Is Haiti to be another victim of disaster capitalism?

The Haitian disaster has boosted Naomi Klein’s theory of ‘disaster capitalism‘. In an article entitled Disaster capitalism headed for Haiti, Stephen Lendman provides a summary of Klein’s argument and a trenchant account of recent events in Haiti as a powerful reinforcement of her central thesis, featuring American imperialism at its worst.

“Neoliberalism dominates the world with America its main exponent exploiting security threats, terror attacks, economic meltdowns, competing ideologies, tectonic political or economic shifts, and natural disasters to impose its will everywhere. As a result, wars are waged, social services cut, public ones privatized, and freedom sacrificed when people are too distracted, cowed or in duress to object. Disaster capitalism is triumphant everywhere from post-Soviet Russia to post-apartheid South Africa, occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, Honduras before and after the US-instigated coup, post-tsunami Sri Lanka and Aceh, Indonesia, New Orleans post-Katrina, and now heading to Haiti full-throttle after its greatest ever catastrophe. The same scheme always repeats, exploiting people for profits, the prevailing neoliberal idea that “there is no alternative” so grab all you can.”

This is a fair summary of the thesis and much of Lendman’s account is valuable, even if it is inevitably selective and its main points have been made by a number of journalists at less length (including this one and this). My interest is in the theory itself, in what sort of handle it gives us on the Haitian disaster and what to do next. Although I admit we are an insignificant minority, I am also interested in the lessons we might draw from this event for anthropology as an intellectual project, especially since the Haitian crisis forces us to ask what anthropologists have done and might do.

I argue that anthropologists are a prime constituency for Naomi Klein’s ideas, since she paints a bleak picture of the world without offering any political or intellectual program capable of addressing the problems she identifies. This allows her adherents to retreat into their habitual myopic passivity while claiming to be radically engaged.

The Open Anthropology Cooperative was formed less than a year ago to promote a broad-based discussion of anthropology’s place in our world and Haiti already features in several discussions (The Help That Haiti Needs and two threads in the Economic Anthropology Discussion Group). An anthropology adequate to meet the challenges of our 21st century world would have to improve on its track record over the last century. So this is an opportunity for us to reflect on how and why that might be so.

In what follows, I reproduce a review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine that I wrote over a year ago. I then turn to disaster capitalism as an analytical framework for understanding the situation in Haiti and its relevance for debates concerning anthropology’s future.

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Thirty years ago I was discussing the state of the world with a radical philosopher at Yale. She dismissed the Americans of course, the Russians, British, Germans, Chinese and Japanese too. So I asked her where in the world she looked to for hope. And she said ‘Mozambique’, then and now a plucky little country struggling against capitalist imperialism in darkest Africa. Mozambique qualified because it was insignificant and far away. She knew nothing of the place personally, but it offered a measure of hope without compromising her bleak picture of the world she lived in.

Naomi Klein’s The shock doctrine likewise presents a monolithic account of ‘neoliberalism’ that leaves room for a solution only at the margins. Her account, which comes endorsed by many radical literati including John Le Carré, Arundhati Roy and John Berger, starts with the ‘Chicago Boys’ in Latin America’s Southern Cone during the early 1970s. She covers much the same ground as David Harvey in A brief history of neoliberalism (2007). Harvey draws a contrast between the ‘embedded liberalism’ of the welfare state consensus from the 1940s to the 1970s and the ‘disembedded’ markets that followed; Klein speaks of neoliberalism as a ‘counter-revolution’. Both cover the last three decades or so without attempting to place them in any larger analysis of modern world history. Harvey speculates about inflationary and deflationary routes out of neoliberalism, but Klein appears to see no end to it.

Both authors try to tell One Big Story, the restoration of capitalist power by Reagan and Thatcher (with peripheral support from Pinochet and Deng), but Klein extends hers to include a string of disasters since the millennium (September 11th, the invasion of Iraq, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina). She represents this sequence as a wholesale looting of public assets by corporate interests in the name of Milton Friedman’s free market doctrine. ‘Disaster capitalism’ generates and feeds off ‘economic shocks’ and these seem to be multiplying since the time when ‘structural adjustment’ imposed brutal economic medicine on weak governments. Klein links the CIA’s revival of torture to an earlier history of electric shock treatment, drawing an evocative analogy between individual and collective loss of memory.

After the dictators, Klein’s narrative takes in the economic warfare launched under quasi-legal auspices in Bolivia, Poland, China and South Africa. Thatcher’s revolution was rescued by success against the Argentine generals. Russia’s wealth was handed over to the ‘oligarchs’ for a pittance and then the IMF organized a boot sale of Southeast Asian assets to Western corporations. And Israel’s coercive treatment of the Palestinians and Lebanon remains a laboratory for neoliberal repression everywhere. Developments within the United States all point in the same direction.

Does she see any hope of something else, born perhaps of popular resistance to this class warfare? A concluding chapter of two dozen pages (out of more than 500) addresses ‘the rise of people’s reconstruction’. Neoliberalism’s nemesis is – wait for it – Evo Morales! Hezbollah! Factory and farm co-ops in Argentina and Brazil! The French and Dutch rejection of the European constitution (the only reference to the EU in the whole book)! And Chávez of course. As people sort among the rubble of their societies, the final sentence tells us that ‘they are building in resilience – for when the next shock hits’. Naomi Klein’s totalizing vision of the contemporary world renders these scraps of resistance merely symbolic.

If neoliberalism is a counter-revolution, what was the revolution it overthrew and when did it take place? Perhaps there has been more than one of each. Now that the neoliberal era is manifestly running up against its own contradictions, answers to such questions are vital to any assessment of the prospects for a better world.

In retrospect, the peoples of the world made remarkable gains in freedom and equality after 1945, when they rejected the society that had given them two world wars and the Great Depression. This involved not only the formation of industrial states committed to democratic provision of employment, education, health and transport, but the dismantling of European empire by an anti-colonial revolution, first in Asia, then in Africa. The Cold War, in its own way, was a counter-revolution against all that, and in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Southern Africa it took the form of dirty wars (precursors of the ‘war on terror’) long after Friedman’s experiments in free market dictatorship had been launched. A second revolution came with the collapse of the Soviet Union and apartheid in the early 90s, a much reduced nuclear threat, the rise of the internet and the emergence of China, India and Brazil as economic powers. This wave of liberation soon provoked the reassertion of state power after September 11th and a new frenzy of illicit accumulation, not least in Iraq.

What is ‘new’ about neoliberalism (or ‘neo-conservatism’ as it is called in America, where liberalism still evokes Roosevelt’s New Deal)? The state’s pretensions to manage national economies have been progressively dismantled everywhere, while its coercive powers have been expanded. Some people were slower than others to catch onto the systematic stripping of public assets for private gain, profit accumulation with no acknowledgment of service, the erosion of civil liberties and the resurgence of racist imperialism. But after the financial collapse of 2008, everyone knows it.

The overthrow of social democracy in the name of market fundamentalism may have been achieved by coercion in Latin America; the privatization of post-socialism was licensed plunder; small states in regions like Africa that were already being bled by debt interest were brought to heel by the ‘Washington consensus’. Maybe the public authorities in the United States have long been less squeamish about employing techniques of intimidation in support of corporate profit. But who persuaded the pillars of European social democracy to roll over without a fight? The wholesale capitulation of national political classes to an obscene logic of self-enrichment still needs an explanation. Neither Klein nor Harvey is much help here.

To take another example from outside Europe, why would the leadership of the African National Congress throw away the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement in order to pander to international capital at the expense of their own long-suffering people? Naomi Klein’s chapter on South Africa is desperately thin, drawing on a handful of interviews to force the country into her all-encompassing vision, while ignoring the nuances of its history and place within the evolving world economy.

The rise of a sociological rhetoric of ‘embeddedness’ in recent years reminds us that Karl Polanyi’s stock has never been higher than today. In The great transformation, Polanyi (1944) debunked Victorian liberalism as the use of state power to secure the freedom of capital at the expense of all other interests. He condemned the high price the British working classes paid for the dominance of the ‘self-regulating market’; but there were also counter-movements within society like Chartism, as the victims of the new liberalism sought to defend themselves. Polanyi sometimes wrote of a ‘disembedded’ capitalism, but industrial markets remained thoroughly ‘embedded’ – first, in their dependence on the state and second through the links they retained with a range of social institutions. Polanyi’s real objection was not to the market as such, but to ‘market fundamentalism’.

At a London conference in 2008, ‘Rethinking economic anthropology: A human-centred approach’, Jean-Louis Laville reminded us of the two lessons to be drawn from the history of the 20th century:

“First, market society sustained by a concern for individual freedom generated huge inequalities; then submission of the economy to political will on the pretext of equality led to the suppression of freedom. These two solutions called democracy itself into question, whether in the form of totalitarian systems or, with a similar result, through the subordination of political power to that of money. If we reject both of these options, it is then a question of developing institutions capable of guaranteeing a plural economy within a democratic framework, exactly what is compromised when the rationale of material gain without limit has a monopoly.”

Laville, following Mauss and Polanyi, pilloried romantic radicals who would reject a caricature of the economy in the name of some future alternative, since all economic possibilities coexist now, including those that have been variously dominant in history. Our task is to build democratic solidarity (économie solidaire) through new institutional combinations and with a new emphasis. This means combining the free reciprocity of self-organized groups with the redistributive powers of the state.

It is, however, no longer as obvious as it was for Mauss, Polanyi and Keynes where the levers of democratic power are to be located, since the global explosion of money, markets and communications over the last quarter-century has severely exposed the limitations of national frameworks of economic management. We are clearly witnessing the start of another long swing in the balance between state and market. Central banks are pumping liquidity into failing asset markets. The rapid switch by the ‘masters of the universe’ from market triumphalism to the public begging bowl would be surprising, if it were not so familiar. Before long, a genuine revival of Keynesian redistributive politics seems to be inevitable. But the imbalances of the money system are now global, as the financial crisis of 2008 made clear to everyone. Society is already taking the form of large regional trading blocs, and the inability of the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO) to serve any interest beyond that of Western capital has long been obvious. The strength of any push to reform global institutions will depend on the severity of the current economic crisis. A return to the national solutions of the 1930s is bound to fail.

The shift of economic power from the West to Asia is palpable. But it is too early to write off the United States, which remains the world’s largest economy and may soon reap the economic benefits of a lower exchange rate and the sell-off of overpriced assets. Rather than demonizing US imperialism as the source of all our woes, we should distinguish between the American government, corporations and people. The main opposition to the monopolistic privatization of the cultural commons by firms like Microsoft consists of other US corporations (Sun, HP, IBM) and American activist networks in the free software/open source movement (with intrepid assistance from Scandinavia). American voters first turned Bush into a lame-duck president and then elected Obama. While all this was happening, the world sat enthralled on the edge of their seats.

It will not do to place our trust for democratic renewal exclusively on small-scale initiatives in Latin America. The new combinations of money, machines and people emerging today must be addressed squarely. For all her vivid writing and journalistic effort, Naomi Klein’s monochrome synthesis promotes only a politics of evasion and despair. The world society that has developed in the last half-century has some features never seen before and many that are perennial. Any way forward will be worked out by China, Europe, the USA and regional leaders such as Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. They will build on an existing diversity that is hardly illuminated by catch-all phrases like ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘American capitalism’.

We are in the middle of an economic disaster, alright. So far many of the politicians, bankers and CEOs who got us into this mess seem to be surviving, even prospering. But before long, people everywhere will be asking loudly ‘What happened to our money, our jobs and our houses? How did we let them get away with it? How can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ Things are likely to become a lot more turbulent yet, and debates about political economy will then need much more historical substance than Naomi Klein and the prevailing literary fashion seem able to offer at present.

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I do not argue that Naomi Klein’s lens is false. As an ideal type drawn from the contemporary world, it sheds some light on a brutal phase of capitalist imperialism that is mainly, but not exclusively American. It is true that poor black people have been sacrificed in New Orleans after Katrina or in Sri Lanka and Aceh after the tsunami and that many more of them are likely to suffer a similar fate in Haiti. It is equally true that Milton Friedman once authorized a particularly rapacious version of economics and that right-wing pressure groups like the Heritage Foundation exist. And the Pentagon, which is now running the show in Haiti, is the biggest socialist collective on the planet, a place where no-bid contracts are normal and competitive markets are anathema. But even its detractors admit that ‘neoliberalism’ is fairly recent and that Haiti’s problems are old. It is anachronistic to point simultaneously to the Katrina model of exploitation and to two centuries of US intervention in Haiti, as Stephen Lendman does.

The point of taking a wider perspective on world history than ‘disaster capitalism’ allows for is that the questions we must address take place on that scale, as well as in thousands of short-run local instances. Moreover, neoliberalism has been at least shaken by the financial collapse of 2008, an event that Klein’s theory failed to predict and cannot explain. But it is the immediate context for any discussion of what to do next. Private contractors making hay from disaster are real enough and deserve to be exposed; but they are not central to the current struggle the United States is waging against Asian, European, Middle Eastern and Latin American competitors for world domination. The principal explanation for what is going on in Haiti today is to be found in the Pentagon, State Department and CIA, not the Heritage Foundation’s policy pronouncements or the IMF for that matter. The prospect of a global pilgrimage of do-gooders into America’s Caribbean backyard is a nightmare for US foreign policy and counts for far more than the looting permitted by a US military umbrella.

The anthropologists of course immediately jump in to promote our case. We are the regional specialists and we have a proven method for reaching the people (living with them). We know the history (although we rarely teach it in our classes or write about it). Kerim Friedman has a good post in Savage Minds taking off from a New York Times oped piece by David Brooks where the latter said:

“Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences…Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.”

Which returns us to the question of world history and Kerim is right to insist that Brooks’ line is insidious. But it is doubly insidious in that Brooks deploys a logic and method that have dominated anthropology for the last century, static cross-cultural comparison. Barbados was England’s leading sugar producer in the 17th century, then it was succeeded by Jamaica; it never went through the kind of political upheavals that Jamaica subsequently did (and these were minor compared with Haiti). Haiti (Saint Domingue) produced a world revolution that CLR James argues in The Black Jacobins (1938) was just as significant as the American and the French. It was a successful black revolution in a world organized as a racial hierarchy with blacks at the bottom; and the Haitians were targeted with a ferocity comparable only to what the Bolsheviks endured, but without Russia’s vast population and land mass as protection.

The twentieth century saw two world revolutions in this sense: the Russian revolution and the anti-colonial revolution that overthrew European empire after the Second World War. Did you know that over twenty countries sent armies to subvert Russia’s revolution or how the ensuing war shaped that country’s development under Stalin? We know vaguely that the anti-colonial revolution was subverted in much of Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and the Pacific (Latin America’s history operates on a different timescale), while much of Asia used it eventually to instal successful variants of capitalism. Haiti combines elements of both these twentieth-century revolutions with results that are as tragic as in the East Congo, but for much longer.

My point is that social or cultural anthropology is just as impotent as right-wing American journalism when searching for answers to the questions posed by this history, without even the excuse of trying to justify the status quo. This is because fieldwork-based ethnography threw out world history a century ago. Until we combine the two systematically, we will be powerless in the face of the Haitian disaster and could be said to be partly responsible for maintaining public ignorance of its causes.

In the meantime, anthropologists can sign up for Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine of disaster capitalism. She does not require them to know world history or even Haiti’s history. Her attitude feels right to people who probably entered the discipline because they were already alienated from capitalism as a system. Above all, her analysis does not articulate an intellectual or political program that would compel them to change their established ways. Like the ‘radical’ literati who endorse her books, anthropologists can continue to practice their (more poorly paid, even precarious) profession within a coocoon of vague political disaffection that holds out no promise of more effective understanding, even less of appropriate collective action.

Comments |9|

  • Hey Keith,

    I think this is an amazing article, partly because it is timely but most importantly because you make the effort and give us a chance to learn that by seeing this differently – and less ideologically – there is actually hope for a better world. You ought to be read by all those people who care about what happens in Haiti.

    I too was becoming pretty desperate in recent days with the news of the US agenda playing out in Haiti. I’ve never thought of the Pentagon as a socialist collective but of course it is. I never thought about what the influence would be on US foreign policy of the international community descending on Haiti. The planes who circle around the Port-au-Prince airport, failing to get permission to land from the US military, are actually a metaphor.

    Thanks for opening my eyes again and reminding us of the project for a more equal and more democratic world.


  • Coming from you, Steven, or indeed from anyone, I take this as a high compliment. In fact you have achieved in your simple language what I didn’t in my essay: the project is a more equal and democratic world. It’s so easy to forget that. Thank you.

  • Hey Keith,

    Thanks for the compliment. Actually, you’ve made me think: what if we – with which I mean as broader that just you and me – would offer our own account of the 20th century and a vision for the future? I mean, ‘Shock Doctrine’ has been an extremely popular book from which I conclude there must be a lot of confused people out there. Confused because virtually nobody is giving an alternative account.

    If we are true to our project of a more equal and democratic world, shouldn’t we start with doing what Noami Klein does and make our story available to a larger audience? I’ve been writing for more than six months on a book that might never be finished because it’s scope is so broad. It ranges from the importance of the dog for the rise of agriculture to the potential personal money has to reshape our societies.

    But why am I working by myself and what can I hope to achieve by myself? It seems there is a real opportunity out there and a need for an alternative account. Can we make a narrative for our current moment in its historical context and the implications for the future?


  • Steven,

    It is unfortunately true that they only hand out brains one at a time. Which is why most of the illuminating contributions to human thought have come from individuals. Some people say Homer was team, not a person. I doubt it. A camel is a horse designed by a committee, that sort of thing. You are right to respect Naomi Klein’s achievement in reaching a broad public. I am currently involved in many collaborations, usually with one person each, since that is hard enough to pull off. I believe that cooperation is indispensable to creativity. That’s why I am committed to the OAC. But in the end we are all stuck with what we can cook up between our own ears.

  • Keith,

    “My point is that social or cultural anthropology is just as impotent as right-wing American journalism when searching for answers to the questions posed by this history, without even the excuse of trying to justify the status quo. This is because fieldwork-based ethnography threw out world history a century ago.”

    I completely agree with you that anthropology is pretty powerless (and voiceless) when it comes to these issues. Part of this is, of course, because it’s pretty rare that anthropologists publish for or speak to wider audiences. A special issue in a journal only reaches more anthropologists.

    Maybe I have a different view of anthropology–but I definitely do not think that world history has been chucked by the discipline (although it has been in some circles). But then, Wolf is one of my favorites, so maybe I am a little too biased toward history. But I think you make a good point–if all we do is focus on contextual specifics, it becomes difficult to really make any larger scale arguments.

    “Until we combine the two systematically, we will be powerless in the face of the Haitian disaster and could be said to be partly responsible for maintaining public ignorance of its causes.”

    I completely agree. There has to be a link between local details and larger networks/relations/connections and histories. I also agree with you when you say that anthropology has been guilty of asserting the same kind of static comparisons between “cultures” that Brooks made. I have heard that argument in other circles: well, the DR is doing ok, so there must be some fundamental problem or resistance to development among the Haitians. My answer: history matters when trying to compare the DR and Haiti. And the whole issue cannot be boiled down to so-called cultural differences. So part of the problem here also comes from older anthropological notions about culture as a kind of static, inherent, THING.

    Anyway, I appreciate your points here.

  • Thanks for these comments, Ryan. It is nice to get criticism that includes identifying points of agreement. Of course you are right to insist that there is a minority strand of 20th century anthropology that does address the big historical picture and we have to build on that, starting with Eric Wolf. I would add Sid Mintz (who also adds biography to being a much better ethnographer and not as accomplished a world historian as his friend, Eric) and my own teacher, Jack Goody, plus the Marxist anthropological history that flourished in the 70s.

  • Hey Keith,

    Actually, I think I pretty much agree with everything you wrote–and your insistence on history was what made me think of the historical strain of anthropology that I find really valuable and useful. Also, I wholeheartedly support your inclusion of Mintz, Goody, and a whole series of others who find history to be a critical part of anthropology.

    Anyway, great post.


  • It is for lines like these that I am delighted to have discovered Keith Hart. Thank you!

    “My point is that social or cultural anthropology is just as impotent as right-wing American journalism when searching for answers to the questions posed by this history, without even the excuse of trying to justify the status quo. This is because fieldwork-based ethnography threw out world history a century ago. Until we combine the two systematically, we will be powerless in the face of the Haitian disaster and could be said to be partly responsible for maintaining public ignorance of its causes.”


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