Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is one of the most important political books of the past decade. She takes the central myth of the right -- that since the fall of Soviet tyranny, free elections and free markets have marched hand-in-hand together towards the shimmering sunset of history -- and shown that it is, simply, a lie. It is a major revisionist history of the world that Milton Friedman and the market fundamentalists have built.
In the new Depression, with their vision lying in smoking rubble, it is a thesis whose time has come -- yet its film, alas, has not. The new "adaptation" of the book for Channel 4 by Michael Winterbottom is garbled and mumbled to the point of meaninglessness.
Klein argues that human beings consistently and everywhere vote for mixed economies -- a mix of markets and counter-balancing welfare states. The right has been unable to accept this reality, and unable to defeat it in democratic elections. So in order to achieve their vision of "pure capitalism, cleansed of all interruptions," they have waited for massive crises -- when the population is left reeling and unable to object -- to impose their vision.
Klein's story begins with the market fundamentalists' show-room: Chile. Milton Friedman, the apostle of pure unfettered capitalism, sent many of his finest students to Chile for years to spread the message that markets must be allowed to work their pristine logic unhindered by governments. They persuaded virtually nobody. Their parties were thumpingly defeated, and the democratic socialist Salvador Allende was elected instead. So the CIA backed an anti-democratic coup by the fascist general Augusto Pinochet -- and Friedman swiftly stepped in to design "the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere," as Klein puts it.
All subsidies for the poor were scrubbed away, prices were sent soaring, and unemployment reached unprecedented levels. Friedman told Pinochet to go further and cut harder. The wishes of the people could be safely ignored, because "the shock of the torture chamber terrorized anyone thinking of standing in the way of the economic shocks," she notes. "Attacks on union leaders were often carried out in close coordination with the owners of the workplaces." Even Margaret Thatcher tacitly admitted this vision could never be tried in a democracy. She wrote to Friedrich Hayek that much as she longed to create a similar economic outcome in Britain, "I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable."
So the right-wing vision of total markets -- slice away all social protections and let the corporations rule -- was born with the iron fist of state violence as its conjoined twin. In most of the places it has been tried, they have been there, inextricably stuck together. Klein tracks them across continents: in post-Soviet Russia, for example, Boris Yeltsin could only impose this extreme vision by blowing up the Parliament (with most of the elected representatives trapped inside), shredding the country's young democracy, and starting a vast distraction-war in Chechnya that killed 100,000 people. In post-Tiananmen China, the Communist party could only turn their country into a vast export credit zone with massacres and mass imprisonment that made ordinary Chinese workers too terrified to ask for even the most meager rights. Indeed, across the planet, "some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era... were in fact committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public to prepare the ground for the introduction of free-market reforms."
Where this uber-corporate vision has not been imposed by force, it has been imposed by blackmail at a time of crisis. One of the ugliest examples Klein exposes is the use of the tsunami -- a quasi-Biblical wave that washed away 250,000 people -- as a pretext to impose a Friedmanite vision. In Sri Lanka, mega-corporations had long been desperate to clear the old beach-dwelling communities of fishermen away and open up the coastline to much-more-profitable foreign tourism. But the people liked their homes, and their careers, and did not want to hand their beaches over. So these proposals prompted a wave of militant strikes and mass protests. They were then put to the Sri Lankan people in an election -- and defeated by a landslide.
But then a wave washed it all away, and "underneath the rubble and carnage was what the tourism industry had been angling for all along -- a pristine beach, scrubbed clean of all the messy signs of people working, a vacation Eden." The Sri Lankan government was told that it would only receive the vast reconstruction loans they needed from the World Bank and IMF if they agreed to a "restructuring" programe -- which consisted of everything the Sri Lankan people had just rejected at the polls. Reeling from the shock, the Sri Lankan government agreed. They banned people from returning to their beachfront homes, declaring a "buffer zone" for indigenous people -- but not for the hotel trade, who were free to do as they please. So money donated nominally to help tsunami victims was actually used to inflict a "second tsunami" on them, handing over their land to foreign corporations and ending their historic lifestyles forever.
Similar programs of extortion have been inflicted on other peoples reeling in shock. As the people of South Africa were fighting the last battles against Apartheid, the successor ANC was forced to haggle with the IMF and World Bank for their loans. The conditions? Ditch all the social protections included in your Freedom Charter, and leave the economic structures of Apartheid in place. As the people of Poland emerged blinking from the horror of Soviet Communism, the Solidarity government was forced to gut their social democratic vision and impose a bitter dose of 'shock therapy' that cut the country even further to the bone. In both countries, the will of the people was explicitly ignored.
Klein's account of this "disaster capitalism" is written with a perfectly distilled anger, channeled through hard fact. So what on earth happened to the film?
Winterbottom has taken her simple thesis and mangled it beyond recognition. He serves up only a cold porridge of archive footage and disconnected soundbites that have some vague connection to the book, without the connecting spine of her explanations. It is though an idiot has explained the book to another idiot, who then made a film. Incredibly, the film doesn't mention the words 'debt', 'IMF', or 'World Bank' a single time. It's a bit like adapting Jaws and taking out any mention of sharks.
This film should have been another Inconvenient Truth. Instead, it's just deeply inconvenient -- and a shocking squandering of a masterpiece.
Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here . You can email him at johann -at- johannhari.com
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