Wednesday, 15 September 2010

After The Shocks - The Shock Doctrine

Chapter and Verse: Naomi Klein's study of "Disaster Capitalism" demonstrates how the extreme Right has seized upon natural and man-made disasters to ram through self-serving and often highly unpopular political and economic changes.

"ONLY A CRISIS – actual or perceived – produces real change", wrote the American neoliberal economist, Milton Friedman. "When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

What the people of Christchurch should be asking themselves right now is: "What are the ideas "lying around" in the rubble of their stricken city?"

Some ideas have already inspired Cantabrians to action.

Like the extraordinary generosity of the dairy-owner who told his quake-struck neighbours to "help themselves" until the stock on his shelves ran out.

Like the altruism of the young man who organised more than a thousand of his fellow university students into clean-up teams.

The images of these young people shovelling contaminated silt from the front yards of their neighbours sent a swell of pride across the entire nation.

If Christchurch is re-built with generosity and altruism it will soon be a great city once again.

Sadly, generosity and altruism – those most human of responses to social crisis and natural disaster - are swiftly dissipated in the vast bureaucracies of local and central government.

It’s one of life’s tragedies that organised altruism and bureaucratic generosity are never even remotely the same as the real thing. Indeed, they’re all-too-often experienced as the opposite of genuine human feeling.

Large organisations – of the sort required to clean up after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake – are almost always characterised by complex hierarchies and inflexible, rules-based delivery systems. They are power structures and, like everything else that wields power on this earth, they are not at all keen to share that power – let alone give it away.

Basically, local and state bureaucracies have bossiness inscribed into their institutional DNA. Confronted with the enormous task of repairing and re-building Christchurch’s basic infrastructure, the first thought of the City Council and the relevent Government Departments will be: "We’ve got a huge job to be getting on with, so we mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a damaged chimney or a cracked pavement."

Fair enough, you might say, the sooner the big things are dealt with, the sooner the little things can be fixed. Unfortunately, the natural arrogance of large bureaucracies isn’t limited to matters of straightforward reconstruction and repair.

In any large organisation there are always a great many ideas just "lying around". Pet theories about architecture and urban design, for example. Or, pet projects long deferred for lack of opportunity and funding. The citizens of Christchurch need to be vigilant against the wants of a few taking precedence over the needs of the many.

But the ideas of big bureaucracies are not the only, or the most dangerous ideas Christchurch faces.

Three years ago the Canadian social activist, Naomi Klein, wrote a book called The Shock Doctrine. Guided by that quote from Milton Friedman concerning crisis and change, Klein discovered that, over the course of the last 30 years, an alarming number of man-made and natural disasters had been turned to the advantage of right-wing corporate interests.

From the 1973 military coup in Chile, to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these critical moments of massive social and economic dislocation have been used to erase what "Disaster Capitalists" regarded as the "bad ideas" and practices of the past. Taking advantage of the population’s temporary disorientation and distress they forced through radical (and often unwanted) changes.

In Klein’s own words:

"Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture – a flood, a war, a terrorist attack – can generate the kind of vast, clean canvasses they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world."

We are often reminded that the Chinese characters for "crisis" and "opportunity" are the same. The people of Christchurch need to keep this relationship very firmly at the front of their minds in the coming months. Because if they don’t, and if Naomi Klein is right, then they can be absolutely certain that others will.

Perhaps their surest defence against becoming victims of "The Shock Doctrine" would be to require both the leading mayoral contenders, and the opposing slates of council candidates, to provide voters with a list of their ideas for the new Christchurch.

Both Mr Parker and Mr Anderton should be asked to spell out clearly how they intend to involve Christchurch’s bruised and battered electors in the planning and reconstruction process? How the big bureaucracies will be prevented from simply taking over. And – most importantly – how they propose to stop a gang of Disaster Capitalists from using the present crisis to ram through a host of radical neoliberal ideas that they just happened to have "lying around".

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 September 2010.


Lew said...

How prescient, Chris, given the act passed last night.


Chris Trotter said...

I hope that comment wasn't meant to be as snide as it came out, Lew.

Just so you know, the column/posting was written for "The Press" several days before the legislation came before the House, and it was published yesterday morning - hours before the Bill was debated.

So, I'll take your superficially sarcastic remark as a compliment.

peterquixote said...

Yes true, the Parker machine, guaranteed by NZ NAT Government is appointing people now.
Special darling architect, to rebuild the city in his vision, which will become apparent: even though the darling couldn't save the $120 million monster Civic building from damage :
utterly dependent on Ngai Tahu as we are :
all the while old people dither over vile buildings they see as precious heritage, the squadron leader is moving fast.
He needs no sleep there is so much to be done. The elections are a forgone conclusion, even the boy racers love Bob,

Anonymous said...

One thing is for certain. Yesterdays disgraceful performance in parliament showed we can rely on neither our politicians, nor the mainstream media, to protect us from the depradations of the robber barons.

Anonymous said...

Get a room you two.

Lew said...

Not at all sarcastic, Chris. I saw the publication date & know the press deadlines you must work to.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't take it for granted that it is just the filthy right that would want to take advantage of this kind of event to stamp their own unwanted ideas on a city.

Those of a more liberal persausion will probably take the chance of these kinds of event to insist on better public transport, heritage building protection and restoration, green spaces etc. Some of these may or may not be good ideas and may of may not be wanted-just like the ideas the right will no doubt trot out. Personally I hate old buildings and would prefer a modern looking downtown however I, nor any other indvidual should not get to decide it should be through a democratic process preferably through a vote as otherwise it will be the best organised lobby group that gets what they want not the public.

The use of disaster to rebuild does not have to be bad. I would suggest the European cities flattend in WWII are of far better design than those of other countries that were not.

Ian G said...

Klein talks about the privatization of public serivices in the post disaster period - this is just what the gov has been waiting for to use PPP's to rebuild schools, roads, utilities just watch them

Victor said...


Prague was spared destruction and is beautiful.

Warsaw was rebuilt brick by brick to look as much as possible like it did before and is, consequently, beautiful.

London was severely knocked about but not destroyed. Most of the new bits are awful. But so are some of the old bits.

Rotterdam was rebuilt on a radically new basis. Last time I was there, in the 1970s, it looked beautiful, but I suspect it may have declined into the normal modernist wasteland by now.

Most of western Germany's major cities were rebuilt with modern housing but using pre-war street patterns. The result was profoundly mediocre.

You just can't generalise on this topic