The Shock Doctrine [subtitled in part]

The Shock Doctrine

The Shock Doctrine is a leftist political documentary condemning the alliance of unregulated capitalism with repressive governmental power. It takes its name from a book by political activist Naomi Klein.

I have not read Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, but my impression is that this film overlaps considerably with its themes but is not intended simply to duplicate the Klein book in a different medium. I read online that Klein herself initially cooperated with the film project, then disavowed it on the grounds that it dumbed down her ideas too much, and then ultimately apparently resumed some level of connection with it or support for it.

The format of the film is mostly snippets of Klein’s public talks interspersed in a historical narrative accompanied by relevant stock footage concerning the various economic and human rights catastrophes brought about by unfettered capitalism.

Certainly I’m mostly in agreement with the message of the film, so I’m sure I’m a more receptive audience than the average moviegoer. I was familiar with most—not all—of the historical specifics cited in the film, but I found it worthwhile being re-exposed to all the ugliness as a reminder of the forces we’re up against and the stakes we’re playing for.

I think you can take the term “shock doctrine” in at least two ways. Perhaps the film (and Klein’s book?) intends it to have multiple meanings, or perhaps not. If the latter, then I’d say the message is muddled.

Anyway, on the one hand “shock doctrine” can be used kind of like the “You never let a serious crisis go to waste” Rahm Emanuel idea (though I think that quote, or something very close to it, originated before Emanuel said it). That is, when some event—the 9/11 attacks, a devastating environmental catastrophe, an economic collapse, maybe even the Russians launching Sputnik—has shocked people into an attitude of “Oh my God, we have to do something!” (with the implication often being, “Never mind what, just something!”) then that provides an opportunity to push through something drastic that in ordinary times would never fly. For example, after 9/11 the public was much more receptive to the Patriot Act, various other intrusions into privacy and liberty, the launching of a pre-emptive war, etc.

This idea is implied by the practice of declaring a “state of emergency.” In an extraordinary situation, people tolerate—indeed generally insist on—the powers-that-be having even fewer checks on them than usual so that they can “get things done.”

So that’s one sense of “shock doctrine.”

The other is more like the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq—you make sure that if you are going to do something that has the potential to provoke outrage and opposition, you do it so quickly and so overwhelmingly that by the time people get their bearings the moment has passed to stop you and people feel they have no choice but to accept the new reality you’ve created.

It’s kind of like the approach of yanking an adhesive bandage off or jumping into a cold body of water—get the pain and misery out of the way all at once rather than trying to ease through it by increments. (In contrast, it’s the opposite of the common metaphor of putting a frog in a pot of water and raising the water temperature so slowly that it never realizes it is being boiled to death.)

So if you’re going to move against unions, redistributive social programs, left wing political parties, etc., just wipe them out as thoroughly as you can all at once. Never settle for increments when you can leap right to your intended goal.

This was the approach of right wing governments advised by Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago economists. Remake society from the top into even more of a paradise for the rich, and do it so quickly and so completely that you discombobulate anyone who would be inclined to oppose your policies.

So the “shock” could be, “Make your move when people are in shock,” or it could be, “When you make your move, do so in such an overwhelming way as to put people in shock and render them unable to effectively oppose you.” Or both.

In The Shock Doctrine we see roughly the same scenario played out over and over: Some right wing regime—typically with the assistance of the United States—seizes an opening to exploit the many for the benefit of the few, and Friedman and his ilk fly in to make sure they do so as efficiently as possible. It has happened repeatedly in Latin American countries and around the world.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about many golden opportunities for such shock therapy. All at once the nations of that region could be transitioned to a Wild West version of capitalism to further enrich multinational corporations and a few local corrupt billionaire oligarchs, leaving the populace so dazed and pauperized that more than a few of them longed for a return to the communist days—not for the lack of freedom, but for at least some semblance of economic security at the bottom.

Like I say, substantively I’m largely in agreement with the film. But beyond that, is it well made, is it a good movie?

It’s competent, I’d say. It’s fairly dry, didactic at times. This isn’t a Michael Moore-style “fun” political documentary.

In the end if you are receptive to a Noam Chomsky sort of analysis of world events, you’ll very likely be receptive to The Shock Doctrine. If you’re at the opposite end of the political spectrum, you’ll very likely hate The Shock Doctrine.

As far as if you haven’t already decided which side you’re on politically in advance, I’m not sure how persuasive this film would be. I tend to think that nowadays the number of people who would be undecided about things like this but interested in learning more so that they can make an intelligent decision is pretty close to zero, so the question doesn’t arise.

I mean, sure there are many, many people who aren’t on either side, but in almost all cases it’s because they’re apathetic and apolitical and have never taken any interest in such matters. But I’m talking about politically engaged, interested, intelligent people who aren’t committed to the left or the right because they are open-minded and want to hear more. I think The Shock Doctrine could have some modestly beneficial effect on such people—if there are any left—but I’m not sure.