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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Naomi Klein has her enemies
Naomi Klein

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Having made her name in the vanguard of the anti-globalisation movement, the writer and activist is now taking on "disaster capitalism", and looking to an older audience.

That most august journal the Economist has chosen to do battle with her in the past. In 2002 it described her as having all the "incoherence and self-righteous disgust of the alienated adolescent".

Venture into the blogosphere and there are more vitriolic views. On one message board she is dismissed as suffering "mindlessness and intellectual sloth" and of pandering to "elitist commies who want us all living in cubicles, not owning motor vehicles and eating government-provided tofu".

Klein's 2000 work No Logo is the reason for the fuss. A monster seller, it brought a left-wing take on the economics of globalisation to an audience that often didn't venture into the business pages of the paper.

Seattle WTO protest
The battle of Seattle
In the dying days of the last millennium, Seattle was gripped by protests against a World Trade Organization meeting that saw Gap and Starbucks outlets destroyed and police clashing with activists.

No Logo - a critique of branding and the role multinationals were playing in poor labour conditions in the Third World - was published soon afterwards and read by those hoping to understand more about the phenomenon dubbed "anti-globalisation".

Now Klein is about to release The Shock Doctrine. Its central theory is controversial. There is a rapacious section of capitalism that is seeking out disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the chaos of the Iraq war to push its neo-liberal economic ideology and make "superprofits" by radical privatisation at the same time.

"It's the story of how crises and disasters have midwifed the modern free market. But that's not really fair to midwives," Klein jokes.

'Don't call me a...'

Dressed in a sombre jacket and jeans, Klein, as many have observed previously, bears little resemblance to the foot soldiers of the movement that adopted No Logo as its bible. If it were a case of storming the gates of capitalism, she seems like someone who might knock first. The Economist's description of a "part pop star, part crusader" does not ring true.

I don't feel my work is polemical - people like to call me a polemicist because it makes it easier to dismiss
Naomi Klein
"I'm not much of a celebrity figure. I don't go to parties or do stunts," Klein insists. Much has been written about her roots in Canada, of her activist grandparents and parents, and of her early love of the trappings of the consumerist society. But she would much rather be known for her work than her personality.

"For No Logo I was thinking about younger readers, 19, 20 years old, who are becoming politically aware. I wanted to give them the facts and figures and arguments to back them up. I'm not writing for such a young audience any more although I'm determined not to lose that readership.

"I don't feel my work is polemical. People like to call me a polemicist because it makes it easier to dismiss."

In the era when the mainstream media is increasingly held to account by bloggers as much as anybody, Klein wants to stress that all of the research and documents for the book will be put online. It seems unlikely that this will stop the bloggers subjecting her work to a frisking, but she is undaunted.

"There is a healthy exchange between right-wing and left-wing blogs. I get attacked and people defend me. What right-wing bloggers say about me doesn't concern me."

What does concern her is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Tsunami damage in Sri Lanka and Thailand, the rise of the Russian oligarchy, war in Lebanon and the political upheavals in South America.

They are all examples, Klein insists, of opportunities being seized by right-wing academics and businessmen to impose radical economic restructuring, through privatisation and other neo-liberal reform, on shocked communities.

Inspiration in e-mail

A group e-mail sent to activists in the wake of the tsunami inspired the book, she says.

"He described how the shock of the disaster was being exploited by international lenders and the US State Department and the national government in Sri Lanka to move the coastal people into inland camps and hand the coast over to developers."

Milton Friedman and George Bush
George Bush and Milton Friedman together in 2002
It followed on from an essay dealing with allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the reconstruction of Iraq.

"In Iraq I saw this interplay between three distinct forms of shock, the shock and awe invasion, the economic shock therapy imposed by Paul Bremer and the shock of torture which was used to get the country in line when it began rebelling.

"[Corruption allegations were] just a parade of seemingly unconnected scandals that are forever written off as incompetence, maybe greed, and that's one of the main goals of the book, to take this serial scandal culture and put it in a stronger analytical framework.

"It is never presented within a context of this being a natural result of an ideological programme of rampant outsourcing."

The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who died in 2006, features heavily in the book. Described by some as the defining economist of the post-war era, his teaching at the University of Chicago inspired a generation of economists to try and bring free market policies to South America, as well as heavily influencing both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

He believed free market capitalism and democracy were inextricably linked and advocated stagnant economies the world over must be reformed and opened up to rigorous competition for the benefit of their citizens. It seems unlikely he was a fan of Klein's work.

But to supporters and opponents alike, Klein has a final plea.

"I just want to share this information, I don't want to rant."

Naomi Klein will be giving a talk on the book at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's Southbank Centre on Thursday 13 September at 1930 BST. The Shock Doctrine is published by Penguin.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Markets are useful for driving efficiencies in many processes, but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The most successful countries in the world, the ones which developed the fastest and remain the richest, are the ones where the government played a key role - fostering their domestic industries and protecting them from foreign competition. That is true in Japan, in the Asian Tiger economies - and yes, even in the home of the free market itself - the USA. Take for example its protectionist policies with regards lumber imports from Canada - if they stuck strictly to Friedman economics their lumber industry would have been wiped out, just as their motor industry is being wiped out because they're choosing not to be protectionist there. So you can imagine the effect of Friedman policies in developing countries - in every place it has been tried it has been an unmitigated disaster. Friedman designed some elegant equations, but they have no place in the real world. Keynesian economics remains the most successful model we have.
Gareth Hitchings, Ottawa, Canada

Reconstruction efforts are widely documented, the reconstruction efforts of Germany and Japan after World War II are pretty much the blueprint still used today. The reason why capitalism is used after a disaster is very simple, it works at creating jobs, money and the necessities of life. Capitalism is about empowerment of all, not the dead hand of left-wing collectivisation or centralisation that is incredibly wasteful by comparison. In these countries where all resources are scarce, surely any waste is a terrible crime?
Mike, London, UK

Mike, Klein specifically distinguishes the rebuilding of German and Japan post-war with the rebuilding of Iraq. Indeed, she calls it the anti-Marshall plan. The Guardian ran excerpts recently which delved into those differences.
Rich Johnston, London

Klein says: "I wanted to give them the facts and figures and arguments to back them up." For me, that one sentence summarises all that is wrong with the media: picking an argument and then using the "facts and figures" which match, instead of the other way round. I think it's this which is largely responsible for irresponsible reporting, be it in the media, or books like this.
Paul, Reading

There's nothing shameful in being a polemicist. They shape the world, for good or evil. Moreover, it takes one to know one.
Clive, London

Unlike radicals of the 60s and 70s who (rightly or wrongly) had answers, Klein can only really point out some problems that are obvious. The problem for the counter-culture is summed up by the Seattle protestor holding up a placard reading: "Destroy capitalism - replace it with something cuddlier." This intellectual vacuum is filled today by a gamut of "anti" pressure groups with little in common; from socialists to peace campaigners and jihadists to environmentalists. The ugly face is capitalism is all too obvious - we need to find the ways to tackle its excesses. Naomi Klein is right about that.
Tom White, Norwich, UK

Milton Friedman "believed free market capitalism and democracy were inextricably linked"? Utter rubbish. Friedman & the Chicago Boys are most famous for applying their economic theory in South American fascist dictatorships - which were generally created by crushing left-leaning democracies.
Bob Frigo, Bristol, UK

The Soviet Union was economically dying therefore need drastic restructuring.
The tsunami aftermath was characterised by charities and government donations.
Chavez, Castro et al are hardly examples of how to manage an economy.
Loony left drivel that wouldn't be given in-depth coverage by any other news organisation
GA Kent, Kent

I have a little experience of the economics of food aid (driven more by agribusiness interests in the US, for example, than by humanitarian concerns) and I am already convinced that organisations and governments who intervene for allegedly humanitarian reasons often have an ulterior motive - which may be the promotion of national business interests, or even the straightforward push for political power and influence. Disasters present particularly vulnerable people, so ruthless interests may well see them as ideal opportunities of advancing their business or other political interests. Klein's hypothesis doesn't sound at all surprising to me, and if she has some good evidence to support it, I look forward to reading the book.
Neil Alldred, Ballymena, Northern Ireland

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