Misery capitalism

Shock doctrine

As a common citizen, watching your nation’s values being gradually torn down and destroyed by a tiny elite who either own or command 90% of your country’s wealth, this in itself is nothing Indians haven’t seen happening in their own country.

But if your nation was once looked up to as a beacon of righteousness and hope, a magnet for the persecuted, if it was once the land of free thinkers, then it is indeed painful to see it now. It is heart breaking, the sight of your nation dissolving into a farce being played out between two squabbling political parties that have virtually no meaningful ideological differences between themselves.

Meet Naomi Klein, journalist, film-maker and best-selling author of her latest book ‘The shock doctrine – The rise of disaster capitalism’ , which is about the fastest growing business ideology in the world – Privatisation and Disaster Capitalism, with no governmental oversight. Naomi’s style is like a thriller writer’s. Fast-paced and blunt, painstakingly researched and studded with anecdotes and quotes.

It is apt that I picked up her book at this moment, when the United States of America is officially shut down. It owes others $8 trillions (that is 8 followed by 12 zeros). America has no more money left to run itself. Not that it was running itself even before today. The US government has, over the last two decades, subcontracted the work of running it to private enterprises, sans any oversight, with an almost childlike naivete which believes that the profit motive of a private enterprise shall ensure that the system is more efficient.

And the upshot of it all? I understand that right now, only the American military is getting paid. Every other government activity that needs funds to run it, has been halted. Tourists in national parks have been told to evacuate within 48 hours. Air Traffic Control was already being run by contract workers who’ll probably stop being paid from this evening. Imagine how that makes the commander of an A380, coming in to land with 700 passengers, feel. Groovy, no?

A tapestry, rich in its intricacy and wealth of detail, Naomi Klein’s book walks the reader through the earlier George W Bush years when those Milton Friedman clones and other free enterprise/zero government oversight gurus began twisting the concept of freedom beyond recognition, to suit their diabolical ends. The US government, having turned itself into a recruitment agency for temps and contract workers, is now an employer where no credential commands a higher chance of being hired than a top level security clearance.

In excruciating detail, worthy of mention alongside Frederick Forsyth, Klein reveals how the members of a tiny elite have turned every debacle, every disaster into a profit-making enterprise, giving birth to the term ‘disaster capitalism’. Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 showed the world how grief and misery can be leveraged into a trillion dollar business opportunity.

The author details how Katrina led to the public school system in Louisiana being shut down and handed over permanently to private contractors. 9/11 saw the birth of billion dollar private security contractors like Blackwater. Iraq saw an entirely new ‘business model’ : No-bid reconstruction and oil extraction contracts to American behemoths such as Bechtel, Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron.

That’s right, destroy and then rebuild. Create your own new business opportunity. Charge the price of 10, for one pair of night vision goggles, one sleeping bag, one bullet-proof vest, one earth mover or one crane.

Disaster capitalism is the ‘shock doctrine’ that the author refers to. A disaster usually wipes the slate clean. If it’s a tsunami, a shoreline is completely wiped out. If its Iraq, a whole country is devastated. When it was 9/11, ten square miles of prime real estate in the world’s most exclusive location suddenly had nothing left on it. Architects of the shock doctrine believe that a disaster throws up an opportunity. They believe that the victims of a disaster are so shocked that they go into a sort of trance. In that brief window when the shocked populace is in a state of ‘suspended animation’, they can set in motion a whole new set of shocks, this time, economic ones. A tsunami ravaged shoreline gets transformed into a multi-million dollar resort, throwing out the fishermen who used to live there. An entirely new construction at the site of 9/11, likewise. A new Iraq and its oil, ditto.

Aside from the reconstruction windfall, invasions are payday for art collectors. Remember the plunder and eventual disappearance into thin air, of Bagdad’s priceless museum pieces? Invasions are an even bigger payday when the private fortunes in cash and gold belonging to the despots who were overthrown, are recovered. As long as Saddam didn’t divulge where his stash was, he was in the protective custody of the Americans. The moment they were revealed, along with the access codes to his Swiss bank accounts, Saddam Hussein was handed over to the Iraqi justice system. It was beautiful plunder, robbing the robber being not in any way a crime.

Tsunamis, earthquakes, flood and all sorts of natural disasters have become huge opportunities for windfall profits. NGOs have become another word for disaster capitalism. You want to be a millionaire? Start an NGO and hire a sharp accountant. Employees? Don’t worry, the world is filled with bleeding-heart suckers, especially in the west, who are ready to volunteer for nothing.

Klein sites the example of the Red Cross teaming up with Walmart, for the distribution and supply for profit, of first-aid kits to third world earthquake survivors. As if that is not enough, go shopping at Walmart and the counter girl will sweetly ask if you want to donate a dollar for those first-aid kits that Walmart is already charging the Red Cross for. As I myself stood in line one Sunday, I watched every single one of the customers ahead of me smilingly paying that dollar. Listen, don’t be sucker. Never ever donate at super market checkout counters.

Disaster capitalism has caught on. Its no longer just the US. Every government now practices it enthusiastically, says Naomi Klein. I find it very hard not to believe her. In fact, I find it even more difficult not to be a Naomi Klein fan.

If not the last century, at least the last two decades have certainly been the Satan’s.

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