Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture – a flood, a war, a terrorist attack – can generate the kind of vast, clean canvases they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world.
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein outlines her concept of “disaster capitalism.” Military invasions, natural disasters and economic recessions all cause enough destruction and disorientation to suspend normal democratic processes, and make it easier to impose swift and sweeping political reforms. The Shock Doctrine shows how crises have been created as well as exploited since the 1970s, to allow neoliberal economic policy to go global. It is worthwhile considering the last six years’ transgender takeover in light of Klein’s analysis, especially if you take seriously her passing acknowledgement that neoliberalism spells the commodification of girls and women, as it pushes more and more of us into the growing industries of child marriage and prostitution.
Neoliberal economics involves a three-part formula and one big lie that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects governments to swallow as a condition of taking out major loans to recover from crisis. Since 1983, the IMF has handed out such loans as “structural adjustment packages,” which compel debtor governments to make state-owned assets like public transport, communications and public lands available for corporate and private purchase; dramatically cut back spending on health, education and welfare, and remove legal protections that stand in the way of corporate profits, like minimum wages. The public is told that while things might get tougher initially, an unregulated free market in which everything is for sale promises economic growth that will eventually “trickle down” if we all muck in.
This economic formula has a particularly devastating impact on indigenous communities, especially women and girls. When land is confiscated from indigenous people for agribusiness or tourism, a few things happen at once. The land is cleared and degraded so that it can no longer support a subsistence lifestyle, and the people who lived on it are forced into greater reliance on wage labour. Men may be offered incentives to partake in the farming or felling operations, for instance, or else suffer unemployment. Women remain responsible, in the last instance, for putting food on the table and taking care of sick children – but they cannot rely on welfare, nor their husbands for the means to do it, nor compete with men for jobs. To make a living, women are forced into dependency not only on Western capitalism, but on men.
From South America to Eastern Europe, Africa to Asia, the combination of male dominance and unadulterated capitalism has spelled the commodification of women. When the cost of living increases and income falls, feeding and keeping a family healthy becomes harder. Indebted families become more likely to sell daughters into marriage or prostitution, while women also look for ways to leave their home country. Pimps and sex traffickers exploit these women, and governments around the world welcome the money that they send home to their families from overseas, nevermind its source. The sex industry is growing as more women fall into poverty and governments pass laws that treat the prostitution of women as profitable and legitimate business. As this happens, women’s status as sex objects, as commodities, is further cemented.
We now live in a culture with a flourishing sex trade, in which pornography is mainstream and rape is epidemic. One symptom common among women who have survived sexual assault is dissociation, a survival mechanism that enables women to mentally “leave” their bodies during assault. As Kasja Ekis Ekman explains in Being and Being Bought, pimps exploit and perpetuate dissociation to promote prostitution; ideologically and in practice, the commodification of women rests on the notion of the “split self.” In today’s world, this idea that the self is distinct from the body provides the basis for an important and otherwise contradictory neoliberal argument that helps sustain the sex trade. The sanitizing ideology of “sex work” promotes the idea that a woman can be an entrepreneur, optimising her own welfare in the free market – by “choosing,” paradoxically, to make her own body a commodity that can be bought and sold.
The idea that it is possible to be born in the “wrong body” and internally identify with the opposite sex has proven an effective way to exploit the disaster conditions of rape culture. Men are already taught to assume that women exist for their consumption; as a result, dissociation is prevalent among women. The neoliberal concept of gender identity leverages both the commodified concept of womanhood and the condition of dysphoria that both form part of rape culture. Gender identity cements these ideas into decisive and active political positions, which encourage individualism and ignorance of oppression based on sex. As a bonus, these neoliberal ideas help to foster the kind of culture-wide self-interest that capitalism claims is inherent in human beings.
It is possible to understand transgenderism as the most recent phase of neoliberalism by tracing the history of the latter. The first country to be used as a neoliberal “laboratory” was Chile. In 1973, Augusto Pinochet took over the government through a CIA-backed military coup and enacted, in Klein’s words, “the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere.” In The Women’s Movement in Latin America, Patricia Chuchryk explains that after Chile neoliberalized,
“Poverty, massive unemployment, and a greatly diminished industrial sector forced women, especially the growing urban working-class poor, to join the ranks of street vendors, beggars and prostitutes…. Poor and working-class women, whose husbands were often demoralized and chronically unemployed, were forced to figure out ways to feed their children.”
According to author Marjorie Agosin, who wrote on women’s resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship, the number of women in prostitution increased by 50 per cent between 1973 and 1987 in Chile. It is no wonder that it took a coup to neoliberalize Chile, or that the father of neoliberalism, American economist Milton Friedman, believed that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” He called his method of leveraging crises to impose quick, comprehensive reform “shock treatment.”
September 11 is the “shock” that provided justification both for the adoption of an intensified form of neoliberalism in the United States, and its invasion of the Middle East. After the US invaded Afghanistan, child marriage predictably increased, while temporary marriages (which observers of sharia law often practice in order to prostitute women) became more frequent with the invasion of Iraq. As feminist author Kathleen Barry writes, “When men are made inferior, their condition is reduced to that of women. That is intolerable to most men. Those men in turn force women’s status to lower levels.” Today, the Middle East is the region with the fastest growing sex trafficking industry.
In her 2014 book The Underground Daughters of Kabul, Jenny Nordberg reported from Afghanistan that,
“The majority of marriages are still forced, honor killings are not unusual, and any involvement of the justice system in a rape case usually means that only the victim goes to jail… Women burn themselves to death using cooking fuel to escape domestic abuse here, and daughters are still a viable, informal currency used by fathers to pay off debts and settle disputes.”
In much of the Asian region, the decreasing status of women has meant increasing rates of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. Nordberg explains,
“Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here. A family is not only incomplete without one; in a country lacking rule of law, it is also seen as weak and vulnerable. So it is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son – it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others.”
Western proponents of transgenderism should note that the stigma on girls in Afghanistan has also lead to the rise of bacha posh, girls raised “dressed up like a boy.” Nordberg’s book shows how common this practice has become. It also explains the difficulty girls face when they reach puberty, can no longer pass as boys, and are expected to switch to living their social lives acknowledged as females – for instance by accepting an arranged marriage. When Zahra, a teenage girl raised as bacha posh, was pressured by her family to marry, she considered sex-change surgery. It would be possible to undergo in Iran, where many homosexuals are pressured into this form of conversion therapy to appear heterosexual and avoid the death penalty. “I will find money, too,” Zahra announced, “and change myself into a man.”
Zahra’s experience illustrates how the concept of gender transition relies on the oppression and commodification of women. It is not surprising that while countries like Afghanistan might see a rise in practices like bacha posh as a result of American militarism, countries like New Zealand would see the same practise popularize later through the influence of consumerist propaganda campaigns that sell gender transition as a consumerist “choice.” Klein explains that September 11 lead to the commercialization of every aspect of disaster in America and abroad, so that crisis itself is no longer a means to an end, but profitable in and of itself. Why would the opportunity that a practice like bacha posh represents be treated any different than other outcomes of trauma and disaster?
In a democratic country, porn and rape culture provide the perfect crisis conditions for the neoliberal “shock treatment” that transgenderism represents. As stated, one symptom common among women who have survived sexual assault is dissociation, which also enables women to continue viewing our bodies as separate from ourselves longer term, so as to avoid confronting the overwhelming reality of abuse and its repercussions. In her book Paid For, Rachel Moran explains that “the prostituted cannot maintain her identity or sanity without it.” She adds that women’s objectification also makes dissociation a cultural commonplace, explaining,
“Some non-prostituted women routinely force themselves into a state of shutdown in order to accommodate men’s sexual demands… Some women will go to very great lengths in order to facilitate superfluous desires which are presented as critical sexual requirements. Many women who do these things do them not in effort to please themselves, but in an effort to be pleasing.”
In a world with a flourishing sex trade, in which one in three women are sexually abused, women’s willingness to dissociate from our bodies and men’s preparedness to purchase and abuse them as objects has prepared the ground for the complete neoliberal redefinition of what a woman is. The notion of “being born in the wrong body” that underpins transgenderism is an extension of the “split self” concept. According to this redefinition of womanhood, men who identify as women are entitled to access women’s sports, refuges and changing rooms. Women are apparently not particularly attached to these hard won rights, and willing to move over to accommodate.
What’s more, while 80 percent of men who identify as women do not undergo operations, young women, lesbians especially, are more prone to do damage to their bodies in order to escape the realities of being female. In the West, adult men are proportionately more interested in identifying with “womanhood” as an essentialist concept that comes with fashion and beauty paraphernalia than they are in undertaking surgeries associated with transgenderism. In 2013, the rate of intentional self-harm hospitalization was also more than twice as high among females as compared to males in New Zealand. There were 2,866 hospitalizations for youth aged 15-24, and three quarters of those were female.
In 2018, the New Zealand government replaced its annual cap on sex reassignment surgeries with a new minimum number to reduce a waitlist. It has not stopped to question whether these experimental surgeries are an effective way to treat dysphoria. Even the Auckland District Health Board’s clinical lead for transgender health services, Jeannie Oliphant, admits that “I don’t think we know any more than we know why I was born left-handed and my sister was born right-handed.” Despite this, the number of people being referred to endocrinologists in Wellington for medical transition have leapt from between two and seven adult men annually in the early nineties, to 24 referrals in total in 2013, increasing to 92 by 2016.
To drive home what is happening here, Julia Long discussed a 3-part British television series called Transformation Street, at 2018 event hosted by the Lesbian Rights Alliance. The series was filmed in plastic surgeon Christopher Inglefield’s private clinic, and followed several individuals who sought gender reassignment surgery, over the course of a year. Long says that about 25 minutes into the first episode of this series, the viewer sees Inglefield,
“an eminent, world-renowned plastic surgeon – or we might wish to call him different terms, such as a professional mutilator or a profit-driven mutilator… cutting into the healthy breast tissue of a young woman who believes herself to be a man. We see her surgically reduced nipples being placed to one side, to be stitched back on later on, and we hear the soft slap of a sliced off breast as it drops into a kidney bowl.
So let’s just reflect on that, that was witnessed by a sizeable audience on prime time British television – the soft slap of a healthy young woman’s newly sliced off breast dropping into a plastic kidney bowl. Now we might think that such an image would cause some grief, some horror or some outrage, but in fact, it drew very opposite reactions to that. If you look at the reviews of Transformation Street… it was praised.”
As Jennifer Bilek and Mary Ceallaigh point out in Female Erasure, in 2013 transgenderism barely registered on our cultural radar. By 2014 there’d been a 400% spike in media coverage, and at least nineteen new television shows featuring a transgender character in 2014. By now, the concept of gender fluidity has replaced immutable biological sex. While people are swallowing this concept, the New Zealand government is acting fast. Alongside removing the cap on surgeries, it is likely to pass one-step sex self-identification legislation this year, at the expense of women’s services and facilities, with most of the public unaware of the law changes and their implications.
In a very short space of time, Joanna Williams notes, “we have moved from the premise that men and women exist as fundamentally distinct biological entities with tolerance shown to a small minority of people who chose to live differently, to transgenderism as an ideology that insists all aspects of public life must comply with its demands.” Suddenly, the word ‘woman’ is being “treated as an expletive,” and anyone who objects “risks vilification and public shaming.”
This recent phase of neoliberalism has rolled through in the same way as the previous: through shock, stealth, speed and seduction. In Chile, Friedman had predicted that “the speed, suddenness and scope of the economic shifts would provoke psychological reactions in the public that “facilitate the adjustment.”” In New Zealand, Roger Douglas, who was minister of finance to the Labour government that neoliberalized the country, wrote a paper on “successful structural reform,” in 1989. He advised that “speed is essential – it is almost impossible to go too fast… once you build momentum, don’t let it stop rolling.”
Predatory and punitive psychological manipulation has always been central to the neoliberal project. As Noam Chomsky has said, “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state” – but Klein explains how, “from Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade.” She argues that “torture is more than a tool used to enforce unwanted policies on rebellious peoples; it is also a metaphor of the shock doctrine’s underlying logic.” In the implementation of neoliberalism, torture has involved,
“techniques designed to put prisoners into a state of deep disorientation and shock in order to force them to make concessions against their will… The goal of this “softening up” stage is to provoke a kind of hurricane in the mind: prisoners are so regressed and afraid that they can no longer think rationally or protect their own interests.”
Klein says that two CIA manuals that facilitated the adoption of neoliberal reforms “explain that the way to break “resistant sources” is to create violent ruptures between prisoners and their ability to make sense of the world around them.” The 1963 Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation is one of these manuals, which was used in Chile. The Kubark manual drew heavily on experiments in so-called “psychic driving,” carried out by McGill University psychiatrist Ewen Cameron. CIA researchers became interested in Cameron’s attempts to teach patients healthy psychological behaviours by creating a “clean slate.” Cameron used both electroshock and extreme isolation on his subjects – but redefined these methods in his work as “healing.”
Transgender doctrine has proven an ingenious method for disorienting large groups of people, rendering them unable to “think rationally or protect their own interests.” It also allows the premises of pure capitalism to become self-fulfilling – and lends a whole new, more intimate, meaning to the phrase “structural reform.” Capitalism defines people as self-interested, and that is what proponents of transgenderism become. Physically, the movement traps otherwise healthy people into dependence on the medical establishment; psychologically, it locks them into futile and often aggressive battles against “misgendering,” so-called “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” and fictive “anti-trans hate groups.”
“This fundamentalist form of capitalism,” Klein writes, “has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion, inflicted on the collective body politic as well as on countless individual bodies.” Transgenderism is no exception to the neoliberal rules, and as the shock and disorientation spreads, the pillaging continues.