Shock Resistance

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and I see the standards movement in US education policy now less as an isolated case, that is, isolated to the US and education in particular, and more connected to events in the larger world of politics and economics. It’s good to have a frame of reference for what often seems like random “winds of change” blowing in from different corners of the rhetorical universe.

NCLB’s mandate for all students to achieve academic proficiency has always seemed like a ploy to blame and shame schools, teachers, and teacher unions, to justify privatizing the public system. What I learned from Klein’s book is just how accurate that suspicion was, and how much further free market rhetoric reaches than Education in the US. You might say that Naomi Klein has identified the source of that particular current and charted it’s course. Klein documents a 30 year history of free market economic reforms that have ravaged (or “transformed,” depending on your point of view) populations around the globe.

In Doomed to Fail, an article by Claudia Wallis that appeared in Time last month, came confirmation of the privatization scheme from an ex-official of Bush’s education ministry:

Susan Neuman, a professor of education at the University Michigan who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush’s first term, was and still is a fervent believer in the goals of NCLB. And she says the President and then Secretary of Education Rod Paige were too. But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and “blow it up a bit,” she says. “There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.”

I’m not sure how anyone could be a “fervent believer” in NCLB, unless we’re talking about religious faith. As Wallis herself observed, “There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush Administration’s signature domestic achievement.”

Exactly. Never mind that the funding didn’t materialize. No amount of funding will make pigs fly, water run uphill, or help every student pass a lousy test. One of the more distressing items in Barack Obama’s education platform is that he thinks that “No Child Left Behind Left the Money Behind.” Yes, there are problems with schools. Lots of them. But a more elaborate, fully-funded, testing scheme is not what we need.

We need a comprehensive economic justice agenda, with things like “free public education from pre-K through graduate school, job creation, long-term unemployment insurance and retiree benefits, accessible low- or no-cost health care, affordable housing, and quality child and senior care,” of which public education reform, directed by parents and school community members, is a piece.

But Shock Doctrine isn’t about Education. It’s about economic “reform” and the imposition of “shock therapy” on societies for the sake of corporate growth. Klein credits Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics as the ideological source of a movement to roll back social gains for working class people which came as a result of the New Deal. She says, “What they wanted was not a revolution exactly, but a capitalist Reformation: a return to uncontaminated capitalism (p. 66).”

Klein quotes Milton Friedman, from his 1982 introduction to Capitalism and Freedom:

Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

She also says:

If we look at this history our present makes sense. This talk is about becoming shock resistant. And I believe that knowing this history is what makes us shock resistant. If we look at places that are becoming shock resistant, like Latin America, it’s because they understand where the current attacks fit into a 500 year hisotry of taking advantage of crisis - of violent imposition of capitalism, and that is what makes social movements strong - having our eyes wide open - not false optimism.

The basic disaster strategy: Ignore infrastructure until it fails (claiming there isn’t money to maintain it). When a crisis hits, and while everyone is disoriented (in shock), funnel public funds to contractors who’ll presumably make it all better. Use force to suppress the opposition. Remember, US prisons are business opportunities now, too. Klein calls this “disaster capitalism.” A few people get rich, and everybody else gets screwed.

Klein recommends that we look to Latin America for examples of alternatives to the “Washington Consensus,” examples of a human rights movement that she calls “disaster collectivism,” in which people have the right to participate in their own social reconstruction.

Shock Doctrine was a best seller last year, and it just came out in paperback, which is how I happen to be reading it. Klein’s documentation is online, including current examples from the news. This short video summarizes the thesis.

The book has had a powerful organizing effect on my thinking, and I’m probably not done talking about it. There’s a section on New Orleans and what happened after Katrina that I want to look at more closely. There’s a lot more at stake in the school reform agenda than curriculum, achievement, and technology if we feed the rhetoric of strong American schools through Klein’s historical and economic filter. Inequality is up, these days, you know.