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The Truthdig Interview With Naomi Klein
Posted on Jun 26, 2008
Klein: In fact, it was only dictatorships that were willing to impose these policies for the first decade in the ‘70s. It was Pinochet’s Chile, Videla’s Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay under military regimes that experimented with Chicago-school economics. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that democratic governments started imposing them. And that’s when Milton Friedman wrote this sentence that I quote in the book: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change, and when that crisis occurs, the change that occurs depends on the ideas that are lying around.”
And I think that phrase, “ideas that are lying around,” is really key to understanding how this works. Because it’s essentially a mission statement for the Washington think tanks, which Friedman was tremendously instrumental in building and inspiring and supporting. And, you know, what we saw in the ‘70s and early ‘80s was an explosion of right-wing think tanks whose mission statement really was to get the ideas ready for when the next crisis hits. And in some cases, what we see from a lot of these think tanks is that they also create atmospheres of crisis.
Just for fun, I would look at the list of papers published by the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, looking for how many times the word crisis appears in a paper—“the coming crisis in Medicare,” “the coming crisis in Social Security”—so, they really specialize in claiming that countries are just doomed unless they follow this set of unwanted reforms.
But, to answer your question about natural disasters, the think tanks are instrumental in having the ideas ready, and the best example to me is Hurricane Katrina ...
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Klein: ... because the levees broke, and the state—all three levels of government failed—municipal, state, federal. And really, the whole thing was an indictment of this very ideology. Everyone was saying, “Where is the government? Where’s the government when you need it?” And maybe this whole idea of vilifying the state wasn’t such a great idea after all. And even people like Jonah Goldberg were saying, you know, “Where’s big government when you need it?”
And I think a lot of people assumed that Katrina would be a wake-up call, an ideological wake-up call. There was one writer who said it should be for the neocons, the breaking of the levees should be for the neocons what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Communists. And you know what, it should have been, but it wasn’t, and it’s for two reasons: One, progressives were tentative and unwilling to really, I think, fill the breach with ideas of our own for how to reconstruct New Orleans in a completely different way, in a much more democratic way, and also to talk about global warming when there was a feeling of, you know, we don’t want to be. ... You often heard people say ... “This isn’t a time for politics.”
Klein: Well, meanwhile, at the Heritage Foundation, two weeks after the levees broke, they had a meeting—and we have the minutes from this meeting, which we can link to. ...
Anderson: On the Documents and Resources section?
Klein: Yeah, yeah—we definitely should link to this one. The heading on the document is. ... Well, first of all, the people who attended the meeting were from a variety of right-wing think tanks, as well as the Republican Study Group—highly placed Republican congresspeople. And they came up with 32 free-market solutions for Hurricane Katrina. And it was everything from give parents school vouchers instead of rebuilding the public schools; mixed-use housing instead of repairing the public housing; drill in ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] ...; build more oil refineries. I mean, it was just the wish list!
And so what you see there is just, you know, the readiness of the right—aided by these think tanks, funded by multinational corporations and the richest families in the United States—to seize on a crisis that they themselves created with their ideology to push for more of the same. I mean, Katrina was a catastrophe, the flooding of New Orleans was a catastrophe created by heavy weather linked to global warming, because the increase in category 5 hurricanes is directly linked to warming ocean temperatures, and weak infrastructure, which is linked to the systematic neglect of the public sphere as a result of the campaign to destroy the New Deal.
And what is their solution? It’s more fossil fuels ... and destroying the public infrastructure altogether. And the fact is much of this has happened. The public housing in New Orleans is being destroyed. The hospitals—the public hospital in New Orleans is still not open, Charity Hospital. The school system ... has been handed over to charter schools.
Anderson: So you would say that think tanks having these ideas lying around is kind of a way of cuing each other with their inside language to potential future opportunities?
Klein: Well, I mean, the ideas are the same no matter what the crisis is. They just get rebranded to meet the crisis, right? So, suddenly privatizing Social Security is an economic stimulus to deal with the recession. And suddenly, you know, school vouchers are part of reconstructing from a hurricane. It’s the same ideas. So, it’s easy to have them lying around, because you’ve got the same answers to every problem.
And we’re seeing it now with this huge push, led by [Newt] Gingrich, now picked up by Bush and McCain, to deal with the cost of high gas prices by drilling offshore, and they want to drill in ANWR—Gingrich does, and a lot of the right-wing think tanks. So whatever the crisis is, it’s an opportunity to just push harder for the same old policies that they haven’t been able to get through without a crisis. ... As soon as ... people started to really talk about recession, [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson started talking about privatizing Social Security—a huge piece of the Bush platform that they could not get through without a crisis.
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