One of the literary legacies of the financial crisis is a type of travel writing focused on the local social, economic, and environmental effects of unfettered global capitalism. There are two types of such books. Michael Lewis is perhaps the best known and most widely read author of the first kind, in which the reporter becomes a kind of tour guide to the financial freak show. In Boomerang (2011), Lewis shows how greed overwhelmed both the lenders and the borrowers of cheap money in places like Iceland, Ireland, and the United States. Reading him is like watching the circus through binoculars. The spectacle is both vividly close and comfortably distant; we enjoy the show but feel no direct involvement in the unfolding action.
The second type, exemplified in Antony Loewenstein’s important new book Profits of Doom, is written with the fire of the political activist. Loewenstein acknowledges the influence on his work of Naomi Klein, whose The Shock Doctrine (2007) defined a predatory ‘disaster capitalism’ that seeks to exploit war or natural disaster for private profit at the expense of local populations. Loewenstein writes: ‘Vulture, or predatory, capitalism has easily taken root in Australia and many other self-described democracies because of the limited ability and willingness of the public to scrutinise it and demand change.’
Profits of Doom is squarely a post-9/11 book, focused in large part on the unprecedented expansion of privatised surveillance and detention services on behalf of governments and even the United Nations since September 2001. We begin in remote, if familiar, territory at the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. Leaked documents from the British multinational Serco, which manages refugee detention on our behalf (Australia is the only country in the world to outsource all of its detention centres), reveal price gouging, ‘extreme rates of self-harm among detained refugees’, and the ‘non-reporting of mistakes’ to avoid government penalties. Here and in chapters on Afghanistan and Christmas Island, Loewenstein illustrates the disparity between the argument of most Western governments that outsourcing is cost-efficient and the expensive facts of private service delivery. Instead, he argues that the real value of private operators like Serco is to provide governments with ‘a convenient scapegoat for systemic failures’, and reveals the tactics by which those companies avoid or minimise government oversight. ‘This blurring of responsibility and accountability is a fundamental flaw of exploitative capitalism,’ he concludes.
On Christmas Island, witnessing the arrival of a ‘visibly overcrowded boat,’ he asks those standing at the water’s edge whether ‘anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals’. One local man says ‘he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact’. After reading Profits of Doom it would be difficult to remain unaware of the merry-go-round of public policy and private profit in the privatised security industry, let alone comfortable about it. Still, it is hard to agree with the book’s assumption that all outsourcing is potentially corrupt: a privatised rubbish collection and disposal service, for example, is only problematic if the service does not make the savings stipulated in a contract or if that contract is not enforced.
The exploitation of natural resources at the expense of local populations is Loewenstein’s second major theme. In Papua New Guinea, he explores the ‘resource curse’ of poor nations with rich mineral deposits. He travels to Bougainville, twenty-five years after infuriated locals forced the closure of the polluting Panguna mine and sparked a civil war, just as talk of reopening the mine has begun. In Port Moresby he listens to angry locals and records the voices of the otherwise silent majority who seem powerless in the face of a web of vested interests. These moments are among the book’s most powerful.
Some of Loewenstein’s harshest criticism is aimed at non-government organisations (NGOs) in post-disaster zones. He regards them as a ‘conduit that ensures business for Western firms’, concluding that despite noble intentions the ‘NGO-isation of humanitarian relief’ weakens local governments by channelling donor country funds through their own agencies instead of supporting local initiatives.
In the context of these perhaps overly simplistic assessments, the author remains upbeat about the power of democracy, which he optimistically conflates with awareness. As you would expect from the author of The Blogging Revolution (2008), he encourages individual citizen bloggers and social media users to provide the ‘view from the ground’. ‘Awareness doesn’t necessarily bring change,’ he writes, ‘but it’s the first, vital step in doing so.’
Profits of Doom presents research and argument rather than potential solutions. In pressing for greater regulation of NGOs and forms of investment that transcend neo-colonialism, Lowenstein writes: ‘NGOs that are locally accountable, internationally connected and financially independent have made a difference and contributed to the greater sovereignty of those nations.’ It would be easy to think that in all the book’s distressed venues of vulture capitalism there are few such models. Among the despair in Haiti, however, Loewenstein mentions the growth of the renewable energy sector there under a ‘unique model … where local NGOs partner with government departments to reduce deforestation’. This tantalisingly brief reference feels like a missed opportunity to demonstrate what is working amid disaster capitalism’s catalogue of failures. Perhaps it is the beginnings of another book. If so, I for one am looking forward to it.