The Shock Doctrine

“Information is shock resistance. Educate yourself.” Poised as she stands behind an auditorium lectern, Naomi Klein urges her listeners to feel responsible and prepared. Certainly, as she points out, economic and political events can reasonably lead to exactly the opposite sorts of feelings, that is, vulnerability and apprehension. And yet, such response is not only predictable, but also integral to the recent rise of “free market” capitalism, what she describes as “the savage stream of pure capitalism that we’ve been living, capitalism unrestrained.”

Klein appears here, in the documentary called The Shock Doctrine, as she’s explaining the argument she makes in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The distinction between her 2007 book and Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s film has become something of a minor controversy as the film rolls out. “As often happens,” Klein has said, “we had different ideas about how to tell this story and build the argument. This is Michael’s adaptation of my book, and I didn’t want there to be any confusion about that. I wish the film success.” The specifics of these “different ideas” have to do with the film’s presentation of an argument made in the book, and Klein’s hope to use the film as another step in an ongoing investigation; originally, Klein had been set to narrate the documentary; now, as noted on her website, she is participating in a panel discussion at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premieres 28 January (as well as on Sundance Selects).

No matter these specifics, the film reveals, as Klein has said, that the material is “inherently visual and emotional.” The film expands on the Alfonso Cuarón short video illustration of the book, assembling archival footage under Klein’s own narration. This expansion’s structure is unsurprising: archival footage and stills denote “history,” graphic illustrations show concepts and behaviors for which no documentation is easily available, and interviews and Klein’s lecture indicate the argument.

Other images — specifically Klein taking notes on the beach in post-tsunami Indonesia in order to investigate “the systematic raiding of the public sphere in the aftermath of a disaster,” Klein interviewing Janine Huard, survivor of postpartum depression that was horrifically compounded by her treatment, that is, Cold War-era brainwashing by the CIA — suggest her research process, but don’t help to make the substantive case. That said, these shots of Klein at work make clear the investigation, the digging, necessary to support the book’s claims. This research leads to more profound questions, even beyond, why are particular victims targeted, how do they trouble the targeters?. “It sounds like you were being interrogated,” she prods Huard, who answers with her own question, “Yes, but to what purpose?”

In its broadest dimensions, this question hangs over the entire documentary, which makes its argument in the arrangement of images as much as in its narration (by Kieran O’Brien). While the film insinuates the shadowy perpetrators of shock therapy (both psychological and physical, in the cases of Huard and prisoners, say, at Guantánamo Bay), it is more explicit in presenting the designers of such therapy. During the 1950s, Dr. Donald Hebb of McGill University, who wrote The Organization of Behavior, devised strategies for influencing human behaviors, primarily through sensory deprivation and torture. That he dropped out of experiments conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military underscores the heinousness of such experiments, the callous exploitation and manipulation of individuals.

The purpose presented here is insidious, that is, the accumulation and development of wealth for a few, by deliberating abusing and making resources of others. The film, following the book, links the shock experiments (the torture and manipulation of individual bodies) with shock tactics applied to populations and, especially, economies. Here Milton Friedman, the anti-Keynesian leader of the Chicago School, comes under examination. The film submits, following Klein, that Friedman’s theories were applied directly to the 1970 crisis and coup in Chile, when President Salvador Allende’s Marxist regime was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet, with encouragement and help from Richard Nixon’s administration and the CIA. “Official storytellers,” explains Klein in her lecture, “start the story with Thatcher and Reagan because it’s much more flattering that way.” In the less flattering version, the U.S. is implicated in Pinochet’s brutality, the assassinations and the disappearances of unionists, workers, and academics.

In the “official ” story, as Klein has it, the U.S. is less plainly implicated, more vaguely compelled to make “difficult decisions. The film makes visible (and dramatizes, but music and shot juxtapositions) Klein’s alternative history, showing how the very idea of shock tactics (practiced as torture, abuse, the overwhelming force of dictatorship) is applied to national structures and entire communities. As these collective bodies suffer trauma (hurricane, war, terrorism in life and on TV), they are disrupted, frightened, and destabilized, and then remade by narratives, in an order that an upper class can wield control over material and wealth. The film makes quick and easy connections between ideologies-in-administrations through Donald Rumsfeld, affiliated with Nixon, Ford (whose administration is not excavated here), and George W. Bush. The wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq (along with the corporate invaders, from Halliburton to Blackwater to Bearing Point) are presented as models of the shock doctrine in action — a disaster treated as an economic (and ideological) opportunity.

The film brings in the same victims who served as the focus for Winterbottom and Whitecross’ The Road to Guantánamo, the Tipton Three, who were held at Guantánamo and then released without charge. Their appearances here are cursory, but the fact they’re out of “extrajudicial detention” and playing soccer back in Tipton doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well. Instead, as they huddle together to note the unfairness and absurdity of their ordeal, they embody the effects of the not-so-implicit threat made by shock capitalists: “This is what happens to you if you get in our way.” The doctrine rolls on, aiming to ensure that fewer and fewer individuals will be standing in “their way.” The best hope, as Klein says, is that awareness and resistance will effect change. It’s a “story of struggle,” insists Klein, “something we need to remember” and understand in order to exploit.

RATING 7 / 10