Though Naomi Klein became well-known in Canada, the U.K. and Europe after her first book, No Logo (Picador, 2000), unmasked the global injustices hidden by glossy corporate marketing, she’s not yet a mainstream name in the U.S.
She has another chance with her new populist manifesto, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books), in which she delivers a powerful blow to the prevailing belief that democracy and unfettered capitalism go hand in hand. A dissenting history of the last 40 years, the book shows how U.S. economist Milton Friedman and his “Chicago School” followers, working as advisers to foreign governments and through institutions like the International Monetary Fund, have exploited political upheaval and natural disasters to impose “free markets” around the world.
While Klein’s argument is unflinching, on a recent afternoon in her publisher’s New York office, she exudes a winning mix of smart-girl confidence and mischievous humor. Asked about the roots of her political interests, she recalls with amusement that, when given a choice of topics for a ninth grade research paper, she chose “America: Policeman to the World” and wrote about the 1973 military coup in Chile, with the view, now widely believed, that it was backed by the CIA.
That precocious choice speaks to the influence of Klein’s activist family. Her parents moved from New York to Montreal in the ’60s because of her physician father’s opposition to the Vietnam war. Though the family returned to the U.S in 1971 when Klein was an infant, they moved back to Canada after five years because her father preferred working in that country’s socialized health-care system and her feminist filmmaker mother missed its arts subsidies. The family is still close: Klein’s brother, Seth, an economist who runs a progressive Canadian think tank, was her “secret weapon” while writing the new book, says Klein, who studied English and philosophy at the University of Toronto. “I would just call him at any time and demand a tutorial on monetary theory,” she laughs.
Klein’s monthly political columns in the Nation and in the U.K.’s Guardian—not to mention her marriage to Canada’s top political TV talk show host, Avi Lewis—underpin her media bona fides. But her sharp pen is fueled less by journalistic ambition than by an activist desire to connect with people living on the knife-edge of economic policies they didn’t choose.
The Shock Doctrine grew out of Klein’s travels to Iraq in 2003, where she watched the reconstruction by Western multinationals; to New Orleans in 2005, where the public schools were taken over by private companies; and to Sri Lanka after the tsunami, where fishing villages were seized by resort developers. In each place, she found that disaster had cleared the way for corporations to feed off newly privatized zones, pushing local government aside. Klein’s fluidly written, thoroughly documented 672-page book also traces Milton Friedman’s influence on the corrupt sale of Russia’s state economy to oligarchs in the ’90s; on China’s conversion to capitalism; and on economic experiments in Latin American countries such as Chile, where Friedman personally advised dictator Augustin Pinochet in 1975.
While Klein expects significant attention for the September 18 publication of The Shock Doctrine in Canada and the U.K., she is waiting to see the reaction in the U.S., where Friedman’s “free market” values aren’t as widely questioned. So far, there’s been some media interest, but no firm bookings. To stimulate word-of-mouth, Klein has developed a short film trailer for the book with director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and his son Jonás, which has been accepted to the Venice Film Festival in August, part of the Venice Biennale.
Though she admits her book may daunt casual readers, Klein wrote it as a counterweight to the strategies refined by Friedman and his followers. “There is no better way to push through unwanted economic policies than with the deliberate disorientation of the population,” she explains. “This book is about understanding those techniques and knowing our own history, so the next time we get shocked—whether with a hurricane or threatened war or terrorist attack—we stay oriented and grounded.” In this shrill political climate, Klein could be the fresh voice readers are looking for.