Disaster Capitalism Under The Spotlight In The Shock Doctrine

"The Shock Doctrine"

Last February, MAT WHITECROSS (MW) & MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM (MiW) sat down to discuss their film of Naomi Klein's controversial book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. At the time, they were still editing the film, which airs on More 4 on September 1st.

One of the themes of the film is globalisation, which makes it seem very timely.

(MW) “The thing is we were lucky with the timing. It's funny because when we started talking about doing the film it felt like we couldn't do a direct representation of the book even if you wanted to, because there's no way you could condense 700 pages or whatever into 80 minutes. But as the financial crisis started to kick off, we felt that this is one way of showing that the book isn't something set in stone, it's a theory of looking at the world and a theory of looking at moments of crisis that can be applied throughout history. It's a way of interpreting what's happening right now.”

How did you manage to get so much archive material, given that this is a film that must have been made rather quickly?

(MiW) “We started collecting it a while ago, we started in the summer [2008], and it's been a long, slow, tedious process of many spare hours spent in the cutting room. Our cutting room has been so swamped with material that it keeps crashing. Even the actual machine has been giving up.”

Was it a nerdy experience?

(MW) “Not really, it was just slightly frustrating because you have to order in everything. Effectively what you're saying is you want to look at the last 30 years of history, and even more than that. Normally if you're doing an archive film you'll be concentrating on one particular period or something, and this was like a huge, huge concept, and you don't know until [the footage] arrives. Before then, you have to do deals with the company in LA to access their archive and the rest of it.”

(MiW) “People see it as an asset they have to exploit. So instead of dealing with some archivist who's really passionate about the material, it's like, 'Okay, send us some cash and then we'll think about sending you a tape.'”

So you started this a year ago?

(MiW) “No, we met Naomi in like March last year [2008]. Then Mat went down with Naomi to Argentina and Chile in, like, May. And then we really started collecting material in the summer.”

It didn't have an ending at that point, did it?

(MiW) “It had a different ending then, yeah. So the shape of the film has varied. One of the things that's been tricky is that there are a lot of things in the book that we started thinking might be in the film, so we were collecting archive for these areas. You know, there's a limit to how many things you can deal with. You're trying to find a way of giving some sense of the scope of Naomi's argument, and of the scope in which these policies have spread around the world, in such a short period of time. And at the same time you have to limit it or else it becomes so quick that it's just like a minute on China, a minute on Poland, and you can't do that. So it's difficult.”

It's a work in progress so are you thinking about reinserting anything that you took out?

(MiW) “I think we're probably thinking about which things can we get rid of, not what else can we put in.”

How did you choose what to cover and what to cover, and did Naomi have an opinion?

(MiW) “It's interesting. Naomi and the producers came to me to asked how I would do the film. I said, 'Well it's going to be archive film with narration.' And they were like, 'Maybe we'd like to do more of this, that and the other.' But I said, 'For me that's the only way I could see how to make the film.' It's a version of the book. I think Naomi probably would've wanted China to be in the film, but we just couldn't see a way of including it. You know, Katrina would be in the film.'”

So it's you're project?

(MiW) “Yes, it's not like the three of us are collectively making it. But obviously she's still kind of closely involved.”

Are you worried that part of the audience will say this is just a conspiracy theory?

(MiW) “I don't think it is a conspiracy theory. I think what it's saying is, 'Look, this is what the normal dominant ideology is. This is how you see the world now. That free markets are good, free markets are natural.' It's not even an idea. It's that this is the natural state of the world to be a free market; governments are bad, it's always more efficient to have private corporations delivering services than it is government. It's saying free markets go hand in hand with free societies, with democracies. And we're saying, well, actually, look at some examples and it's not like that. There are consequences of free market policies, like, for instance, richer people getting richer, poorer people getting poorer. At some point you have to decide, do you want this? Is it a good thing or not? I don't think it's a conspiracy theory in that sense at all.”

(MW) “When I was in Chile and Argentina, everyone seemed to agree and it was quite interesting. For them it wasn't controversial. It was obviously very controversial when the book came out. When Naomi was doing publicity she attracted a lot of criticism because people were saying it's a conspiracy. But if you take Milton Friedman's words, he thinks you should actually exploit moments of crisis to try and implement your ideas. Well [Naomi's] effectively saying that's what he did, and that's what other people did using his ideas. And she thinks it's a bad thing whereas he thinks it's a good thing. Certainly when we were in Chile and Argentina, I spoke to one of Pinochet's ex ministers who was saying, 'Of course everything in the book pertaining to Chile is true. But it's good what we did because people need to be told what to do. They need a free market. And they weren't ready for it. It was radical, it was visionary. We did it, and we had the balls to do it, and I'd do it again. We'd have loved to go further and actually we didn't go far enough. Everything you're saying is right and that's a good thing, which she thinks is bad.'”

But you have that moment when Donald Rumsfeld announced the day before 9/11 that he wanted to get rid of bureaucrats in the Pentagon and then the voiceover tells us that the next day the Pentagon was hit and, I think, 108 bureaucrats died. Isn't that feeding, intentionally or not, the conspiracy view of 9/11?

(MiW) “Yes, of course, obviously those things are true but the film's not saying, 'It's a conspiracy: Rumsfeld bombed the Pentagon to get rid of the bureaucrats.' We're not saying that.”

But that is the conclusion that some people might draw from the tenor of the voice over. You have films like Loose Change which insist that 9/11 was an inside job and that moment, intentionally or unintentionally, has the potential to further feed those ideas.

(MiW) “Yeah, but this isn't talking about that. But this is something we will definitely change if people genuinely think we are accusing Rumsfeld of killing those bureaucrats. We will put a big disclaimer up saying, 'This is not what we mean. This is not what we're saying.' Of course you're trying to tell it in a dynamic way, you're trying to find ways to make people think. Sometimes, of course, we want to be a bit provocative. But we over-stepped the mark if you think we're saying it was a conspiracy.”

I didn't think you were saying that but there will be people who will be only too happy to draw that conclusion.

(MW) “But I think much more frightening than any conspiracy theory is the fact that they did everything in broad daylight. Like Guantanamo happened in front of everyone with everyone's permission. The same with Iraq. The same with Afghanistan. They said, 'This is what we're going to do.' They gave you the wrong reasons for why they're doing it, and they did it in broad daylight. I think it's much more frightening the fact that everyone just went along with it. When you look at all the conspiracy theories around 9/11, what the book says is it's not that there was any conspiracy but that 9/11 happened and as a result they distorted the crisis and used it for their own ends. As other governments and other people have done throughout history.”

I'm surprised that no one thought of looking at history this way earlier. Do you think they have managed to hide their intentions that well?

(MW) “They've been incredibly successful. We were told it was the end of history, there's no alternative, so Friedman's policies triumphed. The most amazing thing is that people felt actually this was the solution, this is the natural state of affairs, there's no alternative; everything else is a distortion to how things should be. It's just that in the last six or seven months people have started going, 'Well hang on, maybe there's another alternative.'”

So what has been the tipping point, do you think?

(MW) “It's the [banking] crisis, isn't it? It would have been unthinkable not long ago to think you could nationalise banks.”

(MiW) “Obviously nobody knows, and this is what we're saying. The first reaction to the financial crisis was banks basically said, 'OK, we've been making huge profits all these years. Now here are several hundreds billions dollars of debts, they're yours.' That is a very typical kind of them trying to use the crisis for their own advantage. That crisis is so big and so clearly a crisis of deregulation and lack of control over these institutions, that it's also opened up the possibility for a bigger debate about how a society should be run. But what happens next depends on people getting involved. People mobilising. It's up to everyone to try and influence the debate and influence what happens rather than sitting round thinking, 'I wonder what happens next? I wonder what they will do next?' It's not just up to politicians it's up to people.”

Yeah but you have a lot of people saying this will last as long as it lasts and then it will be business as usual.

(MW) “Absolutely. And I think that's exactly what Naomi's saying: in the past the Left has allowed these moments to kind of slip past. For example, when Blair came to power, although people perhaps had reservations about it, it did feel like an Obama-style moment. It felt like everything was changing and this was a huge break with the past, and everything was going to be okay. You felt there was a massive surge of complacency immediately afterwards, like, 'That's it, the job's done. Now you can get on with it and do what exactly needs to be done.' Unfortunately he did get on with it but he got on with it in a way that a lot of people object to. I think there's still the possibility that might happen. It's not like we're saying, 'Barak Obama is the solution. He's the saviour who's going to fix all these problems.' But there's the possibility that he represents the possibility of change. He campaigned and got in pretty much as a result of the crisis, so therefore what we need to do is campaign and put pressure on him and try and make sure that he delivers on his promise.”

Are you surprised that people in Britain haven't really taken to the streets over this yet?

(MiW) “Well it is kind of bizarre. The bonus culture in the City has been bizarre for a long time. But when you hear like Lehman, the week after they went bankrupt, were like, 'Well we need to give our employees two and a half billion dollars in bonuses in order to keep them here or they're leave.' But I also do think there is a wave of populist anger against that. I think people do find that disgusting. And that can be harnessed to make people think in broader terms, 'Well maybe there has to be some morality in the way people are rewarded. It's not just of the company makes this amount of money, the guy who owns it can take everything. There are other issues besides simply profit. Maybe we should go back to the idea that a society should be moral as well and we have to make rules that enforce that morality.'”

Yes, you can feel the anger festering. I just wonder what it's going to take to get people mobilised.

(MiW) “Part of the kind of project of free market ideology and Friedman himself explicitly is that politics is boring. Governments are always wrong. Therefore Government's a waste of time. It's private corporations that deliver all the important things – and in a way that's become more and more true. So politics does become less interesting because politicians seem to have less and less power in relationship to corporations. How you change that is just by trying to mobilise people at a grass-roots level, which is an incredibly long, tedious hard process. People like Naomi, she goes around the world doing that week in, week out, and that must be exhausting.”

Is that your hope with the film, that it will galvanise people? Michael Moore said that was his intention with Sicko, that ultimately it was up to people to get out of their cinema seats and do something. He had realised that it wasn't just about him.

(MiW) “Yeah, I think like any individual film, TV programme or article, it doesn't make that much difference. But collectively, obviously. Newspapers, TV, that creates the kind of frames of debate, so you hope if you make something that that will be a drop in that ocean, really.”

Chavez says that they should control their own natural resources and fuck off Americans. Is that the right approach?

(MiW) “I think it's always difficult when people make films and they start coming out with political slogans. So I think it's the same thing with the financial crisis, it's not like, 'OK, well the correct thing was to nationalise Lloyds and prevent that take over.' I think when you get down to that level it's more about saying, 'These are issues that you should be thinking about. People should think about them and make up their minds.' Is nationalisation the cure for everything? No, not necessarily. But I think the idea that free markets are the cure for everything, I think that whole point of what Naomi says is just look at some of the consequences of this idea that free markets can ever be the only solution to the problem, and this is what we've got.”

Do you think that it's important, in this kind of post-history time, as some politicians would have it, that films like this and, say, Andrew Jarecki's Why We Fight, link the dots and put events into some kind of historical context, especially when people like Bush and Blair have said that historically we're at year zero, and the rules have completely changed?

(MW) “I think it's very easy to forget isn't it? You watch the news on a regular basis but unfortunately within the scope of the format its now presented in, you get three-minutes to tell the story and that's it. Sometimes in a longer documentary you get a chance to go back and provide some context but generally speaking it's easy to forget what's happened before. And even if you have a documentary which is dealing with one kind of particular subject, it just tends to be quite narrow in its focus. What was interesting and challenging in trying to tell the book is the fact that it looks at society in general, history in general, on the last 30 years and says, 'Look, you've seen it in this way. Here's an alternative interpretation of how these events might have occurred. Why they might have occurred. And what are the consequences.' It's quite rare that you get something you can tackle on that scale.

"I've been trying to get a couple of documentaries made, one which touched on Argentina and another one on Iraq, but they were very small in their focus, just kind of individual stories, and I thought this is a more interesting way of looking at them because it is not about how terrible these small events are but how they happen and why they happen.”

So it's the connections and the context, which is often missing, as you say, from the news?

(MW) “Well it's difficult because the news format that's it. You've only got 20 minutes to tell all that happened that day or that week. They're reacting to events rather than trying to interpret them.”

(MW) “It's also to do with the whole issue of impartiality. The BBC has got itself in a tangle recently trying to be completely impartial. But this is a viewpoint. This is someone's view, and our view, of the last 30 years. It's not saying, 'Now here's someone who's going to contradict us.' There's another documentary like that that could have been made but we know what the other story is. Everyone is very familiar with the other interpretation. That's the status quo. That is what we have been told to believe for a very long time. So here is another possible interpretation.”

Did you watch Alfonso Cuaron's short film The Shock Doctrine before making your film?

(MiW) “No, I had to ask [Naomi] about it. Then we watched it. We didn't get in touch with him, I don't know why to be honest. The same producers who produced this produced that.”

(MW) “It's a very different format. It was like a shocking burst, like the shocks that she talks about. It was like, 'Here's what the film's about,' and then give you a quick burst rather like an advert for the book. Trying to do that for 90 minutes is not something you could replicate in the same way. There are moments where we have the same thing. The Chile section is effectively a 'shock and awe' version. And, obviously, Iraq, to actually feel the shock you need to bombard the audience. It's easy to forget how shocking these events are.”

Did you feel that you had to be careful not to paint Friedman as the bad guy?

(MiW) “The thing is I don't think we do that at all. You know, it's like when people talk about conspiracy theories. It's not a conspiracy theory. It's not saying that Milton was involved in an evil conspiracy. It's saying Milton Friedman had this idea that in crisis you can impose these policies, and he and politicians imposed them, free market policies. He was very open about what those policies were. And then it's saying look at the consequences of those policies. So it's not saying he's an evil guy or whatever. It's saying he was incredibly successful. It's about the fact that ideas have consequences. And it's good that ideas have consequences. It's just that you have to look at what those consequences are and think do you agree with that or not? And you shouldn't be blinded or baffled by scientific jargon, you shouldn't be thinking this is the natural state of the world. Do you agree with what he results of those policies are?

“Naomi asks the question in the book: did they believe greed was good because they genuinely felt that was the way to improve everyone's life or was it just convenient that it was perfect justification for the rich people getting more and more and it doesn't matter what happens to the rest? I think you can have your view on that. So if you're talking about whether it's successful, well, if the idea was to make rich corporations and rich individuals richer, they were very successful. It's just what's happened to everyone else which is the issue, and I guess you have to take your own opinion on what you felt he thought about it.

"I think what's great about seeing it the way we look at it is that 50 years ago it was completely different to how it was 30 years ago, and things can change. It is possible to change. It's so easy to think it's always going to be like this. But things change all the time.”

So is it the time for revolution?

(MiW) “I don't know [laughs]. That depends on you.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2009

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