Shock and awe and so many footnotes
January 25, 2008 10:41 AM   Subscribe

EconomicPolicyFilter: I'm reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. It's making me angry, but I don't know whether it's making me justifiably angry. Is she right? Or is she terribly biased and distorting the facts?

She argues that extreme free-market economic policy (Friedmanism) has terrible ramifications for poor and middle-class people, so leaders must abandon democracy to stay in power with these policies. She outlines this process in country after country, arguing that policies of economic shock therapy must be accompanied by force.

I don't know enough about economics or history to be able to judge the accuracy of the book. Is her version of Chile in the 70s accurate? Bolivia? Russia? China? South Africa? Iraq?

I'd love to read some serious reviews of this from either side. Or the middle. That would be nice too.

I've read Tyler Cowen's Shock Jock article. It didn't seem to have much substance to it.
posted by heatherann to Law & Government (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
She is showing us the evil side of this particular version [our version here in the US] of capitalism, the wrong version where stealing the land, enslaving workers, assaulting the land, water and air are all just a means to an end.

A better version has us actually ending with a planet left in tact.

The details are only important if you care just WHO robbbed the bank and not just how to get it back.
posted by Freedomboy at 10:47 AM on January 25, 2008

I haven't read the book, but I don't see how one can decry free-market policies and use Chile, Bolivia, Russia, China and Iraq as examples of where that goes wrong. Of course those countries are messed up -- they're either militarily-backed, one-party rule or have only recently emerged from same.

A better book on this subject would be Eat the Rich by P.J. O'Rourke.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2008

Of course she's right, and you should be angry. You know what they say,
If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.
Those that slam Ms. Klein just want you to go back to sleep.
posted by Rash at 11:54 AM on January 25, 2008

I'm really curious about this book too actually, I've heard conflicting reports about it from sources I trust. Comments like Rash's don't really provide any useful information.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:13 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't read it, but here are a couple of reviews:

This one by "radical journalist" Alexander Cockburn, is actually from a further-left perspective but critiques the book's central premise and metaphors as painting an incorrect and misleading picture of capitalism. Basically, he seems to call it an oversimplification.

Just for fun, here's a review by someone claiming to be "Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas" (spoiler: they liked it); it also seems to respond to some of the criticisms in Cockburn's review above.

The International Herald Tribune has Joeseph Stiglitz's review, but it's remarkably devoid of any real content. In fact a lot of it looks like publisher's boilerplate. (It also ran in the NYT.)

The Sun has a critical piece by Tyler Cowen, whom I have a lot of respect for, where he says quite bluntly: "when it comes to the underlying message, and the standards of evidence used to support it, 'The Shock Doctrine' is a true economics disaster. … Ms. Klein's rhetoric is ridiculous." His primary criticism is the book's reliance on emotional appeal and a few out-of-context anecdotes, rather than substantive evidence.

The Financial Post has a similarly vehement review which responds in particular to her (apparent, since I've not read the book) criticism of Friedman's comments on post-Katrina New Orleans.

As for other books that you might want to consider to gain a different perspective, you might want to consider The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century. Although it does become an almost tiring paeon to Woodrow Wilson at times, I suspect it's probably almost as close to the opposite of Naomi Klein's perspective as you can get. The author, Michael Mandelbaum, is no slouch in the credentials department but also doesn't have so much of a reputation that he seems to be axe-grinding. It's a pretty dense read, but I enjoyed it (although I don't agree with him universally...but that's a different discussion).
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:36 PM on January 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: PercussivePaul, have you heard conflicting reports that you can link to? Because that's what I'm looking for. Discussion of it, either here or elsewhere that I can read.

Kadin2048: Thanks, I'll check those out. (I had the same thoughts about Cowen's article. Stories of torture and economic disaster should tend to have emotional elements, you would think. Hardly a fair criticism.)
posted by heatherann at 12:41 PM on January 25, 2008

With corporate owned/biased news media feeding us the news we are misinformed every day. The corporations that now own 90% of the news media are getting rich on the war and tax cuts this administration has caused, why would they report the disasters created by them?
This has cycled through before when the robber barons who brought on the Great Depression.
Take a look at for a good look at some of the causes of how we got in such a mess.
posted by itsgreat at 12:42 PM on January 25, 2008

Best answer: It's nothing that wasn't already present in a more toned-down form in Stiglitz's Globalization and its Discontents. If you want a more long-term view with some good discussions of what these countries ought to have been doing, check out the work of Ha-Joon Chang, especially Kicking Away the Ladder and his new book, Bad Samaritans.

But yes, from the little of what I've seen, it's more or less on point.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:01 PM on January 25, 2008

just from my friends, that's all.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:35 PM on January 25, 2008

An interesting read that indirectly shores up Ms. Klein's interpretation of this situation is Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. He writes (among many other fascinating things): ""Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars."

In response to Cool Papa Bell's post stating that "Of course those countries are messed up -- they're either militarily-backed, one-party rule or have only recently emerged from same", Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer provides some historical perspective as to why that might be.
posted by subajestad at 3:06 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

heatherann: I had the same thoughts about Cowen's article. Stories of torture and economic disaster should tend to have emotional elements, you would think. Hardly a fair criticism.

Not really. Good political science books are boring but informative. If you're emotional, you don't tend to be as careful with the facts. Moreover, my personal impression of Naomi Klein is that she's extremely sensationalistic, and that, beyond facts, she tends to use loaded words constantly. I haven't read the particular book you're talking about, but I'm familiar with its premise. Some things to think about that I think may balance it:

In particular, her work tends to be permeated by a certain tenet that's been growing in popularity over the last several hundred years: the notion that every action, and especially every political action, has an economic cause. This is flatly false, and that history is just a sequence of conflict between people of different economic classes. Keep in mind when reading her that it isn't always true that actions have an economic cause or reason behind them. This isn't to say that there's never an economic cause behind them, which makes this tricky, and there are certainly economic things mixed up in, say, the Pinochet situation, but to say that they're solely economic is wrong. In particular, I personally know for a fact that the neoconservatives generally aren't motivated by a desire to create a particular economy. Hell, they're not even very good economists. They're motivated more by an odd sense of nobility, or perhaps by a sense of inferiority. It's nice to just chalk it up to greed, but unfortunately much more complex than that; they're actually wrong about certain things.

Even from the perspective of economics, generally, judging from the reviews and from a perusing of a few pages that I did a few days ago in a bookstore, her thesis is extremely oversimplified. It'd take a great deal of convincing to lead me to the conclusion that any of the correspondence she wants to point up between freedom of a market and violent bloodshed is intentional, or even that she can show a correlation between the multitude of things she discusses. I have read her books before, and she's clearly no economist; and she shouldn't be seen as one, so the connections she makes between politics and economics are often suspect.

If you want a good discussion of that, I'd just read the first twenty pages of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. Or, if you want a modern perspective, that lovely book on economics Small Is Beautiful.

Rush: If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.

I've got Buddhist friends that would take great issue with that statement. I think I'll side with the Buddhists.

Those that slam Ms. Klein just want you to go back to sleep.

Yes, indeed. Anyone who disagrees with her is on the side of the enemy. If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists.
posted by koeselitz at 3:26 PM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and I meant to say...

heatherann: She argues that extreme free-market economic policy (Friedmanism) has terrible ramifications for poor and middle-class people, so leaders must abandon democracy to stay in power with these policies.

Well, if you want to know whether that's true, then the best thing to do is read Milton Friedman. Really, there's no other way; you can ask around, and, as here, we're all going to give you our own interpretation, which may or may not be correct. You have to go and find out if it's right for yourself, and that means reading the background texts. She's a fine journalist, and I don't think the issues here are necessarily about what's happened this year; what you need to do is research whether she's right about the tenor, intentions, and methods of Friedmanism.

Short answer: she isn't. But please don't take my word for it. Go read Capitalism And Freedom.
posted by koeselitz at 3:35 PM on January 25, 2008

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

There is significant evidence that this book is partially, if not largely, a work of fiction, not unlike A Million Little Pieces.

I read it and was struck by how little actual detail is provided, and how much seems to be wholly made up for fiction's sake. At best, you could call it a roman a' clef.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:21 PM on January 25, 2008

Best answer: Dani Rodrik is a Harvard economist who's very much willing to criticize Washington Consensus policies because of his commitment to empiricism (ie, "All successful countries have instead required their governments to crowd in private economic activity through inducements of various kinds." Or, "The Irish economy (the "Celtic tiger") has become the envy of many others ever since it took off in the 1990s. Behind the miracle lies sensible fiscal policies, a wage accord with labor, and--surprise, surprise--a range of industrial policies.")

But he called Shock Doctrine "a truly bad book" on his blog. He didn't have a whole lot more to say about it, but linked to this scathing review ("Klein's Procrustean bed is sample selection bias at its worst. Select those cases where money, power, and occasional violence (the subtitle of my blog) come together and use them to make a wholesale indictment of "the market," never mind that the pieces don't fit the (incoherent) shock doctrine thesis. Sorry, but I don't do conspiracy theories.").

And just because I happened to listen to it this week, why not throw in this link to Naomi Klein and Amy Goodman interviewing Alan Greenspan.
posted by ibmcginty at 4:41 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Those that slam Ms. Klein just want you to go back to sleep."

Heckovan argument, Rashie.

There are always going to be winners and losers, the lucky and the unlucky. That's why we have the various welfare systems to help the down and out.

But Klein is wrong, the free market isn't the problem. Lack of freedom is. All her examples are where bad guys took away freedom. Markets need regulation, of course. Prevent the imbalance of power and knowledge.

When people go all anti-globalist, they are just trying to tell other people how to run their lives and businesses, and that's just as bad as a fascist dictator.

I haven't read it, but I know a guy who knows Cowen, and trusts his judgment.
posted by gjc at 8:55 PM on January 25, 2008

I'm biased, but economic history tends to be more empirical than economic theory.

If you want to know what happened - read the history. Or (to save time) reviews by historians and economic historians.
posted by jb at 12:48 AM on January 27, 2008

Thanks for the insight, koeselitz and gjc.

Sorry about my sponteneous and too-emotional outburst, upthread.
posted by Rash at 2:59 PM on January 28, 2008

« Older Atlanta dinner meeting locations?   |   Help me get my images back online Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.