In 2007 Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein released ‘The Shock Doctrine’, a follow-up to her seminal 1999 debut ‘No Logo’. The latter was an instant classic, in its incisive critique of consumer capitalism and the supremacy of branding becoming a de facto manifesto for the then-burgeoning anti-globalisation movement. While not quite as totemic as its predecessor, ‘The Shock Doctrine’ was just as well written and insightful. It used that most abhorrent of modern day crimes—the 2003 invasion and destruction of Iraq by America, Britain, and its allies—as a case study around which it built up a then relatively little known but now widely understood picture of one of the methods that neoliberal capitalism uses to remake societies in its image. It was right there in the book’s subtitle: ‘The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.’ Disaster capitalism, as Klein described it, was the means by which powerful actors in government and in business take advantage of a crisis—political, economic, natural—and the ensuing panic, fear, and confusion, in order to re-arrange society into a configuration more suitable to their ends. And crises, ‘The Shock Doctrine’ so powerfully described, don’t always have to be waited upon to arise naturally—they can be manufactured.
In her examining of disaster capitalism, Klein went through its origins in the neoliberal cradle that was Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics; its deployment by the US’ brutal puppet regimes in Chile and other South American states throughout the 20th century, as well as less violent examples in other countries like Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Thatcher’s Britain; and indeed post-invasion Iraq, into which American corporations immediately rushed in and subsequently extracted billions upon billions of dollars from, in one of the most blatant and vile capitalist feeding frenzies in living memory. Iraq also served as a laboratory of sorts, providing capitalists with ever more innovative ways to test out methods of extracting value thanks to physical destruction and economic shock therapy. As Klein put it in the book:
Pioneered in Iraq, for-profit relief and reconstruction has already become the new global paradigm, regardless of whether the original destruction occurred from a preemptive war, such as Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, or a hurricane. With resource scarcity and climate change providing a steadily increasing flow of new disasters, responding to emergencies is simply too hot an emerging market to be left to the nonprofits—why should UNICEF rebuild schools when it can be done by Bechtel, one of the largest engineering firms in the U.S.? Why put displaced people from Mississippi in subsidized empty apartments when they can be housed on Carnival cruise ships? Why deploy UN peacekeepers to Darfur when private security companies like Blackwater are looking for new clients? And that is the post-September 11 difference: before, wars and disasters provided opportunities for a narrow sector of the economy—the makers of fighter jets, for instance, or the construction companies that rebuilt bombed-out bridges. The primary economic role of wars, however, was as a means to open new markets that had been sealed off and to generate postwar peacetime booms. Now wars and disaster responses are so fully privatized that they are themselves the new market; there is no need to wait until after the war for the boom—the medium is the message.
While a kind of explicit disaster capitalism-as-state-reconstruction methodology had existed in one form or another since Kissinger proclaimed that they would make Chile’s economy ‘scream’ in order to force Allende out of office, Klein posited that Iraq served as a sort of point of no return; a Rubicon-crossing into a truly brave new privatised world. She continued:
One distinct advantage of this postmodern approach is that in market terms, it cannot fail. As a market analyst remarked of a particularly good quarter for the earnings of the energy services company Halliburton, “Iraq was better than expected.” That was in October 2006, then the most violent month of the war on record, with 3,709 Iraqi civilian casualties. Still, few shareholders could fail to be impressed by a war that had generated $20 billion in revenues for this one company. Amid the weapons trade, the private soldiers, for-profit reconstruction and the homeland security industry, what has emerged as a result of the Bush administration’s particular brand of post-September 11 shock therapy is a fully articulated new economy. It was built in the Bush era, but it now exists quite apart from any one administration and will remain entrenched until the corporate supremacist ideology that underpins it is identified, isolated and challenged.
Iraq was a particularly violent and bloody example of disaster capitalism at play. But it doesn’t always take an illegal invasion and hundreds of thousands of casualties to see it unfolding. Take the UK’s exit from the European Union for example. Brexit is a procedural and ideological morass of conflicting motives, loyalties, and strange bedfellows. Different people want different outcomes for wildly divergent reasons. Yet there is a certain subsection of actors in this drama who are very keen on the most chaotic and politically and economically disruptive version of Brexit. Figures often behind the curtain or just out of sight who would just love to see a no-deal scenario happen on 31st October. Left-wing commentators and activists have been pointing to their like for some time, citing Naomi Klein’s analyses in their cui bono? framing. Now, it seems, even figures on the right of the political spectrum are adding weight to this narrative, with people like Boris Johnson’s own sister and former Chancellor Phillip Hammond weighing in.
Boris Johnson's No Deal policy is being driven by mega-rich speculators who are set to make billions from crashing out the EU.— Owen Jones🌹 (@OwenJones84) September 28, 2019
Surely some leftie conspiracy theory, you say. No: it's the belief of the very recent Tory Chancellor and Johnson's own sister. pic.twitter.com/WnFEZdaqhW
Meanwhile, Hammond’s take, according to a piece in inews:
The radicals advising Boris do not want a deal. Like the Marxists on the Labour left, they see the shock of a disruptive no-deal Brexit as a chance to re-order our economy and society.
One example of an individual who might stand to benefit from the chaos of a no-deal Brexit, and someone emblematic of this cast of chancers, would be businessman Crispin Odey. As per a piece in inews:
Crispin Odey, the pro-Brexit Conservative donor, reportedly waged a £300m bet against some of Britain’s biggest businesses on the implication their share prices will crash after Brexit.
The multimillionaire hedge fund tycoon’s company, Odey Asset Management, is understood to have taken out £299m in “short” positions on at least 16 firms including Royal Mail and Intu, the shopping centre owner.
Shorting involves borrowing currency or shares and selling immediately in the hope of buying them back later for less and pocketing the difference.
The piece goes on to detail some of Mr. Odey’s previous wagers:
He previously contributed more than £800,000 to pro-Brexit campaigns and £32,000 to UKip during Nigel Farage’s tenure.
The businessman, thought to be worth £750million, made a reported £220million in 2016 after betting that a leave result would trigger the pound to crash.
Hours after the referendum result, he told the BBC: “There’s that Italian expression - ‘Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca’ - the morning has gold in its mouth, and never has one felt so much that idea as this morning.”
According to a piece in The Guardian, Labour’s John Mcdonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has now called for an inquiry into the vested interests behind Boris Johnson’s supreme unwillingness to negotiate with the EU:
Given widespread concerns raised by the former chancellor Philip Hammond’s comment today about Johnson’s speculator sponsors profiteering from a no-deal Brexit, I am writing to Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to seek a Cabinet Office investigation into this potential conflict of interest.
Here is a little thread about another name attached to these behind-the-scenes machinations:
Thread:— Steel Snowflake (@Groot66) September 29, 2019
I'm delighted that so much attention is now being paid to the issue of financial speculators and disaster capitalists making money out of #NoDeal. It's been frustrating to see so little attention being paid to this in Brexit debate. 1/
Since when do economists have to produce evidence to make future projections?— Steel Snowflake (@Groot66) September 29, 2019
There are however clues. This is Christopher Chandler. He runs a company called Legatum Ltd. He made his fortune by travelling the world finding areas of political instability…3/ pic.twitter.com/tWOghLl8Bd
…with following the vote in 2016. His think-tank openly supports Hard Brexit and has consulted with a number of gov't Ministers.— Steel Snowflake (@Groot66) September 29, 2019
So, here we have an expert disaster capitalist, encouraging no deal Brexit. Hmmm.
Then there's Aaron Banks… but we all know about him.
Whether the inquiry asked for by McDonnell will come to aught, or whether no-deal Brexit is averted or no, all of this latest drama does serve as a neat little encapsulation of the shadow puppet theatre that goes on every single day in our world. While the vast majority of us plebs shuffle to and fro from precarious job to precarious job, forever toiling underneath the harsh cloud of economic uncertainty and suffering the all-encompassing toll that takes, there exists a strata of people and institutions that play games with unimaginable figures, and with potentially world-changing consequences. While the world burns and human lives are reduced to quickly forgotten figures, a few individuals shift at their whim the very tectonic plates that underpin our societies. To them, the profit motive is king. All else is immaterial.
Anyway here’s a clip from one of my favourite films of the 21st century:
Header Image Source: Getty Images