This Saturday evening, I went to see “The Shock Doctrine”, here in the Filmfoyer in Tilburg (1), a documentary based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same title. It was a worthwhile experience. The move is a clear exposition of how the neoliberal version of capitalism came to dominate many parts of the world, the harm this capitalism is doing, and both the possibility and the necessity of resistance.
The story is built around a lecture Naomi Klein is giving. We see her speak clearly, for a short while. Then we are taken out of the lectuere hall, to be shown the realities that illustrate her story. These realities – footage of psychological experiments, coup détats, wars, enonomic disasters, with explanatory comments – take up the bulk of the film. But again and again we are taken back to the lecture hall, and in this way we are reminded of the the function of all the footage: illustrating the talk by Naomi Klein, the argument she is making.
The first episode is about medical-psychological experiments in the US, later taken over by the CIA: people are made into a kind of mental blank, which makes it possible fo fill the mind with an endlessly repeated message. We see one of the victims of this shock treatment, for this is literally what it is. This is, as it were, the metaphoric message of the whole movie: you shock people into accepting things they would not otherwise tolerate.
Then we get to the essence of the movie: neoliberal economics conquers the world. Enter Milton Friedman, economist, an outsider in the Fifties, with his strange message of privatisation, free markets, dismantling state protection. However, his kind of policies came to dominate many parts of the world. The way that happened is a road full of violence.
For instance, violence in Chili. There, social protections became part of society during the sixties of the twentieth century. A left wing government was elected into office in 1970. The US government did not like it, a military coup ubnder Pinochet took over, torture an death were imposed upon people who resisted, trade unionists, leftists. What policies were imposed by the new gevernment? Naked neoliberalism, leading to more poverty and unemployment. Who advised the government? Milton Friedman and people who had been his students. A similar military victory for neoloberalism happened in Argentine. In Britain and the US, similar economic policies were imposed by right wing giocvernments under Thatcher and Reagan. We see vivid pictures of the resistance Thatcher’s government provoked in Britain. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially Russia became the victom of a ferocious experiment in imposed l neoliberal free market fundamentalist policies.
Again and again we are made aware of how a shock – military couop, in Thatcher’s case a war with Argentine about the Falklands – waused to shock the popular tion, after which a new dose of neolobaralism follows. The same happened in 2001 after nine- eleven, the terror attacks. Wars against Afghanistan and Iraq followed. In Iraq, the US occupation impsed far-going privatisation, war profiteering through contractors, the dismantling of large parts of the state and the civil service. The shock of war was followed by the ‘therapy’ of neoliberalism. Then there was ther tsunami in Asia, and the hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, used in a similar way: Sri Lankan people preventing afterwards to return to their places of living on the coast, to make room for luctrative sale of coastal areas, for instance.
Ans so it went, again and again. But Klein leaves us with messages of hope. Near the end of the movie, the women hathat endured the shock experiments in the Fifties, was shown again. W She had forced the government to recogbnise the wrong that she had to suffer. A small but significant, of which she was righly proud.
The end of the movie was significant as well. Klein told an anecdote about president Roosevelt – whole New Deal was part of the trend to welfare capitalism which later was replaced by the neoliberal victories . She told how a progressive gropup once visited Roosevelt and made a proposal. The president listened, and then said, in essence: “Now go home, and force me to do it.” She mentioned how many strikes there were in the year 1937, under Roosevelts presidency: a good way to indeed forcefully bringing about change. The message: things change if we don’t wait for politicians, but move ourselves, take action, and make things change. The movie ended with sounds of what must have been a large demonstration. The slogans were audible. I heard the familiar : “A-Anti-Anticapitalista!”…
The move leaves a strong impression, and is well worth watching. This review does onluy mention parts of the threads Klein is weaving to make her argument. There are weaknesses in her analysis, however. I think Klein is a bit too positive about the welfare capitalism that went before neolaiberal capitalism, too positive for instance about Roosevelt and his New Deal, and maybe even under the illusion that we should return to something like that. I think we deserve better.
Her sketch of the dominance of neoliberalism is clear, but her explanation is not totally convincing. She makes it seem as if the victory of neoliberal doctrines, its march from a small currency in economic science to dominant ideology from Britain to Chile, is a product of clever peoplen in high places conspiring cvery affectively. There is, however, much more to in than that. At the root of it is the fact that the economic model of the Fifties – let’s call it welfare capitalism – suited the capitalist class very well in those years. Relatively high wages and a system of sopcial benefits meant hign consumtion, high sales and high profits. This was well worth the relatively high taxes and relatively strong trade unions that came along with it, as far as most capitalists were concerned .
However, this system entered into crisis of profitali bility, partly because of overproduction and unsaleable products, partly because the working class became to strong. Capitalist circles were in need for a restructuring of the economy that weakened the working class and restored profits. Neoliberalism offered a way to do it. That is why a doctrine that was marginal in 1951 became hegemonous from the seventies onwards. This is the kind of background that is needed to understand the shift that Klein sketches in the, otherwise very valuable, documentary “The Shock Doctrine”.
(1). Thanks, Riekie and Ardin, for taking me along 🙂