Sunday Bookchat

July 27, 2008

It appears that any writer who tries to mount an attack on conservative economic doctrines must be prepared not only to stave off right-wing counterblasts, but must also put up with spitball sallies from Jonathan Chait.

Chait, a New Republic senior editor, recently subjected Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism to what might best be called death by a thousand smirks, chiefly by trying to paint her as a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist.

Earlier this year, Chait tried a similar more-centrist-than-thou attack on David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill) and got smacked for it. This time out, Chait has found an appreciative audience in wingnut bloggers and pundits who, still luxuriating in the afterglow from Zev Chafets’ knob-polishing profile of Rush Limbaugh in the NYT, responded with even greater delight to Chait’s “mega-smack down” of Klein for going after that which they hold most dear.

If professional wrestling is to be our metaphor, let me say that while Chait manages to land a few good punches, he quickly runs out of flashy moves and winds up exhausted and unconvincing, even as his opponent stays on her feet. The core of Klein’s argument is that the fundamentalist free-market economic theories sold as the best way to promote freedom and open democratic societies do nothing of the sort; that not only are dictatorships of every stripe quite comfortable with free-market ideology, but the movement’s ideologues have a creepy tendency to view disasters as opportunities to create showplaces for their pet theories. Chait does noting to damage that argument.

In making her case, Klein overreaches and commits some errors, but her well documented, extensively researched book takes us much closer to the facts on the ground than does, for example, Chait’s own book The Big Con, which offers little more than amusing gossip about George Gilder. Klein is more connected to the kind of environment in which the Coalition Provisional Authority ends up being staffed with Bush loyalists and home-schooled evangelical flakes who saw Iraq as a wingnut laboratory. Or the kind of environment in which the agonies of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina have ideologues dreaming of school-voucher programs, even as bodies rot in the streets. This last example, cited by Klein, rouses Chait to particular fury:

Klein repeatedly implies that there is something immoral about using crises to advance the right-wing agenda without explaining why this is so. After all, Friedman wanted to overhaul the New Orleans public education system because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that vouchers would work better. If you thought your house was horribly designed, and a tornado flattened it, would you rebuild it exactly as before?

If you’re going to argue by metaphor, Jon, use the right one. Think of it this way: if the people who allowed my horribly designed house to burn down offer to build a new one, but only if I agree to surrender title and let their friends live in it with me, might I not be entitled to feel a little . . . I dunno . . . exploited?

There’s no question that in writing The Shock Doctrine, Klein left her flank exposed to attack on a number of points. As Chait (and others before him) have pointed out, while the libertarian economist Milton Friedman looms large over her argument, Klein never properly identifies him as a libertarian — indeed, the term doesn’t even turn up in the index. She also also compounds the embarrassment by lumping the libertarian Cato Institute in with the neocon American Enterprise Institute.

The omission is notable but hardly fatal. In Free to Choose, Friedman himself dismissed labels, calling himself a “libertarian with a small ‘L’ and a Republican with a capital ‘R’ . . . on grounds of expediency, not on principle.” As he put it in a March 2002 interview,  “I don’t really care very much what I’m called. I’m much more interested in having people thinking about the ideas, rather than the person.” Once we’ve pried the crocodile’s jaws off our legs, we can debate the niceties of whether it was a palustris, a niloticus or a porosus. There are significant doctrinal and historical differences between the libertarian and neoconservatve worldviews, but The Shock Doctrine concerns itself with the wide ground where they overlap and reinforce. That is the ground on which Naomi Klein stands, and it is all to the good that her arguments are winning a wide audience.

Friedman, to his credit, was more concerned with thinking about “the ideas, rather then the person.” As for Chait, Klein’s ideas can wait while he eagerly informs us that “her grandfather was a Marxist fired by Disney in 1941 for trying to organize animators,” followed by more Mickey Mouse sallies: Her father was a draft dodger! Her mother opposed pornography! Klein herself was a campus activist! She’s a conspiracy theorist! She’s kuh-raaayyyzzzeee!

One gets the sense that Chait might have let The Shock Doctrine slide if Klein hadn’t cited Bush II’s invasion of Iraq as a museum-quality example of the shock doctrine in action. “It seems a little ridiculous,” Chait writes, “to have to point out that Iraq is not exactly a new outpost of unfettered capitalism, with McDonald’s and Exxon stations beckoning customers on every corner.” It is even more ridiculous to have to remind Chait (a cheerleader for the invasion) that whatever miseries have been inflicted on the Iraqis themselves, the invasion has turned the country into an immense hog trough for politically connected contractors, in which billions of dollars have vanished down the sinkhole. “Why didn’t Bush do the smart capitalist thing and simply make a deal with Saddam to drop the sanctions and cut American oil companies in on Iraq’s oil reserves?” Well, Jon, that’s exactly what did happen in the 1980s, when Donald Rumsfeld went to Iraq on behalf of the Reagan administration, when Saddam was getting financial and material support from the U.S. in return for killing lots of Iranians. Even using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels was okay, until Saddam overstepped his bounds in Kuwait.

After that, Saddam became the new Hitler and was duly punished by Bush I. After that came the martial fantasies of the neocons, newly ascendant under Bush II, and the conniving of Ahmad Chalabi, and the subsequent debacle in Iraq, which has remained politically and economically useful to Bush and his cronies — as is well known. The CPA may not have been able to remake Iraq in the free-market image, but Bush has enjoyed tremendous political benefits from being “a wartime president,” such as cowing the opposition while wrecking the economy with tax cuts and corporate giveaways. While neocons like William Kristol keep urging more and better bombing in the Middle East, the free-market buccaneers get to loot and plunder at will. It is a marriage of convenience, but no less passionate for all that. Chait is in no position to accuse Klein, or anybody else, of “cheerful insouciance in the face of . . . inconvenient facts.”

Since Naomi Klein has shown herself more than willing to beard various lions in their own dens, I look forward to a debate in which she defends The Shock Doctrine against Chait’s schlock snarking.  I think she’d make mincemeat out of him.

DEJA SPEW: Some of Chait’s plaints may have a familiar sound to alert readers. Let’s travel back in time with Bob Somerby.

* * * * *

A man of the cloth argues that creationist zanies are a problem for theologians as well as scientists. Heavy metal Muslims take Mohammed to the mosh pit. American security has been undermined — it’s the conservatism, stupid! America: Glazed and confused. Balkan epic poetry and war criminals.

2 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. CParis Says:

    We can see the evidence of Bu$hco piratization in progress following Katrina – despite Congress setting aside funds specifically for rebuiling low income areas, this money was siphoned off by well-place GOP politicos to fund casino, hotel, university building projects – basically a big FU to lower income taxpayers.

  2. Chucky Says:

    Cursor linked to your review this morning. Hurrah!

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