Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, September 14, 2007

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and the Next Left

Naomi Klein's new book is being released in just four days. Like a new novel by Gary Indiana, a new film by Almodovar, or a new work of theory by Judith Butler, I'll admit that a book from Naomi Klein qualifies as something of an Event for me personally. (Of course, a new season of Ultimate Fighter or Project Runway is also something of a modest-scaled Event for me, so perhaps that isn't as epic a recommendation as it initially seems to be.) But, anyway, just as with the works of Mike Davis and a few others, you can be sure that I'll drop everything to read Klein's book the moment I get my hands on it.

Neoliberal confiscatory wealth concentration, precarization, and militarization has revealed itself as the universal catastrophe of the worst fears of the dem-left -- fears patiently and regularly re-iterated for three decades mostly to chirping crickets. In nearly every case, neoliberalism (and its fraternal twin, neoconservatism) has been devastating to the environment, devastating to personal rights, devastating to democratic equities, devastating to the prospects of peaceful plural planetary co-existence peer to peer, and devastating to the working institutions of commonwealth.

From the facile self-congratulatory pieties of pop-thinking Randians and their various marginal but loudmouthed libertopian and Dynamist fellow-travelers, to the suave Hayekian rhetoricians of Mount Pelerin, to the anti-government authoritarian hypocrites of Movement Conservatism from Reagan, Norquist, Gingrich, through to our current Killer Clowns, to the smug corporatist enablers of the DLC Machine and the "Third Way" thinktank archipelago, neoliberalism has opportunistically availed itself of occasions of tragedy and general distress. Whether in the midst and aftermath of shattering storms, pandemics, wars (often orchestrated or deliberately exacerbated for just this purpose), with all their immediate derangements and disorientations of collective sense and will, neoliberals have managed to dismantle democracy and create, protect, and consolidate its alternate "market libertarian" architectures of closed, secret-proprietary corporate-militarist incumbency, step by step by step, under cover of the dislocations of collective shock.

As an aside, to those bioconservative or superlative-technocentric readers of mine who imagine themselves "serious" because only they are "brave enough" and "informed enough" -- as it were -- to contemplate the desperate dangers of thought-experiments like goo runaways, forcible uploads, human-animal hybrid armies, designer sooperbabies, or unfriendly Robot Gods -- get real! You guys are functioning as, at best, a mostly useless, indirect, sometimes disavowed surrogate discourse for the symptomatic expression of concern about actual contemporary dangers, problems, and anxieties of our present distressing circumstances and the irrational forces that are driving them, and, at worst, as a straightforward distraction from and active enabler of those very same irrational forces -- especially the privatization and deregulation schemes you carry water for even when you disagree with them in principle, the mass-mediated denialism and hyperbole that go hand in hand with technocentric superlativity, and the anti-democratizing technocratic elitism you endorse, sometimes "reluctantly" and all too-often with full-throated enthusiasm. But I digress.

Like Mike Davis (in book after book after book -- I still don't feel as though I've completely recovered from his Planet of Slums), like David Harvey (in excellent books like his recent Short History of Neoliberalism), Naomi Klein is one of a growing number of sharp critics of neoliberalism offering up forceful critique with the comparably forceful rhetoric our urgent circumstances demand.

From the excerpts I've read, Klein's contribution is to document the exacerbated edge of neoliberal precarization (the ongoing casualization of the terms of employment under which ever more people labor to survive in today’s world, usually conjoined to an ongoing informalization of the terms and status under which ever more people struggle to secure the basic conditions of housing, healthcare, collective bargaining, access to knowledge, and legitimate legal recourse under which they live). While precarity is actually an engineered state of anti-democratizing isolation and inattention, it is sufficiently continuous with the basic precariousness of life in general to be mistaken for the dangers and costs of the frail finite human condition as such, even when its ready amelioration is resisted most brutally always only by incumbent interests who preferentially benefit from the status quo. It seems to me that Klein is delineating an exacerbated precarity, the state of shock, an artificial state deliberately induced and maintained just long enough to facilitate the implementation and consolidation of decisive policies and institutions of corporate-militarist incumbency in punctuated moments of engineered collective duress.

The website associated with the book is, just as you would expect it to be, a treasure-trove of useful resources. Among these, there is a slick companion film (it's about six minutes long) directed by the excellent Alfonso Cuaron. It's definitely worth a long look.

Here's an excerpt from the official site's description of the book's thesis:
At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts.... New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened….

These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks -– wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters -- to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy....

Based on... four years of on-the-ground reporting in disaster zones, The Shock Doctrine vividly shows how disaster capitalism -– the rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock -– did not begin with September 11, 2001. The book traces its origins back fifty years, to the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, which produced many of the leading neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinkers whose influence is still profound in Washington today. New, surprising connections are drawn between economic policy, “shock and awe” warfare and covert CIA-funded experiments in electroshock and sensory deprivation in the 1950s, research that helped write the torture manuals used today in Guantanamo Bay.

In the provocative analogies, visceral framing, concise formulations, unapologetic dem-left radicalism of texts like Klein's, Davis's, Harvey's (and ever more popular programs like Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! or the Rachel Maddow Show) I discern an incisive hopeful fighting spirit in a democratic left that has seemed instead mostly demoralized for the more than two decades I've been aware of it and grew to identify with its ends (my upbringing, unfortunately, was far from progressive or intellectual).

The connections of these pro-democracy and anti-corporate-militarist struggles have not yet woven their way together with the emancipatory energies I also discern in the emerging technoprogressive mainstream. By this emerging technoprgressive mainstream I mean to indicate what look to me like potent coalitions between the people powered movements of the left blogosphere, peer to peer (p2p) formations more generally, access-to-knowledge (a2k) movements, struggles to defend practices of consensus science and public education, copyfight and FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) movements, resistances to biopiracy and the enclosure of the genetic commons, networked bioregionalisms, movements to fund research and subsidize universal access to renewable and decentralized energy from the wind and the sun, as well as movement to fund medical research into both neglected diseases and emerging therapies as well as to ensure universal consensual access to wanted (always coupled with absolute protection from pressure to undergo unwanted) medical therpies: for example, ensuring universal access to contraception and safe legal abortion for women to prevent and end unwanted pregnancies as well as access to ARTs to facilitate wanted pregnancies, providing wider access to neuroceuticals that modify mood and memory by informed people who want them for themselves or informed parents who want them for their kids while at once rejecting their mandated use by authorities or misleading marketing by their manufacturers, ensuring access to transsexual therapies and surgeries to those who want them while eliminating the default pressure to therapies and surgeries imposed on intersex infants, subsidizing prosthetic modification for differently enabled people (including people with currently normative morphologies and capacities who desire non-normative ones) while protecting differently enabled people from enforced or pressured normalization, and so on).

It is certainly interesting to discern the ready continuities between the politics of peer-to-peer participation, the politics of intellectual property focused on commonwealth over incumbency, and the politics of consensual healthcare practices that become so conspicuous the moment one assumes a technoprogressive perspective in particular. But what I really find myself thinking about here today are the promising connections between this emerging technoprogressive mainstream and the growing urgency, vitality, and confidence of planetary progressive movements of the more conventional radical dem-left exemplified by folks like Klein, Goodman, Davis, and so on.

Once planetary pro-democracy, social justice, environmentalist, anti-corporate-militarist struggles conjoin with technoprogressive struggles [1] for a universal non-means-tested basic income guarantee to subsidize peer-to-peer democracy and circumvent ongoing wealth concentration via automation, networked outsourcing and crowdsourcing, [2] for universal consensual access to basic as well as to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicine, and [3] for planetary institutions to provide for the peaceful and democratically legitimate resolution of planetary disputes over limited resources, contested developmental outcomes, and the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes to the always diverse stakeholders to that change, I believe this planetary progressive and technoprogressive conjunction will represent an unprecedented emancipatory force for peace, democracy, and justice in our world.

It's strange, I've never felt so enraged, heartbroken, and disgusted by the present... nor more hopeful for what might well come next.


David said...

Having read it now, I have to say it was somewhat disappointing, but as ever with her work, sends you off checking all the source material you have not come across and the mere act of reading it gives you a sense of being part of a growing opposition to this mendacious, failing illusion of a symbolic empire.

Dale Carrico said...

I know what you mean. I think it is a fine book, a necessary book, but I keep aching for something that manages to capture the devastation and propose a programmatic response in a more synoptic way that always seems to be visible just out of the corner of my eye when I read Klein, or Davis, or so many others. Probably the problem is my own, arising from my training in philosophy and critical theory and brainy self-appointed elites with all the answers -- maybe this is a desire for a kind of analysis that ill-suits the planetary peer-to-peer democracy to come...