Mabli Jones, friend of Plaid Ifanc, offers a glimpse at what history can teach us about how world powers deal with disasters such as the Covid-19 pandemic, based on the book and subsequent documentary ‘The Shock Doctrine’ by Naomi Klein.
If you are intrigued and want to learn more, check out the free documentary, also some of Naomi Klein’s resources are available online for free such as this shortened version of the book.
The author will also take part in an online discussion with The Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner this Thursday, 2 July 2020, 7pm–8pm. Tickets can be found here.
In the Covid-19 crisis, we see the perfect conditions for repeating and perfecting the techniques of the Shock Doctrine on an unprecedented scale. In her book on the phenomenon, Naomi Klein outlines how the West’s proponents of rampant capitalism use crises of all kinds to implement neoliberal reforms without democratic engagement. Klein refers to this as 'disaster capitalism', and outlines how it has been used across the world in the aftermath of natural disasters, political crises and wars. Disaster capitalism helps create and takes advantage of these crises to open up new markets for private companies and ensure the spread of neoliberalism to every corner of the globe. Klein outlines a number of factors that create fertile ground for disaster capitalism: a major crisis, a frightened population under siege, a chaotic atmosphere and ineffective democratic structures — factors which are all present in the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is a crisis affecting every part of the planet. Everyday life has changed completely and a collective trauma is unfolding before our eyes, with the numbers of dead so high that they are difficult to comprehend. People feel anxious, disorientated and overwhelmed. Add to that the serious weaknesses of our media and democratic structures and we have a perfect situation for disaster capitalists to implement a programme of changes to our economy and society in the interests of profit.
It is clear that many governments and companies intend to use the crisis to do just that. This is evident in the disproportionate restrictions on our civil liberties; the outsourcing of services to respond to the pandemic (and its disastrous consequences); the quiet privatisation of services and the increasing murmurs that austerity will have to be resurrected once the crisis has passed. The accounting firm Deloitte runs testing services; Palantir has been contracted to keep and analyse data regarding Covid-19, and Amazon has seen a huge increase in its profits. Klein has outlined how a 'pandemic shock doctrine' is emerging, with politicians and tech companies taking advantage of the disaster to redesign essential services and daily life to give more money and power to Silicon Valley.
The Welsh Government’s response so far has not indicated a desire to break with the neoliberal consensus. Amazon was given a contract to develop a testing ‘portal’ despite reports of its staff being fired for raising concerns about unsafe working conditions. The programme was cancelled due to problems with its design, but the Government is not prepared to reveal how much money was given to Amazon for this failure. Furthermore, the ‘experts’ who have been appointed to the Government’s advisory panel on leading Wales out of the pandemic include Gordon Brown and the IFS — evangelists of neoliberal dogma.
The pandemic is a foreshadowing of what we can expect with the climate crisis. The two crises share a number of worrying features, including the exponential rate at which the crisis can intensify; the prioritisation of the needs of the market over lives and the potential deaths of millions of vulnerable people. A crisis of this magnitude, whether a pandemic or climate breakdown, will fundamentally alter our society, but the way it will change is undecided.
One vision of our future is a world in which disaster capitalism intensifies and accelerates current trends. A vision the pandemic theorist Mike Davis has called ‘walls not vaccines’, where the rich do all they can to protect themselves and their wealth at the expense of ordinary people’s lives across the world. This will be a world where our public services will have been hollowed-out and put in private hands. As Klein predicts, more power will be given to a handful of tech giants, and work and services will be concentrated in the home for the privileged while more and more workers will be pushed into insecure and unsafe jobs. Our atomisation will be intensified and the need for human contact will have been de-normalised. We will fear others for their ability to carry infection, and some groups will be stigmatised as vectors of disease, leading to further cruel and hard borders. We will have been conditioned to expect and accept mass death, and will have got used to a calculation that sacrifices the vulnerable for the benefit of capital.
But there is another choice. A choice we can make when we see how a crisis such as this reveals that it is a lie that there is no other way of doing things. Neoliberal politicians have
already been forced to implement policies that go against the grain in order to avoid even more deaths: rough sleeping has almost been eradicated in Cardiff and other cities, migrants have been released from detention and the income of many workers has been guaranteed by the state. We can see that what was deemed possible, affordable or desirable is contingent — and is decided by ideology, not pragmatism.
If there is hope in this crisis, it is that it will lead people to see that it is possible — and necessary — to organise our society in a different way. We can hope that we will come out of the crisis with a deeper understanding of our fundamental interdependence, having formed new social solidarities and an understanding that the British capitalist state does not have our best interests at heart. And through this development of solidarity and empathy we will demand that society is rebuilt on a different foundation — on the conviction that each and every one of us is deserving of health, dignity and joy.
We cannot go back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic. Our current way of organising society is incompatible with the wellbeing of our communities and the long term survival of our planet. But as Klein has argued in another book published following the election of Trump, ‘no’ is not enough. The left has to go further than saying what we oppose — we must also offer an alternative vision to inspire people, and fight for it. Disaster capitalists will take advantage of this situation to enact their vision, and the left must also take the opportunity to offer solutions and win support for our cause. For it is only our solutions that can tackle this crisis, and those to come.
People before us fought for a better future in times that looked just as dark as these. We have to keep the faith in a better future in order to be able to fight for it. And by acting in cooperation with others that faith will be strengthened. We must speak out, take action, look after each other and ourselves. In the face of different possibilities for our future, let us take the opportunity to fight to change course and forge something much better from the ashes of the present.