Saturday, July 19, 2008

Naomi Klein's Anti-Imperialist Blueprint for the Left

Jonathan Chait, at the New Republic, has a long review of Naomi Klein's, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Klein's book is an attack on free-market triumphalism, and Chait argues Klein's penned the ultimate far left-wing
jeremiad against modernity, with corporate power as the center of the new age of imperialist war.

Here's Chait's

It seems like a very long time--though in truth only a few years have passed--since the most sinister force on the planet that the left could imagine was Nike. In 2001, Time proclaimed that the anti-globalization movement had become the "defining cause" of a new generation, and that the spokesperson for the cause was the Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein. For puzzled outsiders grasping to understand why bands of youths had begun following the World Trade Organization wherever it went, brandishing oversize puppets and occasionally smashing up the local Starbucks, Klein was there to explain. She has always downplayed her place within the movement, but in fact her influence is as considerable as her press clippings proclaim. Her achievement, and it is no small feat, has been to revive economicism--and more grandiosely, materialism--as the central locus of left-wing politics.

From the time of Marx, and through the Depression, the left concerned itself primarily with economic inequality. The analysis of injustice in terms of class conflict and the forces of production was the canonical one. But the postwar boom--the authors of the Port Huron Statement famously described themselves as "bred in at least modest comfort"--turned the left's attention to foreign policy and national security in the Cold War, and to civil rights, and to feminism. By the 1980s, left-wing politics had withdrawn almost entirely into academia and other liberal enclaves, which it ruthlessly policed for any dissent from the verities of multiculturalist dogma and identity politics.
The essay continues with an involved discussion of the development of Klein's ideological thinking, and we see that September 11, for Klein and others, was a wake-up call for rejuvenated left-wing anti-imperialism.

Her basic premise is that the Chicago School of free-market economics is behind every ailment in the global public sphere. But there's the problem that Klein's one-size-fits-all approach is simplistic and selecitive. Klein, for example, claims that not only was the Iraq war a U.S. imperialist project, but that top Bush administration officials pushed the war directly for personal war profiteering, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney:

"When he leaves office in 2009 and is able to cash in his Halliburton holdings," she charges, "Cheney will have the opportunity to profit extravagantly from the stunning improvement in Halliburton's fortunes." This is a spectacular accusation -that the driving force behind the Iraq war stands to gain millions of dollars from it. You might wonder why John Kerry did not make this an issue in 2004, or why liberal pundits have not crusaded against Cheney's blatant self-dealing. The answer, of course, is that it is completely untrue. Cheney has signed a legally binding agreement to donate to charity any increase in his Halliburton stock.
Reading these passages indicates how perfectly Klein's writing cradles the conspiracist ideologies of today's far-left. But Chait simply doesn't buy it, and takes her to task for an abject ignorance of the role of ideas in Bush administration foreign policy:

She pays shockingly (but, given her premises, unsurprisingly) little attention to right-wing ideas. She recognizes that neoconservatism sits at the heart of the Iraq war project, but she does not seem to know what neoconservatism is; and she makes no effort to find out. Her ignorance of the American right is on bright display in one breathtaking sentence:

Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think-tanks with which [Milton] Friedman had long associations--Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute--called itself "neoconservative," a worldview that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda.

Where to begin? First, neoconservative ideology dates not from the 1990s but from the 1960s, and the label came into widespread use in the 1970s. Second, while neoconservatism is highly congenial to corporate interests, it is distinctly less so than other forms of conservatism. The original neocons, unlike traditional conservatives, did not reject the New Deal. They favor what they now call "national greatness" over small government. And their foreign policy often collides head-on with corporate interests: neoconservatives favor saber-rattling in places such as China or the Middle East, where American corporations frown on political risk, and favor open relations and increased trade. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has always had an uneasy relationship with neoconservatism. (Russell Kirk delivered a famous speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he declared that "not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.") And the Cato Institute is not neoconservative at all. It was virulently opposed to the Iraq war in particular, and it opposes interventionism in foreign policy in general.

Finally, there is the central role that Klein imputes to her villain Friedman, both in this one glorious passage and throughout her book. In her telling, he is the intellectual guru of the shock doctrine, whose minions have carried out his corporatist agenda from Santiago to Baghdad. Klein calls the neocon movement "Friedmanite to the core," and identifies the Iraq war as a "careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology" over which Friedman presided. What she does not mention--not once, not anywhere, in her book--is that Friedman argued against the Iraq war from the beginning, calling it an act of "aggression."

That last line is really key: Klein simply ignores any bit of fact that disconfirms her anti-American theory.

In another review of The Shock Doctrine, Stephen Holmes, at the London Review of Books, offers this insightful little nugget:

Klein’s basic argument is curiously difficult to follow. One problem is her conflation of free-market ideology with corporate greed. There are plenty of connections between the two, of course, but it is impossible to understand the relation between the economic ideals of Milton Friedman and the economic aims of Halliburton or Lockheed Martin unless they are kept analytically distinct.

They aren't "analytical distinct" for Klein, apparently, which is exactly the point: The Shock Doctrine aims not analyze but to delegitimize the right. Her work is a manfesto for the left, a blueprint for the anti-capitalist revolution.

It's no surprise, therefore, that Klein's a darling of the hard left media and the netroots community, at places like
Harper's, the Huffington Post, and the Nation.