power and powerless in the shocking epoch

A review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. By Oksana Dutchak.

             …the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic […] the more powerless the reader comes to feel…

Fredric Jameson

Naomi Klein is a famous contemporary socio-historical journalist, master of scandal journalist investigations, one of the most outstanding popular critics of the important tendencies in modern society. Klein became popular after publishing her first bestseller No Logo which had attracted a lot of attention in academic, political and broader circles. I find The Shock Doctrine just a logical continuation of her critical interpretation of the modern neo-liberal capitalism, presented in the first bestseller.

It is often stated nowadays that we are living in the shocking epoch or in the epoch of shocks. This atmosphere gets a new and very interesting perspective in Klein’s book: she develops the idea of shock to the level of hegemonic politico-economic logic of the past several decades. The subtitle of the book is an appropriate material for the first insight into the topic of long and detailed historical journey which Klein conducts. It is mainly about neo-liberal capitalism as a disaster for the modern world of shocks and about disaster as a way of shocking neo-liberal development. From Chile to Iraq, from Russia to the USA, from South Africa to Great Britain, Klein provides a logical link between the neo-liberal economic policy and tragic historical events: coups and massacres, civil wars and natural disasters, dramatical social changes and economic crises.  This logical link should be explained in more detail.

To provide any radical institutional changes in history successfully, the specific concentration of power should take place: economic and political power in this respect. There are three institutions or groups which Naomi Klein mentions from this perspective and all of them can be easily presented as representatives of the transnational class (e. g. Kalb 2005:195-196) or hybrid cosmopolitans elites (Friedman 2003) which received a lot of attention in modern sociology of globalization. However, Klein adds one new dimension to the perception of ruling elite which is rarely mentioned in contemporary debates about hegemony: the academic or think-tank dimension.            Milton Friedman and his followers are the first key figures of the book, the “men to blame” from authors point of view. As representatives of the Chicago School of Economics, they have devoted their academic and political lobbying to promote neo-liberal doctrine by all appropriate means. True believers, as Klein describes them, these economists firstly concentrated their challenges on the main question: how can unpopular measures be applied without provoking popular revolt? The author names “the shock doctrine” as the answer they found. She provides psychological  experiments of the 1950s as an analogy for the economic logic of the shock doctrine: the logic of using electroshock, sensor deprivation and injections in order to weaken psychological resistance in order to conduct interrogation or treatment. Like psychological experimenters, the Chicago School followers had powerful believe that society, like the mind, can be regressed to some kind of tabula rasa, so it can be totally recreated and cured in a desired way. In order to weaken the resistance of the society both direct intervention and indirect use of existent crises were considered to be appropriate methods. However, having no power in the post-war time of Keynesianism, the Chicago School could hardly test shock theory in practice.

A path to the practical implementation was found in a newly emerged strong alliance between transnational capital and government. For this reason Klein devotes a lot of space to researching direct and indirect relations between the two institutions which concentrate both political and economic power through this alliance. However, she does not present these connections clearly as acting during the first practical implementation of shock doctrine: Pinochet’s coup and aftermath Chile in 1970s. Corporatism, as Klein calls this alliance, emerges in details on the pages of her book mainly when she analyzes the latest events, such as the war in Iraq or hurricane Katrina; for this reason the Chicago School and its shock doctrine look like the main cause of disaster capitalism from the 1970s till the turn of the  century. Moreover, while reading the book, it is hardly understandable what were the processes which led to the realization of shock doctrine logic. Modern scholars (e. g. Turner 2003) often name the crisis of 1973 as the reason of the neo-liberal turn, but Klein does not present it like that. That was the reason why I had a strange feeling of Friedman’s shadow after reading the book.

This kind of problem with structural causes in The Shock Doctrine can be also demonstrated through another example: how the author describes economic side of neo-liberal shock doctrine approach. She clearly refers to privatization, deregulation and liberalization as the main aspects of this approach but she does not explain why precisely these measures became so preferable in the second part of the 20th century. While reading the book, it looks like this course was taken because of  Friedman’s true faith in it and because these measures seemed to be extremely profitable for the power alliance. However, contemporary sociological analysis provides more sophisticated vision of cause-effect relations in structural changes of that time. For example, David Harvey (2003:156) introduces the concept of accumulation by dispossession through which he explains that neo-liberal measures were implemented as “compensation for the chronic problems of overaccumulation arising within expanded reproduction” . This concept can be criticized for many reasons, however, through such interpretation one can clearly see deep processes behind the economic project; in Klein’s book there is often only the  feeling of Friedman’s shadow.

This notion raises the question of the starting point, meaning the main concept of any socio-historical research which determines its explanatory power. In Harvey’s case this is accumulation by dispossession – rather structural phenomena which makes it possible to see structural cause-effect relations behind social processes he describes. In Klein’s case this is the shock doctrine – idea but not a structural phenomena which hardly allows uninitiated reader to see deeper cause-effect relations beyond concrete personalities or personal interest such as passion for money.   Still The Shock Doctrine has plenty of masterly socio-historical analysis: it contains a great many contemporary debates on neo-liberal globalization. One of the most important pieces refers to ethnic and religious conflicts as an outcome of disaster capitalism. In this respect Klein speaks directly about the modern system of apartheid in post-war Iraq or Israel and indirectly about some kind of economic and power apartheid, produced by increasing inequality in incomes and authority. All of this, she argues, leads to the increase in tensions between both different groups of local citizens and on local-foreign dimension; in this way the neo-liberal  system reproduces the particular type of conflicts. Johnathan Friedman (2003) makes to some extent similar conclusions in his analysis of polarization between indigenous identity and economic perspective on the one side and cosmopolitan on the other. Another point of view on such kind of reactionary tendencies can be found in Harvey (2005, chap. 3) where he posts rise of nationalism as an outcome of the dilemma of neo-liberal state in the global competitive market. In Klein’s book this notion of systematic outcomes of the disaster capitalism in combination with others, such as stock market reaction on governmental action, allows her to make the conclusion about system that generates disaster (Klein 2007:426). It should be noted that the power of modern financial market (Hirst 2000) or neo-liberal system as a whole (Harvey 2005, chap. 3) to generate instability is widely presented in the contemporary academic debates. By adding these structural factors, Klein manages to go beyond determinative shadows of personalities and personal or corporate interests in the last pages of her book.

Klein  also refers to another interesting debate regarding the power of nation-state in the disaster capitalism epoch. Among others she presents the case of the South Africa where this power appears to be minimal after the collapse of the apartheid system. She reasonably explains it through the combination of factors, provided by the power-outsourcing logic of the structural adjustments program which became possible or even inevitable because of debt and general economic crisis. Such an interpretation can also be found in analysis of the South Africa case by James Ferguson (2006:38) who writes about “outsourcing” and “rolling back” of the state. However, he emphasizes the role of NGOs as a recipient of power; Klein speaks partly about NGOs but mainly about the role of private corporations. Moreover, she mentions not only those countries where structural adjustments are applied, but general tendency even in the most developed countries such as the USA; however, in the later it has a deliberate form. So, the concentration of politico-economic power within corporatism gets new shift toward not only the alliances between the state and corporations, but to even more increasing role of the later in this new project of distribution of authority.

Being a journalist, Naomi Klein does not often use academic concepts in her works and The Shock Doctrine is no exception; this is the weakest point of the book as it leads to some simplification and lack of a systematic vision of the explored picture. However, it should be taken into consideration that her bestseller was written not just for academic circles, but also for the common reader. Still she manages to accumulate a great part of contemporary sociological debates on globalizaton without referring to them directly.

The Shock Doctrine is itself a shocking book. Like No Logo it provides an image of the total, omnipresent, over-rational and powerful system with ruthless logic which is led by mercantile interests. It shocks you slowly with the vision of the disaster capitalism system and its consequences by adding more and more ugly facts. If you do really care, by the end of the book you can find yourself hopeless and powerless before the face of the shock doctrine logic. However, if the reader is attentive enough, he or she can easily observe peculiarity of the epigraphs: through the whole book they reflect some kind of dialog between the positive and negative views on disaster capitalism logic. So, one can assume that this dialog takes place in reality and therefore some challenges against the shock doctrine exist. But Klein describes practical implementations of these challenges only at the end of her book, referring to both grassroots and regional self-organizing processes which attempt to withstand shocks and rehabilitate after them. This is her powerful style of creating tension and she really knows how to deal with the emotional dynamics of the reader. The weak point of this style is that it potentially creates “winner loses”[1] logic, to which I referred to in the epigraph: the author wins by describing a terrifying system, but he or she also loses because after such a description any challenges against this system look powerless.


Ferguson, James. 2006. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Friedman, Jonathan. 2003. “Globalization, Dis-integration, Re-organization: The Transformation of Violence.” Pp. 1-34 in Globalization, the State and Violence, edited by J. Friedman. Walnut Greek: Altamira Press.

Harvey, David. 2003. The new Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—————– 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hirst, Paul. 2000. “The Global Economy: Myth or Reality?” Pp. 107-24 in Don Kalb, et. al. The Ends of Globalization. Oxford: Rowman & Littelfield.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kalb, Don. 2004. “Shifting Conjunctures: Politics and Knowledge in the Great Globalization Debate.” Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London.

Turner, Terence. 2003. “Class Project, Social Consciousness, and the Contradictions of ‘Globalization.'” Pp. 35-66 in Globalization, the State and Violence, edited by J. Friedman. Walnut Greek: Altamira Press.

[1]    Frederic Jameson’s phrase.