A spectre is haunting global capitalism, the spectre of Naomi Klein. Wherever globalists wander, they find her standing in their way, sternly shaking her finger like a schoolteacher handing out bad marks. If supporters of free trade celebrate a success, like China, Klein calls it "corporatism" and reminds us that many millions of Chinese remain impoverished. When globalism fails, in Argentina or Indonesia, Klein quickly identifies the enemies of humanity, the "Chicago Boys," University of Chicago economists who destroy social democracy everywhere.
Economists will love her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Has any profession ever been so lavishly flattered? Economists believe they should run the world and now comes this super-industrious Toronto journalist with the news that they are already doing so.
The way she frames her views is at least as interesting as the views themselves. "Shock doctrine," for example, sticks in the mind even if no one understands it. It means everything and nothing. "Shock" refers, among many other things, to CIA-funded brainwashing experiments at McGill in the 1950s, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and any demand from the International Monetary Fund for payment of a loan.
Klein writes with little sense of style and no pity for the poor reader. The Shock Doctrine requires that we hack through a thicket of self-contradictions and wild overstatements. For her, hyperbole is not a literary device, it's a way of life.
But she seems to believe (and who can call her wrong?) that if she moves fast enough, few will notice the flaws in her thinking. Within one sentence, she blissfully mashes together movements and political figures with little in common except her dislike of them.
She says democratic socialism was never defeated in political debate or elections. Instead, it was "shocked out of the way at key political junctures" -- and, when resistance was fierce, defeated violently, "rolled over by Pinochet's, Yeltsin's and Deng Xiaoping's tanks." Huh? Have those names ever appeared in the same sentence before? In 1973, Augusto Pinochet brought small-scale neo-fascism to Chile. In 1989, Deng Xiaoping defended the gigantic monolithic power of the Communist Party. In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin led the break-up of the U.S.S.R.
But Klein implies that the people brutally defeated in Chile, China and Russia were social democrats, all probably holding NDP-type opinions. Perhaps they were. Or perhaps the students in Tiananmen Square hoisted that home-made variant of the Statue of Liberty as a plea for emergency assistance from the U.S. Marines and Microsoft. Even now, as Klein said recently in a Maclean's interview, "I don't think we've even begun to come to terms with what's going on in China." Yet she knows what they were thinking 18 years ago.
If you can manage to read Klein, you need read no more. Learn her way of thinking and you'll not be required to think again. She delivers a packaged one-size-fits-all theory of history that shares just one attribute with Marxism: When you have absorbed Klein you will in future always know the answer before you know the question.
Still, readers who tire of her hectoring tone have a pleasant surprise coming. At the end, she reverses course. With a start (well, almost a shock) we realize that Klein has changed her mind. Klein the Pessimist, describing a world laid waste by Chicago economics, turns into Klein the Optimist. In her happy ending, the Latin American masses come to life and populism challenges capitalism.
She likes co-operative ownership, so she tells us how well it's doing. An admirer of President Hugo Chavez, she informs us that he's spreading the co-op idea across Venezuela, to health clinics and other public services: "Rather than auctioning off pieces of the state to large corporations and losing democratic control, the people who use the resources are given the power to manage them, creating, at least in theory, both jobs and more responsive public services." At least in theory. Even Klein sees imperfections in the Chavez approach, and sees the need to hedge her bet. His critics consider these "initiatives" handouts and unfair subsidies -- what other countries call patronage. But here again, Klein moves on quickly, pointing out that, flawed or not, this system is better than turning everything over to Halliburton, like the Americans.
Her book may well install in the language the term "disaster capitalism," which means the habit of corporations rushing into countries ravaged by war or other catastrophes to scoop up huge profits and reshape local economies. Klein applies it so promiscuously (New Orleans, Iraq, the Asian crisis) that it's hard to keep up with her thinking, but that never inhibits a good sloganeer.
Is there an alternative to disaster capitalism? Yes, Hezbollah. That's the same Party of God that expresses religious belief through terrorist bombings. Klein gives it a nice review. She doesn't claim it's perfect, and the idea of her submitting to Hezbollah discipline and living its kind of life is risible. Still, she thinks well of it.
She explains that Lebanon needed help with restoring infrastructure after the Israel-Hezbollah war last year. But money from the West came with strings attached, so many Lebanese were grateful when local, indigenous neighbourhood committees of Hezbollah turned up with generous grants of money and workers sensitive to local opinion. Klein gushes so enthusiastically about Hezbollah that she almost forgets to mention that, financially, it's a branch-plant of Iran. Finally, cornered by one point she can't ignore, she devotes seven words to it before rushing on to another attack on private capitalism. Her rule: When facts conflict with theory, change the subject.