The bizarro shock doctrine of Covid Libertarians
The right's lazy defense of neoliberalism against the shock doctrine critique is just to cynically reverse it.
Naomi Klein, in her classic The Shock Doctrine, argues that “contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum” can be found in comments arch neoliberal Milton Friedman layed out long ago:
…only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change… our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.1
He is not just referring to any alternatives to existing policies, of course. Klein specifically relates the shock doctrine to “Friedman’s war on the ‘welfare state’ and ‘big government’”2 and demonstrates how this has played out over and over again — in Poland, China, South Africa, Russia, and multiple countries in East Asia and South America.
Earlier today, I saw something that made me think of Klein’s writing once again:
This is a reference to Justin Trudeau’s administration freezing the bank accounts of Freedom Convoy protesters, of course. But whatever you think about that, it’s not difficult to see what Young America’s Foundation is up to. YAF is leveraging this incident to advance a much broader ideological attack on state power in general. It is, in other words, using the chaos unfolding amid the Covid disaster to wage Friedman’s war on “big government”. This is the shock doctrine in action.
There really isn’t much more to say about YAF — an NGO dedicated to “free markets, limited government, and lower taxes”, an NGO funded by the DeVos oligarchs, an NGO led by Koch-funded libertarian Scott Walker — advancing the hardline capitalist agenda it is obviously going to advance. But I think it is worth talking about the man promoting their tweet — Congressman Jason Chaffetz — and his unique relationship to the shock doctrine.
Chaffetz’s political reputation has long been defined by a contrast between his professed independent populism on one hand and his entanglement with the Republican establishment on the other. As a politician, Chaffetz declined (temporarily) to endorse President Trump and famously marketed himself as a cash-strapped everyman by sleeping on a cot in his office instead of renting an apartment in DC. But Chaffetz also, as a politician, openly refused to investigate Trump for conflicts of financial interest, arguing that “the president is exempt from almost every conflict of interest [law]”; then in 2017, he ended his term early and began a lucrative gig with Fox News the very next day. If the trend of supposedly independent populists running cover for powerful Republicans and then cashing in with lucrative media deals seems familiar, you’ve been paying attention.
Another point Chaffetz has in common with our well-paid Republican apologist “independent populists”: his conviction that the state, with the support of the left, is using the pandemic to expand its power — and that Americans must resist. His promotion of the YAF tweet makes this clear.
But what makes it even clearer is a book he wrote just last year, They Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: The Truth About Disaster Liberalism.
“Wait,” you may say, “isn’t that title a lot like Naomi Klein’s famous book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism?”
Yes. Yes it is. Jason Chaffetz wrote a book that rehearses most of the arguments and rhetoric that Covid Libertarians have been using — and that is also very clearly an attempt to co-opt and neutralize Klein’s critique of neoliberalism. This is not the thoughtful and extensively researched analysis that Klein puts forward; it’s just a lazy, cynical tweak of her argument to reach the exact opposite conclusion. In academia a book like this would ordinarily be rejected as a form of plagiarism (Chaffetz does not even mention Klein’s name); but in the world of neoliberal demagoguery, its argument has been accepted wholesale.
It’s impossible to read Disaster Liberalism and not hear the discourse surrounding Covid Libertarianism today. Chaffetz:
Rails against “Left-wing Twitter…Blue check progressives — verified Twitter accounts with large followings” and complains about tiny Twitter accounts saying inflammatory things about Covid Libertarians;
Uses liberal hypocrisy about the safety of public gatherings during Covid (EG BLM protests vs. Trump rallies) to pass a broad judgment about “coronavirus hysteria”;
Says that lockdowns are “intended to lead to a new normal — an America more easily controlled by a government less easily constrained.”
Complains about leftist “authoritarianism” one moment, then decries “words like Nazi or fascist when used to describe anyone on the right”;
Insists that “the public health benefit of lockdowns…is still unclear”;
Objects to appeals to “professors, researchers, and other scholars who can theoretically make better decisions than we can”;
Characterizes objections to alternative treatments by academia and the media as “political suppression”;
Criticizes giving the government power with an explicit slippery slope argument: “We gave government an inch. Government would quickly take a mile.”3
Claims that the early lockdowns of the pandemic “became endless lockdown” when in fact the exact opposite is true;
Claims that “Among the more alarming impacts of disaster liberalism is the punitive response to unpopular speech” and, despite being conservative, invokes Chomsky’s “if we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all” to criticize alleged attacks on conservative speech (IE, he makes Move 5);
Appeals to criticism of the left by supposedly leftist media personalities who do not even identify as leftists themselves: “Some on the left are beginning to recognize the path we’re on….journalist Matt Taibbi in June 2020 called out the cancel culture”;
Argues that “we have a media and technology sector actively practicing suppression of political narratives that breach [exclusively] progressive orthodoxy”;
Warns against “the potential expansion of the surveillance state…Coronovarius provided a pretext for government…”;
Floats conspiracy theories about media coordination with a left it routinely attacks: “The coverage upholding leftist narratives often appears synchronized, with every outlet seeming to use coordinated words and phrases at the same time.”
This is just a partial list, but you get the idea: just about every line in circulation today among Covid Libertarians can be found in Chaffetz’s book. But these are not just random talking points! All of them work together to advance a specific line of argument:
“Whether the crisis is legitimate, fabricated, or exaggerated, the solution is always the same: more government, less individual freedom, higher spending, higher taxes.”
Leftists “are comfortable deferring to professionals and bureaucrats rather than markets or individuals.”
“Leftists have applied the term “public health crisis” to a wide range of social ills… [like] capitalism.”
Leftists want “government investment that redistributes wealth…They do not mean private investment…They mean taxpayer subsidies — otherwise known as free stuff.”
“The pandemic once again showed us how the left’s solution to every crisis is more government, more spending, more control over our decisions and incomes.”
“In addition to massive regulatory power, the left also used the public health crisis to advocate for expansive new spending programs. Once again, Medicare-for-All was presented as a panacea for health care. Medicare-for-All would replace hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs…”
“Authoritarianism…has never been able to gold a candle to the results that freedom can produce. Governments that continually restrict individual freedom are less productive, offer lower standards of living, and suffer much wider gaps between rich and poor. For all the excesses of capitalism…the proof is in the outcomes.”
“Freedom and liberty are not very compatible with the level of force required to impose one-size-fits-all approaches from a strong central government. Force is required to implement redistributive policies and sky-high taxes…”
“Partisan enemies would be created to inspire fear and a sense of urgency…billionaires getting rich off the lockdown…would all be cast as the villains in a liberal tragedy that only bigger government could repair.”
“The Black Lives Matter Movement is an explicitly Marxist organization with a goal of replacing the most successful economic and social systems in world history with systems that show a long record of abysmal failures.”
Again, I could go on. But when you read this book, you can see how every single Covid Libertarian talking point — arguments that, we are told, are merely concerned with some vague fight between “liberty” and “authoritarianism” — works to advance the interests of the rich and the agenda of capitalism, and to defeat the scourge of socialism in the United States. Like every neoliberal who has ever lived, Chaffetz equates capitalism with freedom, defends it in the name of civil liberties, and warns of the workers who would lose their jobs if their employers face health and safety regulations. Like every neoliberal who has ever lived, Chaffetz uses slippery slope arguments to connect seemingly benevolent exercises of power (like Medicare for All) with Orwellian dystopias. And like every neoliberal whoever lived, Chaffetz melds his capitalist agenda with warnings about how the blue hair communists want to destroy your family and murder conservatives.
None of that is new. But what is new, I would argue, is the way Chaffetz constructs his argument against Klein’s analysis of the shock doctrine. Disaster Liberalism mirrors the argument of her book, right down to the phrasing, because Chaffetz has been thinking about it. And Chaffetz has been thinking about it, of course, because it describes exactly what he wants to happen. Throughout the pandemic, Covid Libertarians have stoked fears of government tyranny in an effort to dismantle the government and destroy those who would defend it. It’s the standard shock doctrine strategy.
So while Disaster Liberalism can be read as a defense against the leftists Chaffetz writes about, it’s also a defense against the leftist he doesn’t write about: Naomi Klein. He refuses to mention her or The Shock Doctrine because he doesn’t want readers to know about her argument; he mimics it so closely because he wants readers to understand the form of the argument as his, and wants them to understand hers (if they encounter it) as derivative.
Similarly, among Covid Libertarians we have seen the same two-fold strategy. Some of its pundits have developed a tortured “anti-capitalist” critique of government intervention, revolving mostly around the usual “crony capitalism” rhetoric and crass calls for identitarian deference to their favored factions of workers. At the same time, these pundits have conspicuously avoided acknowledging anti-capitalist arguments for government intervention; their hope is not to debate this question, but rather to rhetorically displace the anti-capitalist position with Covid Libertarianism.
This co-option of left positions in the discourse has become a standard rhetorical strategy among conservative capitalists in the post-Sanders era. Chaffetz is now a fellow at a non-partisan think-tank founded by a famous populist and dedicated to exposing “government corruption…and crony capitalism.” Perhaps this sounds like the sort of principled challenge to “the establishment” and “authoritarianism” that leftists ought to support — but what if I told you that the populist who founded it is Steve Bannon? And that its funding mostly comes from Bob Mercer? And what if I told you that by “crony capitalism” they just mean “the government”, and by “non-partisan” they mean, as the Deseret News reports, that they will focus “mainly on Democrats”? Maybe our anti-authoritarian non-partisan populists who consistently ignore capital and the Republican party don’t really have a problem with authority after all.
Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom p. ix.
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine p.57