By: Rafael Tatemoto / Brasil de Fato / The Dawn News / June 2, 2016. In an exclusive interview, the author of the book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” debates alternatives to the economic and environmental crisis.
The book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, published in 2007, influenced an entire generation by proposing —contrary to what the hegemonic discourse says— that the implementation of neoliberalism had little to do with the advance of liberal democracy around the world. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, affirmed that the doctrine of the Chicago School was first implemented by authoritarian regimes, precisely because they go against the fulfillment of the population’s needs. According to her, the neoliberal agenda advances in times of crisis.
In a context of turmoil for the region, Klein gave an exclusive interview to Brasil de Fato, in which she analyzed Brazil’s situation.
According to Klein, the agenda of Michel Temer’s interim government would have very little chances of winning an election. “There’s no doubt that Brazil’s democracy is under attack. It’s a different kind of coup”, she affirmed. “They are exploiting a situation of chaos, of lack of democracy, to impose something that they wouldn’t be able to implement in a context without crisis and with a real democracy”, the explained.
Brasil de Fato: In your book, you have criticized what you consider to be a “false relationship” between neoliberalism and political democracy.
Latin American military dictatorships are an important part of your counterexamples. Could you synthesize this for us, please?
Naomi Klein: The argument I lay out in the book is that we were told a fairy tale on how this extreme form of capitalism conquered the world. This fanciful version says that it peacefully expanded through democracies that chose this system freely. However, if we look at the history of the first places where neoliberalism was imposed, we’ll see that it was imposed exactly in the opposite way. The crumbling of democracy was necessary for neoliberalism to develop. The roots of the neoliberal doctrine are found in the University of Chicago, which received a lot of support from the North American industrials, who were concerned about a turn to the left in the United States. It was supported, for example, by the head of the City Bank. In the 60’s there was a lot of concern about the growth of the left.
It’s widely known that Nixon went against the advice of the economists of the Chicago school, like Milton Friedman. He proposed a series of regulations regarding environment, and control of salaries and prices, because inflation was high. And Friedman said that Richard Nixon had been the most socialist president of the United States (laughs). What’s important is that, while this project failed at that time in the US, those same economists introduced neoliberal ideas in Latin America during 1970, but only by making coups.
The most famous example is Chile: after the murder of President Salvador Allende, militaries made an agreement with the economists of the Chicago School and turned the country into a test lab for those ideas. Friedman always said that the implementation of those ideas through brutality had no relation with the ideas per se, but people like Orlando Letelier [Chilean diplomatic during Allende’s government] said that those were two sides of the same coin: it wouldn’t be possible to democratically introduce that kind of ideas in countries with a great amount of poor people who benefit from redistributive policies.
You expressed hope about the resistance to “shocks”, because people would learn from previous experience. What’s your take on, for example, what happened in Europe after 2008 when the international financial crisis exploded and austerity policies were implemented in the countries of the south of that continent?
That’s a very good question. I published The Shock Doctrine in 2007, shortly before the financial collapse. Honestly, I’d say that, when I wrote that, I was naive. I believed that once people understood the tactics —the crisis and the chaos being used by the elites to defend unacceptable policies to enrich themselves and impoverish the majority—, and rejected that resistance would work. But I believe that what we saw with what happened in Greece and Spain, and truly all over Southern Europe, was that just saying “no, we don’t want austerity” is only the first step but it’s not enough.
The case of Syriza is exemplifying: even when anti-neoliberal governments win, there are ways to entrap them. A strong “no” to the shock doctrine is necessary, but, especially in times of great economic crisis, there must also be a “yes” to other alternatives.
These times of crisis demand an answer. The crises indicate that something’s wrong with the system. We know that the right has its shock doctrine, but there also has to be what I call “popular shock”: another alternative to answer to crisis.
That’s the reason why I wrote “This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. Climate”, because we live in a time of multiple crisis and the system is failing at many dimensions. It’s failing at the economic level, but also at the ecological level. I believe we need to respond to those multiple crisis by developing a courageous vision on what the next economy must be like, to take us out of this situation of serial crises.
The flaw of the center-left, in general, was not managing to coordinate an alternative, not only to capitalism, but to extractive economy in general.
What’s your take on the impeachment against President Dilma Rousseff? Some Brazilian analysts use your theories to explain what’s going on. Do you agree with that?
I saw those analyses that apply the theory of the shock doctrine to what’s currently going on in Brazil and I think they’re compelling. The fact that Dilma was reelected certainly frustrated the Brazilian elites. It’s also clear that politicians fear being investigated for corruption scandals and that also fueled the desire of outsing Dilma. I don’t know what the main motivation is, but there are several things going on: the desire to brush off accusations of corruption and the opportunism of “never wasting a crisis”. That is a phrase by Rahm Emanuel, governor of Chicago. He imposed neoliberal policies that were incredibly destructive, in particular for education and housing.
The Workers’ Party (PT) was by no means perfect. However, its policies of redistribution led to the reduction of inequality and also the reduction of extreme poverty. That is important and it allowed to create the proper conditions for reelection.
I really don’t know what the driving force was but Dilma’s reelection certainly demoralized the elites and made them see that they wouldn’t be able to impose the policies that are lucrative for them.
To respond to the crisis is not something new. What I argue in “The Shock Doctrine” is that neoliberalism was an opportunistic way to do that —its goal was never to resolve the causes of the crisis, but merely to allow the elites to make better profits, causing a deeper crisis. That’s what we’re seeing in Brazil.
The IMF haS just published a document that said that neoliberalism failed completely: it didn’t create growth, and instead created massive inequality and instability. And those are precisely the policies that are being imposed in Brazil. As an alleged solution to the economic crisis, even though we know it doesn’t work. That’s not because the Brazilian elites forgot to read the IMF document but because those policies are incredibly lucrative for a minority of the population. They are exploiting a situation of chaos, of lack of democracy, to impose something they wouldn’t be able to impose without crisis and with a real democracy.
Do you agree with those who say this is a coup?
There’s no doubt that Brazil’s democracy is under attack. The fight against corruption is a mere pretext to get rid of the democratically-elected President. It’s a different kind of coup. It’s not a military coup, with tanks on the streets —and we shouldn’t say they are the same thing— but, in fact, there’s a profound attack against democracy.
The “official history” of neoliberalism points towards the governments of Reagan (US) and Thatcher (UK), in countries regarded as democratic, as the origins of those policies. In your book, you cite how Thatcher attacked unions.
Is neoliberalism authoritarian even in the context of democracies? Should we expect the same in Brazil?
What I argue in The Shock Doctrine is that Thatcher wasn’t able to impose the neoliberal agenda in the UK in her first term. She even wrote a letter to [Friedrich von] Hayek that I quote in my book: in democracy, it’s impossible to do what was done in Chile. What happened is that the Malvinas war [England against Argentina] broke out and she exploited the hyper-nationalistic sentiment and reinvented herself as a “wartime Prime Minister”, like Churchill, and managed to be reelected, and then she attacked unions.
Unions are always a big obstacle to implement the neoliberal agenda. I also tell the story of what happened in Bolivia in the 80s, when union leaders were kidnapped to prevent them from organizing as the neoliberal shock was imposed.
Obviously, there will be some kind of strategy to paralyze mobilizations. But I think that, in Brazil, the game is not over yet. Stories are changing every instant, people are doing precisely what they should, which is resisting on the streets. The phone taps that reveal the plot behind the coup continue to create a political crisis. That needs to be divulged outside Brazil, to put pressure on foreign governments. We need to not accept the idea that everything will continue to be as it is now.
We recently had a historic environmental disaster in Brazil. In your book “This changes everything” you say that capitalism not only increased inequality, but that, today, it also poses a risk for humanity’s very existence.
Why is that?
What we know is that, if we continue to do what we are doing, we will reach a level of warming that is unsustainable. We’re at a time when capitalism and the search for perpetual growth are opposed to life on Earth. We’re reaching a level in which a great part of the planet will be uninhabitable for human beings. It’s happening quicker than expected. The coral bleaching last year was of an unprecedented magnitude. India and Pakistan are going through heat waves of 51ºC (124ºF) —which human beings can’t resist. Globally, that’s just an increase of 1ºC —and we’re looking at a 6ºCincrease, unless governments implement changes to their current policies.
Crises are signs that something is wrong with the way we organize our society. Economic crises evidence that this is systemic. When we think about the 20s and the 30s, the times of the Great Depression, the left responded with strong alternatives: proposals to reinvent that system. Now, when we face a climate crisis —fires, floods, great tempests— we should respond by trying to change the system to avoid having that crisis.
So the question is: what’s the solution? What’s the plan?
That was my next question…
I can’t answer for Brazil, but I can say that in Canada, where I live, I was involved in a process with several social movements that culminated with the “Leap Manifesto”. It’s an alternative, our idea of society. It addresses how to go from an extractivist economy to a model that respects the planet and guarantees respect for the others. And we demand policies that take us closer to a transition into that model. It was a marvelous process that connected movements, environmentalists, and anti-austerity organizations against free-trade treaties like the TPP, in defense of the rights of indigenous peoples.
Our view is based on the teachings of the first nations of our country, the indigenous peoples. We defend, for example, the use of energy that is 100% renewable, but we also want to change the forms of property: not control of big corporations, nor of the big state —we want communitary control. Besides, the first beneficiaries of this model should be the communities affected by the dirty industries. So, in Canada, we would put first the indigenous peoples, and immediately after, latinos and afro-descendants.
That’s what we call a fair transition into the next economy. We try to develop on that, and it might be useful for peoples in Brazil to get to know it and get inspired to make a similar process: to get together and imagine a new post-extractivist economy.