Brief interview with the ‘No Logo’ author from 2007
Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after your country – Naomi Klein takes a hard look at “Disaster Capitalism”
New Orleans, one week after Hurricane Katrina – as displaced inhabitants queue for food at the Red Cross shelter in nearby Baton Rouge, Louisiana, property developers and lobbyists are already in the city, talking excitedly of “very big opportunities” and “a clean sheet to start again”. Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman, has announced, “We ﬁnally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
A man in the queue mutters, “What is wrong with these people? This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?” A woman replies, “No, they’re not blind, they’re evil. They see just ﬁne.”
With her 2000 book No Logo, which took aim at the unchecked rise of big brands and multinational corporations, Naomi Klein found herself styled as the poster girl for the anti-globalisation movement. Now, in her disturbing new book The Shock Doctrine, she looks at how Western business relies on catastrophe, natural or manmade – what she refers to as “Disaster Capitalism”.
You write about victims of Hurricane Katrina realising that people were already talking about them in terms of opportunity. When did you realise there was something to this?
The speed of it I found really staggering, but of course nothing can surprise after Paul Bremer in Iraq – a month after the bombing – announced that the borders were open for unrestricted trade. It doesn’t get more blatant than re-writing the economic laws while the country’s still burning.
What else did you start looking at?
The Falklands War, Tiananmen Square, Yeltsin’s attack on parliament in 1993… and this incredibly dull cache of economic literature – like this guy John Williamson, who speaks openly about how the only time they have ever been able to get governments to accept their radical prescriptions is in the wake of some kind of cataclysmic event. What surprised me was realising this is a 50-year story, and what felt new to me in New York, Sri Lanka and New Orleans… isn’t new.
How come no one else had read that at the time?
The technicality of the language acts like a shield. I found an incredible cache of admissions in this book called The Political Economy of Policy Reform. In it is John Williamson, who coined the phrase ‘The Washington Consensus’, the set of policies that those institutions (World Bank and the IMF) prescribed to the world’s governments. He says The Washington Consensus can only be accepted in the wake of a deep crisis, and isn’t it time we discussed the creation of a pseudo-crisis?
Presumably, it’s not a great leap to real crises?
Yeah, and I don’t go there in the book – I fear that my book will feed into the whole 9/11 conspiracy movement, which is actually incredibly damaging to any progressive movement in the US. I’m going to get in trouble for saying that.
But could the invasion of Iraq be seen in those terms?
There’s that incredible video of Bush that came out, he was at the ranch in Texas being informed that the big one was about to hit New Orleans, and they weren’t ready. There’s this totally weird thing where he’s just chilled out, he doesn’t ask any questions, he calls everybody ‘folks’. It’s not so much that they’re creating the crisis, because obviously they didn’t create Hurricane Katrina, but there’s an incredible ease with crisis. It’s Donald Rumsfeld shrugging and saying ‘stuff happens’ when Baghdad is being looted. It’s not so much you invade to create the crisis – I think there’s multiple reasons for the invasion. But there is a very deep understanding that chaos and crisis can be leveraged to beneﬁt their interests. In Sri Lanka, they had this water privatisation bill on the table four days after the tsunami, can you imagine?
You’re saying they have plans in place ready to put into action?
Yes, they’re just triggered. It’s privatise everything, deregulate labour laws, close down the housing projects, grab the beaches for resorts. It’s not terribly imaginative.
The big question has to be – what can be done to stop it?
That isn’t an easy question. I must say I wasn’t able to muster much optimism at the end of this book. It’s a strange political moment, and there is a stunning degree of consensus to support the notion that things are going dramatically awry. It’s not a question of convincing people – but more precisely of deﬁning what one is up against. The Republicans have their own army in Blackwater USA (private security company) – 20,000 soldiers from military bases… Blackwater has never donated to a Democrat. I would say it’s a pretty terrifying moment.
Do you think understanding it is a start?
I really do feel that by understanding these techniques – how disasters regress us and are exploited by people who understand that process – they become less effective.
Are you expecting to come in for criticism?
I think it’s going to be hell. If I didn’t get criticised, it would be really odd because the book names names. I think that people will ﬁght back. And I think that, from experience, they’ll do it personally. When I wrote No Logo, the question always came up in interviews – aren’t you your own brand? And I think the question for this book will be – aren’t you a disaster capitalist? I think that for No Logo, I got a bit of an easy ride because I was young and cute. I just want the book to have as passionate defenders as it has passionate attackers… and I can handle the attackers.
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, October 2007. The Shock Doctrine is published by Penguin