Why Naomi Klein Is Optimistic About America's Future as It Faces Collapse Due to the Coronavirus

Naomi Klein, who literally wrote the book on transformations that take place under the cover of crisis, explains how the coronavirus is different from past disasters

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Author Naomi Klein.
Author Naomi Klein.Credit: Carsten Koall / Getty Images
Jonathan Jacobson
Jonathan Jacobson

“This is a moment that’s going to require a huge amount of courage,” says Naomi Klein. According to the Canadian thinker and writer, one of the most influential of the past few decades, “There’s no going back to normal. We have to mistrust anyone playing the role of the strongman, particularly the leaders who left our societies so vulnerable in the first place. They are the last people that should be given added powers in the name of protecting us, because they’ve actually failed us, profoundly and murderously.

“We’re only in the middle of this crisis, but I think this could be a very radicalizing experience. The work required is of reconstruction and reimagination – we can’t go back to where we were before this crisis hit.”

“I’ve spent two decades studying the transformations that take place under the cover of disaster,” Klein wrote recently in The Intercept. “I’ve learned that one thing we can count on is this: During moments of cataclysmic change, the previously unthinkable suddenly becomes reality. In recent decades, that change has mainly been for the worst – but this has not always been the case. And it need not continue to be in the future.”

Klein, one of capitalism’s fiercest critics, will turn 50 next month. A little more than two decades have gone by since the appearance of her first book “No Logo,” which assailed corporate culture and became a cornerstone of the anti-globalization movement. In 2007, she published “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” which further consolidated her status as a social thinker of the first rank. (The New Yorker, for example, declared her at the time to be the left’s most influential woman.)

Klein argues in that book that since the 1970s politicians and profiteers have operated together to exploit periods of crisis, bolster their power and enrich themselves at the expense of the general public. They identified opportunities in natural disasters and in such human actions as wars and coups, in addition to economic crises.

During the course of the book, she presents various examples of the shock doctrine. It’s a long list, which begins with a first appearance of the doctrine in the Chile of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, continues with its influence on Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and Reaganism in the United States, along with its use during the crisis that faced the economies of the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. During that same decade, it was also employed in response to the crises that faced China, South Africa and Russia – which underwent a process of total privatization, thus creating the class of new oligarchs in the post-Soviet state.

Klein is a Canadian Jew whose hippie parents headed north from the United States in protest, during the Vietnam War. She started out as a journalist, but in time became one of the outstanding theoreticians in her field, although she never finished her B.A. In the middle of a three-year appointment at Rutgers University as a professor of “media, culture and feminist studies,” she lives in New Jersey with her husband, Avi Lewis, a documentary filmmaker and a former presenter on Al Jazeera, and their 7-year-old son, Toma.

In common with a large portion of humanity, Klein, too, is currently house-bound. She spends her time giving video lectures and participating in virtual conferences.

A man awaiting rescue during Hurricane Katrina. Politicians bolster their power during natural disasters, says Klein.Credit: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

It’s been 13 years since “Shock Doctrine” appeared. How relevant is the book at present?

“This is certainly the biggest shock the global economy has had since 2008. Unfortunately, whenever there are large-scale crises, ‘The Shock Doctrine’ becomes more relevant. I’d much rather people were reading the books I’ve written over the past seven-eight years, which attempt to outline various ways to resist the shock doctrine and a way to put forward progressive transformations during times of crisis.”

In her 2014 book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Klein maintained that a neoliberal hegemony was preventing the world from truly coping with the climate emergency. The idea of incessant growth that underlies the economic system, she argued, clashes time and again with calls for reforms to curb global warming. The interplay between the general desire to maximize profits and the titanic forces that block rigorous regulation ensures that corporatism will have the upper hand.

Since then Klein’s work has largely focused on the climate crisis. In 2018, she published a book about the devastating impact of the previous year’s Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, followed a year later by “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” a collection of articles calling for a dramatic shift in policy in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Can you provide a brief explanation of what you call “disaster capitalism”?

“‘Disaster capitalism’ describes the way private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises. Disaster profiteering and war profiteering isn’t a new concept, but it really deepened under the Bush administration after 9/11, in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In moments of crisis, people tend to focus on surviving the daily emergencies that follow, and put too much trust in those in power. Again and again, we see politicians use ‘shock doctrine’ tactics during large-scale crises, in order to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality.”

The architect of the shock doctrine, even if he didn’t call it that, was the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who believed that government is the source of the problem, not the solution. According to Friedman, in a disaster, the government should avoid intervening in the harmony of the free market, which is supposed to function like a perfect scientific system. Friedman encouraged his followers to take advantage of the shock that accompanies periods of crisis in order to smash any regulatory supervision that shackles private businesses.

“Friedman believed that crises can become opportunities for the left, as occurred in the United States in the 1930s with the New Deal, which was introduced in the wake of the Great Depression,” Klein says. “So, he developed what I call the ‘shock doctrine,’ in order to prevent crises from pushing society toward the left. And it worked for a very long time.”

Wall Street traders in 2008.Credit: Seth Wenig/AP

How vulnerable are we to the shock doctrine today, in the shadow of the present crisis?

“You can’t imagine a crisis that would be more advantageous to the tactic of the shock doctrine than the coronavirus epidemic. After all, we were already having a crisis of isolation and atomization, produced by a hyper-individualistic and consumerist culture. So, part of the reason we can often feel powerless in the face of a crisis like climate change, is because we are so isolated, we feel so disconnected from one another – and now we’re told we have to fight the epidemic and do our part by further isolating ourselves from each other. As such, we have lost some of the most important tools of social resistance.”

Eliminate the middleman

In New Jersey, where Klein lives, the crisis is particularly acute. She speaks of a “breakdown” of the health system, and reveals that she herself has had symptoms of the virus for three weeks. “I was exposed to someone who stayed at my house and she tested positive – but she only got tested because she went back to Canada. There’s no testing in Jersey; it’s a complete failure of the medical system.”

According to Klein, the U.S. administration was “very slow” in reacting to the outbreak. “We lost a huge amount of time. People want a functioning government, but [President Donald] Trump is handling this like a PR exercise. People wanted him to invoke the defense production act long ago, instead of hoping that companies would act out of the goodness of their hearts – which the companies obviously didn’t want to do, and resisted.”

You warned in the past about what the United States could expect if a major crisis were to occur on Trump’s watch.

“For a very long time in American politics we have had the corporate sector funding political campaigns – this was no secret. But what Trump represented was a cutting out of the middleman, where there isn’t even a pretense or a charade of there being a politician who’s accountable to the people. That’s what I warned about: that we’d see their true agenda if they ever had a large-scale crisis they could exploit. Many of the people appointed by Trump are very skilled at profiting from disasters.”

The climate crisis reaches a peak, and Trump appoints the CEO of a gas and oil giant as secretary of state.

“Yes, we saw that when he appointed Rex Tillerson [in 2017], and again with the appointment as treasury secretary of Steve Mnuchin – who, during the financial crisis of 2008, bought a bank that specialized in foreclosures. Mnuchin was one of the people who profited the most directly from the economic crisis, in fact he was known as the ‘foreclosure king.’ He is now in charge of the historic bailout of the corporate sector, with at least $500 billion that he can allocate to different corporate entities at his discretion.”

And what about Vice President Mike Pence, who was an earlier object of scrutiny for you?

“I began and ended ‘The Shock Doctrine’ with what happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as kind of case study of how a major crisis is used in order to push through a set of policies that benefit elites.

Just two weeks after the hurricane hit [in 2005], a meeting took place at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank in Washington, of Republican lawmakers, ideologues and representatives of various corporations. They produced a wish list of policies for New Orleans, such as replacing public schools with private schools, closing down public housing projects and replacing them with for-profit housing, shuttering public hospitals, discarding various labor protections and cutting taxes for businesses.

The meeting was led by the chairman of the Republican Study Committee at the time, Congressman Mike Pence. He’s a career politician with a long track record of exploiting crises to push through policies that have nothing to do with the crisis at hand.”

And Pence was appointed to lead the administration’s battle against the coronavirus.

“Yes, and alongside him Mnuchin, who as part of the bailout package is extending a hand to the most polluting and harmful industries – aviation, cruise lines, oil and gas.”

Donald Trump.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Power grab

Klein also has few kind words about political developments in Israel. Analogous to the exploitation by Trump and his cabinet of crises for extraneous purposes, “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is using the pandemic for his own political advantage, to escape trial and to push for very aggressive surveillance in the name of keeping the public safe in the midst of a pandemic – but actually it’s just a power grab.”

Indeed, Netanyahu is simply trying to enhance his clout on every possible front, Klein says. “I think that there’s always the allure of safety in a moment of true crisis, we remember this from after 9/11, where people looked for a strongman leader. This is something Netanyahu was always good at, playing the role of the patriarchal protector. It’s a huge part of Israeli politics under any circumstances. In fact, neither of our governments did what they should have done to prepare for this crisis – which is part of the reason that people are so frightened.”

Klein’s critique of Netanyahu is not new. In “The Shock Doctrine,” which appeared before Netanyahu’s return to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, Klein analyzed Israel’s mode of coping with the explosion of the dot-com bubble. Israel, she wrote, “was harder hit by the dot-com crash than anywhere else,” and pointed to the government’s decision to increase defense spending and encourage the tech industry to enter the fields of security and surveillance.

“In this period the Israeli [sic] Defense Forces played a role similar to a business incubator,” Klein wrote. “Young Israeli soldiers experimented with network systems and surveillance devices while they fulfilled their mandatory military service, then turned their findings into business plans when they returned to civilian life. A slew of new startups were launched.”

In fact, according to Klein, after 9/11, “the Israeli state openly embraced a new national economic vision: the growth provided by the dot-com bubble would be replaced with a homeland security boom. It was the perfect marriage of the Likud party’s hawkishness and its radical embrace of Chicago School economics, as embodied by [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s new central bank chief, Stanley Fischer, chief architect of the IMF’s [International Monetary Fund] shock therapy adventures in Russia and Asia.”

Israel thereby became “the go-to country for antiterrorism technologies,” Klein notes, quoting Forbes magazine. Thus, while the Israeli economy continues to pay a price for the occupation, a way was found to profit from it as well. A decade and a half later, Israel was established as an offensive cyber power, notably by two giant firms that sell espionage tools worldwide: Verint Systems and NSO.

How do you see Benny Gantz’s agreement to a Netanyahu-led government, against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis?

“I think it’s a terrible betrayal. That’s why the shock doctrine is such an effective political strategy, because nobody wants to look disloyal in a moment of crisis. Netanyahu is capitalizing on this, and unfortunately his political opponents are falling for it – and that’s a betrayal of the people who voted for them.”

Netanyahu demonstrates how to use a tissue during a coronavirus briefing.

Klein adds, “We must not allow ourselves to be fooled by a discourse that exploits people’s understandable sense of fear and calls for national unity. The only way to resist this strategy is to call it out while it’s happening and to resist and expose it. The idea that we are at war against the epidemic is exactly the wrong mentality – the true war has long been waged against the health-care infrastructures, and that is what has left us so vulnerable and left our hospitals unable to deal with the crisis.

“People are now seeing vividly that their leaders think their lives are worth less than nothing. In Nevada, for example, it’s not only that homeless people are sleeping in parking lots but that, at the same time, Las Vegas is a city of empty hotels.”

Bad timing

As the pandemic hits hard in the United States, it is having far-reaching political impact too. The disease erupted in full force at the height of the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries.

“I’m convinced that if this pandemic had hit three weeks earlier, Bernie Sanders would be [the Democratic] nominee,” Klein says. “It’s the most tragic case of timing I’ve ever seen, because all of Bernie’s ideas that were treated as impossible and radical a month ago, such as universal health insurance, are the only thing that could possibly save the country right now. There’s a huge shift in understanding that for-profit medicine is a complete crisis. People are seeing this, but unfortunately it happened too late in the electoral cycle.”

Klein had wholeheartedly tried to help Sanders win the nomination. “I never worked for a political candidate before, and I was just a volunteer, but I turned my life upside down and campaigned for Bernie in five states, because it’s a historic campaign. I met supporters of Bernie’s ideas who told me that Bernie is too sudden a change, that we just need a transition after Trump. I don’t think [Joe] Biden will be as strong a candidate against Trump as Bernie could have been. Biden’s form of safe centrism looks really dangerous right now.”

Dangerous in what way?

“What’s clear is that there will be no gradual shift. The whole system has collapsed, so there are going to be big changes. Whether it’ll be similar to what we experienced after 2008, which changed people’s lives for the worse, or a major transformation, like in the 1930s with the New Deal. One way or the other, there is no going back to the former normal.”

Bernie Sanders.Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters

So you are aligning yourself with those who are urging that the crisis be viewed as an opportunity.

“It’s a global pandemic and it’s going to require global solutions. I think one of the good things that have come out from all this is that the World Health Organization has done really well. That’s a reminder of the importance of multilateralism, of international agreements and institutions, which were decimated in the neoliberal era.”

Another good thing to come out of the crisis, Klein avers, is that people “feel tremendous gratitude toward those whose jobs are now crucial but whose work is normally considered to be the most devalued in our economy – nursing, elder care, picking food, delivering food, more broadly you could call it the ‘care economy.’ It’s work that’s predominantly being done by women, people of color, it’s some of the least protected work in our economy.

“I can imagine a scenario in which we’re able to hold on to that feeling that so many of us have right now, realizing that we need an economy that values this labor that we can’t live without. Our true leaders now are the people who are out there actively saving lives, the doctors and nurses, not the failed politicians. We need a society that puts people who are truly committed to caring for others in leadership and policy-making positions.”

On the one hand you argue that we already know the script, but at the same time you also seem to harbor some optimism.

“I think the crisis we are now experiencing is different from previous crises. There is a sense of impending change. In the 2008 financial crisis, even though people realized that it was spawned by deregulated capitalism, and even though people could clearly see the injustice of asking working people and unemployed people to pay the price for a crisis created by the bankers, the neoliberal hegemony remained intact. And the left didn’t put forward any true alternatives – all they really did was say no to austerity.”

Klein recalls a meeting she had with Alexis Tsipras, a future prime minister of Greece who was then leader of the opposition as the head of a left-wing party, Syriza. “I asked him why he wasn’t proposing a real alternative. He said that he believed that at that moment it was enough to say ‘No,’ that it was not a time for making proposals, but for rejection. I was so sure he was wrong, and we debated the question, and he won an election with just a ‘No.’

“But that was not enough for him to be able to govern and to hold out against forces such as the European Central Bank. Maybe he wouldn’t have been able to even with a ‘Yes,’ but he didn’t even try. That was why I called the book I published in 2017 ‘No Is Not Enough.’”

I’m still trying to understand the roots of your optimism. What’s different this time?

“If there is a chance for a genuine people’s response and a real progressive leap, it’s because in the past several years, the left has invested in big ideas. Now, in a moment that is laying bare the brutality of capitalism, we’re not starting from scratch. We’re able to point to the New Green Deal, to the deincarceration agenda, to ongoing campaigns calling for universal basic income, Medicare for all and living wages for service sector workers.”

Who will spearhead the change?

“Over the last few years we have seen a new generation of young adults who are proud to call themselves ‘democratic socialists,’ or ‘eco-socialists.’ Some of them are getting elected to office, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar [in the U.S. House of Representatives], young and very progressive politicians who are putting forward ideas for reorganizing society based on different values.”

Still, Klein emphasizes, revolutionary change will not come on its own. “Those who show greater determination and willingness to fight for their ideas will be the ones to shape the day after the pandemic,” she says. “It’s important to remember that this is not the only crisis we face. Global warming hasn’t gone away. Now more than ever, we need to maintain vigilance and be courageous.”

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