Before I commend The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism to everybody’s reading stock, which I anyhow will, we better wander the twists and knots of the streets of Naples so I can explain to you why Canadian journalist Naomi Klein probably bears the best nose for picketing non-fiction books yet, even if this phenomenal reportage has turned out to be a fiasco.
Here, I want you to meet singer Giovanni Vacca and Vacca’s Grupo Operaio, with their brazen, almost deafening repertoire rooted in the ancient tamurriata musical tradition of drums. The Grupo’s is a terrific story.
But you must now travel back in time, too: trust me, this real-life tale will throw a light into the works of Naomi Klein as you never expected.
In the Old Continent, circa 1968, while the teenagers of privileged families shook in disarray universities in a French-May style throughout Western Europe, southern Italy kept things, let’s say, tighter. Professor Giovanni Sartori has published some interesting papers in Cambridge University Press about this particular society-like most of its north Mediterranean neighbours’, a democratic dystopia (across the waters, the dystopia is perfect)-in which Marxism, to name but one modern economics term, hardly applies since industrialisation did nothing to a petrified, medieval mentality.
Accordingly, in this raucous spot of the boot-like country, the spirit of revolution barely amounted to anything more than some blue-collar peons agreeing on brotherly gatherings at night.
They would join to compose music, although much later the legend assured candid believers that they spoke of Lenin. Their bodies still aching after exploitative shifts in the car-making factories of the city’s suburbs, workers would bring guitars and flutes and cheap drums that their parents and grandparents had left behind as their only riches. Then, they would sing together.
It is when one learns of Grupo Operaio’s origins that one realises where Vacca’s wisdoms painfully come from: “E qui và a faticà pur’a morte adela afruntà…” (“those who go to work may die.” )
And this is the trouble with The Shock Doctrine. For all the ambition that prodded Klein to reinterpret the economic and political history of the last half century, her lessons hold the same cogency as a Vacca’s song does.
In The New York Times, literary reviewer Tom Redburn said precisely so when Klein’s book appeared in September, 2007: “If only it were that simple.”
A long list of comments from journalists and economists ensued-to The Shock Doctrine’s credit-, but the flaw proved woeful for an otherwise arresting and inspiring piece of investigative journalism. Joseph Stiglitz was blatant: “There are no accidents in the world as seen by Naomi Klein… there are many places in her work where she oversimplifies.” “This is part of my problem with Klein’s thesis,” Sashi Thardor wrote in The Washington Post, “she’s too ready to see a single enemy where others might discern little more than the all-too-human pattern of greed.”
Outside of the progressive newspapers’ bubble, Klein latest book has been dismissed using much the same tone. Paul Farrell joked about it in Dow Jones Business News: “A hot tip? Invest in Disaster Capitalism, but there is no pressure of reading yet another prognosis of our world’s Orwellian future.”
Farrell was right in both accounts: The Shock Doctrine has been translated into 27 languages as No Logo was, an indisputable market nod to Klein’s success in spreading her pessimistic, nonconformist word.
Nevertheless, we should not be fooled by this riddle, often brandished by the shrewd defenders of wild capitalism-i.e. Nicolas Blincoe referring to The Shock Doctrine in The Daily Telegraph as “an old-fashioned book.” The truth is that there is a bloody line that scars our economic foundations and goes from the extreme ideology that Milton Friedman championed to president Ronald Reagan and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, from the C.I.A.’s involvement in Chilean general Pinochet’s dictatorship to the capitalist conversion suffered in South Africa, Poland or Russia. Ultimately, that very line renders too unambiguous a message on the military operations over the Middle East.
To this day, Klein’s 558-page report has required two minor corrections: if only for this reason, let everyone read The Shock Doctrine.
Although not so to understand the trillion-dollar programmes of the White House and Downing Street, which today sustain the financial sector and breathes oxygen into ailing industries. The state’s hand in the global economy is visible and commanding. This is pure John Maynard Keynes’ principles in action-Friedman’s foe-, something Klein utterly failed to forecast because of the narrow peep-hole of her economic theory.
Still, I have a second complaint. Remember Vacca? At least, his pre-proletarian anthems arise in Naples’ coarse, rusty mother tongue in which a coagulated Greco-Roman heritage drips here and there slices of what feels like working class’ pride. It’s daunting, it’s rough, and it’s profoundly moving.
It even is arousing. “If you want to build a ship,” Oscar Wilde once said, “don’t herd people together to collect wood and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” If there’s no beauty and grace in poverty and oppression, there is no hope, either. That, after thirty years, Grupo Operaio has not forgotten.
Open The Shock Doctrine’s pages and the question bursts in a matter of minutes: why is Klein’s writing so boisterously ugly?
That, I fear, is the consequence of Klein being a stunning 40-year-old, middle-class intellectual. She doesn’t quite get how life under hardship is, does she?