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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The Shock Doctrine documentary by directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, follows Klein’s book with determination, arguing the principle thesis that neoliberalism has repeatedly exploited crisis as an opportunity to impose unpopular economic policies. In the forty-year history of its rise to dominate public policy around the world, neoliberalism has been repeatedly helped on its way by the exploitation of these “shocks”. In the aftermath of hurricanes, coups, and wars, all the talk about ‘national priorities’ is usually simply a cover for the imposition of the of-the-shelf policies of neoliberal economics.

The documentary is a straight forward recounting of the brutality connected to neoliberalism’s rise. There is lots of archival footage of tanks and guns and coups to remind us of the horrors of what happened in places like Chile, Argentina, Russia, and elsewhere, all of it interspersed with shots of Klein during her eldwork or clips of explanatory sound-bites from her speeches to university audiences. The film is a useful document, not least for those same university audiences for whom this history may seem far off. But the film tells Klein’s story with little nesse. When compared to other films which have attempted to depict an aspect of the history of a very violent twentieth century, The Shock Doctrine fails to deliver the narrative punch one would expect given the material. It is somehow unsatisfying in comparison to, for example, The Fog of War. 1)The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), directed by Errol Morris.

In part, this is because the filmmakers have tried to be faithful to the book. The book is a work of detailed journalism that any film would be hard pressed to match. On top of that, the book is probably two stories: one is the rapid rise of disaster capitalism to become a significant and growing part of our global economy; the other is a longer history of the idea of ‘shock’ and neoliberalism’s link to state violence. These two stories are related but I suspect they could have been better told by separate documentaries. 2)As a writer, Klein collaborated with director Alfonso Cuaron producing a short lm by the same title in 2007 which is in some ways more successful in tracing the history of the idea and metaphor of shock;

Klein uses “shock” – i.e. events that leave us confused, weak and therefore vulnerable to the imposition of neoliberal policies – as both metaphor for neoliberalism’s preferred model of political change, and as a description of particular historical events. As a metaphor, ‘shock’ is a powerful distillation of the exploitation by policy elites of opportunities generated by crises. ‘Shock’ summarises Klein’s detailed analysis in a simple phrase, a phrase that aptly reflects deep political struggles over economic policy decisions in each case. As a metaphor, ‘shock’ successfully unites into one narrative quite disparate political histories, such as brutal state repression in Chile in the 1970s, national crises in democratic countries such as the UK in the 1980s, or the ‘transition’ of the USSR. In each case the ‘shock’ in question is played out differently, yet in each the crisis is exploited to impose an ideological policy agenda that the majority does not want.

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But the film suffers from the fact that the ‘shock’ metaphor tends to blur more straightforward descriptions of history. Many of the repeated “shocks” depicted are in fact probably better described simply as repression. State violence was used to obtain and keep the political power necessary to implement neoliberal policies that served the interests of the already powerful. Watching the archival footage of the violence in Chile, Argentina, or Iraq it is hard not to conclude that people and social movements were not shocked into submission, they were repressed by political and military violence on a massive scale. That this violence knocked the social-psychology off-balance or weakened the political opposition is without doubt. But that is secondary to the fact that violence was used to take and hold political power and that power was used to implement neoliberal fundamentalism (yes, there really is an instrumental utility to political violence!).

One can imagine Naomi Klein soon standing in front of Haiti’s US-occupied airport terminal


The ‘Shock’ metaphor enables Naomi Klein to pull together various strands into a single narrative. Despite a fairly straightforward delivery, the film leaves us with an irritating sense that we are not being told something important. The Shock Doctrine almost needs a 1970s era TV mini-series format, where a middle-aged historian in big horn-rimmed spectacles and ared trousers walks into frame and makes sense of it all. One can imagine her in the next installment, standing in front of Haiti’s US-occupied airport terminal, trousers apping in the wash from the mercenary helicopters and proclaiming in calmly, “ is is disaster capitalism”. She would explain intently to the camera about how grass-roots resistance in Haiti has been betrayed time and time again by generations of state looting by a tiny elite, waves of neoliberal policy prescriptions from international institutions, repeated US intervention, and even by the failure of anti- neoliberal politicians to hold the line. She would point out that the Haitian earthquake was a two-fold tragedy, a potent mixture of natural disaster and total state collapse. The earthquake disabled a state already impoverished by neoliberalism at a time when its own people needed it most. The effect was to make the devastation far worse than it need have been.

Cut to CNN archival footage from the rst week after the earthquake. As the camera picks its way through the rubble towards a crowd of half-starved looters, one turns and, shouting into a camera, declares that the Haitian state was “an accident waiting to happen”.

Natural disasters are unpredictable. Thanks to Klein, and this film, the reaction of disaster capitalism to natural or political “shocks” is now entirely predictable. Recognising this is the first step to becoming “shock resistant”, and refusing to accept that crisis turns the policy into a blank slate – onto which the powers that be can paint the political and regulatory picture they prefer. The accidents waiting to happen may or may not be political in origin. The response almost always is.


References   [ + ]

1. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), directed by Errol Morris.
2. As a writer, Klein collaborated with director Alfonso Cuaron producing a short lm by the same title in 2007 which is in some ways more successful in tracing the history of the idea and metaphor of shock;
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