The essay The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein is founded on a very powerful metaphor: just as the psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron used to administer electroshocks to patients as part of a series of experiments used by the CIA to develop a more efficient torture technique, in the same way U.S. intellectuals from the University of Chicago would administer “economic shocks” to South American countries to transform them into capitalist nations. Cameron would eventually develop a technique that totally erased and dismantled patients’ personality and memory, by making them regress to the status of children through the elimination of their sensory perception: according to Cameron, the act of regression would allow patients to recover, because in this way their personality and memory would be re-created. In the same way, Friedman and the “Chicago Boys” would inflict an economic shock to the nationalist and state-planned South American economies, so as to clear their “distortions” (mainly governmental regulations) and transform them into pure, free-market, capitalist economies. In Argentina (just as in Chile), this free-market transformation was accompanied by a regime of terror: torture and destruction delivered by the military regime were the only way any form of dissent could be wiped away, so as to easily establish a new economic and social order which privatized state companies, caused prices to soar, and lifted restrictions on foreign ownership.
Most interestingly, Klein powerfully manages to show the complicity of foreign intellectuals and foreign corporations in the creation and support of the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, to the extent that “the Chile project” represented more than a form of intellectual imperialism: it truly constituted the ideological and intellectual support for the dictatorial regime, for its “moral cleansing”, indoctrination and for silencing all dissenting voices. Just as Cameron completely erased patients’ memory and personality, so Friedman and the “Chicago boys” tried to instill in Argentina and Chile free-market capitalism in its purest and most successful shape by promoting the ideology of individual freedom, which is contrary to “the principle most integral to their [the prisoners’] sense of self: […] solidarity” (p. 112), a fundamental component of Argentinian culture.
“He [Pinochet] called them [“the Chicago boys”] the technos – the technicians – which appealed to the Chicago pretension that fixing an economy was a matter of science, not of subjective human choices.” (p. 79)
The shameful complicity between Friedman’s plan of deregulation, privatization, and cutbacks and the military regime of terror both in Chile and Argentina raises doubts on what the role of “science” and intellectuals truly is. What is their responsibility towards economic shocks, which – just as Cameron’s electroshock treatments – are part of a science, Capitalism, invoked on the need for freedom and democracy, which, however, generated a more fearful regression that the one caused by Cameron’s treatments, as it made whole countries regress to extreme poverty?
Yet, what’s the alternative to the individual freedom discourse? The “human rights” discourse seems to be flawed too – Klein argues:
[…] this particularly convenient concept of a social system, in which ‘economic freedom’ and political terror coexist without touching each other, allows these financial spokesmen to support their concept of ‘freedom’ while exercising their verbal muscles in defense of human rights (p. 99).
To protest in the name of morality against ‘excesses’ or ‘abuses’ is an error which hints at active complicity. There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, simply an all pervasive ‘system’ (p. 126).
Capitalism, as a science, as part of a system – Klein argues- cannot be fought as an “excess” or “abuse”: it is an economic and political structure, an ideology, and it has to be scrutinized as such.
di Alessia Maselli