Reading 'The Shock Doctrine' in Cairo

[The following article was provided by Cairo-based Australian journalist Austin Mackell and first appeared at his website, Moon Under Water. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with his permission.]

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Story and photos by Austin G. Mackell, Cairo

April 12, 2011 -- Moon Under Water -- The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, is the duck's fucking nuts. The most fitting endorsement I have heard of it comes from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “The only book of the last few years in American publishing that I would describe as a mandatory must-read. Literally the only one.”

The Shock Doctrine synthesises an incredible amount of information into a single piercing argument against the myth that free markets and democracy march hand in hand around the globe, throwing cheeseburgers, happiness and women’s rights at anyone not too backward to know what’s good for them. The picture that emerges from her work rather, is one of a rising corporatism, exploiting and sometimes creating disasters, violence, crises and transitions – times when nations are disoriented and vulnerable – to engineer massive movements of wealth away from the people and into the pockets of global and local elites. These shocks are often not enough, however, to completely erase resistance and so further shocks: torture chambers, murders, disappearances, become necessary.

She organises her case studies, from Chile to Iraq, as well as her close and critical studies of the thinkers behind them, Milton Friedman and his discredited “Chicago boys”, around the metaphor of shock. This is massively strengthened by her study of American psychiatrist Dr Ewan Cameron, who is one of those head-shrinkers who make you think the Scientologists might have a point, especially when you read that he was president, at various stages, of the Canadian, American and world psychiatrist foundations.

Both before and after he was brought into the CIA’s MKUltra program (the one that also involved giving heavy doses of LSD to soldiers, in an attempt to make super-soldiers, as deadly on the turntables at a psy-trance party as they are on the battlefield), Cameron treated schizophrenics by combining strange cocktails of drugs with use of electroshock therapy in doses dozens of times higher and for much longer durations than were clinically prescribed. This left his patients shattered wrecks, sucking their thumbs and wetting themselves. Cameron was encouraged. The reason for this, as Klein makes clear, was that regression and amnesia, thought of by his colleagues as terrible side effects, were to Cameron “the essential point of the treatment, the key to bringing the patient back to an earlier stage of development long before the schizophrenic thinking made their appearance”.

This metaphor works easiest when applied to Iraq, where the “Shock and Awe”, designed to achieve “rapid dominance” was applied. They (the theory goes) had to be bombed back to the stone age, before they could be transformed into a functioning market democracy. There is a yearning common to Cameron and the US empire for a blank slate upon which to start afresh. Another commonality is the reaction, when the prescription fails, of simply upping the voltage. The problem was always that we only removed half the subsidies on food and didn’t cut corporate tax enough, (think Keating’s J curve, on crack, acid and steroids, and armed to the teeth).

There are, as others have argued, limits to this metaphor and some of the case studies, particularly those practising what Klein calls “voodoo-politics” (coming to power promising one thing, then doing another) like South Africa, Poland and Argentina under Peron, seem to only just fit the model. There are also other countries, equally oppressed and unequal, which do not fit at all and are not discussed in her book. Egypt, at first glance, is one of these countries. The deeper truth she exposed, however – that the radical free market ideologies that have gained ascendency are not being embraced around the world, but are forced down the unwilling throats of its people like poison pills – applies perfectly.

There was an attempt, under Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat, to push through sweeping reforms that sorta-kinda fit the “shock” model. Following Egypt’s victorious war with Israel in 1973, Sadat decided to negotiate, from a position of relative strength, the transfer or Egypt’s Cold War allegiance from the Soviet Union to the US empire, which at the time was still largely able to manage the economic affairs of its vassals through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

So, as Sadat flew to Jerusalem to salute the Israeli flag, the shock-doctors drew up a plan. Sadat named it “Infitah” , which means “open door”. It was the same plan as always. Cut public sector jobs and wages, cut the subsidies that keep millions out of poverty, privatise, deregulate etc., etc. They didn’t quite get away with it though. The country erupted in riots with Egyptians famously carrying banners asking “Oh hero of the crossing [of the Suez Canal], where is our bread?” Sadat reacted with violent oppression, killing 78 people and wounding over 800 more. He was forced, in the end, temporarily at least to back down. The subsidies were re-introduced.

According to Klein’s theory, he would have had a better chance had he lost the war instead of won, and the best chance of all if he had lost badly, if Cairo had been bombed like Beirut or even Baghdad. Then the population would have been too bewildered to resist. Had this point been made to Sadat, perhaps he would have seen more clearly what coming over to the US camp really meant.

Sadat, along with his right-hand man and eventual successor Mubarak, did eventually find the right balance of stealth and state violence to introduce Infitah in piecemeal fashion. Poverty and the repression it necessitated worsened. The process accelerated in the 1990s, with privatisations beginning, but it wasn’t until the middle of the last decade, when the “new guard” of Egyptian leaders, the president’s son Gamal Mubarak and his cronies – trained in management and economics at US universities – took over that the non-consensual arse-fucking (both figurative and literal, Egypt’s secret police have a special liking for tortures involving sodomy) kicked into high gear.

These mafioso, unlike the military strongmen who mostly began their careers in the days of Nasser’s socialist pan-Arabism, had never served a dictatorship that took its supposed benevolence seriously. They loved the idea of privatisations. Especially if they got first bid on the best bargains. Corruption, as Klein argues forcefully in The Shock Doctrine, is not, as is oft implied, mixed in with the neoliberal project as a result of it operating in corrupt societies full of dirty foreigners, but woven into the fabric of an ideology that thinks big business should be self-regulatory.

As conditions became unbearable, however, resistance began to pick up. The main form it took was strikes, particularly in the heavily industrialised cities of eastern cities of near the Suez Canal, and in Mahalla el Kubra, North of Cairo, in the heart of the Nile Delta. A 2007 strike in Mahalla, of more than 20,000 workers from the Textile Workers Union (TWU) scared the bosses so bad that within a week the workers returned victorious, with promises made of better pay (including unpaid bonuses and back pay), better conditions and the rest. Sadly, as 2008 came around, the promises rang hollow. The TWU organised another strike and showing a strategic depth and commitment that surprised many, they expanded their demands to include an end to repression, better health care, a “just judiciary” and an end to corruption and torture. They asked, in short, for “freedom and dignity”. It was a challenge to the whole abusive regime and the cowboy capitalist policies it was pushing. They set the date for April 6. A group of mostly middle-class tweeps from Egypt’s latte belt found out and decided to create a Facebook page to take the day of actions national. It soon had more than 60,000 members, and formed a network that many credit with a key role in the January 25 uprising this year.

On the day itself, the regime’s thugs managed to take over the factories and intimidate the strikers into working, arresting some to set an example for the rest. But as they fell others rose whose protests rocked the rest of Mahalla, and met violent repression at the hands of the police who killed two people, including a 15-year-old boy. Around the country many shops stayed shuttered for the day. Thousands of police were deployed around Cairo, especially at the universities, to pre-emptively suppress any protests in solidarity.

Despite these hints, no one really saw it coming, not like this, not so soon. Not the largely overpaid and underworked hacks who pass, by and large, as Middle East experts in the Western press, not the pro-Arab voices who have so long argued against the violent domination that we, the West, have imposed on the region, and certainly not the US state department jocks who crashed my house-party here in Cairo and proceeded to set up a beer pong table, smoke hash (without offering their hosts any) and make out in the middle of the room like horny high-schoolers. As they pointed out though, the Egyptians didn’t even see it coming. Not even – by their own admission – the revolutionaries themselves.

The difference is how able people are to make sense of it how it happened and how much insight they can offer into what comes next. This is another place The Shock Doctrine comes in. As Klein showed, the people at the pointy end of the disastrous and discredited “Washington consensus” are not inclined to go down without a fight. If they were, the bombs, the torture chambers and the “voodoo politics” would not be necessary.

While repression by the remnants of the old regime (which, while unstable, is still largely in place) continues, it is the possibility of extreme voodoo politics that threatens Egypt’s revolution most directly.

Klein’s chapter on South Africa springs to mind. There, while Mandella, fresh from prison, led the African National Congress (ANC) in the highly publicised negotiations over politics, Thabo Mbeki quietly sold out the ANC’s economic platform of nationalisations and redistribution to negotiators from the World Bank and IMF and the country’s white moneyed interests. When the new parliament was formed they found themselves unable to implement the policies they had promised their base. Some semblance of political rights was granted to the population, but nothing that would allow them power over their economic future. As Klein puts it, the situation before the end of apartheid was that of a “Californian living standards for whites and Congolese living standards for blacks”. Now, she says, more analogous comparisons would be “Beverly Hills and Baghdad”.

This scenario repeating itself in Egypt is certainly conceivable, though the mechanics of it would be different. Here it is the army, which has attacked, arrested and tortured protesters since assuming power, and called for an end to the continuing strikes by workers, who seem the greatest threat to the complimentary goals of democracy and economic justice.

Since Nasser’s coup in 1952, the army, the intelligence forces, the National Democratic Party and the business elite have grown ever more entwined. The army, however, has mostly operated from behind the scenes. This – combined with the fact that every eligible Egyptian man (the vast majority) is required to serve in it, and a longstanding ban on discussing the armed forces in print – has left the military with a certain gloss of respectability in the eyes of all but the most informed Egyptians. As well as this they have both state TV and private TV, owned by the same old elite, firmly on their side.

That is one reason many activists here give for the recent yes vote over the constitutional amendments, which were written up under the army’s supervision and which most of those still busy campaigning for democratic causes (the release of political prisoners, an end to torture and such) opposed. The changes, they say, did not do enough to limit presidential power. Under them parliamentary elections would be held in just a few months – not enough time for new parties to organise. The people who will benefit from this rush to the polls will be the usual old elites, and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have had a decades-long headstart.

The result of this vote tells us something else as well, that a wedge has been successfully driven between those who want to seize the moment push through with a radical re-shaping of society, and the “normal” majority, who are mostly glad to have Mubarak gone, but are also eager to get the country “back on it’s feet”.

There was a very visceral demonstration of this on March 9, when the army joined with armed civilians (possibly paid thugs) in clearing Tahrir Square of about a thousand protesters, including a few hundred or so who had set up tents with the intention of camping out. People around the square cheered – many of them businesspeople dependent on tourism, which they blame the continuing demonstrations for deterring. Many others, however, seemed motivated by a more general sense that these troublemakers needed to stop their protestations and let life go on.

It was reminiscent of a scene from The Most Dangerous Man in America, a documentary about the life of Daniel Ellsburg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers. When Ellsburg and another activist are to go on trial, a psychologist tells their lawyers not to choose any middle-aged men. These men, the psychologist tells them, are likely to have sacrificed principle, at some stage or other in their life, for the sake of their careers, their families, their security. Such men are liable to resent the young men in front of them, who are prepared to put it all on the line.

Not long after I got to Cairo my flatmate here  talked of a “shame” felt by some members of the older generations as they saw their children bring down an evil regime they had tolerated so long. That such shame could morph into resentment, anxiety and fear is also a possibility, and we could see segments of the population embracing distinctively counter-revolutionary forces. Let us hope not, for if democracy is crushed in Egypt – the cultural and geographic centre of the Arab world – the chances for it in the rest of the region will be immeasurably diminished.

I am still optimistic though, as are most of the Egyptian activists I speak to. They know that if the lives of ordinary Egyptians do not improve, and fast, whoever is in charge will have big problems on their hands. The regime is on the back foot.

As the Egyptians and other Arabs have shown us over the last three months, The Shock Doctrine can work in reverse. When surprised, when overwhelmed, when beset on all sides, the Mubaraks of this world, the generals that serve them and the empire that backs them, can be shocked to. We can leave them spinning, confused and vulnerable. They too, can be forced, under such conditions to make concessions they would not have dreamed possible. The people can, it seems in such circumstances, achieve their own rapid dominance.

About Austin G. Mackell

I am a freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of corporate and community outlets from my hometown of Sydney and from the Middle East, including from Lebanon during Israel's 2006 invasion and from Iran during the tumultuous presidential elections there in 2009. I keep this blog as well as The Review of The New York Review of Books ( I have recently moved to Cairo to watch the revolutions in Arab world unfold.