In 2007 Canadian writer and journalist Naomi Klein published her seminal work The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Random House). The book argues that advocates of right-wing, neoliberal economic and social policies take advantage of situations of political or social turmoil to push through unpopular right-wing economic and social policy changes they would otherwise have difficulty gaining support for. She offers several examples: for instance, the sell-out of Iraq to American investors and economic interests after the US invaded that country and destroyed its public infrastructure, subsequently privatizing services and infrastructure in ways that lined the pockets of powerful Americans. She also looks at cases in Chile, South Africa, eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In all of these cases, neoliberal propagandists looking to profit from situations of turmoil took advantage of desperate nations and politicians, making wildly inaccurate claims and promises designed to cajole, fool, threaten or bribe enough influential locals into letting them have their way with policies to privatize and sell out public institutions and public services that would otherwise be run more locally, more effectively, more democratically, more transparently, and with local interests in mind.
This neoliberal ‘shock doctrine’, Klein notes, is akin in theory to psychiatric shock therapy, which has been used either to break down existing behaviour patterns in psychiatric patients (a practice which is now widely frowned upon) or as a torture technique designed to force victims to do or say things they would not otherwise be willing to. Neoliberal shock doctrine is similar in principle but operates on the larger scale of communities, regions and nations, and is designed to shift pre-existing social and political behaviour (including very rational biases against neoliberal economics) toward policies more amenable to those delivering the shock therapy.
Klein’s argument has been picked up and amplified by other theorists, who point to the ways in which a small group of elites make profit off of large-scale disasters. Environmental catastrophes – an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in today’s world of climate change-driven extreme weather events – also lend themselves to neoliberal shock doctrine. An earthquake, hurricane, or flood thereby becomes a double tragedy: not only the initial event and its accompanied loss of life and physical destruction, but in its wake come neoliberal profiteers who, in lieu of rebuilding public infrastructure and public services, privatize them through a range of schemes that lead to sub-standard services accessible by smaller numbers of people, shrouded in secrecy, deprived of democratic oversight, and oriented toward lining the pockets of right-wing capitalists rather than rebuilding and benefiting local communities. (See “On Profiting from War and the Privatization of Earth’s Remaining Resources“, Garrett Castleberry, 27 April 2017, PopMatters.)
While the United States has been implicated as a frequent perpetrator of neoliberal shock therapy outside of the country, the doctrine has been applied within America, as well. Examples abound: the economic crisis in Detroit, which has led to the decline and privatization of many of its public institutions and services. The tragic flooding in Louisiana, where reconstruction efforts were undermined by a range of disastrous neoliberal initiatives. One can only imagine what struggles will take place in the wake of more recent and ongoing disasters: hurricane recovery efforts in Florida, or responses to the wildfires in California.
Klein’s book, and her subsequent work on the topic, is enlightening but also deeply depressing. The mountain of examples she provides leads one to wonder: can anything be done to counter the ‘disaster capitalists’?
An essential element of combatting such strategies is exposing them. When communities are rightly suspicious of the motives and long-term intentions of financiers and policy-makers who rush in during the wake of disaster or crisis, claiming to want to help, it’s important not to rush to sign contracts and accept financial aid that comes with often-devastating long-term strings attached. Moreover, it’s important to consider alternatives, especially locally-driven, grassroots, democratic and transparent alternatives to the secretive neoliberal recovery proposals pitched by corporate saviours from abroad.
Klein contributes toward this work of exposing the shock doctrine in practice in her latest work, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico takes on the Disaster Capitalists. Published as a short book in collaboration between Haymarket Books and The Intercept, it’s really a long-form journalistic essay, an extensive piece of reportage combined with Klein’s critical analysis. It’s also a case study of disaster capitalism, and the shock doctrine, in action.
When Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, it was the worst natural disaster to hit Puerto Rico in recorded history. It was responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people, and caused over $91 billion (US) in damage. Recovery has been slow and patchwork in nature — earlier this year, nearly half a million people were still without electricity.
Immediately following the hurricane, one of the quickest recoveries was effected by Casa Puebla, a community and ecological centre in the city of Adjuntas. Its reliance on solar energy enabled it to resume functioning while other infrastructure, reliant on fossil fuels, remained disrupted. Casa Puebla’s adaptation to Puerto Rico’s natural energy source – sunlight – and its role as a community leader enabled recovery efforts: people were able to recharge devices there and its radio station was able to continue operating and disseminating news. The Centre distributed thousands of solar-powered lanterns to locals, and even solar-powered refrigerators. Never had its campaign to reduce fossil fuels and shift toward renewable energies like solar been so thoroughly proven right.
There are other examples – the agro-ecology farmers’ network Organizacion Boricua, the Mutual Aid Project of Mariana, and more – that Klein visits and explores in her essay. All these initiatives are grounded in principles promoting sustainability, community self-reliance and sovereignty, and all of them demonstrated in practice how these principles are more effective in preparing for and recovering from extreme weather events like Hurricane Maria than other forms of large-scale, fossil-fuel-based capitalist-driven infrastructure and services.
Arrayed in almost direct counter-point against them are the efforts of Puerto Rico’s governor and big business interests – backed by US investors and politicians – who have, in the increasingly common tradition of other ‘disaster capitalists’, sought to take advantage of the island’s hardships to promote neoliberal economics and privatization. The lack of full democratic self-rule and transparent policy-making in Puerto Rico has helped facilitate these projects. Low corporate taxes and tax breaks for mainland US citizens, privatization of public services and infrastructure, and accelerating depopulation that’s been encouraged and facilitated by the US government (the Puerto Rican governor’s office predicts an astonishing 20 percent decline in the island’s population over the next five years) have also aided neoliberal imperialism toward the island, which Klein refers to as “invasion of the Puertopians”. The term is a sardonic nod to the governor’s pitch toward wealthy neoliberal investors, depicting the island as a blank slate on which to build their corporate, tax-avoiding ‘utopias’ for the rich.
An important and understated element of this process is the Puerto Rican governor’s encouragement of cryptocurrency and blockchain investment on the island. Cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies are rapidly emerging as one of the newest destructive forms of neoliberal exploitation, requiring massive amounts of energy (“the most wasteful possible use of energy”, writes Klein) and bringing deregulation and other forms of socio-economic disruption in their wake. Some jurisdictions in the US have begun banning cryptocurrency mining, but jurisdictions abroad remain deeply susceptible to pitches by cryptocurrency investors. Greater exposure of the tremendously exploitative and imperialist aspects of blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies are urgently needed. Klein rightly exposes these technologies as “crypto-colonialism”.
The situation facing Puerto Rico is one example of a broader and emerging global struggle, one that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the wake of climate change-driven ecological crises. In Puerto Rico, a groundswell of grassroots community movements have emerged (and were doing so prior to the hurricane) in counterpoint to the neoliberal sell-outs encouraged and facilitated by the island’s governor and mainland US policymakers. It remains very much up in the air, in Puerto Rico as elsewhere, which side will emerge triumphant. But raising awareness of the situation – particularly among Americans whose government has helped foment the crisis – and exposing the nefarious nature of policies presented as ‘aid’, is a critical part of that struggle.
The Battle for Paradise is an excellent, well-researched, accessible contribution toward that end. It’s a quick read, a thought-provoking case study of disaster capitalism in action, and a hopeful assessment of the grassroots, democratic and sustainable alternatives that are emerging in resistance to it.