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What is Disaster Capitalism?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 16, 2024
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Disaster capitalism is a term that refers to the generation of profits based on the occurrence of some type of disaster. The term was first coined by Naomi Klein in her work The Shock Doctrine and focuses mainly on big business activities that seek to create products that consumers then purchase due to fear of some type of potential or impending disaster. Over time, the term disaster capitalism has been applied to profits made due to deforestation, during and after a natural disaster, and even in the marketing of products in a manner that generates anxiety that can only be relieved by consuming a given product.

In many instances, disaster capitalism comes about due to marketing efforts to prey on insecurities or fears that consumers hold. For example, an insurance company may use graphic displays of the aftereffects of a tornado or flood as a means of encouraging potential customers to purchase insurance coverage that would protect them in the event that those types of disasters occurred in their areas. In like manner, a company selling camping equipment and supplies may go with a marketing campaign that stresses preparedness in the event that access to water, electricity, and other utilities is cut off after a hurricane or even some type of man-made disaster. With each scenario, the idea is to conjure up images in the minds of consumers that are alarming, creating worry and tension, then offer the solution in the form of a product or particular line of products.

Proponents of disaster capitalism often point to the fact that while the techniques used to attract the attention of consumers may be somewhat intense, they do represent events that have happened in the past and could happen again, given the right circumstances. With this in mind, promoting the purchase and proper use of the goods and services is seen as no different from promoting any type of consumable products. From this perspective, this approach to generating revenue within a free market situation is nothing more than identifying a need and offering the means to meet that need.

Detractors of the concept of disaster capitalism sometimes note that there is more at work than simply enjoying the benefits of a free market. At times, the motivation may be as much political as economic. This unique hybrid of political economics relies on creating the illusion that if a given approach is not taken, the consequences will often be dire for the generations to come. By generating fear, the hope is that consumers will make snap decisions rather than weigh the evidence for themselves and determine if a given product or approach is really the answer, or if another solution would produce results that are just as effective. This approach may be used to justify the creation of a government initiative or even to support the idea of abolishing a given initiative, depending on the goals of the individual or group supporting the action.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including SmartCapitalMind, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon307167 — On Dec 03, 2012

You could argue that insurance is the original form of disaster capitalism.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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