'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, January 28, 2008

Review of The Shock Doctrine 

[NOTE: I have transposed this post, originally posted before the Billary one below, because I wonder if people missed it as a result of that entry, which was posted about 5 hours after this one.]

Naomi Klein's recent book, The Shock Doctrine, has elicited a lot of justifiable comment for her portrayal of the evolution of what she has described as disaster capitalism. Michael Hardt, a professor at Duke University, famously known globally on the left for being the co-author of Mulititude and Empire, recently reviewed the book in the most recent quarterly issue of the New Left Review.

An excerpt:

The failures of the us project in Iraq also bring us back in interesting ways to Klein’s original guiding metaphor linking economic shock and electroshock therapy. The doctors experimenting with electroshock were repeatedly frustrated because they could never achieve their dream of a tabula rasa. The patient’s old psychic structures, memories and mental habits kept reappearing despite the shock treatment. The us administrators in occupied Iraq, led by Paul Bremer, were similarly frustrated in their efforts to construct a neoliberal economy from the ground up. They privatized state industries, dismissed workers from a wide range of jobs, rewrote the legal framework for business and investment, but could not create a clean slate. Established social structures, expectations of employment and income, and public fears of the new economic regime kept stubbornly reappearing. Klein even gives fascinating evidence that identifies job losses and economic outrage in Iraq as one source of the growth of armed resistance to the occupation. Klein’s point, finally, is that not only are the methods of the shock doctrine barbaric and cruel, they also do not work. The prophets of free-market revolutions and neoliberal transformations all preach that shock will create a blank canvas on which the new economic structures can be built from scratch—and inevitably their explanation for previous failures is that the shock was not sufficiently complete, the slate was not clean enough—but, in fact, this social tabula rasa can never be achieved, and all that is left behind is a society in ruins.

The Shock Doctrine raises a number of important questions. Some readers may ask, for example, what is the proportion of states in which full-scale neoliberal restructuring has been preceded or accompanied by shock, compared to those in which the authorities proceeded by stealth or ‘third way’ consensus? Others will question how, analytically, should we correlate the climatic and tidal forces that produce a hurricane or a tsunami with the long-term human planning that drove the invasion of Iraq? My interest, however, centres on a theoretical argument about the contemporary forms of capitalist domination and control. Klein’s theory fits well with a long theoretical tradition on the intimate link between capital and violence, and it may be helpful to situate her argument within that tradition in order both to give more solid foundation to some of its claims and to highlight its originality.

First of all, Klein’s exploration of the dependence of capitalist development on violence corresponds to and in some respects extends Marxian notions of primitive accumulation. The creation of capitalist and proletarian classes were not peaceful, quasi-natural processes, resulting from the thrift and prudence of future capitalists or the profligacy of future proletarians: the birth of capital required extraordinary violence both in the conquest, genocide and enslavement of foreign populations, which brought home enormous wealth and offered new markets for goods; and internally, in the expropriation of common lands, the clearing of peasants from feudal estates and the creation of new laws that effectively herded the poor into the cities and provided available labour-power. But whereas Marx’s history can lead one to think that the ‘extra-economic’ violence of primitive accumulation is needed only to set in motion the capitalist machine, whose own discipline and economic forms of violence can maintain its rule, Klein reminds us—as have many other authors, but it is an important point worth repeating—that primitive accumulation never comes to an end but continues as a constant complement and support to the functioning of capital.

Rosa Luxemburg’s argument about the violence inherent in the accumulation of capital is a second obvious point of reference. Luxemburg explains that capital requires constant expansion for its very survival, adding new markets, more resources, additional labour-power and larger productive circuits. Expanding these capitalist circuits of reproduction, however, cannot be accomplished by economic means alone. Extra-economic force is required. Specifically, Luxemburg establishes the intrinsic relation between the great European imperialisms of her day, the early twentieth century, and the expanded reproduction of capital: if you want to oppose imperialism, you have to challenge capital. Klein likewise demonstrates a necessary and intimate relation between capital and violence, but she broadens the category of disasters that can serve in this role, well beyond the imperialist apparatuses that were Luxemburg’s focus.

The third and perhaps most relevant theoretical reference point for Klein’s argument is the long economic tradition of ‘crisis theory’, which has powerful currents in both Marxist and capitalist thought. In particular, the notion of ‘creative destruction’ developed by the decidedly non-Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter resonates strongly here. It is a commonplace that economic cycles and crises provide opportunities for the concentration and development of capital; Schumpeter insists specifically on the need for capital incessantly to revolutionize its economic and institutional structures from within. Crises, whether they result from purely economic causes or other sources, support capitalist development by clearing away the old structures of social institutions and economic practices. Such destruction is ‘creative’ only in the sense that it provides the space for innovation, the formation of new processes and institutions. Klein’s notion of the shock doctrine shares many aspects of this; but she looks well beyond the economic realm, to recognize the potentially extra-economic sources of disasters and to reveal their profound social consequences.

Unfortunately, Hardt's review is not available online, unless you are an NLR subscriber. Given that the NLR is an excellent, scholarly, thought-provoking publication, it is well worth the cost of a yearly subscription, about $60, I believe. But if that is too much for you, the hard copy, the November/December 2007 issue with Hardt's review, can be readily found at any good bookstore or newsstand.

Hardt concludes his review with a provocative question: does Klein believe that disaster capitalism is a particularly virulent form of capitalism (implying that capitalism can be reformed along the lines of Scandanavian social democracy), or is she saying that disaster capitalism is merely the current malevolent version of it (necessarily establishing that it is irredeemable). A question of enduring importance.

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