Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Naomi Klein

This week's New Yorker has an illuminating profile of Naomi Klein, the new Queen of Anti-Capitalism. Klein first became prominent with her anti-corporate tome No Logo, which was notable for being toted around by rockers like Thom Yorke in the early 2000s. Klein's most recent book, The Shock Doctrine, posits that capitalism requires disasters, natural and man-made, to succeed, that economic freedom requires "shocks" to force its unpalatable ideas down the throats of an unsuspecting public.

It would seem, at first blush, that Klein is a threat to capitalism, given her recent popularity. However, Klein's arguments are flimsy and contradictory. Her method is the Big Lie. She distorts history, rather than argue from principle. In fact, Klein can't argue from principle. Socialism has long been proved to be a bankrupt system. Instead, Klein drops context, conflates neo-conservatism with pro-capitalism, and knocks down a straw man named Milton Friedman.

To illustrate my point, here are some excerpts from the New Yorker article. Klein on the recent financial crisis:
On the one hand, the initial reaction to the economic crisis followed her theory—the shock (the bank failures and the market’s nosedive) had inspired the government to attempt to seize unprecedented power (seven hundred billion dollars with no strings attached), claiming that in such a crisis everyone should simply trust it to do the right thing, even though the actions it wanted to take would seem to enrich the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else. That was the textbook part. But the plan wasn’t working. Constituents wrote thousands of outraged letters, and bloggers wrote about how this felt familiar, like the aftermath of September 11th, and how the bailout was the economic equivalent of the Patriot Act. It was just as she had written at the end of the book: memory was shock’s antidote. (Another difference, of course, was that the government wanted to enact not Friedman-style reforms but the opposite: enormous interference in the market. Still, since the point of this interference was to bail out banks, this difference did not strike Klein as of much importance.) [Italics mine.]
The difference didn't strike Klein as important. Of course it didn't. It refutes her argument. Corporatism is not synonymous with capitalism. Swedish historian Johan Norberg further illustrates Klein's distortion of history in his review of The Shock Doctrine:
The strangest thing about Klein's suggestion that crises benefit free markets and limited government is that there is such a long record of the exact opposite. World War I led to communism in Russia; economic depression gave us Nazi Germany. Wars and other disasters are rarely friends of freedom. On the contrary, politicians and government officials often use crises as an opportunity to increase their budgets and powers. As one prominent economist put it while explaining his opposition to war in Iraq: "War is a friend of the state....In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do." The economist? Milton Friedman.
Furthermore, Klein's arguments are contradictory. In the New Yorker article she is described as such: "In principle, she is a Keynesian, but she distrusts centralization, institutions, platforms, theories—anything except extremely small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives." Anyone who is familiar with Keynesianism knows that it is rooted in "institutions, platforms, theories," albeit the wrong ones. But these quibbles are unimportant to Klein, the same woman who, as is shown in the New Yorker article, is comfortable with appearing on (the massively corporate) MTV. It's anyone's guess what the above "ad-hoc initiatives" would comprise of, given Klein's politics, without "centralization, institutions, platforms, [or] theories [italics mine]."

Klein's true motivation's are revealed when the New Yorker article focuses on her infatuation with Milton Friedman:
Why does Klein place such emphasis on Friedman? Perhaps because she wants to draw a parallel between capitalism and Communism, to make their two histories look as similar as possible, and for that she needs not the messy, pragmatic, ad-hoc capitalism of corporations but the purist, utopian capitalism of the Chicago School. Violent autocrats of the free-market persuasion, though there have been many, have not soiled Friedman’s name in the way that Stalin soiled Marx; somehow, the misdeeds of a Pinochet or a Suharto or a Yeltsin are attributed to these men as individuals—to their lust for power, their greed, their drinking. But Klein holds capitalism guilty of all their sins. Friedman’s followers must no longer get away with shaking their heads when their advisees start killing people, she believes.
It takes such a massive evasion of history, political theory, and philosophy to equate capitalism with communism, that someone as intelligent as Klein has to know better: (Observe, too, that the New Yorker writer states as fact that there have been many "autocrats of the free-market persuasion." It is no coincidence that the author of this fawning article has no idea what constitutes free-market ideology.) What you are witnessing is the Big Lie at work. Norbert's article on Klein for the Cato Institute illustrates Klein's evasion:

Astonishingly, in a book of more than 500 pages, Klein offers almost no argument to the person who isn’t already convinced that free markets are bad. […] A look at the EFW data shows that Klein has it backwards. Poverty and unemployment are lowest in countries with the most economic freedom. In the freest fifth of countries, poverty according to the United Nations is 15.7 percent, and in the rest of the world it is 29.8 percent. Unemployment in the freest quintile is 5.2 percent, which is less than half of what it is in the rest of the world. In the least economically free quintile, filled with the kinds of restrictions on private property, businesses, and trade that Klein claims are ways of helping the people against the powerful, poverty is 37.4 percent and unemployment is 13 percent.

The only way to oppose Naomi Klein is to identify that which she evades: history, theory, facts.