The Doctrine of Sublime Shock

September 3, 2008

I read the first few chapters of NK’s Shock Doctrine yesterday, and it’s interesting to note that she founds the structure of her theory in a way that is similar to the opening of Z’s SOI: where Z tries to show the links between the form of the Freudian dream and Marx’s description of the commodity form, Klein attempts to show a link between the thought and work of Ewen Cameron and Milton Friedman.

The link between the two is the idea of a ‘clean slate’ or pure state from which to begin, and the ‘shocks’ that need to be taken advantage of or induced to get to that state.

Cameron (at different times head of the American, Canadian and World Psychiatric Associations) did research at McGill and was funded through a front by the CIA. His work became a highly influential ground for the CIA’s torture techniques that are being used today. Cameron’s idea (as Klein tells it) was that you could strip away a person’s personality and build it back up from scratch. He tried to achieve this through sensory deprivation, drug treatments and electroshock ‘therapy’.

Friedman (according to Klein) also desired a ‘clean slate’, but for him it was in the realm of the economy. He wanted markets unfettered by social programs (public health care, public schools…) and trade barriers in order to let capitalism find its ‘natural’ balance. Klein argues that Friedman thought ‘Shocking’ economies – quickly transforming them into ‘laizer-faire’ markets during times of strife – was the best way to go about this.

Klein makes the link between the two at the level of their ‘logic’ – i.e. they attempt to reduce things to a ‘pure state’ and then impose their will upon it. She then attempts to show that they’re tied together as techniques in practice, describing a three-step shock process first ‘tested’ (she calls all the countries she talks about as American ‘labs’) in the overthrowing of Allende in Chile: An initial shock (in this case a military coup, but she also points to the 9-11 attacks as a ‘schock’ that the USG took advantage of to slash social spending) followed by ‘economic shocking’ (the restructuring of the economy) and reinforced by a psychological or terrorizing ‘shock’ (the torture techniques used by the CIA and those they train (and to whom they give weapons and oodles of cash).

I havn’t read much of the book yet, so I can’t comment on it critically in great depth. One thing I can note, though, is that Klein doesn’t take the Marxist route, but seems to prefer the economics of Keynes and the welfare state. She (on page 24, for those who are interested) writes that she’s not against markets, but thinks markets can be ‘human’ – i.e. you can give people decent wages and universal health care and maintain capitalism as a non-violent economic system… which is, of course, against a Marxist take on the economy. This is a fantasy along the lines authored by Adam Smith, who thought you could have a moral system of capitalism, but who ignored what was actually happening in terms of law (corn and poor laws) and the dispossession of the people in England and Scotland at the time. Klein is all too aware of the shit that goes down, but for some reason thinks capitalism could still be moral.

Marx showed that capital isn’t a static thing that can find a happy balance, but is a process that demands constant accumulation – that is, it needs to eat smaller lumps of capital either through competition (i.e. the tendency towards monopoly), colonization and spoliation of new territories and markets, or War. Maintaining a capitalist system is both exploitative and violent by nature. And as McNally argues in his Against the Market, if you maintain the commodity form and capitalist markets under a ‘state capitalist’ (i.e. a state that owns all the resources, banks, hospitals, etc, of a region) then ‘good wages’ (wages mean you’re still a commodity) and universal heath care are still subject to the whims of the market.

To further the somewhat superficial link I’ve drawn between Klein’s ideas and Z’s in SOI, it’s interesting to note that the procedure she describes is the negative image of what Zizek gives: 1) in place of Freud you get a psychiatrist who gave up on Freud and the talking cure in favour of behaviourism (page 34); in place of Marx who dissected capitalism to show that it’s laws were not natural but alterable, you get Friedman who held that his scientific theories revealed the natural laws of capitalism that had been disturbed by Keynesian welfare-state economics and threatened by communists the world over. 2) In place of a psychotherapy that encourages each person to help themselves, you get a pschiatrist who forces electroshock on his ‘patients’; in place of a theory that showed revolution would come from below (i.e. the workers) you get a theory that imposes economic reforms from the top – in effect you get what Zizek in DoLC calls “the whithering of the state – capitalist style”. 3) in place of taking advantage of crises that appear to be natural but are in fact the ineluctable product of capitalsm to organize people and create change (e.g. Lukac’s ‘augenblick’), you get a doctrine that uses these same events to achieve the opposite – the disorganization and disorientation of people and the expansion of capitalism.

That is, we what looks a little like Kant’s sublime as Zizek describes it: something that is so immense and powerful that all you feel is terror… or awe (that is, SHOCK and awe)…

One of the many interesting things that Klein points out is how neo-liberal ideas penetrated the world – the USG and private American interests paid for people in Chile (and elsewhere) to go study with the “Chicago School” and then sent them back to their home countries to convert others. I think this demonstrates a couple of things: 1. that ideas are important (which I’m sure we’re all on board with) and 2. You need to actively teach them to people! Perhaps what we need is the process in reverse: countries in south america take in people like us, who come back with new ideas and put them into practice at home…(like workers in Argentina who seize factories operate them under worker’s control…)

But I think that’s a defence against acting on the knowledge that we (er… I) have now.




11 Responses to “The Doctrine of Sublime Shock”

  1. sonnyburnett said

    I recall reading Friedman’s Capitalsim & Freedom as an undergrad & my marxist teacher pointing out how the entire work – which is the most extreme conservative defense of economic freedom as the basis for all other (eg. political) freedoms – is in actuality chapter after chapter an apology for gov’t’s limited (sic) intervention to preserve property rights, largely thru strict monetary control.

    The unintended lesson here is that laissez-faire economics takes one hell of a lot of gov’t effort!

    You mentioned Keynes as Klein’s alternative of sorts to a Marxist approach. I don’t know if you are aware of Monopoly Capital, by Baran & Sweezy (the latter the founder of the Monthly Review) but it is an incredible marriage of Marx & Keynes.

    Essentially, they develop a marxist model using Keynesian macroeconomics & show how the economy, if left to its own devices (ie, no gov’t spending to prop things up) will ‘sink deeper & deeper into a great bog of economic depression.’

    It was written in the mid-60s, but is still considered a classic. I recall (to the best of my recollection) that they actually estimated the amount of surplus value in the US economy, by adding up things like gov’t expenditure, wasted capital spent on advertisements, etc & came up with a rough figure of 50%! That is, 50% of capital out there is surplus. Or 50% of what is produced is strictly ‘not needed’ to reproduce the system.

    (Althusser conceives it a bit differently. That surplus is strictly needed, to keep the workforce coming back to work each day).


    Are York (student-workers?) in a strike position?

  2. battleofthegiants said

    I’ll have to look that up… I guess I shouldn’t presume to know Klein’s position…

    We’re not in a strike position quite yet, but word on the street is that the “employer” hasn’t budged on a single demand, and we tend to go on strike every 3rd bargaining year or so… which means we’re overdue.


  3. sonnyburnett said

    I’m sure Klein isn’t a marxist, prolly never even heard of Sweezy, judging from my reading of No Logo years ago.

    How are the jobs allocated at York? Ie, the teaching & research assistantships, etc?

    When I was at UMASS (Amherst), it was the graduate students themselves that chose what jobs they wanted, which professors they would TA or do research for. It was done a few days before the start of the year, we all got into a vacant classroom & literally drew staws to see the order we get to chose amongst the jobs for the year that were listed on the blackboard. Then followed a day in which ‘trading’ was allowed. The professors/department administration had no say whatsoever in who did what (other than defining the possible jobs).

    I’m sure that is not something York does? I found the process extremely equitable. It was the students themselves that had the power of selection; favortism by the professors was ruled out.

  4. battleofthegiants said

    That sounds pretty cool, actually. But how big was the department? I can’t see that working well at York, especially where SPT has no department of its own – we get hired by other units.

    What we do get is ‘right of first refusal’ – that is, when you get a job you can keep it until you don’t want it anymore…

  5. sonnyburnett said

    There were about 50 of us Econ grad students or so crammed in that classroom. But the right for students to allocate amongst themselves the various jobs was school-wide (I believe).

    It was a tough union. Won one hell of alot such ‘priveleges.’ Although I do remember that the wage was only a couple bucks higher than minimum wage. (Altho any enrolled grad student had full tuition waver). At U of T, we got paid in the mid-$20s, back in 1994-5.

    What’s the York hrly wage work out to?

    There’s a definite trade-off here I think: does a worker want more $ or more free-choice amongst benefits.

    I worked in HR consultancy for over a decade. It seems the younger you are, the more you opt for cash. When you grow some family roots, the benefits of choice, time off, etc become much more important.

    ‘Right of first refusal’ – sounds like a basic right to quit, w/o consequences?

  6. battleofthegiants said

    It’s not a right to quit, but the right to be the first to be offered the same class again.

  7. The Thing said

    I feel pretty sure I’ve read or heard something from the Z man on MK, but I can’t remember for the life of me where.

    Here is the disjointed beginning of a Z’ian critique a la me:

    1) In his arguments with Critchley, Z says that IF you accept that capitalism and the nation state are here to stay, then why not take conrol of the nation state and use it to make things better? (vs Critchley who seems to think it should be left to the bad guys) BUT he always supplements this by saying that he DOESN’T believe capitalism and the nation state are here to stay.

    2) He agrees that capitalism works best with an obstacle (state intervention), and that attempts to remove the obstalce and let capitalism run freely necessarily lead to a (self-)destructive spiral.

    3) In the bits about economic vs political intervention, he says that the problem is at the economic level (capitalism), but that it should be confronted at the political level (democracy). The big problem is faith in the democratic substance of honest Americans to break up the evil conspiracy, which leads to inteventions into capitalism to make it better (see 2 above), which only strengthen it.

    This is related to the suggestion that we say “I would prefer not to” to demands that we participate in all kinds of moral endeavours, including envirnonmentalism (I’m looking at you, Melanie).

    4) The shock issue seems to me very close to the fear/terror issue in Z. Check out 433-4 in “Lost Causes”. The problem is (I’m half here) that both Klein and her opponents are on the side of the politics of fear. Klein is on the left, afraid of losing nature and humanity to capitalist exploitation, while the shock economists are on the right, afraid of losing their stable paternal society to the terrorists, mullahs, and unwashed masses.

    Zizek, on the other hand, is on the side of terror: “Terror is this ‘self-related’ or ‘self-negated’ fear: it is what fear changes into once we accept that there is no way back, that what we are afraid to lose, what is threatened by what we are afraid of (nature, the life-world, the symbolic substance of our community…) has always-already been lost.” (434)

    The truly terrifying fact is that we are ALREADY in the situation of the clean slate. We are ALREADY not only free to, but completely responsible for, deciding what happens. The ‘shock’ technique of breaking down the existing order into a pure state from which to rebuild is not some proto-fascist pipe dream. It’s the death drive itself. It IS revolution. The problem is that in this case, what’s being created afterwards is stupid capitalism, where nobody has to take responsibility for anything. “You’re starving to death while I eat foie gras? Sorry kid. That’s just how the market works…”


  8. battleofthegiants said


  9. sonnyburnett said

    That last part on freedom/responsibility brings to mind a passage I read in the Foreword to For They a couple days ago, on the superego.

    You have to think of the guilt generated by the superego as always double. Applying it to the symbolic space our economic system carves out for us, the guilt we feel toward not living up to this mandate is again doubled: we have given way on our desire, & the ‘deeper’ guilt is having in the first place transcendentally choosen that that desire is for this economic system.

    So we not only feel guilty, but we also feel guilty for feeling guilty.

    This is the greatest indication that we are in fact free & thus responsible for this economic system, as you say above.

  10. battleofthegiants said

    I agree with 99% of The Thing’s post, but I want to add a little bit about the relation of the death drive to what Klein is calling the ‘shock doctrine’.

    Above I wrote that Klein’s version of how capitalism works is like the inverse of Z’s: Electroshock in place of Psychoanalysis; revolution from above in place of revolution from below. In “Violence” Z writes violence in service of the state is different than that in service of the ‘part-of-no-part’ (see the link to the article on Haiti on the main page): violence that is in service of the state is in the service of what is already in place, (Z refers to Badiou’s idea of “Being”/the ‘state of the situation’) whereas the other is divine violence because it is beyond the Law (putting it in line with Badiou’s Event and Zizek’s Act.) (This is on page 99 of “Violence”). So, what we in effect have is what Badiou (in his little book on ethics) calls a simulacrum of an Event – it’s structure is the same, but it’s foundations are fundamentally different. On one side you have what is taken as a substantial community that has to be protected from an evil, outside force (in this way the Nazi take-over of Germany has the formal structure of an Event, but fails because of what sits at its base) and on the other the ‘extimate’ element that has been left out of the equation.

    I point this out to clarify the character of the ‘clean slate’ and the death drive in these two situations. In the Preface to TKNWTD Zizek throws in a term that I’ve never seen before: “subjective disintegration”, which he counter poses to “subjective destitution” (lxvii). The latter we’re familiar with and is the product of traversing the fantasy. The former is something new: it’s not traversing the fantasy, but having your fundamental fantasy in plain view – which Zizek says is extremely traumatic. I don’t think we could argue that electro-shock brings one face to face with one’s Fundamental fantasy, but it most certainly leads to what we could call “subjective disintegration” – people have nothing left of themselves, not even their synthome. In fact, Klein relates that what has kept people sane in the face of CIA-style torture is some tiny feature of the outside world that bleeds into one’s prison. In the case of one of Ewen Cameron’s ‘patients’ (The dude at McGill who pioneered the CIA’s torture techniques), this was the faint sound of a plane going overhead that broke into the sensory deprivation and kept her intact. In another case (it may have been in Abu-ghraib) it was the faint sound of a tiny bird. Perhaps we could think of this as a ‘synthome’ to which these people clung.

    It’s at this version of the ‘clean slate’ that the horrors of US sponsored (and enacted) war, economic ‘shocking’ and torture bring about: the total destruction of not only the Law, but of things. I.e. They want new regimes of law that allow them to economically rape countries (RE-regulation, and not the myth of de-regulation), and also raze not only institutions, but buildings, culture and (at the top of the list) people. In the case of Iraq in 2001, for example, Klein argues that Rumsfeld had been told by several groups that when the US invaded they needed to protect Iraq’s museums because they contained so much invaluable history. Rumsfeld willfully ignored these warnings, and museums were pillaged and thousands of years of history were lost, to the detriment of the Iraqi people and their sense of self. THIS is the clean slate of a revolution from above.

    In contrast, the ‘clean slate’ of the death drive doesn’t refer to the destruction of things, but of the law: “…Lacan links death drive and creative sublimation: the death drive does the negative work of destruction, of suspending the existing order of Law, thereby, as it were, clearing the table, opening up the space for sublimation, which can (re)start the work of creation” (lxxxiii). (see also xlix, xxx).

    It’s at this point that it makes sense to bring in the central argument of Parallax View: his “wager” is that Materialism shows how the non-material (not the immaterial, as in ‘heaven’ or ‘idealism’) exists. Following Marx (and Lukacs) Zizek argues that while commodity fetishism is just something we do, something ideological, we take it as natural in part because it acutally does have material existence. Money CAN be exchanged for useful objects. Economic crises in financial markets DO have an effect on the planet and its people. In this sense, making a new law would change the objects that we interact with each day. When capitalist economies and the laws that govern them disappear, the objects we trade will still exist, but they will no longer be commodities with exchange values.

    The USG didn’t just smash the law and quickly rewrite the constitution in their favour. They smashed everything else too: before the two wars, Iraq had the best health care, education and other systems in the Middle East. This destruction was, in Klein’s view, a way of breaking people down so they wouldn’t revolt. During the civil war in Russia , it was the billions of dollars pumped into the ‘white armies’ by the US, France and Britain (i.e. the imperialist states) that brought Russia’s economy down to almost nothing. The Revolution itself didn’t break people down, but was instead an attempt to seize the means that enabled people to live and use them for their good instead of that of the ruling class. That is, they wanted to reorganize the laws that made the world work.


  11. The Thing said

    Double Word!

    Pseudo-event and like that.
    Field goal, man.

    Seeing your fundamental fantasy in plain view is maybe the moment when your fantasy is realized and dream turns into nightmare? Torture and economic shock as the rape scene in The Piano Teacher: the sadomasochistic scenario was manageable as a fantasy, but having that enjoyment forced on one in reality is impossible to bear. Trauma as being forced to enjoy. The sound of the airplane may then be precisely a little bit of the stupid meaningless real, reminding you that you are not, in fact, in a perfect dyad with a terrifying supreme being in evil.

    But are torture and shock out, period? Or is this just a matter of a (dare I say) neutral tool in the wrong hands?

    Puts me in mind of Stalin’s forced collectivization and de-kulakization, which Z distinguishes from the Nazi holocaust. He suggests that Stalin’s effort to exterminate the Kulaks as a class (break their resistance) is different from Hilter’s effort to exterminate ther Jews (kill them all). But maybe they are both top down (in the bad sense) from the point of view of the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution.

    He does, after all, make arguments for a revolutionary party and for a kind of centralized power (Lavalas). And he does admit that he can imagine a situation in which he would be willing to torture.

    (Also, I’m a bit suspicious of Klein’s focus on museums – sounds a bit like fretting over the destruction of ‘authentic’ non-Western Iraqi culture. Healthcare and education much more important)


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