I have several shelves full of edifying books gathering dust in my apartment. I tell myself that I should read that latest book on Andean linguistics or Latin American social movements, but they languish sadly unread. I fully expected Naomi Klein’s latest book to similarly become a accumulator of dust in my apartment, with a title like “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” Books analyzing 3 decades of capitalism are generally pretty low on my list of favorite reading, so it was with some surprise when I finally cracked Klein’s book. Since I was killing time on a Saturday afternoon, I didn’t expect to make it through more than a dozen pages. Instead, I didn’t put Klein’s book down for the next 48 hours, eagerly flipping page after page. I stayed up till the wee hours of the night, reluctant to put the book down even to sleep.
Klein is not a particularly poetic writer, but what makes her book so entrancing is her ability to analyze what has happened over the last 3 decades of Chicago School Capitalism and put it in a framework which makes sense of a myriad of events around the globe. Whether it be Chile under Pinochet, Bolivia on the eve of democracy, Argentina under Menen, South Africa at the fall of Apartheid, Poland under Solidarity, Russia under Yetsin, China at Tiaman Square, Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, or New Orleans after the dikes broke, Klein masterfully weaves the events together, explaining in simple, direct language how ordinary people were buffeted by different forms of shock in order to advance a fundamentalist form of Capitalism. In each case the democratic will of the majority was trampled and the quality of their lives worsened, while a select upper echelon grew wealthy.
The main thesis of the book is that Chicago School Capitalism, which is often referred to as Neoliberalism in most of the world or “free trade” in the US, is predicated upon inducing shock in order to break down the normal barriers preventing its implementation. Klein shows how Chicago School Capitalism is deeply intertwined with the use of shock, whether it be the use of torture and political repression, economic rupture and disorientation, natural disasters, or war. Sometimes the shock follows a natural disaster such as a hurricane or Tsunami, but often the shock is deliberately induced, as Klein shows in the cases where people were tortured in the Southern Cone of South America or when the IMF heightened economic crises in Poland and Russia after the fall of communism and in Southeast Asia in 1997. In every case, the advocates of Chicago School Capitalism arrived on the scene with the same dreadful medicine: a dose of privatization, reduction of social services, and battering down tariffs and restrictions on free trade. These measures were inevitably taken against the will of the majority of the people, so they can only be implemented when the normal procedures of democracy are bypassed and people are in a state of shock and too disoriented to rally in defense.
In case after case Klein shows how market fundamentalism subverted democracy and could only be implemented either through the direct use of terror and force or through secretive backroom deals which directly contradicted the expressed will of the voters. The Bolivians voted for nationalization of the mines and land redistribution when they selected Victor Paz Estenssoro in 1984. The Polish voted for worker control of the factories when they chose Solidarity. The South Africans voting for the ANC’s Freedom Charter promising nationalization of the mines, public housing, and more just redistribution of the wealth of the nation. The Sri Lankans voted for a candidate running on an anti-privatization platform. In every case, the voters received Chicago School Capitalism and were in too great a state of shock to oppose it.
Although I can spot a few holes in Klein’s account, more than any book I have read, The Shock Doctrine establishes a background framework from which I launch my own understanding of the events which I have been observing here in Bolivia. After witnessing a number of different elections in Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, I have long thought that Latin American democracy was a Kibuki theater of empty pronouncements and formal proceduralism. It didn’t matter which party the voters selected, the economic policies which have such disastrous effects on common people would be the same. Over and over, the people voted for left-leaning parties who made all sorts of promises, but inevitably they implemented IMF “structural readjustment” policies which directly contradicted their campaign platforms. Democracy became a meaningless farce. Unlike in other parts of the world, Bolivians have eventually become what Naomi Klein terms “shock resistant” and were no longer willing to have Chicago School Capitalism rammed down their throats. Bolivians massed in giant social movements, marching in the thousands to fill the city centers. When peaceful protest didn’t work, the highways were blockaded with burning tires and flying stones. Eventually, miners and coca growers occupied the capital city, overpowering the police and army with their massive numbers and the occasional flinging of dynamite. Two presidents were thrown out of office and others like Carlos Mesa were so paralyzed that they became empty titular heads.
Political scientists wring their hands when the new populists of Latin America shunt aside the formal procedures of democracy, but they fail to grasp how Chicago School Capitalism has created such a crisis of confidence in democracy in Latin America. When people elect leaders such as Chavez or Morales who set out to trample the formal procedures of democracy, people react with satisfaction because they are getting the policies for which they voted. They would rather have nationalization, increased social services, and land reform, even if they can only be achieved by scrapping the old procedures which only upheld the power of the elite against the expressed will of the majority. Bolivian democracy today is what happens when people become so frustrated with the experiments of Chicago School Capitalism that they are willing to rip up old constitutions and bulldoze over any legal objections to undo the unjust policies of Chicago School Capitalism which were implemented undemocratically under the guise of procedural democracy.
If we care about maintaining procedural democracy around the globe, we should ensure that people are not coerced by the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, the US government and other institutions which advance the agenda of the wealthy few. Otherwise, people will elect populist leaders who trample the formal procedures of democracy in order to actually implement democratic policies which the vast majority are demanding.