A Libertarian Finally Appreciates Shock Doctrine

I have been very frustrated with many libertarians smug dismissal of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine; as usual, the piece de resistance in this area comes from my favorite GMU professor.

But Joe Stromberg sees things my way in the October Freeman, so now I can stop asking, "Is everyone taking crazy pills?!"

Some good excerpts:

The core thesis of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine is that American foreign and domestic policies of the last 30 years have shaped a new corporatism. Corporatism, Klein writes, “originally referred to Mussolini’s model of a police state run as an alliance of . . . government, businesses and trade unions . . . in the name of nationalism.”...

Klein’s case is tightly organized, well presented, and overwhelming in cumulative impact. She makes a complex argument dealing with what are, indeed, complicated matters. Some reviewers complain that Klein forces the evidence into a pattern. They say her treatment of the views of certain psychologists, economists, and military planners and her comparative account of how those views are (were) implemented, are “unfair,” especially to the economists. But Klein rightly pursues the ideas in question across these fields of knowledge (and action) by analogy—a perfectly good Aristotelian and Thomistic procedure. “Hooding” a captive and “blacking out” an entire city by bombing are analogous, because they are done for the same reason—to disorient and confuse, and so on, through further stages of comparison.

The said psychologists, economists, and military planners dwell endlessly on certain themes because they see the world as a manipulable object and proceed from shared mechanistic, Hobbesian, positivist premises, whereby actual people are mere atoms, objects, or empty ciphers on indifference curves. We cannot be surprised that these experts’ activities complement one another in real life and reveal an indifference to “unforeseen consequences,” while a kind of mathematical Platonism underlies the supposedly “empirical” performances. Shared themes include “shock,” “shock therapy,” crises as experimental opportunities, and “clean slates” (Hobbes’s “clean paper”) on which to plot out new worlds. They talk this way; Klein makes nothing up.
The Sri Lankan case must suffice here. There, long-established fishermen, having survived the tsunami, were barred from their beach holdings, so that resort hotels favored by the World Bank, U.S. operatives, and investors might expand. This is precisely what a Chicago Law and Economics (Coasean) judge would do. The fishermen are “socially inefficient.” They got no “growth.” Away with their land! They may come back in the reformed “free market” as waiters and busboys.
There are some problems of language throughout the book. Reading it, one might think the author deplores any conceivable free markets whatsoever. Klein uses “capitalism” and “free market” to refer to assertions made by policymaking ideologues merchandising corporatist and imperial policies. I wish she had somehow separated official rhetoric from other possible, face-value meanings of these words, by putting them in quotes or occasionally writing “state-capitalist.”

This is, in any case, an important, insightful book. Klein’s specific critique of new-wave corporatism outweighs any disagreements some might have with her “third way” politics. Accordingly, I hope people read the book before falling into predictable, knee-jerk reactions.


  1. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Maybe she has some points, but the point (I think) that disturbs many libertarians, is the fact that the ideology behind it was the one Milton Friedman proposed - which is obviously and plainly wrong.

  2. Anonymous3:23 PM

    The Sri Lankan case must suffice here. There, long-established fishermen, having survived the tsunami, were barred from their beach holdings, so that resort hotels favored by the World Bank, U.S. operatives, and investors might expand.

    Something like this may happen to those who were living along the Galveston coast in Texas, after the recent hurricane Ike.

  3. Lode,

    Are you saying, "The reason libertarians are mad is that N.K. says that it's Milton Friedman's fault that people were tortured in Chile, and that's BS"?

    If so, I agree of course that free markets don't require torture. But I'm pretty sure N.K. prints a letter that MF wrote to Pinochet that is far from disapproving. It's been a while since I read it though.

  4. Anonymous6:58 AM

    Hi Bob,

    I find far more persuasive this critique from Johan Norberg: "The Klein Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Polemics" (PDF).

    See also this pathetic reply from Klein and Norberg's rejoinder.

    Frankly, I find the methodology and demagoguery of this lady unworthy of serious consideration. Some of her assertions may be true but her approach is not trustworthy and it would be hard to separate her true claims from the false or distorted ones.

    Stromberg is being too contrarian here, or may I say vulgar anti-vulgar libertarian.

  5. I will have to check it out sometime.

    David Carlson Politics

  6. Anonymous10:36 PM

    Bob is right that Klein deserves a tick for correctly identifying corporatism (which may or may not be now morphing into fascism) as the problem.

    However her easy identification of corporatism with the free market is what gets libertarians rightfully riled up.

    Klein shows no willingness to move from this illogical conclusion. And Klein's followers are all too happy to make the 'takeaway' lesson from her book that free markets = cowboy capitalism = crony capitalism = corporatism = fascism.

    Why should Klein persist with this illusion? Doesn't it make sense for left-wing anti-fascists like her to make peace with free market anti-fascists?

    The problem is that left does not want to acknowledge that there are non-socialist alternatives to corporatism. To recognise libertarians is to risk losing wind from their own sails.

    Libertarians since the time of Rothbard in the early 1970s have imagined that some kind of meaningful Left & Right coalition against the corporate state is possible and "around the corner". This is another illusion.

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