Disaster capitalism: Israel as warning

I think we can safely deduce that Jewish extremist Kach members aren’t too fond of Naomi Klein. On their informative online S.H.I.T. (Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening) List, we read that she “is an ISM supporter and Rachel Corrie lover. If Hitler were alive today, she’d love him as well!” This considered evaluation will probably need to be rephrased in less glowing terms if any patient Kahanists get around to reading The Shock Doctrine - the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Many are now familiar with the outlines of Klein’s argument: in the wake of natural and unnatural disasters, neo-liberal economic reform is foisted on stricken societies while their citizens are in a condition of collective disorientation. While the ruling class is quick to avail of these “opportunities,” it doesn’t actually set out to create them, because it doesn’t need to: “An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial.” After great destruction comes privatized reconstruction to the benefit of multinational corporations and the detriment of ordinary people.

In itself, the thesis that capitalism thrives on disaster isn’t exactly novel. What Klein has done, however, is to draw analytical conclusions from the consistency with which the metaphor of “shock” is employed in this context.
She recounts how in the 1950s the CIA funded electric shock experiments by the US-American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron that entailed “attacking the brain with everything known to interfere with its normal functioning — all at once” in order to reduce it to a tabula rasa upon which, it was mistakenly believed, anything could be written. These experiments inspired the CIA’s MKUltra program designed “to break prisoners suspected of being Communists and double agents.” As a bonus, Cameron’s and the CIA’s procedures laid the groundwork for torture practices from Santiago de Chile to Abu Ghraib.

Next, Klein explores the doctrines of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School disciples, those influential advocates of economic “shock therapy” who also drew up their theories in the heady 1950s. Friedman, according to Klein, was “the other Doctor Shock … Friedman’s mission, like Cameron’s, rested on a dream of reaching back to a state of ‘natural’ health, … before human interferences created distorting patterns. Where Cameron dreamed of returning the human mind to that pristine state, Friedman dreamed of depatterning societies, of returning them to a state of pure capitalism … the only way to reach that prelapsarian state was to deliberately inflict painful shocks … Cameron used electricity to inflict his shocks. Friedman’s tool of choice was … the shock treatment approach he urged on bold politicians for countries in distress.”

The first society to be remodeled on the basis of Friedman’s theories was Pinochet’s Chile. Here the overlap between Friedman and Cameron ceases to be merely metaphorical: the ruthless implementation of the former’s shock therapy required the employment of the latter’s, in the form of torture.

The opportunity afforded by war to effect a neo-liberal restructuring of shocked and disorientated societies provided neo-conservatives with a blueprint for taking advantage of natural catastrophes. The December 2004 tsunami that killed 250,000 people and left 2.5 million homeless provided a golden opportunity for the governments of Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia to achieve a free-market “second tsunami,” often employing funds donated for victim relief to “cleanse” fishing people and other surplus natives from coastal regions destined for the exclusive use of wealthy tourists. Hurricane Katrina, the following year, afforded 93-year-old Milton Friedman the opportunity to make his final public intervention when he proposed that the “tragedy” of the destruction of New Orleans’s schools was “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” by privatizing it. This amiable advice was hastily acted upon, “in sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online …”

Somewhere between natural catastrophes and wars come events like Jeffrey Sachs’s disastrous interventions in Bolivia and Poland, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Boris Yeltsin’s Ubuesque rise to power in Russia. In each case, however, the military — and mercenaries nowadays — play a belligerent role in keeping the rabble in line. In a word, we are dealing with a particularly lethal and one-sided class war (although Klein avoids the phrase).

Exhibit A: Israel

Before the advent of Friedman and his successors, conventional wisdom had it that “relative peace and stability were required for sustained economic growth.” More recently this state of affairs gave way to “the Davos Dilemma”: “Put bluntly, the world was going to hell, there was no stability in sight and the global economy was roaring its approval.” In a context where “instability is the new stability,” “Israel is often held up as a kind of Exhibit A.” Despite — or because of — its parlous political situation, “Israel has crafted an economy that expands markedly in direct response to escalating violence.”

The explanation is that Israel’s technology firms grasped the potential of the global “homeland security” boom long before the horrible phrase was even coined, and they now dominate that rapidly expanding sector. Klein stresses the negative aspects of this development: “Israel should serve as … a stark warning. The fact that Israel continues to enjoy booming prosperity, even as it wages war against its neighbors and escalates the brutality in the occupied territories, demonstrates just how perilous it is to build an economy based on the premise of continual war and deepening disasters.”

With considerable perspicacity Klein traces two factors contributing to Israel’s retreat into unilateralism in the post-Oslo period, both linked to the Chicago School free market crusade. “One was the influx of Soviet Jews, which was a direct result of Russia’s shock therapy experiment.” The Rabin/Arafat “handshake on the White House lawn was on September 13, 1993; exactly three weeks later, Yeltsin sent in the tanks to set fire to the [Russian] parliament building …” Subsequently there began a wave of immigration to Israel from the former USSR, thus “markedly increasing the ratio of Jews to Arabs, while simultaneously providing a new pool of cheap labor” and swelling the population of illegal settlements. It suddenly became possible for Israel to dispense with Palestinian workers and introduce a policy of closure, “sealing off the border between Israel and the occupied territories … preventing Palestinians from getting to their jobs and selling their goods.” The result was that the territories “were transformed from run-down dormitories housing the underclass of the Israeli state into suffocating prisons.”

The other factor “was the flipping of Israel’s export economy from one based on traditional goods and high technology to one disproportionately dependent on selling expertise and devices relating to counterterrorism,” a process mightily exacerbated by the dot.com crash of 2000 and by 9/11. By 2004 Israel had set itself up “as a kind of shopping mall for homeland security technologies.” Klein lists ten samples of the reach of Israel’s security industry, ranging from Buckingham Palace to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the wealthy New Orleans neighborhood of Audubon Place, where policing is in the hands of an Israeli firm charmingly named “Instinctive Shooting International.”

In a world turning itself into a patchwork of fortresses separating the rich from the poor, Israel is making itself indispensable. This “has coincided precisely with [Israel’s] abandonment of peace negotiations, as well as a clear strategy to reframe its conflict with the Palestinians not as a battle against a nationalist movement … but rather as part of the global War on Terror …” Generalizing from those “glimpses of a kind of gated future build and run by the disaster capitalism complex” afforded by Baghdad, New Orleans and Sandy Springs (a wealthy Republican suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, that has turned itself into a “contract city” in order to prevent its taxes being used to subsidize poor neighborhoods), she concludes that “This is what a society looks like when it has lost its economic incentive for peace and is heavily invested in fighting and profiting from an endless and unwinnable War on Terror. One part looks like Israel; the other part looks like Gaza … In South Africa, Russia and New Orleans the rich build walls around themselves. Israel has taken this disposal process a step further: it has built walls around the dangerous poor.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Naomi Klein’s blockbuster is a worthy successor — in scope, ambition and achievement — to Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy. Her contextualization of Israeli politics is utterly convincing, and can only confound those who still believe that Israel has the slightest interest in reaching an equitable accommodation with its neighbors.

At the end of this tunnel of pessimism, Latin America provides a glimmer of light: “Today Latin Americans are picking up the project [of independent “developmentalism”] that was so brutally interrupted … Many of the policies cropping up are familiar: nationalization of key sectors of the economy, land reform, major new investments in education, literacy and health care. … Latin America’s mass movements … are learning how to build shock absorbers into their organizing models.” She refers to Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s grass-roots progressive networks, Brazil’s Landless Peoples Movement and its cooperatives, Argentina’s movement of “recovered companies,” and the entire region’s increasing emancipation (Colombia sadly excepted) from Washington’s military and financial tutelage.

She fails to mention that such moves towards independence have only become possible because Washington’s increasingly fanatical focus on the Middle East has diverted its attention (temporarily?) from its “back yard.” The solidarity between Middle Eastern peoples that is surely a precondition of Palestine’s liberation is frustrated at every turn by the repressiveness of Arab regimes (the Palestinian Authority now tragically included) backed to the hilt by the financial and military resources of the US and EU.

Nonetheless, it is within this oppressive climate that the Lebanese people, Sunni and Shiite, trade unionists and Hizballah, have come together to oppose the attempts by the West and its client prime minister Siniora to remake Lebanon, in the wake of Israel’s catastrophic 2006 assault, in the image of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Klein is one of the few Western intellectuals to have appreciated the importance of this story, and this is just one of the many virtues of this extraordinary book. Whether or not she is correct in her belief that “the shock is wearing off,” there is an indelible truth in her assertion that “[t]he only prospect that threatens the booming disaster economy on which so much wealth depends … is the possibility of achieving some measure of climatic stability and geopolitical peace.”

Raymond Deane is a composer and a founding member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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