We have posted criticisms of the book Johann Norberg calls The Shlock Doctrine primarily from economists and the Right. This criticism comes from the Left, written by Jonathan Chait at the New Republic.
Klein repeatedly implies that there is something immoral about using crises to advance the right-wing agenda without explaining why this is so. After all, Friedman wanted to overhaul the New Orleans public education system because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that vouchers would work better. If you thought your house was horribly designed, and a tornado flattened it, would you rebuild it exactly as before?
The notion that crises create fertile terrain for political change, far from being a ghoulish doctrine unique to free-market radicals, is a banal and ideologically universal fact. (Indeed, it began its dubious modern career in the orbit of Marxism, where it was known as "sharpening the contradictions.") Entrenched interests and public opinion tend to run against sweeping reform, good or bad, during times of peace and prosperity. Liberals could not have enacted the New Deal without the Great Depression. Communist revolutions have generally come about in the wake of wars. The liberal economist Victor R. Fuchs once wrote that "national health insurance will probably come to the United States in the wake of a major change in the political climate, the kind of change that often accompanies a war, a depression, or large-scale civil unrest."
Fuchs did not mean that the public would never accept universal health insurance unless they had been brutalized into doing so. Nor was his observation evidence that he longed for disaster to befall the United States. Most American liberals today would admit that the sorry state of the American economy, foreign policy, and political life has created a golden opportunity for progressive reform. There is nothing odious about this. Yet Klein takes analogous observations from conservatives as proof that the right "prays for crisis the way drought-stricken farmers pray for rain." ...
Most critics of the war believe the notion of exporting democracy to a hostile Arab country was doomed in its conception. Some war supporters counter that the occupation could have succeeded, but bungling and incompetence caused it to fail. Klein is staking out a third, esoteric, highly original position. She says that the occupation could have succeeded, but the Bush administration did not want it to succeed. She is explicit about this:
Never? Ten pages later Klein concedes that, starting in December 2006, the Pentagon pulled a "dramatic about-face" and decided to re-open Iraq's state factories. Her cheerful insouciance in the face of such inconvenient facts points to an odd, slightly endearing quality of hers: she is conscientious enough to provide readers with facts that blow her thesis to smithereens, yet at the same time she is deluded enough not to notice the rubble of her thinking on the floor. So Klein makes a big deal about the comic but stillborn efforts by some Republican ideologues to transform Iraq into a flat-tax paradise, but she also notes that very little privatization actually took place in Iraq, and indeed that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had just three staffers devoted to privatizing Iraqi state industries. You would think this latter fact would undermine her belief that privatizing Iraq's economy was the central goal of the war. Alas, no. She thinks it just goes to show that "the CPA itself was too privatized to privatize Iraq."
So Klein attributes the failure to privatize Iraq to the CPA's incompetence, but she deems every other apparent failure to be a deliberate plan to foster chaos. To make this case, Klein runs through every one of the administration's post-war mistakes and explains why it was no mistake at all. Paul Bremer, the director of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, decided to purge Baathists from the Iraqi government not because they were Baathists but because they were government employees. De-Baathification, Klein writes, "had little to do with anti-Saddamism and everything to do with free-market fervor." She further insists that the widespread episodes of looting in early 2003 "cannot be dismissed as mere oversights," but were part of the American plan to dismantle the Iraqi state.
With the pseudo-clarity of a conspiracy theorist, Klein dismisses out of hand the possibility of incompetence. There were memos warning the Army of looting, she ominously notes--scanting the possibility that bureaucratic lethargy, rather than conscious intent, prevented the memos' warnings from being acted upon at ground level. That widespread bungling and mismanagement also followed Hurricane Katrina strikes Klein as proof of intentionality. "The fact that exactly the same errors as those made in Iraq were instantly repeated in New Orleans," she remarks, "should put to rest the claim that Iraq's occupation was merely a string of mishaps and mistakes marked by incompetence and lack of oversight."
Like every conspiracy theory, Klein's account of the fate of the world finally lacks internal logic. She points to one instance of American soldiers dismembering Iraqi passenger planes, inflicting "$100 million worth of damage to Iraq's national airline--which was one of the first assets to be put on the auction block in an early and contentious partial privatization." If the point of the war was to hand control of Iraq's state assets to American corporations, wouldn't American troops be protecting those assets instead of destroying them?
But her most explosive charge is that Bush and his cabal are not merely the puppets of war profiteers, but war profiteers themselves. "Key Bush officials have maintained their interests in the disaster capitalism complex," thereby "allowing them to simultaneously profit from the disasters they help unleash." Klein provides two examples of such conflicts of interest. The first is that Donald Rumsfeld maintained his stock in Gilead Sciences, which holds the patent for Tamiflu, even while serving as defense secretary. Get it? Rumsfeld would stand to profit from a flu pandemic. But surely you don't have to be an admirer of Rumsfeld to doubt that he would engineer an outbreak of a deadly virus in order to fatten his stock portfolio. (Indeed, one suspects that even if Rumsfeld tried to pull off such a dastardly scheme, he would probably wind up creating a cure for the flu by mistake and render Tamiflu worthless.)
The other piece of data that Klein cites to support her charge that Bush administration officials profit from the disasters that they cause is Vice President Cheney's holdings in Halliburton. "When he leaves office in 2009 and is able to cash in his Halliburton holdings," she charges, "Cheney will have the opportunity to profit extravagantly from the stunning improvement in Halliburton's fortunes." This is a spectacular accusation--that the driving force behind the Iraq war stands to gain millions of dollars from it. You might wonder why John Kerry did not make this an issue in 2004, or why liberal pundits have not crusaded against Cheney's blatant self-dealing. The answer, of course, is that it is completely untrue. Cheney has signed a legally binding agreement to donate to charity any increase in his Halliburton stock. (Honest-- you can look this up on factcheck.org.) Lord knows Rumsfeld and Cheney have committed enough actual misdeeds not to need indicting with imaginary ones. ...
[Klein] pays shockingly (but, given her premises, unsurprisingly) little attention to right-wing ideas. She recognizes that neoconservatism sits at the heart of the Iraq war project, but she does not seem to know what neoconservatism is; and she makes no effort to find out. Her ignorance of the American right is on bright display in one breathtaking sentence:
Where to begin? First, neoconservative ideology dates not from the 1990s but from the 1960s, and the label came into widespread use in the 1970s. Second, while neoconservatism is highly congenial to corporate interests, it is distinctly less so than other forms of conservatism. The original neocons, unlike traditional conservatives, did not reject the New Deal. They favor what they now call "national greatness" over small government. And their foreign policy often collides head-on with corporate interests: neoconservatives favor saber-rattling in places such as China or the Middle East, where American corporations frown on political risk, and favor open relations and increased trade. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has always had an uneasy relationship with neoconservatism. (Russell Kirk delivered a famous speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he declared that "not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.") And the Cato Institute is not neoconservative at all. It was virulently opposed to the Iraq war in particular, and it opposes interventionism in foreign policy in general.
Finally, there is the central role that Klein imputes to her villain Friedman, both in this one glorious passage and throughout her book. In her telling, he is the intellectual guru of the shock doctrine, whose minions have carried out his corporatist agenda from Santiago to Baghdad. Klein calls the neocon movement "Friedmanite to the core," and identifies the Iraq war as a "careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology" over which Friedman presided. What she does not mention--not once, not anywhere, in her book--is that Friedman argued against the Iraq war from the beginning, calling it an act of "aggression."
It ought to be morbidly embarrassing for a writer to discover that the central character of her narrative turns out to oppose what she identifies as the apotheosis of his own movement. And Klein's mistake exposes the deeper flaw of her thesis. Friedman opposed the war because he was a libertarian, and libertarian conservatism is not the same thing as neoconservatism. Nor are the interests of corporations always, or even usually, served by war.
What makes Klein's thesis so odd, and so awful, is that in fact there is an unlimited supply of raw material, an abundant basis in reality, for the sorts of arguments that she wants to make. The last two decades certainly have seen the global spread of absolutist free-market ideology. Many of the newest adherents of this creed are dictators who have learned that they can harness the riches of capitalism without permitting the freedoms once thought to flow automatically from it. In the United States, the power of labor unions has withered, and prosperity has increasingly come to be defined as gross domestic product or the rise of the stock market, with the actual living standards of the great mass of the population an afterthought. Corporations, which can relocate nearly anywhere around the world, have used their flexibility as a cudgel against workers, who do not enjoy the privileges of mobility. Domestic policy has aggressively sharpened income inequalities, and corporations have enjoyed unfettered influence to a degree not seen in a hundred years. And the president did start a war without paying the slightest bit of attention to the country that he would be left occupying or how its people would react.
All these things are true. And all these things are enormous outrages and significant problems. It's just that they are not the same outrage or the same problem. And Naomi Klein's relentless lumping together of all her ideological adversaries in the service of a monocausal theory of the world ultimately renders her analysis perfect nonsense.