The Shock Doctrine

Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross

England, 2009.

SYNOPSIS is is the screen version of the newest book of the same name by Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein, renowned for No Logo. In The Shock Doctrine, Klein argues that the rise of capitalism in various countries can often be traced back to a disaster, revolution, or war, comparable to a kind of shock therapy for the country in question. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, who directed The Road to Guantánamo together, filmed this polemic book, which offers a disturbing, alternative look at historical events like the coup d’état of Pinochet and the fall of the Soviet Union. Klein contends that the concept of the free market economy, one of the United States’ most important export products, was never introduced on a voluntary basis, but always followed some sort of political catastrophe. In this reconstruction full of archive footage and interviews, the film traces the doctrine’s beginnings in the radical theories of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, and its subsequent implementation over the past forty years, in countries and situations as disparate as Pinochet’s Chile, Yeltsin’s Russia, atcher’s Britain, and most recently the neocon invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It exposes the darker side of Friedman’s ideology, which was so unpopular it could only be implemented through the use of torture and repression.

As I write, the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti is playing itself out across the screens of global television news. Almost as soon as the quake struck, it became clear that the earthquake not only killed people and destroyed houses, but effectively dismembered the already struggling Haitian state, plunging Haitians into a nightmare of insecurity. For the rest of the world, Haiti is now a series of gruesome images – of bodies lying in the midst of twisted concrete, tent camps in city parks, fights over food aid, and makeshift cemeteries.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argued that there is a pattern in the way the world responds to such crises. She described a “disaster capitalism complex”, “a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain.” In such crises, there are opportunities: strategic and commercial opportunities for the military or mercenaries to “restore order” in places where insecurity – and hence the demand for security – seems literally endless. There then follows the political and economic opportunities to impose economic policies in the aftermath of such natural or human-made disasters or “shocks”.

Sure enough the responses to Haiti followed true to form: the US military took control of the airport. Aid was slow to arrive. Thousands of people went without food, water or shelter just a short drive from the airport. Private security firms began vying for contracts in Washington. Cruise ships landed tourists on isolated beaches. Washington pundits on the right pushed for ‘economic reform’, now that the state had been wiped out and Haiti could be treated like a clean slate; pundits on the left accused the US of being more concerned with ‘law and order’ than with the humanitarian reality. The echoes of the response to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina – a case Klein covered in detail – reverberated loud and clear in the political mainstream.

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