Friday, October 17, 2008

Shock Doc

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s truly shocking book, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE. Everyone should read it without delay. For not only does it tell a riveting tale about an overarching plan hatched by the right wing in this country for the last 40 years or so, but it helps make sense of the economic turmoil now facing this nation and the world. It also points out that while the Left has focused its attention on the peril it has seen in political violence and war, the Right has focused on “free market” economics and the real control and profits it provides to those in power. Lastly, it tells us how the 9/11 attacks have been used by the Right to “shock” us all into compliance (see for engineering analyses of the tower collapses), and indeed, what that compliance was really about.

To put it briefly, the right wing objective for more than 40 years has been to foist a fundamentalist version of capitalism—Milton Friedman’s purist version of “free market” capitalism—on the world. This is the system espoused by Friedman and his “Chicago boys” at the University of Chicago. It is a system that argues that all government interference in the economy is evil, especially the social programs (social security, public housing, government regulations on banks, government-run building programs) that Franklin Roosevelt instituted to end the Great Depression, and that many third world governments instituted to ameliorate the misery of their impoverished masses. Rather, the Chicago plan urges the privatization of all nationalized industries (especially oil, but also water, power, and so on), the elimination of all social programs designed to help the poor, and the opening of every country to “free trade.” Of course, when such purifying “surgery” is administered to a country rapidly, the pain and misery of the population increases dramatically. Therefore, Friedman argued, a shock is needed to instill fear in the people, and force them and the government to accept the harsh medicine, often called “structural adjustment” when implemented by the IMF and the World Bank. Klein quotes Milton Friedman’s statement in 1982 about the necessity of crisis or shock to implement such ideas:

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Klein’s book then leads us through the countries to whom this “free market” medicine has been applied in recent years: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, as well as China, Russia, South Africa, and more recently the United States itself. In almost every case, the medicine is initially rejected as too harsh—rejected, that is, until a shock either occurs from the outside, or is initiated by the government. In every case, as well, the necessity for either a dictator or some form of police state is required to force people to accept the pain. The preferred method, and according to Klein, the virtual twin of such programs, is torture. In Chile, for example, the coup which killed the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende, and installed as dictator Augusto Pinochet, was the necessary precursor to the transition to free market capitalism. The road to this coup, however, was paved in prior years by a crew of Chileans studying with Friedman at the University of Chicago (the Chicago Boys), a crew which returned to await the chance to implement their policies. The road was also paved by the CIA in helping to overturn the elected government, as well as in the training it supplied in the best methods of counter-insurgency and torture. Once Pinochet seized power, he immediately began to “disappear” people—either dropping them from planes into the ocean or depositing them in torture chambers. In either case, most were never heard from again. And the targets were not only political leaders on the left, but also union leaders of every kind (destroying unions has been a key element of the “free market” program: think Reagan and the firing of 14,000 air traffic controllers). Such killings were not kept secret: the public demonstrations of repression were necessary to send the message that anyone who opposed the new regime did so under threat of death. Thousands left the country, while thousands more—including some of the most prominent figures in the nation like the composer/singer Victor Jara—were eliminated. In sum, Chile endured three complementary forms of shock: the shock of the military coup; the capitalist shock treatment to the economy; and the shock of the CIA-codified torture chamber meant to destroy the left-leaning culture itself. The result was then referred to, especially in the United States, as the Chilean Economic Miracle.

Of course, what the promoters of this “miracle” never mention is that in fact, the Chicago-inspired shock therapy actually resulted in economic disaster: Chile’s economy crashed in 1982, its debt exploded, it faced hyperinflation, and its unemployment reached 30%, ten times higher than under Allende. Neither do they note that in response, Pinochet was forced to emulate the leader he had killed, and nationalize many of the companies in trouble (he never had to re-nationalize Chile’s biggest industry, copper, because he had never de-nationalized it in the first place.) And even with the economic growth that followed, more than 45% of the population fell below the poverty line, while the richest 10% of Chileans saw their incomes rise by almost 100%. In other words, the free-market “miracle” did what it has done elsewhere, including the United States: it transferred enormous wealth from the poor and middle classes to the very rich (Joseph Giannone of Reuters wrote on Sept. 4, 2008, that “the top 1 percent of all households owned 35% of the world’s wealth last year. Meanwhile, the top 0.001 percent, ultra-rich households holding at least $5 million in assets, commanded $21 trillion—1/5 of the world’s wealth.”)

This really gets to an underlying thesis of Klein’s book. In each country, the violence against the populace becomes the focus of those opposing the dictator or the dictatorial government. However, the violence is never the goal, but only the means. Klein quotes Claudia Acuna, an Argentine journalist, on the government that “disappeared” so many thousands: “Their human rights violations were so outrageous, so incredible, that stopping them of course became the priority. But while we were able to destroy the secret torture centers, what we couldn’t destroy was the economic program…” The truth pointed out by Klein is that far more lives were stolen by “planned misery” than by bullets:

“…what happened in the Southern Cone of Latin America in the seventies is that it was treated as a murder scene when it was, in fact, the site of an extraordinarily violent armed robbery.”

In other words, torture is not meant to extract information, as is commonly stated, but rather is a “means of terrorizing and controlling populations.” It is a means to seize from millions of people what they absolutely require to live with minimal dignity, and would never give up willingly. That this is so can be seen in South Africa. There, the apartheid government “gave” political freedom to Nelson Mandela and the black majority. But while Mandela’s government, the ANC, was focusing on political matters so it could redistribute land and wealth, the white power structure was ensuring that economic power remained with them: the ANC was saddled with the enormous debt of the rulers who had oppressed it, and with paying the pensions of the very officials that had maintained the apartheid system. Further, it became crystal clear that any attempt to renege on those debts or nationalize industries such as mining would cause international investors to withdraw from South Africa and plunge the country into depression. The ANC was, and is trapped, and the majority of South Africans are worse off than ever.

Many readers would find all this information about “them” interesting, if not compelling. What Klein points out, however, is that the “them” is now “us.” With underdeveloped nations increasingly closing their doors to U.S. privatization schemes, U.S. conservatives saw that the profits of privatization in the new century would have to come from within. Consider the announced plans of our recently- departed Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. This corporate CEO, with a reputed fortune of $250 million, cared little about how best to protect the nation; rather, his primary interest was in reforming the Pentagon bureaucracy—but NOT to save money or increase efficiency. It was to privatize the biggest agency of the United States government. The military, said Rumsfeld, should reduce its focus to warfighting alone…whereas “in all other cases, we should seek (private) suppliers who can provide these non-core activities…” Such suppliers could do everything from cutting DOD checks to running its warehouses to picking up its garbage to providing housing for soldiers to providing computer systems. And as Jeremy Scahill points out in Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, the drive to privatize the military and outsource its traditional functions did not stop with providing clean laundry and Burger Kings at army bases; it was extended to include protection for military leaders and visiting dignitaries, and even to implementing torture (always termed ‘information gathering’) in places like Abu Ghraib.

Thus, Rumsfeld and his protégé Cheney became the point men not so much in downsizing the United States government that they largely ran for the first 6 years of the Bush administration, but rather in creating a corporate bonanza for their corporate friends and cronies such as Cheney’s Halliburton and Rumsfeld’s Gilead Sciences (maker of Tamiflu, the preferred drug for avian flu, which Rummie expected, when the next flu epidemic hit, to turn into a cash cow of unprecedented proportions). Privatizing and outsourcing were the key policies, and the Gold Dust Twins were already masters of these policies by the time they got to the Bush administration. Under Cheney’s 5-year reign in the 1990s, for example, Halliburton’s take from the U.S. Treasury ballooned by almost 100%---from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion—while its federal loans and guarantees “increased fifteenfold.” God only knows what Halliburton, now super-enriched by its contracts in Iraq, has been raking in since then.

There is far more detail in Klein’s book, but the essence is this: The real agenda of the Right since at least the Reagan administration has been not repression and war so much, but an increasing economic stranglehold over the world and its resources. War, violence, spying, torture are only the necessary means to this end. And the corollary truth—which stems from the guru, Milton Friedman himself—is that only a crisis, only deeply disorienting shocks to a national body, can make a population accept the kind of economic pain that goes along with such theft. Everyone now knows what those shocks have been in the last 8 years: the attacks of 9/11, the so-called war on terror, the drowning of New Orleans, and now, the financial meltdown. And it is sobering if not frightening to realize that the most recent shock—the financial one—has done its job perfectly. The United States Congress, even in the face of massive outrage from its constituents, finally succumbed to the shock therapy, and agreed to the massive bailouts for the very banks and CEOs whose policies and thefts were responsible for the collapse in the first place.

Read Naomi Klein’s book. You may not be glad you did, but you’ll certainly be better equipped to comprehend the public fleecing you’ve been enduring for years.

Lawrence DiStasi