The marquee outside the Bloor Cinema, in Toronto, advertised “The Last Mistress” at four, “Naomi Klein-the Shock Doctrine” at seven, and “Little Shop of Horrors” at nine-thirty. It was a warmish night. The falafel shop next door was doing a brisk business. A line of people holding tickets to the Naomi Klein event stretched to the end of the block and around the corner. Outside the entrance to the cinema, a middle-aged man and an elderly woman paced up and down selling copies of Socialist Action for a dollar. (The September issue included articles about capitalism’s contradictions, class war in Bolivia, and a commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal-a regular feature.)
“We apologize for starting late, but it’s typical activist time, so I’m sure you’re used to it,” a young woman organizer said from the stage. The young woman wore a black necklace, black jeans, and black hoop earrings. She urged the audience to fight racism and poverty, and to work for education, international solidarity, justice for immigrants and refugees, and solidarity with Palestine and with the Mohawk of Tyendinaga and the Algonquin of Barriere Lake, on whose behalf the fund-raiser that night was being held. She squinted into the lights. “I’m glad you can’t see the audience from here,” she said, “because I don’t think I’ve ever spoken in front of eight hundred and fifty people except at a protest, and then you can always dissolve into a chant.” She consulted her notes. “To a different audience-to those that hold capital and power in this society-Naomi Klein’s words and her ideas are seen as a serious threat,” she said. “Her words are a source of inspiration . . . for those of us who were and are being radicalized by the anti-globalization, anti-colonial, and anti-poverty movements and the demands to change the system totally and completely.”
Klein ascended the stage. “It’s been an eventful few hours,” she said, smiling. The first bailout package announced by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had been voted down that afternoon by the House. “The President went on television and informed us that there would be Armageddon, essentially, if they didn’t get this deal . . . but it didn’t work!” she went on, over rowdy clapping. She was wearing dark jeans tucked into tall brown boots, a crisp white shirt, and a long black blazer. She was dressed for a fox hunt. She looked terrific.
She had spent the day curled up on the blue sofa in her living room, watching CNN while she waited restlessly to hear what would happen in Washington. She fortified herself with cups of coffee and a smoothie. She checked her iPhone for messages from an economist friend who was keeping her posted on what was going on behind the scenes. She followed the Dow as it pitched downward, thinking how ridiculous it was for Paulson to believe that he could control it. “This is politicians acting like traders,” she said, staring at the television. “A government shouldn’t play the market-it should govern.” The past couple of weeks had been a giddy time. Since her book “The Shock Doctrine” was published last year, Klein, now thirty-eight, has become the most visible and influential figure on the American left-what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were thirty years ago. She speaks every few days, all over the world, and hundreds of people turn up to hear her. They visit her Web site and subscribe to her newsletter and send her passionate fan mail. She has become an icon’s icon: Radiohead and Laurie Anderson promote her books to their fans; John Cusack’s comedy “War, Inc.” was inspired by her reporting from Baghdad. The Mexican film director Alfonso Cuarón felt so strongly about “The Shock Doctrine” that he made a short promotional film about it for free. Now, suddenly, she was in demand everywhere. The economic crisis had looked at first like a textbook enactment of her “shock doctrine” theory, and everyone wanted her to go on TV and explain it.
The central thesis of the book is that capitalism and democracy, free markets and free people, do not, as we’ve been told, go hand in hand. On the contrary, capitalism-at least fundamentalist capitalism, of the type promoted by the late economist Milton Friedman and his “Chicago School” acolytes-is so unpopular, and so obviously harmful to everyone except the richest of the rich, that its establishment requires, at best, trickery and, at worst, terror and torture. Friedman believed that markets perform best when freed from government interference, so he advocated getting rid of tariffs, subsidies, minimum-wage laws, public housing, Social Security, financial regulation, and licensing requirements, including those for doctors-indeed, virtually every measure devised to protect people from the market’s harsh logic. Klein argues that the only circumstance in which a population would accept Friedman-style reforms is when it is in a state of shock, following a crisis of some sort-a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a war. A person in shock regresses to a childlike state in which he longs for a parental figure to take control; similarly, a population in a state of shock will hand exceptional powers to its leaders, permitting them to destroy the regulatory functions of government.
Friedman once observed that much of the time societies are too paralyzed by the “tyranny of the status quo” to accept real reform, and that only a crisis can convince people that the way things are done needs to change. This idea is not particularly controversial. But from Friedman’s words Klein concludes that the Chicago School is “a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain.” Worse, Friedmanites are impatient-sometimes too impatient to sit around praying for acts of God. Natural disasters are tricky to engineer, but coups and terror are always possible. “Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era,” she writes, “which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by antidemocratic regimes”-Pinochet’s in Chile, for instance, or the Argentinean junta-“were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms.’ “
Klein first formulated her thesis in 2004, when she was reporting in Baghdad and noticed that Paul Bremer’s goal seemed to be to establish a perfect capitalist state in Iraq while its population was still reeling from the “shock and awe” bombing. Then she noticed that soon after the tsunami in Sri Lanka the coastline that had been inhabited by fishermen was being sold off to hotels. Then she noticed that Friedman had suggested taking advantage of Hurricane Katrina to replace New Orleans’s disastrous public schools with charter schools. The pattern was striking. But now that a shock had shaken Washington itself, something slightly different seemed to be going on. On the one hand, the initial reaction to the economic crisis followed her theory-the shock (the bank failures and the market’s nosedive) had inspired the government to attempt to seize unprecedented power (seven hundred billion dollars with no strings attached), claiming that in such a crisis everyone should simply trust it to do the right thing, even though the actions it wanted to take would seem to enrich the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else. That was the textbook part. But the plan wasn’t working. Constituents wrote thousands of outraged letters, and bloggers wrote about how this felt familiar, like the aftermath of September 11th, and how the bailout was the economic equivalent of the Patriot Act. It was just as she had written at the end of the book: memory was shock’s antidote. (Another difference, of course, was that the government wanted to enact not Friedman-style reforms but the opposite: enormous interference in the market. Still, since the point of this interference was to bail out banks, this difference did not strike Klein as of much importance.)