Last year I reviewed The Shock Doctrine, a documentary I found fascinating and moving as well as extremely saddening in parts. It is now available legally on Youtube. I recommend it unconditionally to anyone and everone. Watch it with an open and critical mind, decide for yourself if you agree. It is a brilliant thesis or a dreadful misappropriation of the truth depending on your point of view. I may lean to the former but I implore you to look for yourself and see if you agree.
Shown by Channel 4 as a kind of partner piece to The Shock Doctrine this documentary seeks to show how one of the biggest and seemingly most successful companies in recent American history was the perpetrator of one of the biggest cases of fraud in the history of the stock market. I know that might sound a little dull, like it might not make for particularly interesting viewing but this is one hell of a story with a cast of reprobates so devious that they make Gordon Gekko look like Father Christmas.
Enron was a company that started out as a natural gas pipeline in Houston. By the time of its collapse it had expanded through the 90s to become an enormous corporation listed as a Fortune 500 company and ranked amongst their ‘most respected’ investments. That’s one hell of a story arc.
There’s a central cast of intriguing characters beyond the company figurehead and central fall-guy Ken Lay. There’s the neo-fascistic CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who reinvents himself from boardroom geek to macho business aggressor. The man responsible for implementing a ‘rank and yank’ employee system, you received a yearly rank of 1 to 5 based on your earnings for the company, Skilling mandated that 10-15% of the staff had to be a 5 and that they would be immediately sacked. There’s the mysterious Lu Pi, put in charge of an important section of the business he is revealed to be obsessed with strip-clubs and brought strippers to the office to prove his position to them. And then there’s Andy Fastow the man who invented companies who dealt purely with Enron, thus guaranteeing the appearance of a thriving business where one didn’t exist.
Enron used ‘Mark-to-market’ accounting techniques. This is a key thing to understand in the film, it’s central to their money making techniques. Not being an accountant I’d have to say that ‘Mark-to-market’ accounting sounded an awful lot like ‘Making shit up’, funnily enough that seems to be how it turned out too.
With an entertaining soundtrack and a story that has a little bit of everything this film surprised me because it was far more interesting and entertaining than I ever thought it could be. In the words of my least favourite person on the face of this planet (Richard Littlejohn), ‘You couldn’t make it up.’
Two films with the same title by two sets of very talented people. The adaptation of Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ seems to have been quite convoluted. First Alfonso Cuarón and his brother teamed up with Klein to make a 6 minute short film almost as a way of advertising the book. Before we go any further with this review, why don’t you have a watch of it…
This is just a taster for the larger issue at hand. Whitecross and Winterbottom’s feature-length documentary is a journey into the meat of the matter. Each of the snippets from Cuarón’s film are expanded and the story is told over a grand, even epic, scale. This is the story of an economist called Milton Friedman and his idea. Perhaps not just an idea, given the remarkable effect of Friedman’s ‘idea’ it just doesn’t seem like a big enough word, but it will have to do. The idea is one that sounds attractive, it is beguiling in its simplicity and more than that, it offers the chance of a kind of utopia – it is the notion of the ‘Free Market’. Klein’s book, and this film, describe how Friedman’s ideas on Free Market economics went from being a marginalised backwater of economic theory to being the reasoning behind so many international events in recent years. It is the story of how deregulated trading isn’t a utopian saviour but a dangerous and unpredictable beast powerful enough to bring a country to its knees.
Now, this isn’t a politically motivated blog but I have some understanding of economic systems and their impact on national systems. I also understand how economic systems can be functionally tied to political ideologies. The Shock Doctrine is the story of how an idea can reach out from a classroom in Chicago and become a dominant global ideology.
The argument is drawn clearly and with enough evidence to be compelling; from the military coups in Chile and Argentina through the right wing governments of Thatcher and Reagan, a stop off with Boris Yeltsin and the collapse of the Soviet Union and ending with our current embroilment in Iraq – Naomi Klein has drawn a path connecting all these events to the economic ideas of Milton Friedman. At points the power of the message is a little overwhelming, it made me angry to see the atrocities committed in the service of enacting national changes. To see the rich get rich and the poor, well the poor get eaten up by the system. It is horrible and brilliant. Sickening and yet so very clever, so smart as to be almost admirable – but that doesn’t make it right.
They are preaching to the converted with me, but I urge you to seek out this film. Find it and watch it and understand some of the underlying ideas that run our lives on a day to day and nation to nation basis. A word of warning though, you might get angry.