Disaster Capitalism: A Dance To The Music Of Crime


Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is sprawling.  In it, Klein discusses everything from the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America to the Asian and Russian financial crises to the history of U.S. torture techniques to the wars in the Balkans and Iraq.  Some of these topics fit with the theme of the book better than others, the theme being the U.S. proclivity for using disasters (ones it sometimes helps to create) as new market opportunities, turning the misery of others into a bonanza for the well-connected businessmen here in the States who have benefited from the privatization boom that began the 1980s when both U.S. and State governments began the mad dash away from responsibility and toward outsourcing.

Rumsfield was only running with the prevailing wind he took office determined to downsize the Pentagon.  Klein says that Rumsfield came to D.C. with the intention of remaking the armed forces into “a small core of staffers propped up by cheaper temporary soldiers from the Reserve and National Guard.  Meanwhile, contractors from companies such as Blackwater and Halliburton would perform duties ranging from high-risk chauffeuring to prisoner interrogation to catering to healthcare.”

Of course, says Klein, a downsized Pentagon does not have to mean that a country we’ve defeated is then plundered by private business:  “The Bush administration could easily have stipulated that any company receiving U.S. tax dollars had to staff its projects with Iraqis.  It could also have contracted for many jobs directly with Iraqi firms.  Such simple, commonsense measures did not happen for years because they conflicted with the underlying strategy of turning Iraq into an emerging market economic bubble.”

As Klein builds her case against such “Disaster Capitalism,” she marches us through history and highlights numerous crises wherein U.S. maneuverings on behalf of the upper echelon of the American business elite has caused or worsened the situation on the ground for the people suffering through the catastrophe.  Sometimes that calamity has taken the form of U.S.-backed coups, sometimes of U.S. led wars, and sometimes of natural disasters such as tsunamis or hurricanes (of the latter, no one has proved C.I.A. culpability… yet).

A large chunk of Klein’s book is spent comparing torture to free-market reforms– an intriguing analogy, though I’m not convinced it is worthy of the serious, long, and detailed attention Klein gives it.  I believe she makes the mistake of taking the metaphor too far, thus undercutting the more serious contentions of her book.

Klein’s curiosity about torture, its methodologies and justifications (if there are any), must have then led her to trace the history of modern torture back to the 20th century mental health research that got the CIA’s attention in the years before it produced one of its enduring legacies, the Kubark torture manual.  Klein has read all or parts of Kubark, a 129-page CIA manual on the interrogation of resistant sources, written in 1963.  One of the main points the manual makes is that the interrogator must “destroy the capacity for resistance” of the prisoner.

I feel I can almost see her playing the game of free association that led her from her unhappiness with the Iraq War to U.S. torture techniques:  Shock And Awe campaign to defeat Iraq–> the privatization of the post-war rebuilding and occupation –>  overnight post-war economic reforms –>  so-called “shock therapy” approach to stimulating a moribund economy via sudden and drastic reforms –>  electroshock therapy for mental illness –>  electrical shock used as a torture technique by American interrogators.  Voila.

Artists and geniuses are exceptionally capable of what is often called “lateral thinking.”  In other words, the artist/genius is able to make a connection between two things or events where the rest of us would have seen no connection at all.  For a poet, lateral thinking would include the ability to come up with a perfect metaphor to describe a feeling or situation (for examples:  Eliot’s “the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” or another’s poet’s description of fog creeping into a city on cat’s paws).  For a craftsman or team leader, lateral thinking would include the ability to see a new use for an old tool or of seizing a solution from an entirely different field of endeavor.

The keen, artistic mind of Klein did some sideways cogitation about the torture instruction “destroy the capacity for resistance,” and was, I conjecture, led to thinking about the situation arising after an armed conflict or natural disaster, or even an economic meltdown like the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s.   When such cataclysmic events occur, the devastated country is left with a severely weakened “capacity for resistance;” this would include the capacity for resisting IMF-dictated loan conditions and other U.S. and Western inroads into that country’s economy.

Klein treats us to many pages concerning the history of the treatment of mental illness and its evil offspring, modern torture.  And I think it all quite interesting– though I believe Klein is on surer ground when she sticks to her main point:  that the U.S. is using disaster as a market opportunity for certain U.S. companies, specifically, those companies with the most well-connected Board Of Directors.

[End Note:  Doesn’t it sometimes feel like that there is really just one great big Board Of Directors ruling the business and government of this country, having a blast in their game of musical chairs danced to the music of crime?]


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