Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, is a hefty thing. I borrowed it but probably will not plow all the way through, though I do admire it. She has done thorough research. Fortunately, I have seen two of her talks on television — one by Charlie Rose a few weeks ago and one tonight on TVO, from a lecture she gave in Ottawa recently. She has an original thesis and adduces abundant proof.
According to Klein, there is an organized political movement that is replacing universality with a set of right-wing approaches that she calls “corporatism,” but which goes by other names elsewhere, such as “neo-liberalism” in Latin America, Thatcherism in Britain. It’s based on the notion that individuals ought to take care of their own needs, buying the particular services that they want rather than offering equal public services to all citizens. These private needs are met by paying private companies.
Among the examples that she mentions is the role of corporations in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans. She and her partner, Avi Lewis, had flown down there to interview people while much of the city was still flooded, and their rented car had collided with a police car. She had already seen the appalling care being provided in public medical facilities, but when she woke up after her concussion, she was in a sparkling new private hospital that looked like a spa, which was almost empty, and where there were three nurses to wheel her to an intern to have stitches put into her neck. She asked him whether he had volunteered to help during the emergency (over 800 persons had died) and he said it had not occurred to him.
This attitude she attributes to the philosophy of corporatism. This doctor, living in a corporate medical culture, was just not used to thinking of poor black people as patients. She knew, on the other hand, physicians in Montreal who had flown down to New Orleans to volunteer their services during the crisis. Canada still has a fairly strong sense of universality, though Klein notes that the American system of medical care is making inroads here too, as private clinics are opened outside the public system.
She gives many other examples of the progress of corporatism, including cases in the recent Southern California wildfires where certain houses were preserved without damage, while the houses around them burned to the ground. The explanation was that these houses were protected by a private fire company, which would arrive on the scene looking like ordinary fire trucks, but bearing the corporate logo. You can get this service by buying insurance worth $1600 per year.
Klein argues that the existence of these special private services undermines the public ones. So long as certain affluent citizens can get their needs covered, they will be less committed to maintaining the excellence of the services available to the rest of society.
This is unquestionably the case. However, a Canadian court applied the logic in the opposite way a couple of years ago, ruling that one province (I forget which one) could not forbid the founding of private clinics outside the public system. They said that the province was not offering services quickly enough, so it was therefore unjust to keep people from buying the medical care that they need and can afford. There may have been set a deadline for the public hospitals to offer prompt care before this ruling should take effect – again, I don’t remember. But a friend of mine has stage four cancer, which she could feel by palpating her own abdomen at least six months before the surgeon opened her up to check out the situation. Her daughter had urged her to go to the United States for prompt treatment, but she did not believe in “jumping the queue,” so she had waited. I would have gone to the States. I won’t try to justify my selfishness, but damn it, I’d want to survive so I would have spent my own money to get the care I needed. Klein is right, but I think my friend’s daughter was right too.
Klein’s title, The Shock Doctrine refers to her theory that the encroachment of corporatism occurs when a disaster has taken place. At that moment, just after a shocking event, people do not have any narrative ready by which to explain what is going on. It is during the interval between the shock and the emergence of a story that business interests see a great opportunity and seize it. We cannot prevent disasters from occurring, says Klein, but if we are aware that corporations will be ready with a new business plan, we can catch them before they can establish the institutional arrangements that will be so hard to undo later.
This is an interesting insight. Nobody had pointed out before the connection between disasters and the extension of “neo-liberalism.“ On the other hand, the notion is not new that there is a connection between crises and social change. A few years ago, Arnold Simoni published a book with the same thesis, though he wanted to encourage liberal innovations instead of corporatism.
According to self-help books and motivational speakers, the Chinese term wei ji refers to a crisis by linking the concepts of “danger” and “opportunity.” Experts do not translate the original terms in quite this way, but the insight is worth keeping, at the risk of distorting the philology.
The contemporary English equivalent is the advice, If it ain't broke don't fix it. Again, the point is that when routines serve us well enough, we aren’t likely to change. But if something urgently needs to be fixed, that’s the time to introduce innovations. In principle, this applies to any type of innovation, including reactionary changes. But according to Arnold Simoni, the time to plan is now, before there is a crisis, so we will have something new and more useful to introduce when there is an urgent need for it. Any kind of change will be deferred until its moment. The principle is not limited to the spread of corporatism.
I don’t know whether to take heart from this point or not.