Fighting America’s Corporate Coup D’Etat
This interview and its transcript originally appeared on Democracy Now!
Amy Goodman: Rallies for workers’ rights are spreading across the country. In Michigan, over a thousand people rallied at the State Capitol in Lansing to oppose a measure allowing the breaking of labor contracts by placing schools and districts under emergency management. In a scene reminiscent of Wisconsin, hundreds of demonstrators packed the Capitol Rotunda chanting slogans. Protests were also held against anti-union bills Tuesday in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Florida and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, in Idaho, the state legislature has given final approval to a measure restricting the collective bargaining of public school teachers. The bill would limit teachers’ collective bargaining to salaries and benefits. It also ends teacher tenure, limits teacher contracts to one year, and removes seniority as a factor in determining layoffs.
As a wave of anti-union bills are introduced across the country in the wake of the Great Recession, many analysts are picking up on the theory that award-winning journalist and author Naomi Klein first argued in her bestselling book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, she reveals how those in power use times of crisis to push through undemocratic, radical, free market economic policies.
Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, recently referenced the book in his column called "Shock Doctrine, U.S.A." He wrote, quote, "The story of the privatization-obsessed Coalition Provisional Authority [in Iraq] was the centerpiece of Naomi Klein’s best-selling book'The Shock Doctrine, which argued that it was part of a broader pattern. From Chile in the 1970s onward, she suggested, right-wing ideologues have exploited crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing their vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.
"Which brings us to Wisconsin 2011, where the shock doctrine is on full display," Krugman wrote.
Well, Naomi Klein joins us today in our studio for the hour. In addition to The Shock Doctrine, she’s the author of two previous books: No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies and Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. She’s currently writing a new book which focuses on the public relations campaign distorting climate change facts.
Naomi Klein, welcome to Democracy Now!
Naomi Klein: Hi, Amy. Great to see you.
Amy Goodman: It’s great to have you with us. Let’s talk Wisconsin. What do you see is happening in this uprising?
Naomi Klein: Well, first of all, it’s such an incredible example of how to resist the shock doctrine. And it should not be in any way surprising that we are seeing right-wing ideologues across the country using economic crisis as a pretext to really wage a kind of a final battle in a 50-year war against trade unions, where we’ve seen membership in trade unions drop precipitously. And public sector unions are the last labor stronghold, and they’re going after it. And these governors did not run elections promising to do these radical actions, but they are using the pretext of crisis to do things that they couldn’t get elected promising to do.
And, you know, that’s the core argument of and the thesis of the book, is not that there’s something wrong with responding to a crisis decisively. Crises demand decisive responses. The issue is this backhanded attempt to use a crisis to centralize power, to subvert democracy, to avoid public debate, to say, "We have no time for democracy. It’s just too messy. It doesn’t matter what you want. We have no choice. We just have to ram it through." And we’re seeing this in 16 states. I mean, it’s impossible to keep track of it. It’s happening on such a huge scale.
Teachers’ unions are getting the worst of it. As you know, it’s overwhelmingly women who are providing the services that are under attack. It’s not just labor that’s under attack; it’s the services that the labor is providing that’s under attack: it’s health care, it’s education, it’s those fundamental care-giving services across the country, which could be profitable if they were privatized.
Amy Goodman: In Ohio, more than 20,000 people marched to oppose the Republican Governor John Kasich’s attempted anti-union legislative putsch. Kasich recently defended his policy proposals on Fox & Friends.
Gov. John Kasich: It’s part of a big piece of reform. Come March the 15th, we will be reforming Medicaid, K-through-12, higher ed, prisons. It is going to be a reform agenda in Ohio like no one has ever seen, all designed to get us in a good position. In terms of unions? I respect unions. I come from a union family. I mean, the idea that we’re attacking anybody is—look, what we’re attacking: poverty, joblessness. OK, that’s what I’m attacking. And all I’m doing is saying to everybody, participate. Everybody jump in this. Together, we can make Ohio stronger. If we do not do that, you know, then we’ll continue to lose jobs, and that means misery for everybody. That’s not going to happen. We are going to be successful here.
Amy Goodman: Republican Governor John Kasich, going back to his old haunt. He was a commentator for a long time for Fox and, before that, a conservative congressman.
Naomi Klein: You know, the reason why this isn’t working and why people are so outraged by it and why they’re in the streets and we’re finally seeing the resistance in this country that we have seen in Europe, with this chant, "We won’t pay for your crisis," that really started in 2008 in Greece and spread to Italy and France and England—and, you know, the rest of the world has been waiting for the United States to—you know, how much are Americans going to take of this? It seems that Americans were willing to say, you know, "We will pay for your crisis, and would you like a tax break with that?" Right? And finally, they went too far. And so, that resistance is finally happening.
And this attack on collective bargaining, the reason why people won’t take it is precisely because they understand that this is not shared pain. It is not being shared equally. The people who created the crisis in the first place are not sharing the pain. And the injustice of this response is so blatant. This isn’t just any economic crisis. This tactic has worked. And this is, you know, what I’ve tracked over a 30-year period, that it is really easy to use an economic crisis—people panic, hyperinflation, issues like that.
In the '90s, when Newt Gingrich was Speaker, it was possible for him to argue that the source of the budget crisis really was so-called entitlement programs. You cannot do that in this moment in history because everybody understands that the crisis was created on Wall Street, it was created through speculation and greed, and a decision was made to bail out the bankers with public money and to pass the bill on to the public. And they're seeing the bonuses back. They’re seeing the outrageous salaries. They’re seeing corporations not paying their taxes. And it’s just too unjust. It’s just so morally outrageous. And then to turn on the television and talk about everybody sharing the pain? I mean, people are just not that stupid. Thankfully.
Amy Goodman: And where does the Obama administration fit into this? We have played that clip of President Obama when he was running for president, saying, "If anyone challenges your collective union rights, I will be walking with you."
Naomi Klein: Yeah. Well, I mean, this is the irony of this moment, and this is—it really is about democracies. Scott Walker was not elected with a mandate to bust unions and to strip collective bargaining rights. He did not mention that in his campaign. He talked about balancing the budget. He made some vague statements, you know, about shared sacrifice. But he absolutely did not campaign promising to do what he is now doing. Obama, on the other hand, campaigned promising to strengthen union rights. He promised, again and again, whenever he had a labor audience, that he was going to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and he promised to stand with them.
And, you know, one of the things that’s so important for us to understand about why—you know, there are many reasons why the resistance is so strong in Wisconsin and why they’ve become this beacon for not just the rest of the country, but the world, and so much of it, I think—you know, my colleague at The Nation, John Nichols, has written beautifully about it this week in a cover story where he talks about the rich sense of collective history, of collective memory, and the fact that people know their progressive history in Wisconsin, so they’re harder to exploit. You know, they’re not going to fall for the latest Fox News messaging, because they know their history. But, you know, this is—there’s something else that’s going on here.
Amy Goodman: Well, let me ask you about Michigan. About a thousand people rallied in Michigan—reminiscent of Wisconsin. Talk about the proposal there.
Naomi Klein: Well, I just found out about this last night, and like I said, there’s so much going on that these extraordinary measures are just getting lost in the shuffle. But in Michigan, there is a bill that’s already passed the House. It’s on the verge of passing the Senate. And I’ll just read you some excerpts from it. It says that in the case of an economic crisis, that the governor has the authority to authorize the emergency manager—this is somebody who would be appointed—to reject, modify, or terminate the terms of an existing contract or collective bargaining agreement, authorize the emergency manager for a municipal government—OK, so we’re not—we’re talking about towns, municipalities across the state—to disincorporate. So, an appointed official with the ability to dissolve an elected body, when they want to.
Amy Goodman: A municipal government.
Naomi Klein: A municipal government. And it says specifically, "or dissolve the municipal government." So we’ve seen this happening with school boards, saying, "OK, this is a failing school board. We’re taking over. We’re dissolving it. We’re canceling the contracts." You know, what this reminds me of is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when the teachers were fired en masse and then it became a laboratory for charter schools.
And what we’re seeing with the pretext of the flood is going to be used with the pretext of an economic crisis. And this is precisely what’s happening. So it starts with the school boards, and then it’s whole towns, whole cities, that could be subject to just being dissolved because there’s an economic crisis breaking collective bargaining agreements. It also specifies that—this bill specifies that an emergency manager can be an individual or a firm. Or a firm. So, the person who would be put in charge of this so-called failing town or municipality could actually be a corporation.
Amy Goodman: Whose government they dissolve, a company takes over.
Naomi Klein: A company takes over. So, they have created, if this passes, the possibility for privatization of a whole town by fiat. And this is actually a trend in the contracting out of public services, where you do now have whole towns, like Sandy Springs in Georgia, run by private companies. It’s very lucrative. Why not? You start with just the water contract or the electricity contract, but eventually, why not privatize the whole town? So—
Amy Goodman: And what happens then? Where does democracy fit into that picture?
Naomi Klein: Well, this is an assault on democracy. It’s a frontal assault on democracy. It’s a kind of a corporate coup d’état at the municipal level.
Amy Goodman: Let me ask you a question that came to us from Facebook. This is a question about the Madison protest. Kelvin Williams asks, "Are there any specific ways that Wisconsin workers can use the ideas in [your book] The Shock Doctrine to go on the offensive and force true fiscal responsibility, perhaps even rolling back the compromise contract?"
Naomi Klein: Mm-hmm. It’s a great question. I think what’s finally starting to happen, and this is—Wisconsin has really been going from one victory after another. This started off with an attack, but people have been—have just found such incredible reserves of resolve and dignity and collective history that the ground is shifting. So, the situation under which those compromises were made, those concessions were made, it’s changed. You know, people are feeling their power and their possibility.
Amy Goodman: I mean, it’s amazing now. The Governor, who was just elected, Scott Walker, a few months ago, is now—his popularity has dipped to the 30s. And even the conservative newspapers are asking serious questions.
Naomi Klein: Mm-hmm, yeah. I mean, he clearly made a real miscalculation. I mean, what was obvious is that he was really playing to the national stage. He’s clearly a very ambitious guy. He’s got real national political aspirations. I think that’s clear. You know, in that conversation with fake David Koch, the prank call, he compares himself to Reagan. He compares his actions to Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers, that sort of "shot heard around the world" moment. That’s what he wanted, you know? And he is not getting that.
Amy Goodman: And then he said, first he fired the PATCO strikers, and then the Berlin Wall came down. He made that link.
Naomi Klein: He said it. And it’s not a crazy link, in the sense that it was part of a frontal assault on labor and the left, and it continued for many, many years. But, you know, it’s not the ’80s anymore, and people are on to these tactics.
And I do think—you know, just coming back to that question—that it is possible. But the real key is that we have to be having the debate about where the money should be coming from. I mean, if there is a fiscal crisis—and in Wisconsin, there’s a crisis that was created by tax cuts, and this is why there’s so much outrage, because it comes back to that false claim that there’s shared sacrifice here. There isn’t shared sacrifice here. There are gifts that are being handed out to the elites. Scott Walker is governing based on this radical free market ideology that if we just create the perfect, most hospitable, most gentle, less demanding conditions for corporations to do business, then we’ll have a booming economy, and it will trickle down, and everyone will benefit. And that is exactly the ideology that Obama campaigned against—and won—saying we can’t keep giving more and more to the people at the top and waiting for it to trickle down. And that was a message that really resonated with voters.
One thing I wanted to come back to that I was starting to get at earlier about why what’s happening in Wisconsin and what we need to take from it is that when bad things are happening, it’s helpful to have a bad guy. And Scott Walker is a good bad guy. And he has galvanized progressives. And people have, you know, an enemy to organize around and to point out these disparities. It hasn’t happened at the federal level, despite the fact that Obama is also involved in attacking labor rights with his pushing of charter schools and draconian budget cuts. He’s not a good bad guy for progressives. So, we’re still in a situation where Obama is getting away with, in my opinion, shock doctrine-style tactics, because people still don’t want to believe that Obama is doing it, too. So, when you have an easy bad guy, a Republican governor who’s obviously trying to be the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, you can mobilize the left. But it won’t just work if we are only going after the Republicans and if this is fought along just partisan lines, as opposed to being fought based on principle. No matter who is doing it, we need to be mobilizing, if it’s Obama, if it’s Scott Walker.
Amy Goodman: And the people that President Obama surrounds himself with, especially when it comes to the Wall Street insiders, especially as we move into the 2012 election, when it’s said Obama will raise more than a billion dollars for the presidential election?
Naomi Klein: There’s a lot of denial, still, about who Obama is and who he surrounds himself with. And, you know, we’re going to talk a little bit later about Tim DeChristopher, but I’ve said it many times: Obama is fundamentally a centrist. And I do think that when there is a mobilized progressive movement in the United States that is putting pressure on him, on Democrats in Congress, they will respond.
And that’s another lesson that we can take from Wisconsin. You know, I was talking, once again, to John Nichols the other day, and he said, "What’s really working here is that we have the inside-outside pincer." Right? You’ve got people in the streets, but you also have Democratic lawmakers willing to put themselves on the line, being surprisingly courageous, leaving the state, and blocking it. So it isn’t just the people in the Rotunda. It isn’t just the protesters at the rally. It’s a kind of a partnership that’s going on. Why is that happening? Well, they looked out the window, and they saw their voters in the streets really committed and really mobilized, and that gave them courage.
And that’s something really important to remember. So many liberal groups are involved in this gentle backroom lobbying, a token protest here and there, which says, "I’m willing to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday, but I’m not really willing to fight to win." And what’s going on in Wisconsin is something very different. It’s not just a rally on a Saturday afternoon. It is people really upending their lives for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. That sends a message to politicians who want to get re-elected that this is a big issue, a top priority. And they hear that.
This interview and its transcript originally appeared on Democracy Now!
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