Sunday, 3 May 2009

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine

Here's my own take on an already thoroughly-reviewed publication, Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine (see also an ongoing series at Alterdestiny for a chapter-by-chapter consideration).

First to say that the video below is an excellent introduction to the major themes raised and the principle - thanks to Justin Delacour of Latin America News Review for drawing my attention to it:

In brief, then, Klein draws parallels between individual acts of torture (many derived from psychological experiments in sensory overload and deprivation), state-sponsored mass torture and 'torture' of entire nations through economic shock treatment. Of course this is a bold move, and Walden Bello is right to point out its risks: presenting the global economy as a conspiracy theory, overreaching the horrific descriptions of physical abuse in a way which will alienate an academic audience, and so on. To an extent, the success or failure of the book hinges on whether you can accept that a politico-economic elite is prepared to 'torture' a greater part of the world's populations for its own ends.

This is not to say that Klein's argument is not convincing. She is an excellent writer - although she sometimes walks a fine line between the factual and the merely dramatic, she tends to stay on the right side of it - and the book is well researched, albeit not perfectly in all areas. I studied the sources for the chapter dealing with Argentina, with which I am most familiar, and noted that her main source for information on torture in Argentina is Margeurite Feitlowitz's Lexicon of Terror. Feitlowitz's volume is a great read but it is contains a few dubious suppositions which I have seen repeated uncritically elsewhere and which reappear here, and anyway, there are many other valuable works available to corroborate. I would have been happier to see a greater range of sources (there are others, of course, but in this section it is mainly Feitlowitz and Michael McCaughan's book on Rodolfo Walsh). However, one real plus is that fact that the book is supplemented by a website where you can view many of the primary sources for yourself (incidentally, I would class this as an example of the best possible combination of traditional publishing and use of new technology).

While I wasn't always comfortable with the torture metaphor, I was to a large extent convinced by Klein's argument of the appalling destruction caused by extreme free market measures introduced during a country's most vulnerable period. I also agreed that on occasion, focusing too narrowly on individual human rights abuses can distract attention from the wider issue - although I can't accept that such abuses should not be focused on.

Klein's great strength is the breadth of her survey in The Shock Doctrine. I was in familiar territory with the material on Chile and Argentina, but Poland, Russia, South Africa, China and even to some extent Bolivia were new to me. I was shocked, as the title hinted I might be, my eyes were opened, and I was also profoundly depressed. Klein attempts to lift the mood in the last couple of chapters and give us some hope that we can overcome international shock, but to be honest it didn't convince me. I am not sure that the world has found the answer for how to overcome the damage to financial and democratic institutions which are perhaps the deepest legacy of the South American military dictatorships, aside from the other examples in the book. Despite the lack of cheer with which I end my review, however, I do recommend this book for its fascinating insights, its power to rouse the reader to anger, and its consciousness-raising abilities.

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