Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 2012 Doctrine

Just got back from the movies, where Yony and I took advantage of $6 Tuesday night tickets to watch 2012, the latest end-days fantasy from CGI king Roland Emmerich. Having already brought the human race to the verge of extinction via monsters (Godzilla), alien invasion (Independence Day) and environmental disaster (The Day After Tomorrow), Emmerich was a natural to helm this expensive 158-minute epic, very loosely based on supposed ancient Mayan prophecy. The film--in which a giant sun-flare causes the earth's crust to destabilize, leading to the sweeping destruction of everything and everyone on earth except for John Cusack and a few thousand rich people--was, Yony said, the worst he'd seen in years.

Two and a half hours of watching John Cusack scramble to save his family from digital animation did, it's true, become rather tedious; even Cusack looked downright bored. And even the relentless disaster-porn grew wearisome--it's great fun watching, say, the city of Pasadena get wiped off the map, but by the time the Washington Monument topples to the ground one's patience for explosions and fireballs is exhausted. But the movie did resonate, for me, on some deeper level, one which I couldn't quite put my finger on until I was on my way home.

It had to do, I realized, with the book I've been reading, Naomi Klein's excellent Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Released in 2007, the book traces the origins and ascent of Milton Friedman's "C
hicago School" of economics. Developed at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, the Chicago School calls for a sort of pure capitalism, in which the free market reigns and government is reduced to a minor, clerical role--a radical transformation accomplished through unfettered trade, sweeping privatization of public assets, and the gutting of social services. The implementation of these radical policies in countries around the world, Klein argues, has required tumultuous upheaval--whether in the form of economic crises, military coups or natural disasters--the resulting shock and confusion creating a sort of blank canvas on which to build the Friedmanite hyper-capitalist utopia.
This "shock doctrine", akin to the shock-induced blanking of psychiatric patients popular in the mid-1900s, was first applied, Klein says, in 1970s Chile, when General Pinochet led a US-backed, Chicago School-bred military junta in overthrowing the democratic governent of Salvador Allende. Pinochet's regime relied heavily on torture and intimidation to enforce their highly unpopular economic policies of mass privatization and welfare-slashing, which created a bonanza for an upper-class minority but left the poor majority very much in the dust. Bolstered by their "success" in Chile, the Chicago Schoolers went on to establish similarly violent free-market economies in much of South America.
Later, working from high-level posts in the World Bank and the IMF, the Friedmanites would exploit the chaotic collapse of socialism (Poland, Russia), the 1997 economic crisis in Southeast Asia and other violent upheavals throughout the world to push through their free-market agenda. In recent years, the shock doctrine has been employed in many guises: the trauma of September 11, which allowed the Bush administration to quietly privatize and outsource huge swaths of the military complex under the guise of "Homeland Security"; the appropratiely-named Shock-and-Awe campaigns at the outset of the Iraq War, which sought to stun the Iraqis into free-market compliance, and which provided enormously lucrative contracts to companies like Halliburton and Blackwater, hired to remake Iraq along Chicago School principles; the devastation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, which led to privatized rebuilding efforts and the widespread closures of schools, hospitals and public housing; and numerous other examples, the sum of which Klein labels the "Disaster Capitalism Complex." It is a system designed to profit from human suffering, and doesn't make for very cheerful reading.
Without drawing any overwrought analogies, 2012 was fascinating to watch because it illustrated, I think, the logical conclusion of Klein's Shock Doctrine. As the earth's crust begins to destabilize, foreboding massive earthquakes, enormous tidal waves and global flooding, the world's leaders embark on a secret plan to build a fleet of huge high-tech arks, high in the Himalayas, which will carry some 400,000 of the world's elite to safety. With seats on the arks selling for 1 billion euros apiece, the future of the human race is largely comprised of oil barons, corrput politicians and cartoonishly evil Russian oligarchs; John Cusack's middle-class family is able to sneak onto the ships only through grit, luck and awesome special effects.
The film is surprisingly honest, and suprisingly political, in its assessment of the current scene. Despite the best efforts of a well-meaning black president, his fair-minded science advisor and the Dalai Lama--all of whom are washed away--in the end, it's the greed of private industry which prevails. "Without billions of dollars from the private sector, this whole project would never have been built," explains sinister White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser in the film's finale, explaining why survival is the priviledge of the wealthy and well-connected. Weeks after the cataclysm, as the arks drift upon a boundless ocean, the ship's decks are opened and the passengers get a first glimpse at their brave new world--brilliant sunlight and a vast expanse of nothingness, the ultimate blank canvas on which these free-market pilgrims will remake human civilization. There may not be much to the film's pseudo-scientific bastardizing of Mayan prophesy, but as a political signpost I found it wildly successful, a perfect counterpart to Klein's chilling book. Watch and be warned!

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