“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change.”
This is perhaps Milton Friedman’s foremost insight, and one which has shaped the world over the past five decades.
Friedman — the Nobel Prize winning economist whose free market ideology shaped the Reagan and Thatcher administrations as well as the Pinochet dictatorship — was the pioneer of what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” The key insight of the shock doctrine is the parallel between the medical procedure and economic theory — a parallel which Klein illuminates brilliantly. The shocked patient (or citizen) exists in a state of blankness and uncertainty; where the grey matter and neurons seem disconnected from their previous positions and must be rewired; a moment where almost all ideas seem possible and permeable.
To continue Friedman’s quote:
“When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas which are lying around.”
At its core, the shock doctrine is a theory of change: a model of how ideas are created, move through and ultimately become adopted by individuals, institutions and society.
The shock doctrine is a brutal one, as Klein points out. But one should be cautious before being wholly moralistic. If one may offer a defence of Friedman’s ideas — which I do only in an academic capacity — the principle of the shock doctrine is an interpretation of the history of modernity. The French Revolution; the American War of Independence and Civil War; the First and Second World Wars; all marked periods of tremendous change in the ordering of society, with all the reordering shaped by the ideas which were lying around. When those ideas are absent — such as a left-wing response following the 2008 Great Recession — malaise ensues.
The shock doctrine is an understanding of crisis with a backdrop of capitalism. The violence which is often associated with it is, in some instances, a conflation of the violence which always accompanies that which the shock doctrine describes: crisis. That, however, is the extent of my defence of Friedman. Insofar as shocks are manufactured, and crisis and violence are imposed on people (as well as the imposition of barbaric economic policies) for reasons of self-interest, greed and ideology, the shock doctrine has little defence.
What does any of this have to do with the Green New Deal? Well, put simply, the GND is an idea, or set of ideas, which exist without any theory of change. We have seen some attempts to produce change, of course: Extinction Rebellion, the valorisation of Greta Thunberg, Kyoto, Paris, various COPs, recycling and cycling and veganism and an endless stream of other fads designed to spark some impetus. Yet the malaise continues. The planet burns. The end is nigh.
So here is my contribution. In 2008, the failure of society at large was an absence of ideas with which to utilise the crisis of financial capitalism. In 2020, the failure of the climate movement (which should also be society at large, but yet, seems otherwise) is an absence of crisis with which to utilise the ideas embodied in the GND. The result is the same – malaise.
One might be taken aback. Firstly, at the notion that global warming – the titular crisis of our time – is associated with an absence of crisis! Secondly, at the assertion that we lack crises more generally, from the pandemic at the time of writing, to the fragility of finance capitalism once more, to the looming threat of automation, to the polarisation of political discourse, to an ever aging population. In both instances, the objection is clear: on what grounds does the climate movement and the GND lack crisis! (for the most part, this is my central criticism of the doctrine of Fully Automated Luxury Communism — as a theorist, I appreciate the value of proposing the idea, but if change was so simply as proposition, we would face far in a way fewer crises than are currently facing us).
The answer comes via a material evaluation of what crisis is. There is a crisis occurring every day, every hour, every second; what matters is how many people notice. The notion that global warming is a crisis because we know it’s going to happen and is indeed happening is like a Marxist explaining why capitalism is doomed while sitting in a boutique coffee shop, or — to borrow a term — the Grand Hotel Abyss. Crisis is not a theoretical or even probable creature; crisis exists only in the moment, and is expressed only via people’s lived experiences.
It is why the parallel between shock medicine and shock economics is so important. For Friedman, the crisis doesn’t matter. Indeed, the crisis doesn’t even need to be real! What matters is the mental state of those, on the one hand, capable of implementing change and, on the other, those capable of blocking it.
In short, when I say the climate movement lacks an opportune crisis, I mean it lacks a coherent strategy for tapping into the mindset produced by the plethora of crises that exist in the present moment. Opportunism – forever a dirty word – is abandoned, exchanged for perfectionism within the climate movement, for without perfectionism, all that seems to remain is inadequate, technocratic incrementalism which we know by now to be insufficient. But these things, for the climate movement, should not be considered the same. One is compromise when compromise cannot be afforded (incrementalism). The other is steadfastness with an awareness of the challenges steadfastness brings (opportunism).
And here’s the thing: the climate movement needs to be opportunistic. If crisis only becomes real at the moment it is materially experienced by those either capable of changing things or capable of preventing change, the climate crisis will come too late. At the point where famine, coastal flooding and mass migration hit the world’s biggest polluters, the death spiral of ecological collapse will already have begun. The only means of avoiding this fate is to accelerate the climate crisis by appropriating every crisis to the cause of the climate movement. The only solution is opportunism.
This is easier said than done. In what form must appropriation take? Must it be that, in the wake of a global pandemic, we endlessly point out “when global warming happens, it will be much worse than this?” Maybe for some that will be effective, but I suspect for others — particularly those faced with the immediate, mortal reality of disease — it will have the opposite effect. Rather, once more, I propose we learn from the shock doctrine.
In the opening chapter of The Shock Doctrine, Klein notes that following Hurricane Katrina, Milton Friedman penned an op-ed calling for education reform. For those whose homes had just been destroyed, and whose lives terribly disrupted, one may wonder what on earth does education reform have to do with anything! The answer can only be understood through the shock doctrine and opportunism — Friedman took a shock as an opportunity to push his unrelated agenda. And note, further, how close Friedman could have come to failure. He did not go to those in New Orleans, who at that moment were desperate for basic provisions, and preach the merits of education reform (merits which, to be sure, were likely dubious). Instead, he championed education reform as a gift to those suffering.
To an extent, this has already been acknowledged. The Green New Deal does not sell horrors; it sells opportunity, coupled with well-paid jobs and new industries. But the lobby around the GND still, in my opinion, lacks the audacity of effective opportunism in the face of crisis. This is a lesson the movement must learn, assuming an alternative theory of change does not emerge, as waiting for the climate crisis to be our motivating moment is insufficient. Insofar as change only comes about during a crisis, and insofar as the crisis of climate systems breakdown will already be too late, those who support the GND need to accept a stark reality: any crisis and every crisis which emerges in the interim must be appropriated to our cause. There can be no more waiting our turn.