Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jane Smiley Headshot

The Shock Doctrine

Posted: Updated:

You might have read the piece in Salon the other day where John Dean

laments the passing of the Republican Party as a positive, or, even, a

non-damaging force in American life. The party he has known for

forty years, and the party he says that his friends now know, is a

hateful, entirely corrupt, and self-interested body composed of those

who take revenge and those who fear having revenge taken upon them.

Every current candidate for the presidency is "authoritarian" in an

extreme and unAmerican way that Dean thinks would have in earlier

decades been "corrected" by the political system, but the Republicans,

according to Dean, have broken the political system precisely so that

it won't correct them. Sounds like the financial markets, doesn't it?

Personally, I would have put things slightly differently. The

Republican Party now seems to work like a gang, in which the most

valued qualities in members are loyalty to the gang and the leader,

obedience to authority, and violence toward outsiders. The gang is

constantly having to prove its dominance, and so candidates for

leadership vie with one another for the most tyrannical or violent

rhetoric, rhetoric which simultaneously demonizes those who don't

accept the authority of the gang and the leader and removes all rules

and laws for the gang and the leader. No one is exempt from the wrath

of the gang. In this case, the Republican party has now separated

itself fairly clearly from the general American population, and as

Americans support it less, they come to seem to the Republicans to be

more and more the enemy. The far away enemy is one thing, in terms of

threat (think Al Qaeda, Shiites, Sunnis) but the enemy close at hand

is more threatening because their enmity is seen as a "betrayal."

I don't doubt Dean. I always thought that for a Republican, he had

something of a conscience. What amazes me is that Republicans who are

now exclaiming at what has happened to the Republican Party (and yes,

I talked to my mother this morning) didn't see this coming.

Everything, every value, that the Republicans have held up for my

lifetime as desirable has been pointing us in this direction. As I've

said before on the HuffPost, all of this is the necessary consequence

of traditional Republican values, not an accidental byproduct. Or

maybe I'll put it this way -- when you reject common humanity, value

profits above people, practice sectarian religion, feel contempt for

the choices of others, exalt wealth, conflate consumersim with

citizenship, join exclusive clubs, daily practice unkindness rather

than kindness, and develop theories, such as those of free market

capitalism, that allow you to congratulate yourself morally for

selfishness and short-sightedness, then being a gang member is in your

future.

Speaking of Free Market Capitalism, John Dean should start reading

Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine, which is being published

next week, simultaneously in the US and in Britain. As Karl Marx

pointed out, history and politics are not only psychological, they are

also material. This week, the Guardian is running not only four

excerpts from Klein's book, but also several commentaries both

disagreeing and agreeing with her thesis. Her thesis is this

(and if I am slightly inaccurate, blame me, not Naomi): In the fifties

and sixties in the US, at least two lines of thought converged. One

was about how to change people's minds without leaving marks and the

other was about what was the best way of organizing a given economy.

The first grew out of experiments in psychological torture (whoops, I

mean electrocshock therapy) run by Ewen Cameron in the late 1940s. The

theory was that patients could be rid of mental illnesses by

"regressing" them to an infantile state, attaining a "clean slate"

upon which new patterns of behavior and thought would be etched.

Cameron used both electroshock and powerful drugs to attain his clean

slate, having no actual knowledge of the chemistry of the brain or how

it works -- in other words, he was operating in accordance with a

metaphor. The result of Cameron's experiments, for the patients, was

often considerable loss of short term and even long term memory and a

subsequent lifelong feeling of "blankness" on the part of the patients

(apparently, later refinements of electroshock techniques have

mitigated these effects). In the 1950s, the CIA redirected these

techniques toward torture of political opponents, allegedly to find

out information, but really to test the techniques themselves (hello,

Jose Padilla!).

At the same time, Milton Friedman was coming up with the idea that if

only an economy could be purified of any kind of restraints on the

free market (for example labor unions or socialized medicine or

history), then the free market would be able to perfectly gauge the

value of any type of good or service, and therefore an economy would

balance itself, and, most importantly, inflation would be controlled

(also, as you can see, a metaphor, or, perhaps, an extended analogy).

According to Klein, it soon became apparent that all powerful shocks

to a system had a similar effect, whether the system was a human body

or a national body, and this was to temporarily disable the system's

defenses. The US government, the CIA, and the free market economists

began to act on this insight, to collude in larger experiments. The

first of these was the right wing coup, in Chile, led by Augusto

Pinochet, in 1973. At the time, Chile had a functioning leftish

government and economy, and the voters had already rejected Friedman's

pure free market troika: privatization of government functions, an end

to social spending, and deregulation.The new economy was dependent

upon outside investors and highly profitable to them -- let's call that

the allure of globalization. Pinochet set about instilling terror in

the population (that's the shock therapy) using death squads,

exemplary killings, and torture. Taking advantage of this, the

economists installed the new free market way of doing things within

days of the coup. But Friedman's ideas did not work -- inflation rose.

In the eighties, the Chilean government tried again, this time by

inducing a profound economic crash -- essentially impoverishing the

populace in order to bring them to heel. Ultimately, the Chilean

"miracle" (Friedman's term) did nothing for the population, but it did

enrich the top ten per cent and put 45% below the poverty line. It

turns out that as far as the economists were concerned, this was a

good thing.

The Shock Doctrine traces what the US, the CIA, the economists, the

Neocons, and the multinational corporations learned from the Chilean

experiment and subsequent ones (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Poland,

Russia, China, England) and finally makes its way to Iraq (this is a

590 page book, and the print is small). Essentially, they learned that

a small economy is easier to "regress" than a large one, that the

shock has to be brutal, and that the free market doesn't work as

Friedman said it would (automatically assigning appropriate value),

but that it sure does make a few people rich beyond their wildest

dreams, and that these people were Friedman's (and his students')

benefactors and paymasters. They also learned to lie lie lie in order

to sell what amounts to a program of inhuman greed to voters who have

other needs, wishes, and ideas.

For our purposes, the more interesting section of Klein's book is

about Iraq, where she traveled in the first year after the invasion,

and this section forms part of her series of posts at the Guardian.

She believes that the Iraq War was intended to not only steal Iraqi

oil, but also to impose a radical free market on an unwilling

populace, and that that was what was behind the installation of Bremer

as the capo of Iraqi reconstruction. She believes that, thanks to the

resistance of the Iraqis and their deep resentment at being used and

exploited by the Americans, this effort has failed. However, a

parallel effort, to shock the US economy into absolute deregulation,

privatization, and an end to social spending, has been and is

succeeding. What this amounts to is the fleecing of the American

taxpayer in order to enrich the war making industries. The byproduct,

as in Chile, is the gutting of the rule of law and the American

political system as we have known it. Why did Bush and Cheney go to

war? Well, where do they get their fortunes? The Shock Doctrine works

perfectly for them. As for that 45% below the poverty line, well, once

the globalizing manufacturers exported the well-paying US jobs, then

the globalizing financiers moved in and sold the newly impoverished

working class a few sub-prime mortgages guaranteed to take whatever

else they had. Then the financiers screamed for a bailout, and

Bernanke gave it to them. The free market, you might say, is working

perfectly now, at least according to its shock principles.

So, John Dean, stop wondering what happened to your fellow

Republicans. They embarked, knowingly in many cases, unknowingly in

some cases, with utter indifference in still other cases, upon the

destruction of the common good. They began doing this in the Cold War

and kept up with it when it turned out to benefit them economically.

Some of them did this because they were fearful and aggressive by

nature, and hurting those outside their own families and clubs felt

good, or reassuring. Some did it for money. Some did it for

"patriotism." Some did it for religion and some did it out of pure

cussedness, but they did it, and they did it over time.

Klein ends her book on a hopeful note -- in many places such as Chile

and Lebanon, the people have learned from their experiences -- they are

cannier and more resistant to the shocks administered to them by

Bushco and their own ruling classes. Having endured "Disaster

Capitalism" for several decades, they understand their own

self-interests better and aren't as easy to fool. I would like to be

as hopeful. The question, as always, with Bush and Cheney, is how far

are they willing to go? And, is anyone willing to stop them? From John

Dean's article, it doesn't sound as though it is going to be the

Republicans.