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the shock doctrine

What to think of this short film by Alfonso Cuarón and Naomi Klein, 'The Shock Doctrine'? Without having read the book of the same title that the film is meant to introduce, it all sounds rather heavy-handed and conspirational. But perhaps that's bound to happen when a 600 page book is summarized in a 6 minute film, and when a filmmaker like Cuarón (director of 'Children of Men') dramatizes the ideological concepts of someone like Klein (author of 'No Logo').

Reading around on the Guardian's minisite on the book, which includes excerpts, video interviews and a lively debate with pro and con reviews, Klein's ideas start to make more sense. The Shock Doctrine refers to a phrase coined by Milton Friedman, economic "shock treatment", which in turn refers to the psychiatric practice of electroshock therapy. In both cases, the patient/country is thought to be best cured from their ailments in one violent slate-cleaning sweep. Hence, Friedman observed that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change."

Klein sees in recent history a tendency to exploit crises (disaster, war, revolution) for economic reform, and more specifically for the kind of free-market liberalization that mostly favors foreign (i.e. Western, i.e. American) corporations. This has led to what Klein calls disaster capitalism, the most advanced and cynical example of which is no doubt the war in Iraq.

...since every possible aspect of both destruction and reconstruction has been outsourced and privatised, there is an economic boom when the bombs start falling, when they stop and when they start up again - a closed profit-loop of destruction and reconstruction, of tearing down and building up. For companies that are clever and far-sighted, such as Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, the destroyers and rebuilders are different divisions of the same corporations.

The current row over private security firm Blackwater's excesses in Iraq is another case in point. (See New York Times coverage and BBC News analysis.)

The bottom line, then, is that war has become a business proposition, and the vaguer the enemy, the better the prospects.

Through all its various name changes - the war on terror, the war on radical Islam, the war against Islamofascism, the third world war, the long war, the generational war - the basic shape of the conflict has remained unchanged. It is limited by neither time nor space nor target. From a military perspective, these sprawling and amorphous traits make the war on terror an unwinnable proposition. But from an economic perspective, they make it an unbeatable one: not a flash-in-the-pan war that could potentially be won but a new and permanent fixture in the global economic architecture.

Still, probably the trickiest part of Klein's theory is her analogy of shock therapy - which she extends to include interrogation / torture techniques used by the CIA - and economic reform. Though both may be violent, the one is literal and the other figurative. The analogy, therefore, is mostly rhetorical and, as the film shows, shouldn't be taken too literally - precisely in order to distinguish between actual and perceived crises.

As a disclaimer, did I mention I haven't read the book yet?

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