No Logos, No Fear: A Review of Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”

By Max Fawcett | October 23, 2007


The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein, Knopf Canada, 2007, 662 pages, HB, $36.95

Naomi Klein has now written two exceptionally provocative
books in her life. The Shock Doctrine, her
official follow-up to No Logo – Fences and Windows, which was a
compilation of essays and reviews meant to tide her fans over while she worked
on her next major project, doesn't count – is an attack on the neo-conservative
free-marketeerism that has dominated western politics for the past twenty-five
years. Her latest book has re-energized this country's political left, and made
a name for her in the United States
not merely as an anti-globalization crusader but as a dangerously honest and
outspoken political opponent of the elite. The elite back home in Canada
aren't any safer, and judging from the hysterical columns and editorials
written by their spokespeople, she's jammed a knife deep into one of their most
sensitive nerves.

The Shock Doctrine is
a more powerful book than No Logo. That's
an achievement, considering the effect that No
had on the attitude of mainstream North Americans to corporations,
branding, and the often perverse influence of marketing on our lives. On
post-secondary campuses across the Western world, No Logo has become part of the intellectual canon to which all
liberal arts students are exposed. But while No Logo took some deserved hacks at corporations like Nike and
Shell, it didn't, to borrow National Post
editor Jonathan Kay's phrasing, "name names." The Shock Doctrine, in contrast, names them all.

That willingness to name names and take sides does mean that
it likely won't sell anywhere near as many copies as No Logo, which was generally non-partisan and apolitical. No Logo managed to transcend its form as
a book to become, ironically, a logo in itself, as much a statement of style
than belief, and a must-have accessory for rebellious young teenagers or
first-year political science students everywhere. That's an unlikely fate for a
book that devotes forty pages to graphic descriptions of physical torture and
the other five hundred to detailing torture of an economic kind.

Detail is an appropriate word to associate with this book,
too. Critics may object to the political slant of the book or to the names
being named – remember that nerve I mentioned earlier? – but they cannot
seriously claim that Klein hasn't done her research for this book, or that her
conclusions are baseless. There are sixty-seven pages of footnotes for five
hundred and sixty-one pages of text, an astonishing ratio by even the most rigorous
of academic standards. In fact, I'm willing to bet that there are more
references (to actual research) in Klein's book than in every book ever written
by David Frum, ex-speech writer to the President responsible for many of the
atrocities detailed in those same footnotes. Some have tried to undermine
Klein's orgy of research by criticizing her for melding opinion with fact, but
isn't that the job of any half-decent political writer? At the very least,
Klein pays us the courtesy of actually using facts, which can't always be said
for her ideological and intellectual enemies.

Her usage of those facts, on the other hand, is a
significant area of weakness in the book. In trying to establish her
meta-narrative, she seems to prefer piling facts in her corner over arranging
them properly. It almost seems as though she's trying to overwhelm – shock,
even – her readers with the volume of information she presents, rather than
taking the time to parse each event properly. While the various power struggles
in South America and the relationship of Milton Friedman
and his Chicago School
to them are all interesting, the evidence presented in support of her
accusations is underwhelming. The links between the crimes committed and the
accused are often tangential or circumstantial, and are rarely corroborated.
Those linkages become even more brittle as her analysis moves to Eastern Europe
and Russia, and break down entirely when she attempts to include Great Britain,
China, and, bizarrely, the former Yugoslavia. She would have been better served
by focusing on a few cases and more clearly – the South American cases,
perhaps, with which she is intimately familiar – and thoroughly identifying the
linkages between Friedmanist economics, shock, and human suffering.

She also picks some unnecessary fights, a poor tactic for a
book that's already guaranteed to attract significant critical attention. Her
chapter on Israel,
for example, appears designed to provoke, and it adds nothing to the argument
she's trying to make. Her advocacy of the leadership of Hezbollah's Sheikh
Hassan Nasrallah is particularly confounding. There are dozens of tightly
argued books on the Middle East, written by experts far
more knowledgeable and credible than her, and they still manage to stir the emotions
of otherwise calm and rational people. To toss a chapter on a deeply
inflammatory subject into an already dense and controversial book is rotten
intellectual decision making, and serves to undermine the rest of her work. She
needed to pick her battles, and this certainly wasn't one of them.

These sins are mostly forgiven when she gets to the last
third of the book – excluding the chapter on Israel,
of course – which feels like a different book entirely. The rest of the book
amounts to Klein's contribution to an old ideological and cultural war, one
that's been going on for over thirty years, between social democrats and conservatives.
The back end, on the other hand, is far more engaging, more focused, and more
effectively argued. It addresses important recent events, from the bungling of
post-war Iraq
and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the contracting out of our own
governments, and the thesis she has created to explain them fits snugly.

The story of Katrina and Iraq
is in fact an old and familiar one, she explains. It has become a piece of
accepted political wisdom that businesses that can be in private hands should
be in private hands. Opponents of privatization have been forced to concede the
larger war and concentrate instead on important battles, be it a utility here
or a liquor control board there. Movement in the other direction, from private
to public hands, is now regarded in the West as a reckless and revolutionary
act, as Bolivia's
Evo Morales and Venezuela's
Hugo Chavez have demonstrated over the past few years. In the West, however,
the fiercest battles over the privatization of public assets were assumed to be
over. As Klein shows throughout the last third of the book, the biggest battle
is yet to come, and it involves the privatization of government itself.

The war in Iraq
and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina alerted the world – or, those in it who
were paying attention – to a new military-industrial complex, one that Klein
describes as the disaster industry. While Blackwater is the highest profile of
these companies, there are thousands of companies whose profitability depends
upon the existence of chaos and disaster. More distressingly, many of these
companies are either run, owned, or advised by former government employees, most
of whom were part of the bureaucracy that used to be responsible for responding
to disasters. Freed from the shackles of public service and the comparatively
miniscule salaries they involved, these people and their expertise are
increasingly part of a new industry that thrives upon events that either take
or ruin the lives of other human beings. Worst of all, governments – the
American government, at least – are complicit in the development of this new
economy. This is a subject that deserves further study, as disheartening as
that work will surely be.

The Shock Doctrine will
be a success, albeit one of a much different kind that No Logo. Her first book resulted in overwhelmingly positive press,
massive international sales, and the unofficial – and perhaps unwanted – role
as the spokesperson for disaffected young people. This book will provide her
with no such luxuries, but the rewards may, in time, prove to be more
significant. It announces her arrival as a serious critic, one who is no longer
content to skewer slow moving targets like corporate excess but instead willing
to attack widely held and powerfully supported beliefs about capitalism, free
enterprise, and democracy. For the left in North America,
which has struggled to provide a coherent answer to the relentless advance of
neo-liberalism, her arrival is particularly timely. Her willingness to step on
toes and defend her right to step on them is at once necessary and refreshingly
un-Canadian. Her enemies, if they're wise, might want to invest in a pair of
steel-toed boots.

Toronto, October 23 – 1,412 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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