Naomi Klein postscript no. 1

There were a number of things that struck me while reading Naomi Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything, which were somewhat tangential to my main line of critique, and so I left them out of the response piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, some are worth mentioning, particularly those that connect this book up with her previous work, including The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. (One of the annoying things that we academics like to do is read all of someone’s work, then ask pesky questions like “how does it all fit together?” Some people tell me this is unfair, when dealing with the work of non-academics, but I guess I just can’t help myself.)

The first thing that many Klein fans will notice about This Changes Everything is the huge tension that exists between this book and The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, to the casual reader, it might seem as though Klein is taking back most of what she said in the previous book. The problem is sufficiently obvious that Klein actually spends a good chunk of the introduction trying to disarm that suspicion, trying to explain why – appearances to the contrary – she is not being inconsistent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found this part unconvincing.

So let’s go back to The Shock Doctrine for a moment. I never wrote anything about this book when it came out, largely because I found it confusing. Or actually, I didn’t find the rhetorical structure of the book confusing – I could see what she was trying to do – I just found the position confusing. Basically, she was criticizing the right for trying to take advantage of various sorts of crises (hurricanes, inflation, financial crises, etc.) to impose radical reforms on society that people, under ordinary circumstances, would not accept. Now there are two elements to this “shock doctrine.” First of all, there is the tactic, which involves working out a blueprint for what you want to do in advance, then waiting until there is some sort of crisis that leaves people vulnerable, disoriented, or panicked, at which point you take advantage of the opportunity to impose your plan, when resistance is weakest. Second, there is the specific agenda that the right was advancing: tax-cutting, trade liberalization, privatization of public services, restructuring of non-market domains through introduction of market incentives, etc.

The perfect example of this “shock doctrine” in action would be the restructuring of the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina. The schools, along with many of the neighbourhoods that supported them, were destroyed, and so the need to rebuild practically everything presented an opportunity to make radical changes to the system. This opportunity was seized upon by proponents of charter schools, who used it to restructure the system in a way that eliminated many traditional public schools.

Now it was obvious that, in this and many other cases, Klein disapproved of both the agenda and the tactic. And yet she spent most of The Shock Doctrine criticizing, not the agenda, but rather the tactic, as though it were especially dirty, underhanded, or sinister. What was strange about this was that the tactic has no intrinsic political valence – it’s not as though the left would never dream of doing such a thing. On the contrary, the tactic was invented by the left – it’s called bolshevism, and it’s what communist parties did throughout the 20th century. Working out a blueprint, then laying in wait for a crisis to come along (or until “conditions were ripe”), providing a pretext for seizing power, was the essence of communist party strategy. The same tactic was also used, quite effectively, by more moderate left-wing parties, to lay the groundwork for the modern welfare state in response to the Great Depression. In each case, a crisis was used to enact more radical reforms than people had previously been willing to accept.

The surprising thing about The Shock Doctrine is that Klein never acknowledged, as far as I could see, that the left has used this tactic as well – or worse, that the episodes she describes may all just be instances of the right having learned to adapt and use tactics that were pioneered by the left. On the contrary, she presented it as though it were a uniquely underhanded strategy perpetrated by the right wing. This struck me as so self-evidently false that it undermined my interest in the book. It seemed to me that if she wanted to complain about the right-wing agenda, she should have just complained about the agenda, rather than spending hundreds of pages denouncing a tactic that was, as far as I could see, used universally by ideologues of one stripe or another.

So along comes Klein’s work on climate change. Her central thesis is that climate change is an enormous, urgent, planetary crisis, and that in order to respond to it effectively, we are going to have to make a wide range of radical changes to society, which in ordinary times people would not be willing to accept. Okay. Sound familiar? To her credit, Klein notices the similarity between what she is currently recommending and the “shock doctrine” that she had previously castigated. Indeed, she even refers to what she is doing as a type of “inverted shock doctrine”:

[Activists] are also learning – in a kind of people’s inversion of the shock doctrine – that one of the most opportune times to build that next economy may be in the aftermath of disasters, particularly climate-related disasters. That’s because recurring mega-tragedies like Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan that kill thousands and cause billions in damages serve dramatically to educate the public about the terrible costs of our current system, driving an argument for radical change that addresses the root, rather than only the symptoms, of the climate crisis (405-6).

It seems that no one can resist a good crisis! Klein even complains that the ability to take advantage of major crises and social upheavals to achieve radical change is something that “progressives used to know how to do…”:

There is a rich populist history of winning big victories for social and economic justice in the midst of large-scale crises. These included, most notably, the policies of the New Deal after the market crash of 1929 and the birth of countless social programs after World War II… I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even greater scale… [but] rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine – a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression – climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below (10).

So what exactly is the difference between the “shock doctrine” that Klein criticizes and the “inverted shock doctrine” that she now recommends? The first difference she mentions is that the former is supposedly imposed in an authoritarian fashion, while the set of transformations she recommends are all to be brought about democratically, though mass mobilization. More on this below. The second, and more fundamental difference, is simply that the former is in service of an agenda that she considers bad, while the latter is in support of an agenda that she considers good (e.g. “where right-wing shock doctors exploit emergencies (both real and manufactured) in order to push through policies that make us even more crisis prone, the kinds of transformations discussed in these pages would do the exact opposite: they would get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have now” [10].)

This seems to me just a fancy way of saying “the good shock doctrine is for stuff I agree with, while the bad shock doctrine is for stuff I disagree with.” Which is fine, except that if it’s really all about the agenda, what was the point of all the outrage and discussion of the tactic? In other words, what was the point of the last book?

So what about the idea that the bad shock doctrine is authoritarian, while the good shock doctrine would be democratic? That distinction was dubious to begin with (the reform of the New Orleans school system was undertaken by elected officials, just as the New Deal was implemented by elected officials.) But she also forgets about it entirely later in the book, when she decides to accuse proponents of geoengineering, as a response to climate change, of promoting their own shock doctrine (276-7). Here she seems concerned that the public would actually be onside:

if geoengineering were ever deployed, it would almost surely be in an atmosphere of collective panic with scarce time for calm deliberation… in a true emergency, who would be immune to this logic? Certainly not me… This is how the shock doctrine works: in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible opposition melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem temporarily acceptable. It is only outside of a crisis atmosphere that we can rationally evaluate the future ethics and risks of deploying geoengineering technologies should we find ourselves in a period of rapid change (276-7).

I happen to agree with Klein here – that what proponents of geoengineering are proposing is incredibly risky. The difference is that I think what Klein is proposing is also incredibly risky, and so to the extent that she is “exploiting a crisis” to try foisting it upon people, she is no different from the other peddlers of shock. (Keep in mind that, just because Klein calls her view a “people’s shock doctrine” doesn’t make it so. Right now, the overwhelming majority of people do not support what Klein is proposing, so it is just as much an elite or vanguardist view as any other, at least for now.)

In what sense is Klein’s recommended solution to the problem of climate change risky? I think there are two features of her proposals that make them risky. First, she wants to tackle the problem of climate change indirectly, and as a result, the effectiveness of her proposed remedies depends upon very long chains of causal connection. I touched on this in my previous post, but let me elaborate. Consider the following argument of Klein’s:

So how do you change a worldview, an unquestioned ideology? Part of it involves choosing the right early policy battles – game-changing ones that don’t merely aim to change laws but change patterns of thought. That means that a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimal income. That’s not only because a minimum income, as discussed, makes it possible for workers to say no to dirty energy jobs but also because the very process of arguing for a universal social safety net opens up a space for a full-throated debate about values – about what we owe to one another based on our shared humanity, and what it is that we collectively value more than economic growth and corporate profits.

Note what she is saying here – that we should perhaps all lay off the environmental stuff for a while, and work harder to increase the income of the poor, because this will ultimately do more to help the environment. But notice how incredibly long and indirect the chain of connections is that leads from “guaranteed minimum income” to “mitigating climate change.” Personally I think the chain of causal connections she posits here is pure, one hundred per cent wishful thinking. But even someone who disagreed with that assessment would surely acknowledge that it is a very high-risk approach to dealing with climate change, in the sense that a lot of things could go wrong between the act of imposing a guaranteed minimum income and the consequence of reducing carbon emissions. (For example, people might take their new guaranteed minimal income and buy an SUV — in much the same way that the people who are doing all the “dirty energy jobs” have been doing.)

That, however, is not the worst of it. The second, incredibly risky response to the climate crisis that she recommends is a policy of “degrowth” (88). This is sort of a euphemism for reducing the size of GDP, which in practice means creating a policy-induced, long-term recession, followed (presumably) by measures designed to restrict the economy to a zero-growth equilibrium. Now because she plans to shift millions of workers into low-productivity sectors of the economy (126-7), and perhaps reduce work hours (93), she imagines that this degrowth can happen without creating any unemployment. So the picture presumably is one in which individuals experience a slow, steady decline in real income, of perhaps 2% per year over a period of 10 years (none of the people recommending this seem to give specific numbers, so I’m just guessing what they have in mind), followed by permanent income stagnation. (There would, presumably, still be technological change, so a degrowth policy would have to be accompanied by some mechanism to ensure that work hours were cut back in response to any increase in productive efficiency, in order to ensure that production as a whole did not increase.)

At the same time that incomes are either shrinking or remaining stagnant, Klein also proposes an enormous shift from private-sector to public-sector consumption, presumably financed by significant increases in personal income tax. Again, she doesn’t give any specific numbers, but from the way she talks it sounds like she wants to shift around a quarter of the remaining GDP. Plus she wants to see a huge amount of redistribution to the poor. So again, just ballparking, but it sounds as though she wants the average person to accept a pay cut of around 20%, followed by the promise of no pay increase ever again, combined with an increase in average income tax rates of around 25% (so in Canada, from around 30% to 55%). And don’t forget, this is all supposed to be achieved democratically. As in, people are going to vote for this, not just once, but repeatedly.

What I find astonishing about proponents of “degrowth” – not just Klein, but Peter Victor as well – is that they don’t see the tension between this desire to reduce average income and the desire to reduce economic inequality. They expect people to support increased redistribution at the same time that their own incomes are declining. This leaves me at something of a loss – I struggle to find words to express the depth of my incredulity at this proposition. In what world has this, or could this, ever occur?

In the real world, economic recessions are rather strongly associated with a significant increase in the nastiness of politics. Economic growth, on the other hand, makes redistribution much easier, simply because the transfers do not show up as absolute losses to individuals who are financing them, but rather as foregone gains, which are much more abstract. It’s not an accident that the welfare state was created in the context of a growing economy. (See Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, for a general discussion of the effect of growth on politics.) It seems to me obvious that a degrowth strategy – by making the economy negative-sum – would massively increase resistance to both taxation and redistribution. At the limit, it could generate dangerous blow-back, in the form of increased support for radical right-wing parties.

As a result, I just don’t see any moral difference between what Klein is doing in this book and what the geoengineering enthusiasts are doing. The latter are techno-utopians, while Klein is a socialist-utopian. But both are trying to pin our hopes for resolving the climate crisis on a risky, untested, and potentially dangerous policy. Furthermore, the idea that Klein’s agenda could be achieved democratically strikes me as being otherworldly, in a country where the left can’t even figure out how to get the Conservative party out of power.


Naomi Klein postscript no. 1 — 4 Comments

  1. Joe,

    I think the complaint about degrowth is spot on. It always blows my mind when people think this general strategy is something that could ever be implemented democratically.

    Two things about Klein’s positions in the books you are comparing.

    if I remember correctly, the main complaint in the Shock Doctrine was that the right, having learned how crises are great moments for implementing radical change, has gone on to manufacture them – instead of just laying in wait. I think that’s why she finds the tactic so particularly sinister (I think there’s something to that although it is, of course, also not something the left wouldn’t do/hasn’t done).

    Given that she thinks that the agenda of the right makes us more crisis-prone, you can see why she sees a closer connection between agenda and tactic than you acknowledge: the tactic is to manufacture crises and the implemented policy directly serves this for the next round. If that’s what she’s thinking, I find that an interesting view.

    However, it is hard to believe that this is really the thinking of the right because it has no endgame. It’s hard to imagine strategists sitting around saying “we’re gonna create this endless cycle of crises; after each crises we’ll be richer and closer to the next crisis that will make us even richer” without anyone pointing out “hey, won’t people at some point get so angry that somebody else is using one of these crises to implement an entirely different agenda?”.

    Thus, if Klein is right about the right, they the same time (1) are fully aware that their favourite policies will leave us more and more crisis-prone, (2) have figured out that crises are a great moment to implement radical change, and (3) are not the least worried about anyone else seizing the opportunity to implement radical reforms they don’t like. I don’t think that’s all that plausible.

    It becomes a lot more plausible if we remove (1). That is to say that, while the right likes to implement their favourite policies in moments of crisis, they don’t believe that this will lead to more crises. This, of course, makes them appear less despicable (which I think makes sense – after all they can’t all be pure evil). But it also removes the interesting link between agenda and tactic that Klein sees (which I think you may have overlooked). So I’d say that the version of Klein’s argument you criticize is indeed as uninteresting as you make it sound. As her more interesting argument rests on an assumption that is simply unbelievable, you’re critique probably stands.

    I haven’t read the newest book but I’m a bit confused. In the Globe and Mail the other day there was an article about the Liberals’ plan to implement a cap and trade scheme in Ontario. Towards the end they mentioned that a lot of prominent Canadians have spoken out in support of carbon pricing – including Klein. Having read your commentary I was very surprised by that.

  2. Hi Joe,

    As a long time reader of your work, I’ll attempt a modest ‘how does it all fit together?’ question.

    You’ve often mentioned positional goods, and how them being an increasing part of expenditures causes a disconnect between national income and national welfare. While it probably wouldn’t do much to increase the political viability of the degrowth program, won’t the decreases in real income stemming from degrowth be tempered by this? Especially when combined with more leisure time from reducing work hours, the value of which usually isn’t affected by positional concerns.

  3. Hasko: 1. right, 2. I noticed that line in the Globe article as well, I assumed it was just that the writer hadn’t read Klein’s book, and was just assuming that she had sensible views.

    Roel: my line on growth has been about the same for a long time — that it has certain desirable features, but they are not so great as to outweigh all other goods (from a paper a long time ago: “I argue that we have good reason, as a society, to strive for productivity gains, but that there is nothing urgent about this objective”). I think that because of competitive consumption, economic growth in developed countries delivers very little in the way of welfare gains. It does, however, make it easier to obtain other desirable goals — including the fact that a moderately positive-sum economy makes it easier to do redistribution. So I support what I referred to as “principled complacency” on the question. But that is not the same thing as adopting a policy of “degrowth.” In general though I’d rather just not talk about growth, particularly in an environmental context. Growth is a very crude yardstick, that measures about a half-dozen different things, not all of which are of any relevance from an environmental perspective. For example, you could have growth in an economy without production, purely through improvements in allocation. In this case, the “growth” is measuring a pure welfare gain — which obviously no one has any reason to be opposed to from an environmental perspective. So environmentalists who position themselves against growth, apart from exhibiting an infallible instinct for electoral self-destruction, are not really getting at the issue that they want to be getting at.

    There’s been a more extensive discussion of this over on reddit. For those of you who don’t know, you can see what’s going on there just by clicking on the little “reddit alien” button that appears below all our posts (which shows when the article has been linked to, and how many upvotes it received — just click on the number of upvotes and it will take you to the discussion page).

  4. I want GDP to grow because I observe that countries with big GDP seem to have the big research cheese to throw at new techs like cancer cures and energy storage