Why Can't the U.S. Have the Debate about Naomi Klein's Book That Europe Has?

Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, tells the history of how the American version of "free market" capitalism has spread in moments of crisis and catastrophe, when societies are too traumatized and disoriented to challenge the introduction of radical economic policies that go against their own interests.

The Shock Doctrine has already been published and translated in several countries. Excerpts from Klein's book were published in the British newspaper the Guardian, and discussion about the book has raged on its online site Comment Is Free, as well as in the German, French and Canadian press. I attended Klein's U.S. book launch event at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Sept. 17, where she described her work and her experiences dealing with a foreign press frequently hostile to her arguments.

At least the foreign press is willing to tangle with writers who offer critiques of the capitalist system. There is plenty of economic coverage in the U.S., but fundamental questions on issues such as whether privatization of public assets benefits the public and if the focus on short-term economic growth is harmful in the long run are simply not discussed. I wondered how Klein's book, which has hit the best-seller lists all over Europe, would fare in the U.S. and what Klein's expectations were for the U.S. audience. I spoke with her on the phone about this and the issues she raises in The Shock Doctrine on Sept. 19.

Jan Frel: Your book has 70 pages of footnotes and has citations from over 1,000 sources. At the book launch in New York, you referred to this as your "body armor." The thinking seems to be that if you can back up what you're saying, then it has to be accepted. Is this what will give it legitimacy in the mainstream media?

Naomi Klein: It's more for the debate about my work. In the attempts to dismiss my work as conspiracies theories, the footnotes help.

Frel: It's often times the case that books that make powerful and damning claims with complete accuracy still don't break into public debate or hit the audience that ought to confront them. Isn't there something else that prevents radical interpretations of society and economics and buried history from reaching public debate?

Klein: I think that's true -- it's certainly true in this country. I wasn't talking about the problem my book would have getting into the mainstream; it's more about the debates around it. My books do get into the mainstream -- outside the U.S. That doesn't mean they aren't contested, but in Canada for example, The Shock Doctrine is already at No. 3 on Amazon. [Currently at No. 43 in the United States.]

Another book I did, No Logo, was a mainstream book in most of the countries where it was published, except for the U.S. In the U.S. it never was. The context I talked about the need for support for my arguments is in cases where my book is being debated and argued. So in the U.S., I totally agree that having solid footnotes are no guarantee that you can start a mainstream debate. I don't have any confidence that this book will be in the mainstream debate in the United States.

Frel: A lot of what you're taking on in The Shock Doctrine is a concept that is fused in deep into a big part of the American psyche -- that "the free market" and "free enterprise," which we don't typically debate or condemn in the mainstream but are to blame for a lot of the things the public does discern as problems, like our healthcare system. But how do you get people to see that they are being screwed by their own dominant economic beliefs?

Klein: It's actually not that hard. The hard part is getting past the media wall.

Frel: At your U.S. book launch on Monday you talked about getting past the "intellectual police lines" that prevent discussion.

Klein: That's a different kind of situation. In Britain, it's a mainstream book being debated on the BBC, the Times of London, the Guardian and so on. It's being dismissed in part -- part of the discussion is an attempt to dismiss it. When I was talking about "intellectual police lines," it was in reference to the kinds of questions I was getting from mainstream journalists in Europe and in Canada. But in the U.S., I would say that's this is not really the issue -- it's whether you get access at all.

Frel: Do you think that it's because in the States, there isn't really any debate about alternatives to our economic system in any form? In Europe, where your book has already been released, there is at least the residue of a public debate that is willing to debate fundamental questions on economic systems and the social contract.

Klein: In most parts of the world, it's easier to even identify the radical policies of capitalism as contested territory, as something to debate. Whereas in the United States, these policies are the air we breathe; they are invisible almost because they are so hegemonic. For example, when I talk about privatization in Canada, people understand what that means -- it's about the drive to privatize our healthcare system and our education system, and there is a very clear grasp in the public mind about what the public sphere actually is. People understand there that this is something to defend against -- that there is something to privatize, while in the U.S., the agenda to privatize has succeeded so fully that these ideas seem more abstract because the idea of the public sphere is almost abstract.

When I'm talking about these ideas in France or the U.K., people know what "public" is. There are large parts of their life that exist within a nonmarket space.

Frel: So do you think it's an issue here in America where people don't want to consider these questions or are unable to?

Klein: I think it's the issue of the media line, and there are a lot of issues around it. It's very hard to have discussion anything outside the parameters of partisan politics in this country.

Frel: It's been my experience that it's not always the issue that the media is preventing discussion, but rather that the media working on behalf of the public's general desire not wanting to get into an issue. For example, this Monday, AlterNet ran article about the recent report that 1.2 million civilians have died violent deaths since the U.S. invasion. It was our top story, and the number of people who read it (24,000) was far lower than we expected.

Klein: Really? And that's a progressive audience.

Frel: It seems to me that it's this kind of a phenomenon that has media, including the corporate media, acting on behalf the audience's "intellectual police lines."

Klein: I think it's a vicious cycle. The media acts as an amplifier.

Frel: It's also responsive to the interests of the audience.

Klein: It is, but look at Lou Dobbs. Here you have a CNN news anchor who makes a concerted decision that he is going to put the disappearing American middle class and the effects of outsourcing on TV every night, and he's going to use his pulpit to drum up outrage, except that he decides that he's going to direct that outrage to the weakest people in society, to immigrants. But what's interesting about that, talking about outsourcing, talking about free trade, talking about the middle class -- any media outlet in the past 20 years could have done a story on that, giving the audience permission to have outrage instead of ignoring it or normalizing it, and saying this is just the way the world works. Lou Dobbs made the conscious decision to make his show a platform for outrage, and people were attracted to it because they really are upset, and they had it validated back to them.

I think the same thing could happen with Iraqi casualties if you had the media saying night after night that this is a scandal and really put a human face on those deaths.

Frel: Your book may encounter resistance at the mainstream level here in the States, but there is an audience of progressives and people who consume alternative media who are certain to embrace it. How does your book speak to their sensibilities, and how do you think they will receive it?

Klein: The book is an attempt to front burner the economic project and the economic ideology that I think is so much at the root of the front-page stories of our time: climate change, preemptive war, the resurgence of torture. I believe we need an analytic framework, and I think the book provides one -- not the only one, but anything that draws connections -- I think that progressives and readers of alternative media aren't going to be shocked by the information in the book. The hope is that the analysis is empowering. I know as a reader what's valuable is having connections made -- you're often bombarded with information in an analytic vacuum you can feel terribly hopeless, but when you make those connections, even when the connections are grim, you're more oriented.

As a writer, I'm very pleased with the reception to the book. Already we've got people writing into the website citing examples of disaster capitalism: "Look at what's going on in Greece, they're handing over land after the forest fires. Look at what's going on in Peru." All you can hope for as an analyst is that people read the newspaper better.

Frel:And you have a daringly simple solution for events of disaster capitalism that you identify, which I summarize as: Society should be informed and aware of what governments are trying to do to them after a catastrophe and apply this lens of analysis to their living context.

Klein: Shock only works if you don't know it's happening to you. Shock is a state of disorientation, which happens when we can't match events with analysis. For me, just understanding how shock affects our brains and that there is a philosophy of how to exploit that opportunity and push through economic policies people wouldn't normally accept in that window of time -- just realizing that makes you more resistant. But this is not my solution. I provide examples in my book of societies that have learned from their history when they were exploited in moments of shock, and delegated authority to figures of security that promised to take care of them. Because they have learned those simple lessons, they've become more shock resistant. But it does require looking at history without the blinders of denial.

In the sense that the book is an alternative history, I do hope that it helps people become more oriented, both in terms of more connected to our recent past, our pre-9/11 past, and more aware of what is happening in a moment of crisis or disaster.

The timing of The Shock Doctrine's release in Canada is very relevant here because it just hosted a summit with George Bush and Mexican President Calderon to meet with Prime Minister Steven Harper to talk about the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) which is basically like NAFTA-plus -- NAFTA plus security issues. The SPP is an example of the shock doctrine I outline in the sense that this was an agenda that would have been unspeakable in terms of integration with the United States before 9/11, and in the panic after -- in that shock -- the SPP agenda moved forward in technocratic circles, and it was presented as a done deal.

Once Canadians began learning about the SPP, they started rejecting it, and then they had this summit, where it was announced that, "Don't worry, nothing's going to happen here." But they said in the final press conference at the summit in Montebello, Quebec, at the end of August that the one exception that they would push for the SPP to be pushed through is if there's a disaster -- if there's an avian flu outbreak or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster -- then they would implement tightened integration between security forces in all these countries.

In Canada this was front-page news -- in the U.S., it wasn't reported on. When my book came out a week later people saw the connections immediately. They realized that what the Canadian government was saying was, the next time there's a disaster, we will use it as a moment of opportunity to push through these policies that you're rejecting where there isn't a disaster going on. It's incredibly naked.

Frel: There's an issue that I've seen a lot of critics and journalists already getting into about your book, and I've seen that you have a good term already to explain it. You don't argue that economic elites try to cause disasters they reap the benefits from, rather that they have "acute intellectual disaster preparedness" -- they are only cynical enough to take advantage of catastrophe.

Klein: I think that's right. The think-tank infrastructure in this country is organized to leap into the chasm right away after disaster has struck. The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute stockpile free market ideas in the way that people stockpile canned goods. I don't say that anyone is causing these disasters for their benefit, but in the book I do say that if there's anything the market delivers on is a stream of increasingly intense disasters. I think the current economic model in America is a slow-motion disaster.

Now we're at the intersection of a weak public infrastructure that has been starved for two and a half decades and increasingly heavy weather, thanks to climate change, which I believe has a lot to do with this pursuit of short-term growth that is at the heart of the economic model, and we're going to have more and more of these disasters. If we aren't careful, each of these disasters offers the opening and a rationale for more disaster capitalism.

Frel: An economic feedback cycle, like the one scientists are warning about the compounding power of the effects of climate change.

Klein: If there's one thing we don't need on this planet it's disasters, because disaster capitalism will keep coming.

Frel: Since capital is not monolithic and has competing interests among economic elites, it seems as though the disaster capitalism model would have taught some of its adherents by now that it doesn't work in the long term, or at least have some elites who would fight against it. You write extensively on the free market laboratory implemented in Chile when Pinochet took over, which of course was a failure. Isn't there resistance to disaster capitalism at the levels of economic power and government that institute them?

Klein: Yes. In the Chile chapter I talk about how the country's manufacturing sector was furious that cheap products were flooding into the country, that people who were making the money in this case were the people involved in speculative finance. There are absolutely these competing interests. If you look at the Bush administration, this is an administration that is particularly tied to the disaster capitalism complex: the arms dealing, homeland security, pharmaceuticals that treat pandemics and the oil industry, which benefits handsomely from each and every disaster.

Frel: There's also the phenomenon that the way the capital markets work is to search out weak points and opportunities in any circumstance in which they arise.

Klein: You can depend on capital to arrive at any vacuum and exploit any weakness. It is not the case that politicians need to facilitate this and fund it lavishly with taxpayer money. What is disturbing is the seamless alliance between government and capitalism.

Frel: You end the book with a quote from a declassified letter from Kissinger to Nixon where he says that the real threat of Allende wasn't what he was telling the public -- that Allende wanted this totalitarian system. Kissinger wrote that the real threat was the problem of social democracy spreading. What was so scary about this idea to him?

Klein: I think it's always been the scary idea, because it's so popular. People like to have consumer choice, and they also like to have basic necessities protected and to have a life with dignity: housing, water, electricity, healthcare. And with democratic socialism you can actually have both: a mixed economy that has an essentially controlled economic model but that has room for diversity within it and has these social guarantees. And that's always been the bigger threat to a radical vision of capitalism than totalitarian communism, because people don't actually like living in communist countries, but they really do like living in democratic socialist countries.


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