The Shock Doctrine and the Power of Extended Metaphor

ShockDoctrineI think one of the most beautifully rendered, extended allegories of 2008 was Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Beginning with an interesting study of the relation between early psychological shock therapy experiments conducted by Ewen Cameron, whose strategy for correcting madness theorized memory erasure and psychic rebuilding, Klein outlines how the CIA and capitalist pundits found Cameron’s work particularly useful. Funded by the CIA, Cameron headed Project MKUltra, a project aimed at understanding and developing strategies for mind-control:

Cameron believed that by inflicting an array of shocks to the human brain, he could unmake and erase faulty minds, then rebuild new personalities on that ever-elusive clean slate. (31-2)

Klein uses the tenants of MKUltra as an extended conceit for the deliberate deployment of corporatist, capitalist economic reforms across the world from the 60’s to the present. Klein’s analysis follows the spread of professors from Milton Freidman’s ‘Chicago School’ of economics across the world’s states, outlining the metaphorical relation between Cameron and Freidman that sets up the rest of the book:

Freidman’s mission, like Cameron’s [shock therapy research], rested on a dream of reaching back to a state of ‘natural’ health, when all was in balance, before human interference created distorting patterns. Where Cameron dreamed of returning the human mind to that pristine state, Freidman dreamed of de-patterning societies, of returning them to a state of pure capitalism, cleansed of all interruptions—government regulations, trade barriers and entrenched interests. Also like Cameron, Freidman believed that when the economy is highly distorcted, the only way to reach that pre-lapsarian state was to deliberately inflict painful shocks[.] (57)

While Cameron’s experiments required only a laboratory and patients on which to experiment; drastic means of crisis were required if entire nations were to be ‘shocked’ into new ideologies. “Like a prison interrogator,” Klien writes, globalizing agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) used the “pain” of “crisis” to reduce “countries to total compliance” (334). Klein’s entire book, one of the best critical political histories of the world ever written, shows how research on the human mind broadly applies to research on society—what can work on one mind can also work on many; a fascinating perspective on the metaphor of the ‘body politic’.

Klein, like all great writers, is a master of the art of the metaphor. I share this particularly striking passage, about the deliberately instigated Asian economic crises of the late 90’s (a prime example of the dark side of globalizing “stabilization programs”), as an example of her beautiful style and an invitation to read this important book:

The truth is that Asia’s crisis is still not over, a decade later. When 24 million people lose their jobs in a span of two years, a new desperation takes root that no culture can easily absorb. It expresses itself in different forms across the region, from a significant rise in religious extremism in Indonesia and Thailand to the explosive growth of the child sex trade

Employment rates have still not reached pre-1997 levels in Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea. And it’s not just that workers who lost their jobs during the crisis never got them back. The layoffs have continued, with new foreign owners demanding ever-higher profits for their investments. The suicides have also continued: in South Korea, suicide is now the fourth most common cause of death, more than double the pre-crisis rate, with thirty-eight people taking their own lives every day.

That is the untold story of the policies that the IMF calls ‘stabilization programs,’ as if countries were ships being tossed around on the market’s high seas. They do, eventually, stabilize, but that new equilibrium is achieved by throwing millions of people overboard: public sector workers, small-business owners, subsistence farmers, trade unionists. The ugly secret of ‘stabilization’ is that the vast majority never climb back aboard. They end up in slums, now home to 1 billion people; they end up in brothels or in cargo ship containers. They are the disinherited, those described by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke as “ones to whom neither the past nor the future belongs.’ (332-3)

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