“This is a turning point for Canada and it’s also a turning point for the neoliberal project, for the privatization project,” said Naomi Klein last week at a fundraiser for the Ontario Health Coalition.
“In Canada we have weird timing. Just when the Americas are turning away from neoliberalism in droves, its principal purveyors so embarrassed by their own policies that they have to wrap it in the rhetoric of war and civilization — they pretend they don’t even care about economics anymore, it’s about security, not trade.
“It’s precisely at this moment that Canada throws in the towel and gives up the very system that is held up around the world,” said Klein, referring to Canada’s election of a Conservative government and the current privatization of various health care services across Canada.
Speaking publicly for the first time in over a year, Naomi Klein, a well-known anti-globalization author and activist, returned to Toronto last Friday to join Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, and the Ontario Health Coalition for a talk about new social movements and the protection of public health care at St. Andrew’s Church.
Klein focused on a trip to New Orleans that she took with partner Avi Lewis and a photographer friend in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, part of the research for her upcoming book called Disaster Capitalism.
“I arrived when the city was still flooded,” recounted Klein, saying that the concept of “disaster capitalism” is not only about the profiting from disaster, but also about the clandestine introduction of privatization in moments when people are in shock.
“What they have to do now is use cataclysmic violence and exploit people in their moment of most severe trauma, which is what has happened in New Orleans,” said Klein. “By using the disaster to further privatize the health care system, to turn the public education system into laboratories for Charter schoolsâe¦ shows you that we are truly up against sociopaths.”
Klein stated that the response to Hurricane Katrina showed the ineffectiveness of neoliberal policies.
“Because Katrina, the disaster that was Katrina, was the most damning indictment of the logic of the privatization and total neglect of the state — to the extent that you had a few days where some hard-line neoliberals were doubting themselves, âe¦ saying: ‘Where is the State?’”
Car crash in New Orleans
In a stroke of luck — or bad luck, depending on how you look at it — Klein was able to get a first-hand account of the segregated American health care system, when, while driving quickly to avoid the curfew in New Orleans, her car smashed into another car at an intersection, continuing into the middle of a coffee shop.
“The other car was a cop car and that’s how we found out we were in the South,” recounted Klein. “Everyone was okay in the end: Andy [the photographer friend] was arrested, Avi was face down on the ground being warned [about] what happens when you hit a cop [car] in the State of Louisiana, [and] I was strapped in a gurney in an ambulance trying to convince them to please not take me to a hospital.”
Klein recalled seeing frightening hospital scenes on the news, particularly those from Charity Hospital that catered to those who couldn’t afford to pay for care.
“I was just terrified about where they were going to take me,” said Klein, who — while slipping in and out of consciousness because of a concussion — began negotiating with the ambulance driver to let her out. “I said: Just drop me off at a corner, you know, Iâe(TM)ll walk. No problem. Please don’t take me there.”
“They said no, no, you have to go.”
Klein recalled that she soon awoke in what looked like a spa, but soon realised it was a private hospital.
“I was in a private room in three minutes flat. I was being attended to by three nurses, a senior doctor, and a medical intern. I have never in my life got such attentive health care.
”This was in the middle of the largest natural disaster, humanitarian disaster in American history,” marvelled Klein. “The doctors were playing cards in the middle of this hospital and were being protected by an army of private security, who were there, as they called it, to keep the junkies out.”
After receiving a few stitches, Klein recounted that she wasn’t able to leave the hospital because of the curfew in New Orleans, and in order to pass time, attempted to interview the intern who was tending to her.
“I asked if he worked the hurricane and he said, ‘No, thank God, I wasn’t on duty. I actually live in the suburbs.’”
“Did you go to any of the shelters?” Klein recalled asking the intern. “He looked at me, confused. I wasnâe(TM)t trying to be a bitch,” Klein exclaimed to chuckles from the audience. “I just assumed that someone who just learned how to be a doctor would want to go to the shelters and help.
“It actually hadn’t even occurred to him to go to one of the shelters, just as it hadn’t occurred to any of the doctors and nurses in this hospital that, instead of being in their fortress, dealing with three or four patients âe¦ they could be out there.”
Klein blamed the development of this frame of mind on the American two-tiered health care system, which, she said, had “already accepted the idea that some lives are worth more and some are worth nothing.”
“Once you do that in your health care system, you are mentally prepared to do that in a major disaster,” noted Klein. A disaster, she added, which extends into the privatization of the health care and education systems.
“It’s a hardening of hearts that’s required on a daily basis to run a luxury hospital in a city like New Orleans,” continued Klein. “It’s the same hardening of hearts that lets people be abandoned on their rooftops by their country.
“That’s the direction that we’re being taken in,” warned Klein. “The irony is that this way of thinking is being rejected around the world, at this very moment. We’re not deciding we want this; they’ve just worn us out. We voted again and again and said again and again that this is the most pressing issue for Canadians.
“They bored us into privatizing health care. How many times can we really fight the same fight?”
Rejoining the Americas
Klein devoted the final part of her talk to the topic of Canada’s participation in the neoliberal project and Canada’s relationship with the rest of the Americas.
“In Canada, neoliberalism is not opposed to violence, neoliberalism is itself violence,” she said. “It plays itself out on the bodies of the poor in this city once the temperature drops. It is a violent model and that’s why it needs to be enclosed with violence,” added Klein, referring to the metal-wire fence and the lines of police that surrounded the Summit of the Americas conference held in Quebec City in 2001.
Klein offered one way of helping to shake off the shock of neoliberalism in Canada.
“The Americas are leading the way, and their response to being padlocked by the neoliberal lobby âe¦ was to form constitutional assemblies and remake the laws,” said Klein. “We don’t have to reform our constitution, we can just scrap NAFTA.
“And we have to do it,” Klein added. “It is a revolutionary moment and we had a moment here in Canada where we were, for one brief moment, part of the Americas. Not as mining companies and energy companies, exploiters and colonizers, but on an equal basis.”
Klein stated that the neoliberal project has been unmasked in the Americas, claiming its leaders have had to live under “a permanent state of siege” in the face of the growing “counter-counter revolution.”
From new social movements in South America, to “Mexico’s so-called president [being] sworn in at midnight in a shameful ceremony,” Klein said that a rebellion against neoliberalism is sweeping the southern hemisphere.
“In 2001,” noted Klein, “Canada showed that we could be part of this moment of effervescent rebellion. In 2001, people were in the streets in Canada, they were naming neoliberalism; they were naming the policies — privatization, regulation, cuts to our crucial social services, and now, we’re going to transfer all that to the military.
“Look at how much has changed since 2001 in Latin America,” Klein added. “Almost all those leaders [who attended the Summit of the Americas] have been driven from power, many in helicopters from their presidential palaces.”
In concluding her remarks, Klein stressed the imperative in resisting the neoliberal project, offering advice to those who might be feeling disillusioned.
“It is possible to lift the web if we have the determination,” said Klein. “It is possible to break this feeling that we all have, that it’s impossible to turn [the neoliberal project] backâe¦that it really has been a death by a million cuts,” said Klein.
“We have to get our courage back and we have to rejoin the Americas.”