So, early 2017 and the political scene for someone that is interested in left of centre politics, is pretty bleak.
The constitution an issue that has dominated Scottish politics for the last 5 years or so and now due to Brexit is dominating politics at a UK level.
At an international level we are in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency and where that takes us, who knows?
My regular catch up and discussions with one of my friends have been less than optimistic, unless we’ve been talking about music.
However, it was during one of those conversations that the following book was recommended to me.
This book doesn’t have all of the answers but I’ve certainly found it eye-opening and it does offer a glimmer of hope as to what might be a way forward, though it is going to be a long journey.
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, published in 2007, chronicles the influences behind the major international political upheavals of the late 20th century. Klein also illustrates how natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Sri Lankan 2004 tsuanmi have been exploited by Shock Doctrine economists.
Although this book is wide ranging in its scope it does not skimp on detail as to the impact of the disaster capitalists policies on Iraq, Poland, South Africa, Chile and the UK.
The premise of the book is that adherents to the Milton Friedman concept of economics, who graduated from the Chicago School, have sought to offer their advice to economies that are undergoing a fundamental shift in their circumstances.
Similar to the electro-shock treatment endured by patients experiencing mental trauma, where Dr. Ewen Cameron believed that he could shock his subjects back to a state that would mean they would be a blank canvass . A canvass that he could use to re-build his patients personalities and behaviour patterns.
These economists believed that economies suffering severe shock could be used as a year zero experiment and be re-built again from scratch.
Chile and the policies adopted by Augusto Pinochet following the overthrow of Allende are cited as an early example of what happens to countries when they follow Friedman’s policies. In Pinochet’s case it was after a meeting with the man himself, where he was promised that he could take credit for an “economic miracle” which would end inflation in months, that Chile embarked upon a path that led to upheaval and misery for many ordinary Chileans.
In 1975, Pinochet cut public spending by 27% in one blow and then went on cutting until by 1980 public spending was half of what it was under Allende. Klein makes the point that this sent the economy into a deep recession and makes the comparison that the logic is similar to that of the psychiatrists who started the mass-prescribing ECT in the US during the 40′ and 50’s, convinced that such a shock would magically reboot their patients’ brains.
What Pinochet did in Chile was not just restricted to the economy, Klein also sets out the steps that Pinochet took on a political level to destabilise his political opponents; abductions, killing and torture. Again the parallels between the shock the economy was experiencing are linked to the very real use of electro-shock treatment on political prisoners.
For Chile the experience of the Shock Doctrine ended up with unemployment at 30% in 1982 and by 1988, 45% of the population below were below the poverty line.
Though there have been attempts to address the issues that this so-called economic miracle created, in 2007 Chile was rated the 8th most unequal country on the list the UN uses to track inequality worldwide.
The chapter on the aftermath of the Iraq War demolishes the arguments put forward at the time that any strategic thought went into the rebuilding of Iraq. With a forensic expose of the relationship between the US government and the private companies such as Blackwater that won contracts to provide services and security for the newly shocked state, Klein shows that for some this was only ever about profit and shareholders.
However, the chapters on Poland and South Africa are the ones that I personally found the most disheartening. Both of these countries had undergone periods of severe hardship and change was being brought about through the struggle of ordinary people as they fought to remove authoritarian regimes.
When those struggles were won, people were full of hope and expectation that a better way would be found.
In both countries it was not long before Solidarity and the ANC came up against the free-market exponents of Friedman’s crisis theory economics.
In Poland the dream of an economy based on cooperatives was replaced with debt relief and $1 billion dollars from the IMF in exchange for Poland signing up to shock therapy.
The policies followed in Poland led to economic depression with a 30% reduction in industrial production over a two year period.
Eventually, in Poland people were left with no other option than to go out on strike to show their opposition to what was happening.
Strikes increased from 250 in 1990 to more than 6,000 in 1992, this pressure forced the government to back down with their programme of privatisation.
Meanwhile, in South Africa the hope and optimism that spread like a wave through the country when Mandela was freed, crashed against the hard-headed realpolitiks of the Friedmanites once the negotiations started about what the new dawn in South Africa would bring.
The ANC’s programme, the Freedom Charter, which included land redistribution was ripped up and replaced by privatisation, cutbacks on public spending, workforce ‘flexibility’ and freer trade.
Klein concludes her chapter on South Africa in a downbeat mood and quotes S’bu Zikode, a leader of Durban’s shack dweller movement “What is in the Freedom Charter is very good. But all I see is betrayal.”
The chapter on the UK covers Margaret Thatcher and her adoption of a more extreme economic policy, following the Falklands war.
The US is referred to throughout, as natural disasters at home are exploited to introduce more extreme economic policies.
The final chapter, Shock Wears Off, covers how people are organising to fight back citing Venezuela under Chavez and community leaders in New Orleans organising direct action to rebuild some of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina following delays by the local authorities.
The inspiration for these community leaders being the action taken by communities along the Thai coast who had to take matters into their own hands after the tsunami hit. Again, these communities faced intransigence and delay from their own government in trying to repair the damage from this natural disaster.
Although this book was written over 10 years ago,it still has the potential to speak to events happening in the UK today and also a future Scotland should it become independent.
A UK out of Europe and a newly independent Scotland would both potentially have shocks to their economic systems to cope with.
Would both countries come to the attention of the Chicago School economists? Would we see the massive cuts in public spending that the Shock Doctrine describes?
If Naomi Klein ever updates the Shock Doctrine, I hope that it will not include additional chapters on how the UK and Scotland are now at the mercy of massive public sector cuts and seeing inequality spiralling out of control.
Klein has warned us in this book what we need to look out for, she says that ‘Any strategy based on exploiting the window of opportunity opened by a traumatic shock relies heavily on the element of surprise.’
We have been warned!