Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

Tom MacWright

I read The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein on

Review

Naomi Klein came back into my sphere via her involvement in The Intercept, where she’s now a senior contributor. I’ve long been interested in the general topic of this book, the military-industrial complex, because 9/11 happened at a critical time in my childhood and because my time in Virginia and Washington, DC was often adjacent to the buildup of contractors and the so-called Intelligence Community.

The central points of this book are:

  • Electro-shock therapy and similar emotional & physical turmoil has been used unsuccessfully to improve people’s lives, and successfully to bring them into a state of compliance.
  • Economic and military ‘shocks’ are used to bring countries and their inhabitants into a similar state of compliance, and to radically change their ruling structures and various systems.

Klein alternates between these storylines - stories of an innocent woman being reduced to a child-like state by wildly unethical medical practices, along with scenes of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries being taken from their homes, disoriented, and reintroduced to reordered, decimated homes.

I discovered that my queasiness around body-horror, disfigurement, and mental manipulation extends out of scary movies and into books. The passages about literal shock therapy and wild mistreatment of patients made me nauseous. If you’re similarly-minded, here’s your content warning.

Besides that - in terms of content and structure - it made me think even more about the relationship between institutional harm and individual harm. For example, one of the most successful activist language movements is the rebranding of causes as fights for justice and against cruelty. Terms like economic cruelty and climate justice are now commonplace and very effectively frame an impersonal debate in personal and powerful terms.

When Klein flips back between the economic and personal stories, insistently branding both as shock therapy, as part of the same theory, I wonder about this: the personal stories in this book are so powerful that they physically repulsed me, and her metaphorical comparison between those stories and the economic stories strengthened her economic points, but is this a critical failure of my imagination, that I can’t be as viscerally taken aback at widespread, anonymous suffering as I can by a single story of one woman? Is this just a larger human failing? And how does this affect our general discourse?

Connecting back to a few of my previous reads, this book includes a relatively hard line against Israel’s militarized economy. It claims that Israel is a country built to thrive in times of war, and thus dependent on the continuation of war.

In conclusion, I think that The Shock Doctrine makes a convincing case for how war is different now, and a decent case for why war is different now. Like other bestselling books with buzzwords on the cover, it reiterates the main ‘shock therapy’ a bit too often, and tries to pull perhaps too many disparate events and themes into one storyline. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read and has a strong, well-argued thesis.

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