North America’s most fashionable anti-capitalist ignores the benefits of globalisation for those less privileged than herself
Over the past decade, the Canadian writer Naomi Klein has been catapulted from success to success. The author of two best-selling books – No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine (TSD) (2007) – she ranked number 11 on a list of “top global intellectuals”, compiled by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. The New Yorker went even further, describing her as “the most visible and influential figure on the American Left”.
In contrast to the ranting of many anti-trade, anti-business pundits, Klein adopts a more gentle and beguiling manner. But her views are no less absurd, coloured as they are by statist twaddle and pacifist invective.
She rose to fame during the glory days of the anti-globalisation era between 1999 and 2001. No Logo – with its distinctive black, white and red logo – was the anti-capitalists’ Bible. It vindicated the protesters by vilifying multinational corporations, such as the IMF and World Bank.
In TSD, Klein envisions a global conspiracy involving “free-market ideologues” (such as the late Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman), multinational corporations, the World Bank, the IMF and national governments. Klein supposes that these conspirators use “crises” to implement their revision of the historical record.
To achieve this historical revision, Klein paints with a broad rhetorical brush. She fails properly to distinguish between voluntary and coercive behaviours on the part of the alleged conspirators. And she employs those tools much loved of the Left: ad hominem attacks and guilt by association.
In the past 30 years, many governments have peacefully enacted long-lasting reforms that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. By removing barriers to property ownership, the resolution of legal disputes and the formation of businesses, a flood of entrepreneurship and voluntary, mutually advantageous trade has been unleashed. The result has been massive increases in vital technologies, as well as enormous gains in prosperity, social equality and, of course, peace.
Sadly, hundreds of millions of people still live under corrupt and oppressive political regimes. In those places, citizens typically live in penury and fear, while the elite live in opulence. That is the reality of failed states that have not undergone free-market reforms.
Klein also glosses over the role that the World Bank and, to a lesser extent, the IMF have played in propping up many oppressive regimes. Indeed, most governments have stubbornly resisted attempts by these agencies to encourage free-market reforms – even while they took the money. Klein gets it backwards: it is not the success of the World Bank and IMF in promoting free markets that is the problem, it is their abject failure to deliver.
No Logo and TSD are filled with straw men that are easily burnt with the flame of reality. Rather than rigorously attempting to analyse complex political, economic and historical issues, Klein uses anecdotes, rhetoric, quotes taken out of context, selectively chosen data and spurious allegations.
In TSD, for example, Klein claims that the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were students objecting to “Friedmanite” policies being implemented by the government. (The protesters were, in fact, agitating against state repression of all kinds, especially the lack of democratic accountability.) She then claims that the ensuing massacre, was a “shock” that enabled the Chinese government to carry out further market-oriented reforms.
Friedman, in turn, is depicted as a “shock doctor”, whose ideas were only enacted through crisis and brutality, viz. Pinochet’s Chile. The “Chicago School” of economics is presented as an anomaly in the history of ideas. This is nonsense. It is one of several modern schools of economic thought that provide philosophical support to the establishment and maintenance of social institutions supportive of human freedom.
Meanwhile, the idea of human freedom has been a dominant train of thought in moral philosophy for several hundred years. Most of the world’s people, especially the hundreds of millions who are currently oppressed, would likely choose the “Chicago School” path over the alternatives.
Appearing last September on BBC2’s Newsnight, Klein was asked to outline her alternative economic system. This request was met with a postmodern hippy blancmange.
One of the irritating things about Klein and her ilk is their hypocritical behaviour. They gain personal wealth because their best-selling books are published and distributed by large multinational businesses (HarperCollins, Costco) and are funded by risk-taking investors.
Similarly, their newspaper columns are funded by advertising revenue from companies. They make their way around the world by buying and using the modern technologies (computers, the internet, Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s) supplied to consumers through globalisation and markets.
They live in political regimes which protect freedom of speech and association. Yet the end result of their ideas, were they to become reality, would be to deny these markets, technologies and ideas to the people of the world.