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Democracy and the Shock Doctrine

by Christopher Chantrill
January 08, 2009 at 1:08 am

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IN HER BEST-SELLING book The Shock Doctrine, lefty Naomi Klein complains that eevil conservatives have figured out how to trick people all over the world into accepting conservative economic policy.

All the recent outrages we’ve seen: outsourcing the war on terror to Halliburton, auctioning off sandy beaches to ritzy resorts after a tsunami, separating the residents of New Orleans from their beloved “public housing, hospitals and schools” after Hurricane Katrina,

These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy...

The Shock Doctrine vividly shows how disaster capitalism – the rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock – did not begin with September 11, 2001. The book traces its origins back fifty years, to the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, which produced many of the leading neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinkers whose influence is still profound in Washington today.

There is less here than meets the eye. Everyone understands that the only time you can get anything done in politics is during a crisis. H.L. Mencken said much the same thing half a century ago.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

Klein’s problem is that the crisis managers in the world today aren’t nice compassionate lefties like her who will move heaven and earth to return the displaced underclass of New Orleans back to their lousy public housing, their lousy public schools, and their overcrowded public hospitals and free clinics. But it doesn’t change the fact that even lefties can’t get anything done in politics until there is a crisis.

But is there a better way? Could we reform our democracy so that it responded before the development of a full-blown crisis?

No we couldn’t. That’s the short answer from Joseph Schumpeter in his great Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. In the classical formulation, he agreed, democracy means “the people rule.” Unfortunately that is impossible. People don’t get to rule. Governments rule. And the will of the people, he wrote, “is not a genuine but a manufactured will.” There are the people, and then there are the leaders.

Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them...[T]he democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.

One such “competitive struggle” just ended here in the USA. So let us not kid ourselves. Democracy is not the rule of the people, writes Schumpeter, democracy is the rule of the politician. And since politics is the profession, the career of the successful politician,

the democratic method produces legislation and administration as by-products of the struggle for political office.

Not only that, but every government measure must, of necessity, be twisted out of all recognition by the necessities of the ongoing political struggle.

Do you see where we are going with this? If democracy is the rule of the politician, and if politicians are mainly engaged in the day-to-day struggle of political one-upmanship, and if nothing ever gets done until there is a crisis, and if politicians, especially of the neo-liberal and neoconservative kind that Naomi Klein so dislikes, are always plotting some nefarious “shock,” then surely the way to avoid the “shock doctrine” of the neo-monsters is to limit the power of governments.

You see, Naomi, there is a social system that responds instantly to a change in the facts on the ground, that daily adjusts itself to minimize the wasteful use of resources, that adjusts instantly to the expressed needs of the people. It doesn’t sit around playing politics until there’s a real crisis and people are frightened enough to submit to the “shock doctrine.” It is not called genuine democracy, it is called capitalism.

Why does it work better than political democracy? Let’s ask Joseph Schumpeter. Although the game of winning elections is similar to the game of winning market share there is a fundamental difference in commercial and political advertising.

The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette. This is no equally effective safeguard in the case of political decisions... [For it is] impossible for the public to experiment with them at its leisure and at moderate cost.

You see what he is saying? In capitalism you get real democracy. The people “rule” the market by their buying decisions. In politics the politicians rule the people. But they only get to do it in a crisis. They rest of the time they sit around playing the politics of personal destruction.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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