The “Shock Doctrine”

February 20, 2008 at 11:27 pm (Free Market Capitalism)

milton-friedman.jpgWhen Milton Friedman died, we were reminded again of the mythological tale he supposedly spun. You know, the one about how democracy and free markets go hand in hand, and if we only liberate people to make their own choices, they’ll choose capitalism as a matter of course.

The problem is, Friedman didn’t always see the need to whitewash and euphemize his own views the way his biographers do.

In point of fact, Friedman understood the context in which capitalism inevitably takes hold not as democracy but as crisis. He writes:

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

In other words, it takes a 9/11, a Hurricane Katrina, or a CIA-sponsored coup to bring about the psychological shock necessary to implement the economic shock of deregulation, privatization, and the cutting of social services. And if there is resistance, then there’s always the physical shock of torture to keep the rabble in line.

Just ask las madres de los deseparecidos.


  1. Johnny T said,

    You reading Naomi Klein too? That book is so freaking good — it makes me crazy depressed, but it is stuff I’m glad I know. It makes sense of world events in a way that usued to be a mystery to me.

  2. The Dane said,

    Huh. Friedman might say it elsewhere, but your in other words doesn’t actually follow with any necessity from what you quoted. There’s nothing all that spooky about his idea as presented here—it’s more just common sense. That a) crises demand alteration of the status quo, and b) people will rush to pick something out of the ideas available rather than create something new, it being a crisis and all.

    I’m sure the spooky part must appear somewhere else that you didn’t quote. Maybe where he actually defines what villainous ideology he hopes to leave on the floor, just within reach, for when the crisis inevitably occurs?

  3. Johnny T said,

    What is disturbing about the quote is that Friedman is aware that under normal circumstances citizens would not implement the policies he advocates. It takes a crisis to put people in such a state of confusion and fear that these policies can be implemented. Some examples: using Katrina to implement school vouchers and wipe out public education; using Shock and Awe to privatize Iraqi resources; using a tsunami to take Sri Lankan beaches away from traditional fishing viligaes and give them to luxery resort investors; using 9/11 to strip away US civil rights and privatize more government functions including the military. She goes in depth on a bunch of examples. The internal logic of the actions is frighteningly consistent and efficient.

  4. The Pundit said,

    The Dane,

    I realize that the quote doesn’t tell the whole story, but what Johnny T said is exactly right: Friedman believed that crises were necessary because democracy gets in the way of his policies in more normal times.

    So the pattern in Chile, Argentina, Russia, and Iraq is pretty much the same: Shock #1, a disaster of some kind; Shock #2, economic reconstrruction; and Shock #3, torture and imprisonment, if necessary.

  5. The Dane said,

    Fair enough. I haven’t read Friedman so I couldn’t know what policies he hoped would be enacted during crises.

    Still, that doesn’t make the quote itself that scary, since the quote is actually just dealing with an apparatus and not an agenda. It’s actually just the truth. It’s what Friedman’s opponents would hope for too.

    Change, especially radical change, whether for good or ill, is never going to be quickly reached toward by a populace governed by a status quo of general peace and prosperity. It takes seeing problems to inspire action. Like Johnny T says, “It takes a crisis to put people in such a state of confusion and fear that these policies can be implemented.” People living under a dictator don’t see any problem with living under a dictator if the dictator rules them well and cares for their needs and brings both peace and prosperity to his land; it’s when things start to fall apart (crisis) that the need for change is acknowledged.

    So people like Chomsky and, I presume, Klein are doing the same thing as Friedman. They sow (and have sown) the seeds of their ideologies, and now that the populace is experiencing crises, their hope is that enough people will grasp for measures congruent with their seeds rather than the seeds of someone like (from what you and Johnny say) Friedman.

  6. The Pundit said,

    I don’t think Klein is doing the same thing as Friedman at all.

    She is not seeking to implement policies that the population doesn’t want and would never stand for if their city were not just blown up.

    Yes, they both are sowing seeds, but that’s about the extent of their respective agendas’ similarities in my view.

  7. Johnny T said,

    I’m not sure Chomsky or Klein would support top-down imposed policies. They both seem to want to decentralize and limit power and give people a say in how their world is structured. Freidman is very paternalistic and sees people as children and the elite as those who know what is in everybody’s best interest. He sees us as being unable to rule ourselves and in need of people like himself to save us from ourselves. That is why Neo-Cons want to harness crisis to implement policies that populations would not otherwise approve. For Chomsky or Klein to want to undercut democratic processes in order to implement their favored policies would go against much of what they fight for — they would be concentrating power in an attempt to decentralize power — in other words, they would be defeating their own agenda by using Neo-Con paternalistic tactics.

    Maybe they are inconsistent like that and would use Freidmanite measures. But I won’t buy it based upon a hunch. You would need to point to something they say.

  8. "Venus Cassandra" said,

    I am 16th or 17th on the waiting list at my local library. I’ll get around to reading it someday!

    I suspect that I will find much of value in it. It sounds like it’s a great documenter of economic fascism — otherwhise known as government-corporate partnerships.

    “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” – Benito Mussolini.

    I’ve been told that he coined the term.

  9. The Pundit said,


    Welcome to The Wondering Pundit.

    Yes, I think I read in Naomi Wolf’s The End of America that Mussolini coined the term “fascist.”

    The term the French use to describe the Washington Consensus is “Savage Capitalism,” but Klein calls it “McGovernment,” since the exact same policies can just be applied everywhere since they’re perfect.

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