Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.3)

Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.3)

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The Shock Doctrine

Out of all 3 books, the reactions to this one were easily the worst. If you were to believe these reviews - and before reading the book, even I was somewhat taken in by them - the author, Naomi Klein, was a polemicist, a liar, a hack, or even - as one delightful commenter put it - "a cunt". Klein's hypothesis was that disasters - both natural and man made - were often harnessed to push through unpalatable neoliberal economic reforms, to the detriment of many. This, combined with her attacks on Milton Friedman, did not sit well with 'free market' advocates, who generally see themselves as on the side of freedom. The book was therefore attacked quite vehemently by the libertarian right.

Sadly, these attacks were far less intellectually sound than Klein's book . They often accuse Klein of failing to meet decent intellectual standards, then completely fail to state her arguments correctly, sometimes flat out misrepresenting her position. Tyler Cowen's review made a number of clear misrepresentations - such as the idea that Klein says Margaret Thatcher conjured up the Falklands invasion to push through her 'free market' reforms - and Cowen actually failed to state the hypothesis of the book correctly, glibly summing it up as "free markets aren't popular". Similarly, this review by Johan Norberg is basically a review of the first chapter, which is admittedly overcharged, but isn't particularly important overall. Norberg's main accusation is that Klein often quotes Friedman out of context, but this can only really be upheld if you ignore that the vast majority of the quotes she uses are reproduced in full at various points in the book.

It is common for Klein's reviewers to fail to engage the arguments she makes, instead preferring to repeat their priors at her. One such example is in Norberg's review, where he makes the typically superficial point that Chile didn't succeed because it didn't go far enough with its 'free market' reforms. This idea is buried by Klein in chapter 2, where she points out - a conclusion that I also came to independently - that the sectors which remained state owned or sponsored were successful, while those that were deregulated blew up. Similarly, Cowen's review makes the superficial point that history, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, shows how 'free markets' are superior. This ignores two things repeatedly pointed out by Klein: first, the fact that people former communist countries were not really interested in "free markets" but democracy (government and worker); second, the numerous instances where 'free markets' and free people have been in direct conflict.

One of Klein's most contentious points revolves around the role of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School colleagues in the 1973 coup d'etat in Chile, which overthrew Salvador Allende's democratically elected government and put in place a brutal dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. The new regime implemented neoliberal reforms, and many 'free market' economists - known as the Chicago boys -served as its economic advisors. Friedman himself visited Chile, and wrote a letter recommending certain policies to General Pinochet. Many have criticised Friedman and the Chicago school based on such a seemingly close relationship with such an oppressive regime, but they have defended their role as a purely technical one unrelated to the oppression.

Once more, Klein's actual position is apparently unbeknownst to her reviewers, as she is well aware of economist's position and addresses directly at multiple points in the book, most notably in a chapter subtitled "How An Ideology Was Cleansed of Its Crimes". Economists can think of themselves as, in Friedman's words, "physicians" if they want (Klein notes the irony of Friedman's choice of analogy, given the types of "physicians" employed by the Chilean regime), but physicians help people directly, whereas economists took part in imposing policies directly against a people's will. Klein argues persuasively that the purported firewall between economic and politics is false, and since no critic I have seen engages her arguments directly, I'll go over them briefly to remove all doubt.

Economists and policymakers - particularly Chicago-school types - as well as the powerful interests behind them, were simply all too willing to see their policies imposed under brutal conditions. Friedmanite economics, itself largely devoid of context and built on an abstract 'blank slate', lent itself to the desire for an economic laboratory with no pesky political opposition in the way, a mentality expressed by many Chicago school adherents. This inevitably meant that the reality of Chile - and other Latin American countries - was that "free market" policies required brutal regimes, something admitted by government officials. Don't like this kind of argument? Well, don't take mine or Klein's word for it: listen to Milton Friedman! According to him, if you try to shape society according to your vision, "you will ultimately have to order people what to do". Friedman had a typical 'capitalism is the neutral baseline' implicit in his words, but the fact is that his logic applies to his vision, too.

For example, in order to cut wages and worsen working conditions, unions had to be forcibly broken up: their leaders disappeared, tortured, murdered. All leftist opposition had to be forcibly eliminated: protests dispersed, socialist parties broken up. As Klein documents, there was also a war against culture and ideas: books were burnt; revolutionary music had its parent copies destroyed; university students and professors were arrested and shot. In Chile in particular, the relationship between the reforms and oppression was even worse than this: the 'Chicago boys' had an incredibly close relationship with Pinochet, helping to plan his coup and rushing to print out a report cataloging their policy prescriptions on the day the coup took place. Some of them were actually investigated for fraud years later due to their involvement in the widely profitable speculative bubble following Pinochet's reforms. (In fact, many of the pioneers of 'free market' reforms all over the world found themselves in deep water with the law later on).

The problem here is, as is often the case, one of framing. The academics first see Friedman's idealised, coercion-less economy and then cannot understand what that has to do with Klein's examples, so assume she is misrepresenting them. Meanwhile, Klein first sees poverty, economic and physical destruction, and mass murder and torture. She then looks to the source of these ideas, where she is confronted with armchair academics and their lofty theories, seemingly blind to the atrocious ends for which these theories have been utilised. Klein is, understandably, no more bothered by economist's theories than a journalist documenting a collapsed bridge would be about the minutiae of civil engineering.

Lastly, Klein's overriding theory of the 'shock' is not something she just plucked from the air and, in the words of John Willman, used "to draw together disparate phenomenon". In fact, Chileans themselves drew parallels between the torture used by Pinochet and the economic evisceration, with one noting that all things considered, the latter was actually worse. The 'a crisis is an opportunity' idea was explicitly circulating among policymakers and those at economic conferences: John Williamson even spoke of engineering "pseudo-crises" in order to push through his preferred economic reforms, mostly ones that had nothing to do with the crisis at hand. Similarly, Milton Friedman himself suggested that Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was an "opportunity" to push through reforms to privatise schools, a plan which went ahead. I could go on; there are many more examples of such thinking among those in power. People like Willman and Friedman can argue that their idea of a 'shock' is purely academic, but the reality is far more severe, and they don't help by sticking their fingers in their ears.


It's clear that a certain type of criticism - often that which makes extreme claims about discrediting an idea, or about its originator's intellectual honesty - suffers from the same problems it purports to be fighting. This is pervasive, and goes beyond these 3 books: critics of Noam ChomskyMarxistsMichael MooreHugo ChavezClimate Science, economist John Maynard Keynes and many have fallen into this trap. It undermines debate, distracts from worthwhile criticisms, and can actually perversely strengthen the target of the criticism, who will simply claim (somewhat correctly) that they are being targeted ideologically, not substantially.

Now, while I am defending 'the left' from 'the right' in this post, I am not suggesting it is a one way phenomenon, and I expect I am probably guilty of such an approach at times. In any case, whatever the cause of this and whichever side does 'it' more, it seems people need to learn to think twice before dismissing the arguments of the other side outright, particularly if said dismissal relies on second hand claims. I'd say chances are that if a particular thinker or book is kicking up a storm among your opponents, it's not because they are moronic liars, but - just maybe - because the book has some compelling arguments that are worth your time. 


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