The Magazine

Reveling in the Financial Crisis

Naomi Klein, rising star of the kooky left.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Move over, Michael Moore: The new rock star of the left has arrived. She is Naomi Klein, a 38-year-old Canadian writer and journalist whose 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, was greeted with rave reviews and became an international bestseller. She has been hailed by British political philosopher John Gray in the Guardian and by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in the New York Times. In February, she became the first winner of England's new £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing. A long, mostly flattering, though occasionally skeptical profile in the New Yorker, published in December, called her "the most visible and influential figure on the American left--what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were thirty years ago."

Klein's basic message comes down to this: Capitalism is evil, countless crimes have been committed in its name, and much of the foreign policy of the United States and its allies in recent decades has been driven by the twin forces of greed and free-market fanaticism. Even some people sympathetic to Klein's critique of free-market economic doctrine, such as Stiglitz, concede that her analysis is oversimplified. Clearly, her many admirers are not deterred.

The thesis of The Shock Doctrine is that, since market-oriented, government-cutting reforms tend to be highly unpopular, they can only be imposed by coercion and stealth; the marketeers' tactic is to either take advantage of a terrible crisis (natural disaster or war) or help create one, the better to impose their agenda on the lost and confused masses. Klein deduces this nefarious strategy from an uncontroversial statement by the late Milton Friedman in the introduction to a reprint of his book Capitalism and Freedom: "Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change." Throw in Friedman's later comment that Hurricane Katrina, albeit "a tragedy," was "also an opportunity" to rebuild New Orleans's dysfunctional school system with more focus on private and charter schools, and there you have it: Champions of laissez-faire are ghouls who feed on human suffering.

Everywhere Klein looks, from the war in Iraq to the downfall of communism to the 1973 military coup in Chile to the tsunami in Indonesia, she sees this sinister pattern. And she sees something even more sinister: a link between the free marketeers' use of mass shock to tear down faulty institutions and remake society, and bizarre CIA-funded experiments in the 1950s conducted by psychiatrist Ewen Cameron--nicknamed "Dr. Shock"--designed to "unmake and erase faulty minds" by electric or drug-induced shocks and then rebuild the patient's personality. The free-market reformer and the torturer are spiritual twins.

Yes, this really is as kooky as it sounds. Klein's argument frequently lapses from standard left-wing polemic into sheer weirdness. Thus, she finds it telling that Guantánamo Bay detainees scheduled for release were allowed time in a room where they could watch movies on DVD, eat pizza and hamburgers, and "chill out." In Klein's reading, "that was actually the plan"--break the prisoners down through abuse, then fill their emptied minds with American junk culture and junk food. On a grander scale, Klein suggests that the Bush administration deliberately fostered chaos in Iraq after the invasion, since a smooth transition to Iraqi self-government would have inhibited privatization and other free-market reforms in the service of world corporate dominance--never mind that Klein herself acknowledges the eventual abandonment of many free-market reforms in Iraq.

Klein's grasp of economics is tenuous at best. She thinks corporate welfare is consistent with Milton Friedman's doctrines. She declares, in all seriousness, that Chicago-school laissez-faire ideology is uniquely prone to breeding corruption because it praises greed and self-enrichment. (One has to wonder if Klein has heard of public choice theory, which holds that excessive government involvement in the economy is bad precisely because, among other things, greedy officials are likely to promote regulations that serve their interests rather than the public good.)

Since its publication, The Shock Doctrine has been subjected to several withering critiques. Writing in the New Republic last July, senior editor Jonathan Chait, no fan of "absolutist free-market ideology," dismissed Klein's one-track polemic as "perfect nonsense." The most detailed analysis, by Swedish intellectual historian Johan Norberg in a Cato Institute briefing paper, uncovers numerous inaccuracies and distortions in Klein's tome.