02/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment

Did you ever wonder whether you were living in someone's idea of a surrealist dystopia?

Come on, you know you have -- existing in a world where we civilly debate whether torture is acceptable; where superior powers invade and decimate at will under the banner of "freedom" or "justice;" where informants infiltrate grassroots groups that are helping disaster survivors secure food and health care; where the Treasury is thoroughly looted but a homeless person goes to jail for "stealing" food from a dumpster; where people who wage war are re-elected while those who would challenge them are branded as traitors; and where the media lead with celebrity fluff pieces as the whole thing hits the fan.

Is Nero fiddling right now? Or is he twittering instead?

The funny thing is, we're actually not that bad off in some ways -- hey, you get it, so at least that's a pretty good start! And perhaps we have to go through all of this to get to wherever it is we're going. Well, of course there's a lot more to say about that notion, but for now the Spectacle is making a spectacle of itself, again . . . and again.

You may have heard about or read Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, where she dissects how global capital thrives on (and in many ways is substantially reliant upon) catastrophes in order to function. The implication is that crises therefore will not simply be capitalized on -- e.g., Halliburton's no-bid contracts in Iraq and New Orleans -- but that they will be fomented, exacerbated, or perhaps even orchestrated to fit the bill. This isn't a conspiracy theory; it's just how the game works.

Klein focuses in particular on macro-shocks, namely "the public's disorientation following massive collective shocks -- wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters -- to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy." (Shock and Awe, anyone? Got FEMA?) She also notes how such moments can be important opportunities for positive change as well.

Still, the effects have been mixed at best. "Shock therapy" in economics actually refers to the sudden release of price and/or currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies, and immediate trade liberalization, often including large scale privatization of previously public-owned assets. It may also refer to any significant program of pro-market reforms, and is usually applied to state economies as they move toward becoming market economies, as in Poland. But it also works in places like the U.S., where markets and the state intertwine as the "bailout" pendulum swings back and forth.

But there's another level to all of this that has been less explored. The everyday, constant, relentless nature of "shocks" we all receive is perhaps even more powerful and pervasive. While it's tempting to hold out the Katrinas and Iraqs as exemplars, the day-in, day-out news cycle might be even more damaging in the long run. In this sense it appears that the shock doctrine has already become passe by simply masking as "business as usual," giving new meaning to phrase shock value.

What I'm suggesting -- even more disturbing than the jarring nature of calamities -- is that people have learned to assimilate shock into their everyday lives. This has the dual effect of making us more numb and immune to being shocked, and also more neurotic and pliable at the same time. Back in the 1950s, a version of this was momentarily called "nuclearosis," meant to reflect the manner in which fear of nuclear annihilation renders people both insensitive and hypersensitive all at once.

This is the true genius of social control, and of the ways in which it is immensely profitable. As Klein alludes, a buck can be made both coming and going -- in crisis construction and in post-crisis reconstruction. There's money in figuring out better ways to blow things up and in rebuilding them too; it's an unending cycle and the same folks seem to profit on both (un)ends.

In the final analysis, it's the curious simultaneity of our collective fear and paralysis that perpetuates the paradigm, allowing even the previously unthinkable to not only be thought but implemented and (eventually) shrugged aside. Bailouts in the trillions, war casualties in the millions, personal debt in the thousands -- but what was that story about Britney Spears again?

This is the essence of the society of the spectacle: equal parts horror, titillation, and disconnection. Don't you get a small adrenaline surge when the serious-sounding NPR news voice comes on the radio at the top of the hour, and you're wondering what new calamity has transpired since you last checked the crawl? But don't you also glaze over a bit when the story moves beyond the headline and into the excruciating details? The term "news junkie" perhaps applies to all of us by now, and every day it takes a little more to achieve the desired effect.

I could go on about all of this, but I'm sensing that you're ready to move along to the next thing in the queue. Meanwhile, feel free to choose between shock therapy or shock apathy as the situation requires.

Me? I'll be following the sage advice of The Ramones:

I was feeling sick, losing my mind
I heard about these treatments
From a good friend of mine
He was always happy, smile on his face
He said he had a great time at the place

Peace and love is here to stay
And now I can wake up and face the day
Happy happy happy all the time
Shock treatment, I'm doing fine!