Karma approach because she believes time is of the essence.

Klein asserts that the psychological condition that follows a natural or social catastrophe is indestinguishable from the kind that follows from electroshock treatments. You question her literary judgment for including experimental electroshock treatments, their study, their being proving grounds for what later could be expected to be done to entire societies -- on the grounds that the two kinds of shock are different? Then what you are saying is that her entire fallacy is wrong. Although you did subliminally suggest that Naomi should be required reading in our time, the way Ralph Nader should have been required reading in his time, and William Blake ("Damn braces, bless relaxes") in his.

I dwell on your "This excellent work ... demolishes the economic mythos promulgated by Milton Friedman, who argued that political freedom depends on rolling back New Deal reforms in this country, and on undercutting similar reforms in other countries."

You make Klein sound like Lord Byron's taking on the self-revising Wordsworth and self-deprecating Coleridge, both of whom turned against the French Revolution when it practiced its reign of terror. Byron was the first to 'demolish' the 'mythos' behind the English literary traditions, that guiding editorial faith and belief that good letters came from good men. Oh well. Hey, it was Byron who talked Coleridge into publishing Kubla Khan after it failed to make the cut!

She's "a Canadian feminist" you say? So am I, though I'm not a woman or Canadian. The Canadian women I've known don't believe in the ritual-taking of showers every day; and Canadian women's English has altered American English more then American English has altered Canadian English, most noticeably in the rising notes at the end of a declarative sentence, rising to the simmering point of a question mark.

This comment would be incomplete if it didn't mention Naomi Wolf and her English, which sounds quite Canadian at times, with an affected not-quite 'oat' for 'out'. Naomi Klein's Montreal/Toronto Canadian has been leveled and become a practiced, indistinct American English (for her American audiences) but with the Canadian talent for projecting without volume, usually through enthusiasm.

If you have a lucite pyramid, you might put your copy of "The Da Vinci Code" inside it for 24 hours and then try shaving with it.

Anonymous said...

A sad aspect to all of this is that many (maybe the majority) of people in this USA do not read books. They have never heard of MKULTRA or the economic troubles in Chile because it wasn't discussed in any detail on the evening news. I had never heard of these things until the internet provided me with a means to access information from around the world. (and I have been around quite a few years) I believe that no one that I socialize with has heard of MKULTRA and when I talk about it they treat me as a 'kook' who spends too much time reading 'make believe conspiracy theory' crap on the internet. There are people who do not want to believe that our government is not acting in their best interests.

Anonymous said...

I think the history of MKULTRA will be retold for years to come because there is so much NOT known about it and it is an episode that we should not relive, so all must know what government agencies are capable of if not monitored. But- It also sounds as though Klein was not able to reveal anything new on this portion of our history, which is unfortunate- because there is a great deal that went on up in Canada that was not exclusive to Cameron. There was a reason that it was done in Canada and NOT in the US.
In any case--I disagree with you on the comparison of the DaVinci Code- because MKULTRA is not some wild theory, and the more people are aware of it- the more our country will have to face its responsibility in this government's covert programs among its own citizens. Many of the people who were subject to those programs are still alive and have had to battle in court for minor compensatory judgments.

lee said...

Joe, she's a feminist? that's why? Um, Naomi's mom (who made the 'shocking' documentary Not A Love Story) Bonnie, maybe, but really having known Naomi since high school, i can tell you she's an activist from a family of activists.

Yes, she wrote a bit about feminism (anyone from Montreal who wasn't shocked by the 12/06/89 Massacre of women engineering students, and who didn't reflect, was spiritually dead already) but No Logo? Fences & Windows? or her film The Take? hardly Andrea Dworkin here...

Were I to postulate, I would say the MKULTRA thing is more geographically based than gender; being a Montrealer myself born just before Cameron kicked it (i was in highschool class with her older brother) I can tell you that the specter of a CIA project in our university (McGill, nestled into Mt. Royal and abutting the downtown core-- is our little jewel of a campus we all own regardless of alma mater) in OUR university, up here in Canada, never left. Up herein Canada we only started owing up to the truth of MK in the 90's (and then some people only got compensation as late as 2004) so it's still an open wound, and an affront to us that another countries Intelligence would be doing this to us, on our soil. It's not really in the past to people in Montreal.

Anonymous said...

joe, i haven't read klein's book (hoping to get a copy for xmas), but have seen her interviewed numerous times now, mostly on DN! in those interviews, she does not even mention the cameron shock experiments (except as they are the opening piece of the accompanying documentary), but instead focuses entirely on the econo/political implications.

(see especially her debate with greenspan on DN!

my sense, from that standpoint (i.e., not reading it yet, but exposed to her interviews, etc.), is that the emphasis on that episode is for (a) metaphorical purposes, and (b) to suggest that cameron's work was influencing, if not the conscious thinking of the friedmanites, then the unconscious results that they were resorting to.

i guess then, again without having read the book, that i disagree that these are two unrelated concepts in one book. when i watched the trailer, i completely got her point; this is what shock therapy is, what it does, and why it was even pursued as a scientific means of behavior control. we are therefore seeing the concept applied en masse in order to shore up the disaster that is friedmanite econo/politics. knowing that made an impact on my understanding of what those greedy bastards have been doing.

and about what they have been doing: their entire emphasis has been on the 'american' agenda of personal freedom. i'm not sure i agree with that interpretation of the constitution. i find the constitution a set of rules for protection individual rights in order to preserve the common good.

the reason the friedman experiment failed so miserably is that it left that 'common good' out of the equation. by design. that 'common good' part was what FDR reached for, but it required bridling the greed of the wealthy. (you there, aitchd? the wealthy and powerful corporations MUST be bridled, just as we all must be, with rules for sharing space and air and water and so on. ya know, kindergarten stuff)

and, as i posted earlier, THIS is the topic that the dems should be hounding like there is no tomorrow. unbridled republican greed and abuse of power have damn near ruined this country, and we need to take it back!

AitchD said...

Yes, dr elsewhere, I'm here, and I was here earlier saying the same things you've said, that I didn't read her book and heard her interviews, but my comments weren't published, which is fine with me since you also pointed out Klein's literary purpose of connecting the different kinds of shocks and their consequences. Do you think Joe was trolling us because we both cheered Naomi's original and exciting work? It's his rotten luck that we haven't read it. You're changing the terms of our disagreement about what you originally called "unbridled corporate power", but I understand. I don't think you believe that corporations are free to break laws or immune from their enforcement, but you sometimes act like they are. And I don't think you expect anyone to pass laws that make greed a crime. Everything devolves to a Constitutional issue these days. The Founders never imagined that sociopaths would rise to control every institution in the land; they assumed that shame and one's good name would suffice for the bridling (see Akhil Reed Amar's "America's Constitution: A Biography"; I hope you get a copy for Xmas!)

Anonymous said...

I have read Klein's book. I think that the 'shock' metaphor is correct in an overarching sense. The 1950's idea that basically throwing a bomb into a problem will pave the way to gold at the end of the rainbow (be it mental sanity or economic success) is a good way to look at both the APA and the Chicago School of Econ. Just as 'peeling the onion' of someone's brain down to the core via torture and then rebuilding them does not work (a particularly ironic choice of metaphors on the APA part) notice that onions have no core, neither does economic shock of throwing out the safety nets, dismembering an economy and letting foreign vulture capitalists pick over whatever is left. I think that the 1950s schools of thought, both psychological and economic, had origins in Hiroshima - hey it worked to stop a war, why not cure all the other world's ills with the same sort of action?

AitchD said...

You're probably right about Hiroshima's usefulness for learning about ultimate shock and survival, but that part about the A-bomb also ending the war isn't self-evident, and I don't care what the Party Line says. We know why we made the bombs unless we've been lied to about that. We're all not in agreement about why they were dropped; so many explanations and theories means the reasons were in fact complex. There seems to be no evidence that shows or proves that the Japanese surrender followed because of the bombs.

They didn't surrender after Hiroshima (Aug 6). They didn't surrender when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan (Aug 8) and killed off Japan's forces in Manchuria. They didn't surrender after Nagasaki was bombed (Aug 9). But they surrendered when the Soviet troops were massed for an invasion of Japan's mainland, in mid-August. Hirohito didn't mention the bombs when he told his subjects the fighting was over. What can that mean? Everyone knew about them in Japan, didn't they? My great-grandparents knew what it meant to have unbridled vodka-breathing Cossacks gallop through their Gypsyesque campsite village. Everyone in Japan in August was like ugh, ouch, and ugh, and then finally Eww.

Anonymous said...

History bounces back and forth between two poles:

Freedom and Repression...

because humanity cannot and never will be able on an individual basis to manage his/her own freedoms responsibly on a large scale. The majority can always be counted on to choose to be lied to and abused in exchange for some type of security.

People will gain increasing freedom and then blow it and need a dictator to order their lives and keep them safe. Then they will overthrow their dictator and make progress towards freedom again before their kids get lazy and go back to wanting a dictator.

And so it goes... on and on... Nero, 666, Rome, Barbarians, Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther, round and round it goes. But yeah, let's keep talking about it like it will ever become anything else.