Interview by Jeremy Scahill
“If you want to impose a very radical form of free-market economics, the best time to do it … is in a situation where the target population is reeling from some kind of massive shock.”
Naomi Klein’s role as one of the greatest unembedded journalists and leading activists of our time was established in 1999 with the publication of her anti-corporate globalization manifesto No Logo. Her latest book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, is a defining history of some of the worst crimes of our era. In this 576-page investigative masterpiece, Klein traces the doctrine of economic and military violence back more than half a century in which the desire for profit and power have propelled evil geniuses to use the world’s poor as their lab rats, from Latin America to Africa, the Arab world and the former Soviet Union. She recently spoke to The Indypendent’s Jeremy Scahill.
Jeremy Scahill: You write that when you began researching the intersection between superprofits and mega-disasters, you were witnessing a fundamental change in the drive to liberate markets all over the world. You say, “What was happening in Iraq and New Orleans was not a new post-September 11th invention, rather these bold experiments in crisis exploitation were the culmination of three decades of strict adherence to the Shock Doctrine. Seen through the lens of this doctrine, the past 35 years look very different.” Explain the Shock Doctrine.
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine is a philosophy that is held and understood by some very powerful people around the world, including the key figures in the Bush administration. But, it’s been in existence for a long time. It’s the idea that if you want to impose a very radical form of free-market economics, the best time to do it, in fact the only time you can push through the whole package, is in a situation where the target population is reeling from some kind of massive shock.
That shock could be a terrorist attack, like September 11; it could be a military coup; it could be an invasion like the “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq; it could also be a natural disaster; it could be a severe economic meltdown, like the one that hit Argentina in 2001. The type of crisis that turns a country or a city inside out, that makes it completely lose its moorings, where the rules start changing very, very rapidly. If we look at all the key laboratories for this radical form of capitalism, what you see is that a body blow to a country is immediately exploited by this rapid-fire change when people can’t react.
JS: This book grew out of your reporting on Iraq in the early stages of the U.S. occupation.
Many people around the world believe that the point of the invasion was to take Iraq’s oil. Having been there yourself and having researched it deeply, particularly during that first year when Bush’s envoy to Baghdad, Ambassador Paul Bremer, was sent in to basically destroy the Iraqi economy, what do you see as the endgame, and what was goal of the invasion and occupation of Iraq?
NK: I think that oil was a big part of it, but that was only one part. I take them at their word, frankly, which is what you hear from the ideologues. It was this dream of creating a model in the heart of the Middle East, a model free-market democracy as they call it; I would put the emphasis on the free market. Their interest in the democracy would wane, as it always does, as soon as that democracy in any way threatened the free market and their “free-market” goals.
This was the game. I think it goes back to Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation in 1989 about the end of history, that there is really only one way for societies to be governed: free markets in the economic sphere and liberal democracy in the political sphere. What we’ve seen is a concerted attempt to impose that formula on the world. The Arab world really was, and remains, the last holdout — in many cases — on both fronts. And it was really the last frontier, besides North Korea, for this neoliberal crusade to conquer. It swept Latin America in the 1970s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s cracked open much of Asia to this economic model and to multinational corporations, most of them based in the United States.
The Arab world remained frustratingly sealed off; even in a country like Saudi Arabia, which is a supposed ally of the United States, 90 percent of that economy is in state hands. The same is true of Kuwait. So it remained, I think, tantalizingly out of the reach of what is sometimes called “globalization.” This idea of turning Iraq into the model state, wiping it clean and starting it over, was supposed to spread to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Syria. This is articulated by people like Thomas Friedman when he says, I just wanted a model in the Middle East, I didn’t much care which one was the model.
I think Iraq was chosen because of its oil and because there was practice. The U.S. military had been using it for war games steadily since the end of the first Gulf War and it had been weakened by sanctions, systematically weakened. It’s like tying your opponent’s hands behind their back for 13 years and then saying you want to fight.
JS: Given what you are saying, if you are Bush looking at Iraq right now, are you thinking, “Wow, this is a failure,” or is there some victory?
NK: I think that they rigged the war so that they couldn’t lose on this front. There were two forms of privatization happening simultaneously. One was the Bremer agenda of going in and privatizing Iraq’s economy and then hoping for that model to spread throughout the region. We can safely say that that was a failure, that to this day they have not been able to privatize Iraq’s economy, although they have not given up. They are still trying to privatize Iraq’s oil, but they haven’t yet succeeded.
When I left Iraq in April 2004, I thought I was seeing the first failure of this economic crusade, because corporations that had taken small steps toward investing in Iraq and being part of this privatization frenzy were all pulling out because they were afraid for their lives. I really reconsidered that assessment the more I looked at the other privatization agenda, which is the way the war itself was a laboratory for the U.S. state to privatize itself. Either way, this is sort of unprecedented — the idea of going to war not just to loot your enemy, but to loot yourself. Here I am referring to the fact that the worse things get in Iraq, the more privatized the war becomes. When it wasn’t the cakewalk they were claiming it would be, the gaps had to be filled somewhere, and they were filled in by these private contractors.
So was this experiment a failure? I think it has taken this project of neoliberalism, of corporatism, to an entirely new, more sophisticated and terrifying phase where, really, Iraq isn’t occupied by the United States government. Rather, it is a hollow occupation fronted by military officials and government officials, but behind them everything is run by contractors. It’s like FEM A in that way — it is totally hollow. Because of the chaos in Iraq and because it is outside any form of regulation, Iraqi or American, it was this laboratory for a corporate government. In this case that government is running an occupation.
JS: You just got back from New Orleans, and you were there shortly after the hurricane occurred. What is your assessment now, a couple of years removed, of what’s going on in New Orleans?
NK: It felt like being in a stolen city. I knew that the lower Ninth Ward would not have been rebuilt, but I wasn’t prepared for the fact that huge parts of neighborhoods where there had been homes had just gone to weed, not just left to rot, but leveled, bulldozed, and reclaimed by nature. Then you have the French Quarter, which is a booming nonstop party.
I had a conversation with some residents of the St. Bernard housing projects, which are these large, brick buildings that didn’t sustain very much flood damage; they’re still standing, but they’re boarded up. People are camped out in trailers in front of their old homes, but they can’t get in. I spoke to one of the residents and she compared what happened during the evacuation of the city, where people were shoved at gunpoint onto buses and families were separated, to what it was like during slavery in Africa when people were grabbed in the jungles and hooded and thrown onto carts and then onto ships.
After hearing that and walking around the French Quarter, I felt like I was in an occupied city. It wasn’t just that the city had not been rebuilt, it was like a home invasion on a mass scale; the residents of the city had been forcibly removed, dispersed — they have still not been given tickets home — and in their absence the city has been stolen. It felt like an unbelievable heist. The only other place I’ve had that feeling is Iraq, and the grotesque irony, I suppose, is that in Iraq, there is at least an honesty to it: The occupiers are driving around in their armored vehicles with guns out the windows and acting like occupiers, while in New Orleans, they are drinking and partying. It’s an armed party.
JS: If there is a model to be seen in New Orleans, what is it?
NK: We need to understand that disasters, whether wars or responses to natural disasters, become moments when the agenda leaps forward and corporate government becomes an acceptable idea. For example, get Halliburton to occupy Iraq and Bechtel to rebuild New Orleans, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because, in disasters, we see the incompetence of the state most vividly. In normal times they can fake a level of functionality, but when you really need the state, like in a mass evacuation, you realize that there is no one home — it’s the Can’t-Do government. Unfortunately, the response becomes, “Well the government really can’t do anything, so let’s get Wal-Mart to do it.” Disaster zones become laboratories and the idea of corporate government becomes normalized.
It becomes possible, for instance, in the suburbs of Atlanta to have this explosion of “contract cities,” mostly white suburbs where you have a tax revolt. Wealthier people don’t want their taxes subsidizing poor areas of the county, mostly African-American areas, so they incorporate as their own cities, but they do not have any infrastructure because they are not real cities, just suburbs. In order to become a real city they need bylaws, they need infrastructure, they need city hall.
Now companies are stepping in and saying, we’ll do the whole thing for you start to finish: we will be your government. The companies doing it are the companies that learned it all in disaster zones. While CH2M Hill is one of the prime contractors in Iraq, it is also one of the prime contractors after the tsunami in Sri Lanka under contract with USAID, and it is also one of the big contractors in New Orleans. Now they are saying, we can run the government after disasters, so let us do it during normal circumstances too.
If we don’t name this ideological project and admit that it is not failing, it is succeeding. It is succeeding for the people who want to live in gated, fortified communities and have their own subways and their own roads and their own bridges and are willing to pay for it. And they’ll let larger swaths of the world and their own country go to rot.
JS: What should the fight back look like?
NK: It looks different, all over the world. But I think we see it most clearly in Latin America, which makes sense because it was the first laboratory, the first place where these ideas triumphed.
There, it has had the longest time to show its true face, which is looting, which is the creation of these hollowed-out states. This economic model has shown both its violent face and the face of enormous wealth stratification and the looting of the public sphere.
Latin America is the first place where real alternatives are emerging, where people are coming out of the shock of the violence that was inflicted on them in the 1970s and 1980s and are fighting back, insisting on the right to have economic models that deviate from the Washington Consensus. I don’t want to be part of a chorus of romanticization, but I think very tangible alternatives are emerging there. Another smaller example I just saw in New Orleans, and the reason I went there, was a quite wonderful exchange going on between a group of Indian survivors of the tsunami who had been fighting disaster capitalism. The disaster was used as an excuse to seize land from poor fishing people and poor farmers and then hand it over to export zones, call centers and hotels.
They had traveled to New Orleans to meet with Katrina survivors who were facing being locked out of their housing projects, losing the hospitals that used to treat the uninsured, and all the issues that we’re more familiar with. At one of these exchange meetings, Saket Soni, a wonderful organizer with the New Orleans Workers Center, said, “If they have disaster capitalism, then we need disaster collectivism.” Part of the fight back is people starting to think about what that collectivism looks like, what sort of societies they want to build in the rubble.
What people were talking about in New Orleans was the emergence of a human rights
movement, of a civil rights movement of disaster-affected people that would have its own Bill of Rights [guaranteeing the right] to participate in your own reconstruction and that all lives are equal. The antithesis of the workers’ values is the Social Darwinism that emerges in these moments of catastrophe.
Jeremy Scahill is the author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. For more about The Shock Doctrine, see naomiklein.org.