Author Noami Klien travels to the very edge of journalism acceptable to the mainstream media (2007)

Several months after the 2004 tsunami, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein traveled to Sri Lanka. There she found an unexpected echo of a previous trip to Baghdad, where she investigated the coalition’s failure to repair Iraqi infrastructure. In Sri Lanka, "foreign investors and international lenders had teamed up to use the atmosphere of panic to hand the entire beautiful coastline over to entrepreneurs, who quickly built large resorts, blocking hundreds of thousands of fishing people from rebuilding their villages near the water."

In her meticulously researched new book,
The Shock Doctrine, Klein cites many historically recent examples of policy-makers and powerbrokers capitalizing – literally- on chaos. She calls this high-level habit "disaster capitalism."

The high priest of disaster capitalism, says the author, was the University of Chicago’s influential professor of economics, Milton Friedman. Klein had her ‘aha’ moment when she came across a 1982 essay from the professor: "Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces a 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 the politically inevitable." This, Klein says, is the manifesto of disaster capitalism: to exploit cataclysmic change and confusion, and use it to loot the public sphere.

In 1976, Friedman won the Nobel Prize for economics, and soon became the intellectual guru to Reagan and Thatcher. Prior to this, he was something of the Rodney Dangerfield of market theory. He couldn’t get any respect among Kenyesian economists, and had little success convincing President Richard Nixon to put his slash-and-burn theories into practice on the domestic front. Instead, Tricky Dick did Uncle Miltie a huge favour by giving Friedman an entire nation to play with: Chile.

Klein’s exhaustive research unearthed the remarkable efforts to change Chilean society from within, through a US State department- backed foreign exchange student program with the University of Chicago economics department. Unfortunately for Friedman and the panjandrums in Washington, the surgery didn’t take; the peoples’ movement in Chile was simply too powerful. Hence the US –sponsored coup that toppled President Salvador Allende on the Chilean’s own epochal day of terrorism, September 11th, 1973.

After the coup, Friedmann arrived in Chile with advisors, and set to work creating a society in which financial shock treatment - deregulation, privatization, and cuts to social programs - would create a favourable climate to investors.

Klein demolishes the argument that financial shock treatment is distinct from the repressive measures of western-endorsed dictators, like Chile strongman Augusto Pinochet. Across the Third World, she shows how torture accompanies such "reconstruction" with almost mathematical regularity.

Friedmann died last year, but not before penning an op-ed piece for
The Wall Street Journal , shortly after Hurricane Katrina. He argued that the storm was a marvelous opportunity to put his ideas into action – specifically, replacing the public school system with charter schools. The mad professor needn’t have bothered: his brand of free market fundamentalism was by now deeply ingrained into elite-level US policy-making. Just two weeks after Katrina, The Heritage Foundation - "ground zero of the counterrevolution against the welfare state" as Klein calls it - made a list of over 300 free market solutions for New Orleans: roll back labour standards and environmental regulations, create a "free market enterprise zone" with a tax holiday for corporations, and give parents vouchers for charter schools, rather than rebuild public schools.

In a talk last fall for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Klein insisted this Friedman-style ideology is being imposed with ever-escalating levels of violence across the world. "Reconstruction of Lebanon after the Israeli attack is used and an opportunity by the IMF and World Bank to demand they privatize water and electricity. The reconstruction of Iraq is used as a cover to push through oil laws that will continue to loot Iraq for the next thirty years. "

The opportunistic response to Katrina brought disaster capitalism to North American shores. It all sounds desperately bad, but the author insists understanding history will help make people"shock resistant."

"If we look at places that are becoming shock resistant, like in Latin America, they understand where the current attacks fit into a five hundred-year history of crisis, of violent imposition of capitalism. And that’s what makes social movements strong, having our eyes wide open, not false optimism."

Geoff Olson