Cor, what a dust-up! In the red corner: Naomi Klein, the 39-year-old Canadian economist and poster girl for the anti-globalisation movement. And in the, er, other red corner: Michael Winterbottom, 48, director of award-winning films about Bosnia and Guantanamo.
The pair have been working together on a documentary based on Klein’s controversial 2007 bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, which seeks to demonstrate how capitalists take advantage of chaos in the wake of natural or man-made disasters. But even before the film has been broadcast, there have been fireworks.
On Friday, it emerged that Klein had decided not to narrate the film and removed her name from the credits after seeing early cuts. One newspaper columnist, having watched the film, said it was as if “an idiot had explained the book to another idiot, who then made a film”.
However, Klein is quick to deny there has been a falling out. “I had been utterly immersed in the material for five years and I believed the project would benefit from fresh eyes,” she says. “I left the project in the hands of experienced directors whose films, such as Road to Guantanamo, I admired tremendously.” (Winterbottom co-directed with Mat Whitecross).
She confirms she took her name off the film, but “nobody threw a fit and walked away”, she says. “I have been as involved in this project as I can be, but there were real differences of opinion about how to tell this story. We all came up with a compromise: someone other than me would narrate, and it would be clear that this was not my film but Michael’s adaptation.
It’s not my film. But I want it to do well.”
It is not surprising Klein’s documentary should already be controversial. The author of No Logo, the 2000 polemic that became the bible of the anti-globalisation movement, Klein is used to finding herself at the centre of a maelstrom.
Her book argues that a small group of right-wing economists and politicians has exploited natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami), and man-made crises (coups d’état, market crashes, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq) to impose free-market policies around the world. When it was published in 2007, at the height of the credit bubble, the idea that there might be problems with free-market capitalism met a lot of scepticism. But lately, it looks as if Klein may have been on to something.
“Now, there’s a huge amount of consensus that it isn’t working,” she says. “It has been particularly gratifying to hear from people during the financial crisis saying, ‘Look, they’re doing it again.’ People understand what’s happening.”
The bailouts are making things better, Klein says — but only for the people at the top. “This top-down rescue is about a massive transfer of public money into the elite — a looting of public treasuries around the world. The job losses and the home foreclosures will continue.
The real shock has not come yet. That comes when we’re told, ‘we can’t afford to pay your pension’.”
You may not agree with her, but Klein has tremendous influence — her books have been translated into dozens of languages. Still, is the big idea of The Shock Doctrine that surprising or remarkable? History has always consisted of humankind staggering from crisis to crisis. Free-marketeers are surely entitled to step in with policies they believe in.
“What I’m calling the shock doctrine,” Klein says, “is the use of crisis to trample over people’s will. To get them out of the way, either physically or psychologically. Using crisis to push through unpopular, undemocratic ideas.”
The main villain in The Shock Doctrine is the late Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman. The documentary shows him being heckled as he went up to accept his Nobel prize. Was there nothing he got right?
“I’m not talking about whether the individuals were good people, or nice to their kids. I’m talking about the mechanics of capitalism,” says Klein. “I don’t like speculating on what motivated him. Elites have always had intellectuals willing to do their bidding.”
Even the caring, sharing Barack Obama doesn’t impress her much. “Obama is in trouble over healthcare. He’s being steamrollered by big pharma. These people just don’t have the same interests. The idea that they would compromise is not possible.”
Klein never did put much hope in Obama anyway, and recently rather enjoyed herself drawing up a lexicon of disappointment. This included terms such as “hopesick”, “hopelash” and “hopeover” to describe the feeling that follows overindulgence in something that felt good at the time but wasn’t really healthy.
“His changed tone has been very welcome,” she concedes, “but little has changed since George Bush.” The conduct of the war in Afghanistan is the same, Ben Bernanke has kept his job at the Federal Reserve, and Obama appointed as his chief economic adviser Larry Summers, who, in the 1990s, helped kill Depression-era banking laws, turning banks into too-big-to-fail monsters.
“People who were so inspired become cynical. Look at how much Obama’s poll numbers are falling. We have to be careful not to lose a generation of activists who were energised by Obama.”
The solution, she says, is for them to keep putting pressure on Obama, and for people here to do the same to Gordon Brown. This is what happened to Roosevelt: without external pressure, there’d have been no New Deal. People can take control of their own destiny, as Klein’s leftie American parents did by moving to Canada during the Vietnam war. She briefly rebelled against them by becoming a keen consumer, but soon reverted to type, went to the University of Toronto, and achieved sudden success with No Logo. By then she had met her husband, Avi Lewis, a successful TV presenter.
“Two workaholics living together is never going to be easy,” she says, “but for 14 years Avi and I have collaborated on projects.”
Before writing The Shock Doctrine, Klein worked on Lewis’s award-winning film The Take — a fascinating story about thousands of workers in Argentina who, after the economic collapse in 2001, returned to their closed factories and put them back into production as worker co-operatives. This, she believes, is the future.
“When the film first came out, people said, how nice, but it couldn’t happen here.” Now, “it’s viewed as a how-to manual, because what happened in Argentina is happening around the world”.
“Co-ops are once again emerging as a practical alternative to more lay-offs,” she says. “So there was a choice about what kind of bailout we could have had.”
There’s never been a better time, she believes, to question the growth-based capitalism that has become the norm. “The economic crisis, as awful as it is, pulled us back from the ecological precipice and gave us time and space to change course.” It’s time to talk about whether growth is even healthy, she says. “I don’t believe the planet can survive a capitalist comeback.”
1153 words. First published 30 August 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.