Obituary as Agitprop: Naomi Klein on the Death of Robert Dziekanski

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What does the "Shock Doctrine" have to do with the accidental killing of a Polish immigrant in Canada?

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Stills from video footage of Dziekanski in the arrivals area of the Vancouver airport, October 14, 2007 (Reuters)

Video recently emerged from mid-October of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers at the Vancouver International Airport using a Taser to subdue a lost and agitated 40-year-old Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski. Horribly, the Taser shock would kill Dziekanski. The footage of his death, now exposed globally via YouTube, has aroused widespread indignation and renewed debate on the use of electroshock weapons.

Dziekanski's was the 16th Taser-related death in Canada since 2003; the 17th happened less than a week later when Quilem Registre died after a confrontation with police in Montreal; and Amnesty International counts more than 270 Taser-related deaths in the U.S. since 2001. Civil liberties groups, including Amnesty, have called for a moratorium on Tasers until police can implement better training and procedures, and the medical risks can be fully understood.

Writing last week in The Los Angeles Times, however, the internationally renowned journalist and anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein now suggests that, while all such concern about the when and how of police Taser use may be well and good, it's ultimately small thinking, missing the real context in which Dziekanski's death "must" be understood. "... what happened in Vancouver was about more than a weapon," Klein writes. "It was also about an increasingly brutal side of the global economy -- about the reality that many victims of various forms of economic 'shock therapy' face at our borders."

As it happens, Klein's argument about the meaning of Dziekanski's death is identical to an argument she makes about tasers in her latest book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The "shock doctrine," she explains, is an influential but largely unknown theory, held by major corporate interests and global capitalist elites, that establishing a modern free-market economy where none yet exists requires a kind of collective crisis. "A crisis that opens up a 'window of opportunity' -- when people and societies are too disoriented to protect their own interests -- for radically remaking countries using the trademark tactic of rapid-fire economic shock therapy and, all too often, less metaphorical forms of shock: the shock of the police truncheon, the Taser gun or the electric prod in the prison cell."

In the same terms Klein now eulogizes, "It turns out that [Dziekanski] didn't just die after being shocked -- his life was marked by shock as well." With the fall of communism, she explains, the Polish government of Dziekanski's youth opted for 'shock therapy," eliminating price controls, slashing subsidies, and privatizing industries to jolt Poland out of economic stagnation and get in moving as quickly as possible toward the modern industrial "normality" of the West.

Of course, on this standard of normality, Poland never arrived. The country's jobless rate remains the highest in the expanded 27-nation EU, for example, with approximately 40 percent of young Polish workers now unemployed. In recent years, Dziekanski was among them; and then, with his ill-fated immigration to Canada, he was among upward of 2 million Poles to have left their country in recent years seeking work, a modicum of job security, and maybe, as Klein would have it, the makings of a "normal" life abroad. "But there isn't enough normal to go around, or so we are told," she observes. "And so, as migrants move, they are often met with other shocks. A treacherous electrified fence on Spain's southern border, or a Taser gun on the U.S.-Mexican border."

As the Times has since clarified, there is, in fact, no electrified fence on Spain's southern border. Neither, the paper might have added, does Spain have a southern border. There are fences at the boundaries of the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla, but these are in North Africa, not on the Iberian peninsula, and the fences are made of razor wire, not electrified. Scarcely less daunting for anyone trying to get through them than would be an electrified fence at "Spain's southern border," perhaps, but obviously not the monument to the "shock doctrine" that Klein was looking for.

Whether you believe Dziekanski is himself a martyr to this doctrine doesn't depend on whether you accept Klein's basic formulation of a "shock doctrine" or her account of how it drives transitions to capitalism; it depends on whether you accept that the Taser shock killing Dziekanski was a logical extension of such a doctrine. Or, going with Klein's formulation, it depends on whether you accept that these different kinds of shock "interconnect in a cycle."

Unfortunately, Klein leaves it entirely to us to imagine what evidence might make her seemingly tendentious case, let alone what the cyclical interconnection that she refers to might consist in. Which in turn suggests, not unlike Spain's southern border, that Klein may not be all that invested in evidence.

Without it, all we have to go on is a disorienting assertion that two utterly different kinds of shock are really two manifestations of one kind of shock. And if for any reason we happen not to be willing to accept that assertion, we'll have nothing to help us project our mortification about Dziekanski's death on global capitalism.

Some may find themselves reflecting (maybe more unsettlingly still) on the heartbreaking fragility of life and the terrifying ease with which force can become lethal - under any economic system. Some may even find themselves wondering whether, say, sounder economic policy from the Polish government might have mitigated the dislocations of moving from a collectivist to a capitalist economy and kept more people like Dziekanski employed in their home country.

Either way, it's tough to avoid the conclusion that Klein is opportunistically appropriating the terrible, unnecessary death of Robert Dziekanski for just another blast of anti-capitalist rhetoric. In which case, it would have been more humane to say nothing.


A version of this post appears in The Chronicle Herald.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia. … Also: jjgould.com.

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