12 red pepperoct/nov2007
What trajectory took you from writing about brand culture and documenting the recovered factories in Argentina to the reporting of ‘disaster capitalism’ in Iraq and elsewhere? I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and we were shooting a scene on the roof of an occupied factory when the Iraq war began. This was the root of The Shock Doctrine. The analysis of the war in Argentina and many parts of Latin America was ‘this is what happened to us’ – neoliberalism came to Latin America with blood and fire and was now being brought to the Middle East by the same means. Being there in that moment and seeing the war through a Latin American lens is what drew me to this historical look at the very real use of shocks to impose shock therapy. There was something else, too, about watching the war from Latin America. We were there because Argentina was in the midst of a very dramatic national rejection of the Washington Consensus – the economic model that promotes the policies of privatisation, the evisceration of public services and, eventually, the remaking of the state in the interests of foreign investors. At the very moment when Argentina, this former model student of neoliberalism, was rejecting this economic model, we were seeing its imposition in Iraq by brute force. I wrote my first column about Iraq at that time, called ‘Privatisation in disguise’. It was about how the global rejection of neoliberalism had led to the ramping up of the force that was needed to impose it. Whereas WTO, IMF and World Bank meetings still displayed the veneer of consent, suddenly the approach became ‘don’t even bother asking, just seize what you want on the battlefield of pre-emptive war’. So, when I set out to write this book I never saw it as a change of topic. I believed that I was tracking the transition from free trade light to free trade heavy, from the arm-twisting and the quasi-peaceful imposition of this model to the overtly violent imposition of what I call ‘disaster capitalism’. This use of pre-emptive war and large-scale natural disasters to build corporate states from the rubble took place in the most anti-democratic situation you could imagine – when people were scattered, disoriented, in shock. I thought I was going to write a book about a change, but when I looked back at
the history of neoliberalism, I realised that at all of the key junctures where this ideology took its leap forward – including Chile in 1973, China in 1989, Poland in 1989, Russia in 1993, and the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and 1998 – the same logic of exploiting a moment of trauma was at work.
In the introduction to The Shock Doctrine you cite Milton Friedman’s claim that ‘only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change’ as the core tactical nostrum of contemporary capitalism. But many Marxists have articulated similar ideas about crises as an opportunity for change. Do you think this is also dangerous, or can crises offer the potential for positive transformation? I think it is always dangerous, whether on the left or the right, when people say that things have to get worse before they get better. That is when the left loses its core identity of being pro-humanity and starts almost delighting in loss of life, and in pain, because that will bring about the great cataclysm. Both the left and the right have suffered from this way of thinking, but the right have been in the ascendancy for at least 35 years, so they are the ones currently capitalising on crises. Milton Friedman’s work was shaped in opposition to Keynesianism and developmentalism rather than Marxism. More specifically, he set himself against what he perceived as the Keynesians’ successful exploitation of the crisis of the Great Depression, the market crash of 1929, which led to the imposition of the New Deal and projects like it around the world.
As far as Friedman was concerned, as he wrote in a letter to Pinochet, that is where history took its wrong turn. He contested the idea that the Great Depression was caused by deregulated markets and argued that it was caused by too much regulation of markets. He also studied how the Keynesian forces were ready with their ideas for that crisis. I think the right-wing project around the world needs to be understood as an attempt to emulate that, using extremely well funded corporate think-tanks as ovens to keep ideas warm for when that crisis breaks out. Bringing this question back to the case of Argentina is also interesting, because the collapse of the economy at the end of 2001 is what opened up space for alternatives to emerge. In fact, that is what our film The Take was about, these wonderful exciting democratic experiments that were happening in factories where, instead of allowing them to shut down, the workers were putting them back to work. While crisis was important to the Argentinean experiment, the way of thinking of the people involved was very different to that of the shock therapists and the blank-slaters who are always dreaming of the clean sheet to start over. The people whose stories we were documenting in Argentina had a completely different idea in starting from scrap, not from scratch. It was not an ideology of erasing everything and starting over, but starting from where you are, in the rusty bits of former economic projects, and piecing them together into something new. This is more of a patchwork approach that really puts human lives and dignity at the very centre. Some of the most exciting economic oct/nov2007 red pepper
From Poland to Iraq and from China to NewOrleans, neoliberalism has risen on the backofwhatNAOMI KLEINcalls ‘disastercapitalism’. She spoke to OSCARREYES abouthernewbook, The ShockDoctrine , and newforms ofresistance