The book has an introduction, a main body and a conclusion, divided into seven parts with a total of 21 chapters.
The introduction sketches the history of the last thirty years where economic shock doctrine has been applied throughout the world, from South America in the seventies to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Klein introduces two of her main themes. 1) that practitioners of the shock doctrine tend to seek a blank slate on which to create their ideal free market economies, which inevitably requires an usually violent destruction of existing economic order. 2) The similarities between economic shock doctrine and the original shock therapy – a psychiatric technique where electric shocks were applied to mentally ill patients.
Part 1 begins with a chapter on psychiatric shock therapy and the covert experiments conducted by the psychiatrist Ewan Cameroon in collusion with the CIA: how it was partially successful in distorting and regressing patients' original personality, but ineffectual in developing a better personality to replace it with. Parallels with economic shock therapy are made, and there’s a digression on how government agencies harnessed some of the lessons learned to create more effective torture techniques. Torture, according to Klein, has often been an essential tool for authorities who have implemented aggressive free market reforms. She suggests that for historical reasons the human rights movement has often portrayed torture without explaining its context, which has made it frequently appear as pointless sadism. However in fact it has generally been used whenever a government is trying to enforce extremely unpopular policies, be they left or right wing. This claim is argued for throughout the book. The second chapter introduces Milton Friedman and his Chicago School of Economics, who Klein describes as leading a movement committed to free markets even less regulated than before the Great Depression.
Part 2 discussed the use of shock doctrine to transform South American economies in the seventies, focusing on the coup in Chile led by General Pinochet. The apparent necessity for the unpopular policies associated with shock therapy to be supported by torture is explored.
Part 3 covers attempts to apply the shock doctrine without the need for extreme violence against sections of the population. The mild shock therapy of Margaret Thatcher is explained as being made possible by the Falklands War, while free-market reform in Bolivia was possible due to a combination of pre-existing economic crises and the charisma of Jeffrey Sachs.
Part 4 reports on how the shock doctrine was applied in Poland, Russia, South Africa and to the Tiger Economies during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Part 5 introduces the Disaster Capitalism Complex where the author describes how companies have learnt to profit from disasters. She talks about how the same personnel move easily from security-related posts in US government agencies to lucrative positions in corporations.
Part 6 discusses Iraq after the 2003 Invasion, which Klein describes as the most comprehensive and full-scale implementation of the shock doctrine ever attempted.
Part 7 is about the winners and losers of economic shock therapy, how narrow groups will often do very well by moving into luxurious gated communities while large sections of the population are left with decaying public infrastructure, declining incomes and increased unemployment.
The Conclusion doesn't recap the rest of the book, instead it talks about the backlash against the shock doctrine and economic institutions that propagate it like the World Bank and IMF. South America and Lebanon post-2006 are focused on as sources of positive news where politicians are already rolling back free-market reforms, with some mention of the increased campaigning by community-minded activists in South Africa and China.