Horwitz: Time to turn the shock doctrine on its head

How we can use this crisis to build a better future

Avi Horwitz, Staff Columnist

It is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago we were celebrating the end of our midterms and preparing for a well-deserved spring break. In the time since, our normal routines have been abruptly thrown into uncertainty after being uprooted from campus to face remote learning. Some have been left out on the curb by their university without places to go, others lack access to basic resources needed to stay safe and healthy. The way our lives have been thrown on their heads, however, represents only the tip of an iceberg of suffering unleashed by a combination of the novel coronavirus and massive, pre-existing inequality. As the cases, death tolls and economic suffering rise, take note, none of this is accidental. 

It is not hard to imagine how even one of the 27 million uninsured and many more underinsured Americans might have chosen or continue to ignore symptoms and unknowingly spread the coronavirus because they fear the inability to pay for treatment. The same can be said for the estimated over 10 million undocumented immigrants afraid of deportation. What about the over 500,000 homeless individuals who have no place to self quarantine? Or the 78% of American workers who say they live paycheck to paycheck and face being laid off if they do not go to work? 2.3 million Americans, including 500,000 who haven’t faced trial, are incarcerated and incapable of social distancing. 

While an increasing number of human beings suffer, corporations that inflated their gains with stock buybacks are begging for a bailout. How dare the airline, hotel and, most unconscionably, the fossil fuel industry suggest that the government take care of them before the basic needs of everyday Americans? It is high time that those who hold our existence in contempt, constantly patronize essential, working-class jobs and seek nothing but to help their bottom line, reach down for their bootstraps. 

In this time of crisis, one with unparalleled vulnerability, we need community solidarity to protect ourselves from corporate America’s wrath. Recall, it was the declaration of an “economic emergency” by then newly-elected Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that allowed him to appoint the emergency manager responsible for the subsequent and ongoing water crisis in Flint. Following the 2008 financial crisis, Congress bailed out the “big banks” that brought about the market crash to the tune of trillions. Later that year, amid a 10% unemployment rate, one bank — Goldman Sachs — reported that their yearly earnings topped $13 billion. One reality is painfully obvious, in times of crisis we must be vigilant of the self-serving policies that legislators will attempt to push through in times of public vulnerability to further what Martin Luther King Jr. would call “socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.”

Author and climate activist Naomi Klein explored the profiteering of crises in “The Shock Doctrine,” published in 2007. Klein traces the rise of disaster capitalism since the CIA-funded coup of the socialist Chilean Government. In addition to the rounding up and “disappearing” of dissidents under the newly installed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the new government began radically reforming the economy through “economic shocks” by rapidly implementing extreme free-market policies. As the public was already overwhelmed by a brutal and murderous government, they were unable to fight the unwanted shifts in economic policy. The economic restructuring of Latin America would be repeated many times in the following years, mainly in the “global south,” which includes low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and then worldwide. 

Economic shock therapy is especially dangerous since all forms of crises, whether brought about by violence or not, can be used as both a source of profit and as an opportunity to institute unpopular policies on an overwhelmed public. 

We already know that while the rest of us suffer, Big Pharma stands to amass huge gains that will only grow as the crisis worsens. In a country that lacks basic price controls, Republicans fought to exclude efforts to limit price gouging from the relief legislation. On March 12, the Federal Reserve injected $1.5 trillion into the market in order to calm frightened investors, who clearly had other questions besides “hOw aRE wE GOiNg tO PaY fOr iT,” on their minds. That is the same amount of money needed to cancel every single American’s student debt.

There is no doubt that the current administration and their friends in Congress have also exacerbated the current situation in other ways, such as through the dismissal of the National Security Council’s pandemic team and constant lies downplaying the scope of the crisis. However, even a momentary glance at history will show that our current state of affairs is merely a symptom of decades of domestic and foreign policy — at all levels of government. As such, Donald Trump is not the only candidate who should terrify us in this current election cycle. Joe Biden’s promise to wealthy donors last June that under his administration, “no one’s standard of living would change” and that “nothing would fundamentally change” represent another clear and present threat. Should we continue to elevate proponents of the status quo who will condemn us to a reality of living crisis to crisis? At least it will look more presidential, though, right?

Instead of allowing the disaster complex to further conceive irreparable damage, we must come together — metaphorically, of course — learn from the past and use this crisis to flip the tables on the wealthy few who have capitalized on our collective suffering for far too long. 

It is long past time that this country recognize health care and housing as human rights, guarantee paid sick leave, institute a livable minimum wage, end Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) raids and terrorization of immigrant communities and cease the funding for the destruction of the planet through bailouts and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. An intellectually honest analysis of this pandemic makes clear that, similarly to the climate crisis, nothing will fundamentally change unless we redefine the priorities of our economic system and societal structure. This change must serve us, not a wealthy few. 

Enough is enough. Even when we must physically distance ourselves to protect others, we can combat our divisions by joining together in solidarity. We must use this moment to understand why, how and by whom our world has been organized. Now is our time to provide our own shock treatment for the wealthy elite who have exploited us for so long. Not only you, or me, but all of us, together.