Monday, September 17, 2007

Monstrosity II

Though not exactly identical to what I had in mind with "Monstrosity I," the new book by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, also evokes the idea of the monstrous. This is especially true when one focuses on the source of the idea—-the shock treatments that were once the darling of the psychology establishment. The idea was simple: electroshocking a patient’s brain could so reconfigure the mental apparatus that whole areas of memory were wiped out. The intent was to regress the patient to a pre-verbal state where he or she might no longer control speech, or sometimes even excretory functions. The confused mental connections thought to be responsible for the mental illness were thereby wiped clean, and a new, better adaptation to the real world could take its place. This, at least, was the theory.

Even left to mental institutions, this was bad enough. The problem, as Klein points out, is that electroshock theory deeply impressed the dean of modern economics, Milton Friedman. Friedman’s economic vision, therefore, integrated the idea of shock treatment, only in this case, applied to whole economic systems. As Klein points out (see "The Shock Doctrine," London Guardian, 9/8/07, reprinted on, in one of his key essays Friedman noted that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change." The way to cure the economic system of its insane notions of state control and welfare, therefore, was through shocks, either natural or man-made. Hence, natural disasters like Katrina, wars, terror attacks like 9/11, and so on could so shock a population that it would regress to childlike dependency and be amenable to harsh economic manipulations it would otherwise reject. Though Friedman argued to President Nixon for the shock to be applied to the United States, the President knew that it would lose him elections. So Nixon outsourced the experimental treatment to Chile. Once the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown, the coup-leader General Pinochet could administer the shock treatment. And he did. State-owned enterprises were privatized, American corporate giants were allowed to buy up the country’s assets, and Pinochet administered more persuasive shock via arrests, torture, and the wholesale murder of his opponents.

In more recent times, Klein argues, the shock treatment has formed the core of the George W. Bush presidency. The attack on the World Trade Center did the initial softening of the population. In its wake Bush was able to impose the type of draconian measures that Americans would have rejected in less terrifying times. More specifically, the unprovoked war on Iraq was to make that long-suffering nation the main demonstration project. ‘Shock and Awe’ terror bombing began the treatment. The looting of the country followed, with American troops simply standing by while a 4,000-year-old civlization was destroyed. This was quite OK for the Bushies: all that history was akin to the noxious delusions that schizophrenics carry in their brains, and which are better off being shocked away. Paul Bremer’s provisional authority then extended the process—-wiping out the entire civil service and military systems via de-Baathification, and ringing in the new free-market utopia with his announcement that Iraq was "open for business" to multinational corporations. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be killed in the process, that thousands of recalcitrants who objected would be subjected to even greater "shock treatment" in places like Abu Ghraib, that an entire national and cultural heritage would be burned and bombed out of existence, seemed not to matter.

Now we can see why, in their recent testimony before Congress, General Petraeus and especially Ambassador Crocker kept repeating the same mantra: this is a difficult and complex undertaking; we are bringing a new nation into being. This seemed, on the surface, just another instance of Bush Aministration hubris and propaganda, meant to blame everything wrong in Iraq on 35 years of Saddam Hussein. With Klein’s insight, however, as well as her further example of the ethnic cleansing going on in New Orleans after the "fortuitous" shock of Hurricane Katrina, we can see that it is much more. These zealots actually believe that they can wipe out an entire people’s way of life and being, and replace it with their beloved free-market (predicated, of course, on the notion that U.S. corporate insiders get special access in picking the new nation’s low-hanging economic fruit.) These boys in white coats actually believe they can remake the entire world if only the world can be sufficiently diverted with pap about democracy and freedom while the shocks are administered.

It is as monstrous an idea as any that economists and politicians have ever conceived—-and that includes the Nazis, the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, and acknowledged monsters like Idi Amin. Moreso. Because in the past, the aim of monsters like Idi Amin was simply to intimidate those who might resist their control, or plunder. Now, with our modern monsters, the aim is to shock the world (or make use of natural shocks like Katrina) sufficiently to regress it to a drooling state of abject infantilism, and remake it as a globe full of mindless, manipulable consumers celebrating the bread and circuses that enslave them. Sadly, it seems that at least in the United States, the job is already well on its way.

Lawrence DiStasi

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