‘Less violent’ capitalism
Nick Jones reviews N Klein, The shock doctrine London 2007, pp576, £25
Naomi Klein largely came to prominence during the early 2000s within the context of an anti-capitalist movement broadly characterised by its militancy, if not its political coherence. Described by the New York Times as a “movement bible”, Klein’s book No logo highlighted the role played by those household brand names involved in the exporting of labour to ‘tax-free’ havens within areas of the world in which labour-costs were low, and exploitative work practices high.i Striking a tone with a new generation of activists, the book went on to sell highly and propelled Klein’s message into the homes of many.
Klein’s latest book The shock doctrine provides a suggested context for the understanding of how, in the words of the book’s cover, “free market policies have come to dominate the world”. Adopting and expanding upon a recurring theme of Marxist political economy, Klein documents the many facets of a system characterised by continuous conflict and crisis. The role assumed by crisis on a global scale is for Klein the constitutive feature of a new manifestation of what we may understand as ‘disaster capitalism’.
In contrast to the view advanced by Marx and Engels that we may understand forms of crisis on the basis of the overproductive nature of an inherently expansive system,ii Klein suggests a process of enduring crisis utilised for the purpose of strengthening and reinforcing the global expansion of capital. Klein notes: “The Marxists were clear: revolution – get rid of the current system, replace with socialism”; whereas for the advocates of unfettered capitalism “the solution was not so clear”.
This process relates to the way in which economic reforms – or ‘structural readjustments’, in the language of international financial institutions that carry them out – utilise periods of crisis in order to push through unpopular cuts in public services, often with the use of violent suppression of dissent. It is precisely through a process of ‘shock therapy’ that free-market policies come to dominate the world.
Klein links this process to the role assumed by thinkers such as Fredrick Hayek and Milton Friedman in the furtherance of the political and economic project of neoLiberalism. Neoliberalism is largely understood as an intellectual movement characteristic of a commitment to the privatisation of previously nationalised companies, limited state expenditure and unfettered private investment. Klein suggests it is the prevalent economic orthodoxy at work within those regions that have provided the clearest examples of ‘shock therapy’ in action.
Klein cites as an example that of Chile following the military coup of general Augustine Pinochet as one case in which neoliberalism gained a foothold in a region via the export of many of the ideas advanced by Friedman. This includes those who had studied in and around the University of Chicago, at which he had taught. These are the so called ‘Chicago boys’. Following heightened repression during the coup Klein suggest the ‘Chicago boys’ were able to gain a foothold as Friedman’s close disciples assumed positions of prominence within the government, beginning a process of “construct consent” for many of the otherwise unfavourable policies.iii
While the violent actions undertaken in the name of global expansion of capital should be quite rightly condemned, wider questions about the inherent nature of capitalism must be raised in order to understand the potential for different ways of organising society.
Klein makes the suggestion in an interview with the Socialist Workers Party’s journal Socialist Review that a “less violent version” of capitalism is what is needed.iv
As Marxists we must highlight the inherently violent nature of a system characterised by the antagonistic divisions upon which capitalism has been, and continues to be, dependent. As Karl Marx notes, “Capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.v
We would, of course, join others in condemning the role of financial organisations involved in the stripping of public assets and the ransacking of domestic economies, as well as fighting for reforms during this process. It must be argued that any gains won during this process are conceded, as Klein suggests, in the face of great opposition and struggle, and as such will be subject to continued and sustained attack.
Klein seems to imitate the approach of social theorists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in reducing the role of class to one of any range of features of opposition, all providing some measure of the ‘shock resistance’ needed during this process. A Marxist approach must highlight that it is the working class that is uniquely situated for the purpose of carrying out its ‘historic role’, namely the disillusion of a society characterised by the class antagonism of capitalism.
It is only on the basis of a global system of socialism that we may see an end to the sustained attacks Klein documents so aptly and a glimpse of a society, in the words of Trotsky, “cleansed of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoyed to the full.”vi
ii. See S Clarke Marx’s theory of crisis London 1994.
iii. D Harvey Spaces of capital Edinburgh 2006.
v. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1990.