The Shock Doctrine – not so shocking?


Over the last few months I’ve been having a bit of a leftie binge on LoveFilm, much to the chagrin of my flatmate who I’m sure would much prefer to be watching something (anything) else. Last night I watched the Shock Doctrine, by the rather wonderful Naomi Klein.

I really like Klein, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the film, it was a compelling look at several of the socio-economic atrocities that occurred in Argentina and Chile  in the 60s and 70s, coming forwards in time to the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. Essentially, the film was an attempt to present a history of the economic or social disasters of the 20th century, with the overall assertion that war, terror and natural disasters are used on wider society by those in economic or social control much as ECT is used on the individual by the psychiatrist, as a ‘shock’ to wipe the slate clean and start again with radical policies. In doing so, the Friedman inspired policies implemented in Pinochet’s Chile and other places were connected with the corporate ‘sponsorship’ of the rebuilding of Iraq, weaving together speculation on the impact of hard and soft US power throughout the past few decades.

My overall take on the film was twofold. Firstly, I felt that a better title for the film would have been ‘an 80-minute look at some of the bad things that have happened over the past 50 years”. While I appreciate to an extent what Klein is saying, I don’t follow the logic of a sustained effort to impose a psychiatric model on the economic systems of, not only America and the UK, but Latin America, Asia and Russia too, as the film asserted. I haven’t yet been persuaded that there is this level of collusion and the sustained narrative that I have heard Klein and others promote.

No-one can argue that the regimes of Pinochet, the chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia or the Thatcher policies of the 80’s were huge leaps forward in human rights and social democracy. The role of America in funding the coup against Allende has been extensively studied and we know that national interests of those in power do sometimes (often) undermine the national interests of those in other places, with disastrous results. History is littered with the outcomes of greed, corruption, underhand and covert operations – business interests prevail and the inability for the elite to understand the lives of others is always shocking. Milton Friedman was clearly a brilliant man and a great economist, but he appeared to have a shocking naivety about real life, or else a startling lack of compassion. I felt it was going a little far, however, to suggest that the promotion of his economic theories in Chile and Argentina were the only contributor to the atrocities witnessed there. I’m not a big fan of the free markets, but I can imagine that the difference between the free market in a social democracy and the totalitarian juntas seen at these points in time are fairly discernible.

Putting my first point aside, whether we believe with Klein that there is some huge international conspiracy to essentially disenfranchise and defraud the masses, or else look at history as simply one greed-fuelled mistake after another, what I have failed to understand from any of the documentaries I’ve watched or the books I’ve read lately is what the alternative may be. And that’s a little bit scary for someone living in a coalition Britain at the moment. Regulation of the market may be economically unsound depending on which school of thought you ascribe to, is at least a ‘tangible’ thing that can actually be regulated. It may be true that capitalism breeds fundamentally top heavy societies and corporations create intrinsically unfair systems of supply and demand. Capitalism as an economic system, however, and corporations as institutions for doing business, are not right or wrong in themselves.  It is people that are greedy and ignorant, and you can’t regulate for that.

In the shock doctrine, Klein appears to suggest at the end of the documentary that the only way to change the system is to strike, and she has some stats that show that the levels of strike action in the US have declined fantastically in the last 100 years. In other works, she has argued more specifically for the enlightenment of young people to be wise to advertising and corporate spin. Increasingly though I find that the loudest voices in liberal academia are taking a more and more theoretical, observational tone.  You can’t regulate against greed, now can you regulate for compassion. In the same way, we may deride the capitalist rhetoric of the last 100 years, but I just as ineffectual is the ‘anti-everything’ stance of the privileged left.


N.b In addition, I went to a really interesting debate last night facilitated by Owen Jones, who was discussing the new release of ‘Chavs’. (In a weird coincidence, he has Tweeted today about the Shock Doctrine too). Much like Klein, I love his work and the passion he brings to the table, and the debate was a great meeting of opinions. However, once again I am left with a vague frustration that there was nothing concrete suggested as to the way forwards –like Klein, Jones suggested strikes at a couple of points, and talked (really passionately) about mobilising the working classes/disempowered classes in organised efforts. I agree with his point that action needs to come from grassroots organisation, but still I don’t feel enough energy is being put into the practicalities of these assertions. We need to make a noise, certainly, but the content of what we say is just as important.