Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Shock Doctrine - A book review (of sorts)

An old friend here in Nicaragua is wondering how to approach Canadians for support for the alternative Sandinista party, the MRS (Movimiento Reconstruccion Sandinista). I advised that the first question that they would need to answer would be “Why should Canadians be interested...what about Nicaragua would galvanize or inspire people into taking any kind of action?”

Back in the 80s a variety of progressive sectors of Canadian (and other nations) society were attracted to the Sandinista revolution here because what the FSLN was trying to do at that time represented an alternative to the global status quo that we were already fearing then. Little Nicaragua, by overthrowing a U.S. supported brutal regime and throwing their collective energy into policies and programs that supported the people rather than the corporate elite was a tiny shining beacon in the darkness for many.

The early Sandinistas had good role models to follow. In the two decades before the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, a wave of leftist movements had swept through much of Latin America and dominated popular culture in much of South America. As Naomi Klein puts it “... it was the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the folk music of Victor Jara and Mercedes Sosa, the liberation theology of the Third World Priests, the emancipatory theater of Augusto Boal, the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, the revolutionary journalism of Eduardo Galeano and [Rodolfo] Walsh. It was legendary heroes and martyrs of past and recent history from José Gervasio Artigas to Simón Bolívar to Che Guevara.” (Klein, N. 2007. The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism” p.104) While ‘revolutions’ in Chile and Argentina had already been defeated in blood baths largely designed by the forces of global capitalism (ie the United States) by 1979, this did not deter the Sandinistas. It was this heroic attempt to provide Nicaraguans with a life of dignity and democracy (not to mention free education, free healthcare, their own land, and employment) that attracted so many people to form solidarity organizations and provide support to Nicaragua.

In the last couple of decades there has not seemed to be too many ‘shining beacons’ and much of the world was been thrown into ‘survival mode’ it seems. Klein’s book, ‘The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism’, which I have just finished reading, explains the reasons that so many of us have been pushed into ‘survival mode’. If it has felt like ‘survival mode’ for us in the ‘first world’ it has been 3000% times worst for the majority of people in the world.

Klein defines ‘the shock doctrine’ as the “use of public disorientation following massive collective shocks - wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters - to push through highly unpopular economic shock therapy. Sometimes, when the first two shocks don’t succeed in wiping out all resistance, a third is employed: that of the electrode in the prison cell or of the Taser gun” (from the flyleaf). Klein’s research is so incredibly thorough (including over 50 pages of notes and references) it is almost daunting for we ‘normal’ writers and thinkers. Her book “explodes the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically. ... she traces the intellectual origins of disaster capitalism back to the University of Chicago’s economics department under Milton Friedman, whose influence is still felt around the world. ‘The Shock Doctrine’ draws new and surprising connections among economic policy, ‘shock and awe’ warfare and the covert CIA-funded experiments in electroshock and sensory deprivation that shaped the torture manuals used today in Guatánamo Bay.” (from the flyleaf) The same techniques that were first ‘reseached’ in McGill University labs in Montreal and then ‘perfected’ in places like Pinochet’s Chile; Samosa’s Nicaragua; and in the dirty wars of El Salvador, Guatemala and so many other places where people dared to ask for some control over their own lands and lives.

“As Klein shows how the deliberate use of the shock doctrine produced world-changing events, from Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973 to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, she tells a story radically different from the one we usually hear.” (from the flyleaf)

As you might imagine, reading Klein’s book was in itself sometimes an exercise in ‘shock’ and I often felt ill, frustrated, and really really angry while reading it. I needed to take frequent ‘mental health breaks’ from my reading and it took me over 2 weeks to get through the 450+ pages. Her writing is easy to read.... it is the content that is so so difficult to face - yet ultimately rewarding, exhilarating, and hopeful.

So - what does Nicaragua offer now that might interest Canadians? What does this tiny country have to teach us? What are they doing here that might give us that sense of hope again that change is possible? I’m afraid I don’t as yet have that answer. However, I do think that the MRS is more committed to the Sandinista agenda that once provided us that ‘beacon’ of hope, than the current government of the FSLN. This may be reason enough for Canadians to pay attention and support one of the poorest nations in this hemisphere, and the MRS as the leadership most likely to deliver.

I do believe that Latin America in general is, again, offering us a model. Klein’s last chapter is one of hope (thank god). Entitled “Shock wears off: the rise of people’s reconstruction’, the chapter details some examples of the backlash against global capitalism. Some of these examples are possibly just as scary as disaster capitalism. For example, the rise of religious fundamentalism is cited as one response.

However, in Latin America left and/or centre left governments are taking control again and “the task of the region’s new left...has become a matter of taking the detritus of globalization and putting it back to work” (p. 455) and Klein cites a number of examples, from the peasant farmer cooperatives in Brazil; the recovered companies movement in Argentina; and the more than 100,000 worker co-ops in Bolivia that manage much of the state infrastructure.

Even more remarkable is that they are now saying NO to such bastions of disaster capitalism as the IMF, the World Bank and the US government. As of the writing of the book, Brazil had refused “to enter into a new agreement with the IMF. Nicaragua is negotiating to quit the fund, Venezuela has withdrawn from both the IMF and the World Bank, and even Argentina, Washington’s former “model pupil,” has been part of the trend. In his 2007 State of the Union address, President Néstor Kirchner said that the country’s foreign creditors had told him, ‘You must have an agreement with the International Fund to be able to pay the debt.’ We say to them, ‘Sirs, we are sovereign. We want to pay the debt, but no way in hell are we going to make an agreement again with the IMF.” As a result, the IMF, supremely powerful in the eighties and nineties, is no longer a force on the continent. In 2005, Latin America made up 80 percent of the IMF’s total lending portfolio; in 2007, the content represented just 1 percent - a sea of change in only two years. “There is life after the IMF,” Kirchner declared, “and it’s a good life”.” (p. 457) The World Bank is being likewise rejected. “In April 2007, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, revealed that he had suspended all loans from the banks and declared the institution’s representative in Ecuador persona non grata - an extraordinary step. Two years earlier, Correa explained, the World Bank had used a $100 million loan to defeat economic legislation that would have redistributed oil revenues to the country’s poor. ‘Ecuador is a sovereign country and we will not stand for extortion from this international bureaucracy,’ he said.” (p.457)

As Klein points out “it stands to reason that the revolt against neoliberalism would be in it’s most advanced stage in Latin America - as inhabitants of the first shock lab, Latin Americans have had the most time to recover their bearings.” (p. 458) It is for this reason, I think, that North Americans in particular will begin looking again to Latin America for guidance in how to organize our social movements to fight against the forces that attempt to convince us that social and economic justice is an impossible goal. Again, like in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s ‘idealist’ North Americans may begin to take their inspiration from this popular culture of Pablo Neruda, Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, liberation theology, Ernesto Cardinal, Augusto Sandino, Emiliano Zapato, Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, Eduardo Galeano, Silvio Rodriquez, Rodolfo Walsh, Simón Bolívar, Che Guevara... and so so many of the dead to whom we owe it not to lose hope in a version/vision of the world that we can be proud of.

¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!
¡No Pasaran!

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