Can Companies That Make Money From Cruelty and Exploitation Be Stopped?

The following is an excerpt from the new book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe by Antony Loewenstein (Verso Books, 2015):


"Somewhere along the way, capitalism reduced the idea of justice to mean just “human rights,” and the idea of dreaming of equality became blasphemous. We are not fighting to tinker with reforming a system that needs to be replaced." -Arundhati Roy, 2014

The History Channel described its reality-TV show Bamazon as “eight out-of-work Alabama construction workers locked in the fight of their lives, risking everything they’ve got on a long-shot chance to find gold in the Amazon jungle.” Set in Guyana in South America, the program featured “aggressive jaguars, venomous snakes, malarial mosquitoes, and countless miles of impenetrable mud.” One of the main characters, Tim Evans, explained how he and his US colleagues came to the Amazon every mining season to “take the gold.”

This was depoliticized entertainment that mainstreamed disaster capitalism for the sake of sensationalism and the ratings it would bring. All that mattered was the excitement of the chase, the broadcasting of a carnival of grime and grit to an audience who would learn nothing about why resource hunting could be so destructive. The History Channel, wrote environmental academics Nathan K. Lujan, Devin D. Bloom, and L. Cynthia Watson, “exploits habitats as a backdrop for glorified plunder.”

Missing from the program was any mention of the human rights abuses committed by mining corporations against indigenous communities and the damage done to delicate ecosystems by the excessive pillaging of resources such as gold.

TV cameras were not there to record this exploitation in the depths of Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, or inside detention centers and prisons in Greece, the United States, Australia, and Britain. The predatory behavior of multinational executives, government officials, and complicit NGO staffers is the defining feature of what I record in my new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe--profit at any cost. The methods vary from country to country, but the strategy is the same: exaggerate a threat, man-made or natural, and let loose unaccountable private-sector contractors to exploit it.

If there is economic uncertainty, let foreign companies mine any available resource, and then sit back and watch as most of the money leaves the country. Make sure that wars, including those started for tenuous reasons, last as long as possible to ensure ongoing work for mercenaries, guards, and intelligence officials. Industries such as mining, construction, and security feed off each other. It is a global gravy train—when one country is sucked dry, it moves off to the next lucrative destination.

During a visit to Greece in 2013 to investigate the reality of extreme austerity and those workers resisting it, Canadian writer Naomi Klein issued a stark warning: “We really are in a midst of what I’ve come to think of as a final colonial pillage for the hardest to reach natural resources in some of the most beautiful protected parts of the world using some of the most dangerous and damaging extractive practices.”

Nothing remains untouched. “The privatisation of everything,” writes Arundhai Roy, “has also meant the NGO-isation of everything.” She rightly celebrates the “remarkable, radical work” undertaken by many NGOs, but questions “the corporation and foundation-endowed NGOs [as] global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally like shareholders buy shares in companies, then try to control them from within.” The commodification of human rights, at a time when market forces are putting a monetary value on everything, requires us to be highly skeptical of agendas pushed by thinktanks, NGOs, and civil libertarians. Many do fine work, but many others advocate for the maintenance of American empire at the expense of the developing world. That we do not see or hear these groups daily does not mean we are doing no harm.

In light of the declining abilities and constricting self-interest of the Western corporate press, it is up to the individual—the citizen blogger and the Twitter and Facebook user—to document the effects of disaster capitalism, to provide what is missing from the mainstream media: a view from the ground. The challenge could not be greater; of the 175 largest economic entities in the world in 2011, including nations, 111 were multinational corporations.

A Haitian villager now has the ability to connect quickly electronically with an activist in Sydney and inform her of a chemical spill at a mine. An Afghan blogger can describe to a worldwide audience the corruption of a government official. Awareness does not necessarily bring change, but it is the first, vital step in doing so. What we do with this information, living in nations with power, is our choice.

Reversing the trend of exploitative capitalism also means offering an alternative to its apparently seductive charms.7 This is an urgent challenge, I realize, when witnessing the ideology at work in places like Haiti, where industrial parks are promoted as the ultimate opportunity. The answer is not more outsourcing of services or privatization of resources. Listening to locals and empowering them is a better option. This means challenging the orthodox view that the West has all the answers.

There were countless times during my travels when I felt helpless, overwhelmed by the stories recounted to me. I often questioned the usefulness of journalism itself, keenly aware of the limitations of the medium to bring significant changes where they were needed. In particular, I was struck by how often people felt like slaves to an economic system over which they had no control. Financial consultant Satyajit Das writes that “the rule of extreme money is that everybody borrows, everybody saves, everybody is supposed to get wealthier. But only skilled insiders get richer, running and rigging the game.”

[We can] uncover these covert players, expose their tactics, recognize the financial, social, and political groups that have created this mess, and make the case for change. But bringing this change requires first an acknowledgement of what we are fighting, and who we are. In his book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi argues that the problem begins at home:

“We [Americans] have a profound hatred of the weak and poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and powerful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.”9 In copious detail, Taibbi shows how key instigators of the 2008 financial crisis have not just been spared jail time but have benefited and been protected, while untold millions of needy men and women are crunched through an unforgiving legal system. With a few exceptions, such as the Occupy movement, there has been no public protest movement to demand prosecutions for Wall Street fraud.

Taibbi goes to the heart of an economic, social, and legal system that underpins the abuses documented here and explains why they are allowed to happen. “We’re creating a dystopia,” he explains, “where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like courts to speed the process.”10 It is this carelessness and cruelty, amplified through the corporate media, that allows companies in the United States and globally to behave badly against the poor. Will we act to make them accountable? After all, many UK local councils are now wholly privatized, operated by companies with no knowledge about the regional area.11 It is a cold process that has unfolded without public consent.

The challenges remain profound. While former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a key architect of today’s neoliberal destruction of the public sector, died in April 2013, mass privatization, market fundamentalism, and support for dictatorships friendly to the West, which were championed by her and likeminded capitalists, continue to thrive. Both main parties in British politics still subscribe to private contracting as a responsible way to manage the state. But opinion polling consistently shows that the British public much prefer services run by the public sector. The challenge is transforming that attitude into action.

Noam Chomsky, in a 2011 follow-up to his classic 1967 essay on the “responsibility of intellectuals,” explains what role we should take when fighting established power, and that we face the choice of either embracing or challenging it. “If we are serious about justice,” he writes, “we will focus our efforts where we share responsibility for what is being done.”

It is essential that greater transparency is demanded from those institutions that create or perpetuate crises. This includes the organizations that run prisons for asylum seekers and those that undermine the autonomy and livelihoods of local peoples in pursuit of the resource dollar. It also includes those that sell questionable intelligence to US forces in the “war on terror.” They mask their greed with claims of helping the United States win its battle against terrorism, when it is obvious that patriotism and global stability are not behind their actions.

Resistance to predatory capitalism is occurring all over the world, enacted by affected communities in Haiti and Papua New Guinea, refugee activists in Australia, NGOs in Afghanistan, and the Syriza victory in Greece. There is increasing opposition to the fact that the West has become little more than a heavily fortified gated community, exploiting resources and people in its pursuit of increased profits and a self-serving notion of peace. A vision is evolving of how the world can be ordered differently, with true democracy thriving from the ground up. The ambition of developing collective solutions, with public and private interests reducing inequality, poverty, and disease, is not a Communist throwback to the twentieth century, but the prerequisite for a realistic and necessary future.

There are countless examples. Consider Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, voting in a 2013 referendum to take back control over the heating, electricity, and gas networks sold to private operators decades before. Municipalities in France and areas in Africa and Asia have ended the failed experiment in outsourced water. This was achieved by grassroots organizing, using evidence showing that cost savings and environmental sustainability would be better served by managed state ownership.

Let us never forget the humanity of the people and communities craving a more equitable world. It is too easy to erase personalities and talk instead only about dollars. I like the thinking of US writer Rebecca Solnit, who writes in her book A Paradise Built in Hell that the challenge for modern societies is to view humans as more than just consumers. She explains how disasters, while horrific, can bring communities together in ways that show the best of us all. “You can read recent history as a history of privatization,” she writes, not just of the economy but also of society, as marketing and media shove imagination more and more towards private life and private satisfaction, as citizens are redefined as consumers, as public participation falters and with it any sense of collective or individual political power … Economic privatization is impossible without the privatization of desire and imagination that tells us we are not each other’s keeper.

What I witnessed during my research for the book Disaster Capitalism, was people struggling against overwhelming odds—the invisible, the unpeople, the undesired, the expendable, the broke, and the poor. Their battle is our battle, because it is our choice to hold our own companies and governments to account for making money from cruelty and exploitation. Disaster capitalism is the ideology of our age because we have allowed it to be. We can change it. A more equal economic system and truly representative democracy must be our goal. Now is the time.

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