An anecdote: as a resident of Chicago, I often use public transit. Although the system is in no way perfect, it is popular, extensive, and runs (mostly) on time, which is quite a feat in itself. In August 2013, the fare card system, previously operated by the Chicago Transit Authority, was outsourced to the privately owned Cubic Transportation Systems. Riders accustomed to the yellow-and-blue Chicago card were forced to switch over to the Ventra card. Savings and efficiencies were promised, as well as utility, since Ventra could also function as a MasterCard, netting riders who by choice or circumstances are unbankable.
The rollout was disastrous. Riders were kept hanging for weeks waiting on their new cards. Card readers wouldn’t work or would take multiple tries, slowing down commuters, especially bus routes. Tens of thousands of dollars were lost from fares as frustrated bus drivers waved through harried riders during system crashes. Customer service calls entailed hour-long waits. One rider ended up receiving 267 Ventra cards in the mail through a fluke.
All of this frustration was supposedly done for the benefit of riders and taxpayers. Yet, the privatization scheme outsourced a piece of public infrastructure (one that was up, running, and embraced by commuters) into private hands that promised a solution to a problem that didn’t exist with a flawed product at the price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars across 12 years.
While Ventra is a relatively low stakes example of privatization, Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein’s latest book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophedocuments instances far more sobering, far more enraging, and much more relevant, considering the ongoing migrant crises in parts of the world destabilized by war and natural disaster.
Loewenstein is a writer of strong convictions, with formulations such “In many ways, privatization had no moral code, apart from making money.” Those looking for a dispassionate NPR or New Yorker-esque examination of social and economic ills best look elsewhere. Instead, the author treks around the globe, relating his experiences of documenting the dangers of “disaster capitalism”, a term coined by author Naomi Klein, where disasters, natural or manmade, are followed by deep cuts to spending, privatization, and deregulation. What results is an increasing capture of and pressure on those most vulnerable to profit seeking entities.
Reporting on private military contractors in Afghanistan, outside NGOs in Haiti, resource extractors in Papua New Guinea, and large multinational corporations that handle immigrants and refugees arriving in Australia, Britain, and the US, Loewenstein is attentive to the causes and the actors involved in each context. Though largely suspicious of and primed to be dismissive towards those in positions of power (perhaps overly so), the author takes pains to examine and excoriate the systems, rather than the individuals in charge.
This is a fine direction and it allows us to focus more on structures than devolving into painting cardboard cutouts of the company man, the media shill, the heartless non-profit CEO, something reporting on the excesses of capitalism can breed (look to the coverage of pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli’s price gouging, the press anointed ‘pharma-bro’. Much attention was devoted to his “doucheness”, if you will, while little was devoted to the ethics of for-profit medicine). Loewenstein’s attention to structures also draws attention to the contradictions of capitalism, something best embodied in the costs of housing refugees on Australia’s Manus Island by a private contractor.
As Loewenstein reports, a large multinational charges the government, “$74,792 per detainee per year on Manus Island.” Ironically, the privatization of this service, intended to save taxpayers and increase efficiency, did the opposite. The author continues, “It was cheaper to place an asylum seeker in a room in the Sheraton hotel in Sydney than for one night on Manus…”
Combined with a high rate of self-harm reported by detainees, low morale among the staff, and the legal limbo asylum seekers find themselves in, it becomes clear the disaster capitalists aren’t interested in providing a service, but are only interested in milking a cash cow; namely, taxpayers and the economically insecure, along with the politically marginal.
There’s a tendency towards sameness in some of Loewenstein’s sections, as if each portion was tackled piecemeal, without a greater sense of a larger project. Redundancies occur. Essay collections often run into this kind of problem, but it’s a bit odd in a workof extended reportage, considering how wide ranging the author’s case studies are.
However, what cuts through this sameness is when Loewenstein interjects himself into the reporting. This provides a human face that readers might find lacking in his attention to big, impersonal structures. For example, he sits down with a Hazara refugee seeker housed on Australia’s Christmas Island. Loewenstein listened closely to the man’s story. “It was a difficult conversation. I tried to show empathy for his situation—I did not know his exact story or its validity, but I could see he was in a bad way.” Consideration of dollars and cents don’t enter the conversation, here—only the plight of the person does.
Here the author hits what exactly is needed or, at least, one of the essential ingredients to combatting unrestricted capitalism and the neoliberal capture of national governments. “Humanity must not be outsourced to the highest bidder,” he states, “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.”Rating: 7/10
My investigative feature in The Nation:
efore its failed occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union discovered that the country was rich in natural resources. In the 1980s, Soviet mining experts drafted maps and collected data that would lay dormant in the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban. These charts documented a vast amount of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth metals, and lithium.
Fearing what the Taliban might do with this wealth, a tiny group of Afghan geologists hid the maps in their homes until the arrival of American forces in 2001. By 2007, the US Geological Survey had undertaken the most comprehensive study of the mineral deposits below the country’s surface. An internal Pentagon memo claimed that Afghanistan could develop into the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to the mineral that is an integral component of laptop and smartphone batteries.
Washington was ecstatic about the findings and in 2010 claimed that at least $1 trillion in resources was up for grabs. “There is stunning potential here,” said Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command, speaking to The New York Times. US officials said that the deposits could sustain the Afghan economy and generate thousands of jobs, reducing corruption and reliance on foreign aid. Currently, with 60 percent of the country’s budget provided by foreign donors, outside investment is crucial. Acknowledging the inability of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to handle a burgeoning resource industry, the US government pledged to help implement accountability mechanisms. However, regulations like the mining law—revised in 2014 to bring greater transparency—have had little effect on illegal mining and the non-payment of royalties.
The warning signs were there. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” Jack Medlin, a geologist in the US Geological Survey’s international-affairs program, told the Times. During my visit to Afghanistan in May, I often heard from locals that the resource industry was never going to provide enough money to support the economy once foreign aid dried up. Afghan mining expert Javed Noorani told The Nation that President Ashraf Ghani is “more constrained in his actions against the criminal networks operating in the mining sector than President [Hamid] Karzai was. Today there is open plunder of gemstones by the partners in his government, and his silence and passivity puzzle me, like many others.”
Mining and Petroleum Minister Daud Shah Saba told Iranian mining officials in October that only 25 percent of Afghanistan’s mines had been identified, indicating that the US mineral survey perhaps wasn’t as comprehensive as claimed. In 2015, according to Saba, the government will earn only $30 million from resources for the third consecutive year—far less than the projected $1.5 billion. “Unfortunately, we have failed to well manage and well control our mining sector,” the minister told Bloomberg News in October. “With the current fragile and messy situation, it’s really hard to say when Afghanistan should expect any profits from it.”
* * *
The facts on the ground explain the troubles. Logar Province hasn’t seen peace for decades. Situated close to Kabul, the country’s capital, the area was a main supply route for the American-backed mujahideen as they poured in from Pakistan in the late 1970s and early ’80s during the Soviet occupation. Swedish journalist Borge Almqvist visited the province in 1982 and commented that “the most common sight, except for ruins, are graves.”
By 1995, the Taliban controlled Logar, and today, all sides of the modern Afghan conflict intersect there. Insurgents rule large swaths of the area, and suicide bombings kill civilians and Afghan security forces. The locals are caught between the Taliban, a small but growing Islamic State (ISIS) presence, and Afghan troops.
Logar is also home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, at Mes Aynak. The Chinese company China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) controls the $3 billion mine, having obtained rights to the area in 2007, but operations haven’t commenced because of security concerns and the discovery by archaeologists of ancient Buddhist relics dating back to the Bronze Age.
Local and international archaeologists have spent years finding, cleaning, and preserving the relics, and they remain opposed to the mine. Nor do they have much faith that the security situation would allow the mine to operate successfully. One Afghan archaeologist working at the site, Aziz Wafa, told Reuters in April that “for the Chinese [violence] is a problem, but not for the Afghans. I was born in a war, I grew up in a war, and I will die in a war.”
When Ghani visited Beijing in October 2014, he was asked by the Chinese government to cut the royalty rate from 19.5 percent to roughly 10 percent, which would cost the Afghan government an estimated $114 million annually. Chinese frustrations with the project, especially regarding the lack of security, were behind the demands.
MCC purchased the rights to the copper for 30 years, and the Afghan government has few if any other companies willing to take over the contract in such a volatile region. Global copper prices have dropped 40 percent since 2011; there’s no reliable transportation route for taking the metal out of the landlocked country; and MCC withdrew its workers from the site in 2014. The firm claims that tens of thousands of jobs could be indirectly created if operations commenced. MCC refused my requests for comment.
Logar Province is dangerous, unfriendly to outsiders, and only marginally safe to visit before the afternoon fades into night. I drove there in May with Noorani—who is also a founding member of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a grassroots group dedicated to assisting mining-affected communities across the country—and the American filmmaker Thor Neureiter. The journey from Kabul took us over paved roads and past lonely gas stations, chicken sellers, men in salwar kameez and beanies, and many burqa-clad women. Closer to Davo, a village near Aynak, the landscape became lush, with vast green fields, mud houses, and a skyline hazy from heat.
On the ground in Logar Province, civilians are angry, frustrated, and scared. Mohammed Nazir Muslimyar told me that “life is no longer normal here because of the mine. There’s too much hardship. There are engineers in this community who are doing very low-level jobs.” The advertised benefits of Afghanistan’s mining boom had not reached Davo.
I arrived at a mud compound as American helicopters flew overhead and was quickly ushered into an open room with red rugs on the floor. Ten men with long beards, white turbans, salwar kameez, and brown waistcoats were waiting to share their stories, and chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan said our presence could result in the insurgents intimidating them after we’d left. Over piping-hot tea and biscuits, Mirjan told me that the Chinese had confiscated his family’s property and never paid compensation or explained what they were doing. There was an information vacuum filled with rumors spread by scared locals, corrupt officials, and the Taliban.
“People have been displaced, and there’s been no incentive or employment offered to local people,” Mirjan said. “When the roads are built for the mine, water in the area will be affected. When extraction begins, it will get more polluted under the ground, in the air and the soil. There’s been no good intention on the part of the government and the company. If there were, the small village where I come from would have had some peace over the last five years. We feel like we’ve been invaded.”
Mirjan explained that the police we saw stationed near his home “were to protect the company, not us. They will never come to defend us.” The Taliban attacked these forces almost daily. Meanwhile, the police insulted and beat up the local shepherds, who weren’t allowed to graze their sheep around the mine site. Mirjan and some other elders weren’t absolutely opposed to the MCC’s mine; they would accept its presence if the revenues were spent on developing the local infrastructure, including dams, canals, and electrical service. “We want to turn this into a sustainable economy,” he said. “If the mining elite spend the money on building villas in Kabul, it’s not going to be any benefit to us.”
Despite years of protest by civil-society activists and international NGOs, the contract between the MCC and the Afghan government was never released publicly. Finally, Kabul posted the contract online this year with very little fanfare. The document proposed only lax environmental protections as well as a feasibility study that was never undertaken. According to public comments by Saba, the MCC didn’t consider the social costs of its proposed operations (although the Afghan government was also neglecting its responsibilities when it signed the deal).
During my visit to the country in May, Saba refused to speak to me about his ministry’s work, despite repeated requests for an interview. The Ghani administration was just as secretive and as unaccountable as its predecessor under Karzai. After trying for weeks to obtain an interview with Saba, I spoke to his chief of staff, Shafiqullah Shahrani, who repeatedly assured me that the Aynak mine would go forward and that the local residents were being consulted about how it might benefit them. When I informed him that I had just visited the area and been told the exact opposite, he defended his government’s commitment to raising revenue.
President Obama’s recent announcement of an indefinite continuation of US military presence in the country—9,800 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of private contractors—will result in no meaningful change to this reality. In fact, it may even worsen the insurgency with the expansion of militias under the Afghan Local Police, as such groups have become notorious for heinous abuses across the state. Village elders in Logar Province have said that their livelihoods are increasingly threatened around the Aynak mine because of these lawless militias. In Davo, Mirjan said that the international community—especially the United States—has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan since 2001 and that “it was stolen. Very little of it came to the people.”
* * *
In April, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government body, released a report noting that Washington “did not have a unified strategy for the development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries.” Since 2009, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) have provided $488 million toward the nation’s extractive industries, supporting a variety of corporations like the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US-based contractors Expertech Solutions and Hickory Ground Solutions.
This money, SIGAR explained, did nothing to build a viable and well-regulated mining industry in Afghanistan. Instead, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum lacked “the technical capacity to research, award, and manage new contracts without external support,” while the US government—including USAID and the Defense Department—had failed in its mission to help create “self-sustaining Afghan extractive industries,” which “still seems a very distant goal.”
Take one project central to US government strategy: the Sheberghan-Mazar pipeline in northern Afghanistan. Originally built by the Soviet Union, the pipeline is just one example of how US resource strategies—in this case, to help Afghan engineers repair and maintain aging and damaged equipment—led nowhere. SIGAR found in 2014 that rampant corrosion had left the pipeline in poor shape, and the $33.7 million invested by the US government between 2011 and 2014 had not contributed to its stability. A SIGAR official told The Nationthat this project was now viewed by USAID and the State Department as a “liability…due to safety concerns, lack of sustainability, and other problems.”
The SIGAR official pointed out that the “development of mineral resources is a long-term endeavor and not a quick fix for Afghanistan’s budgetary challenges…. Unfortunately, US assistance in this area does not appear to have [made] much of a difference, and the sector shows virtually no signs of measurably improving in the immediate future.” The SIGAR official also admitted that the Defense Department had offered no response to the April audit and that USAID had “not yet implemented any of [our] recommendations.”
Illegal mining is also rampant throughout Afghanistan, with more than 2,000 such sites raising money for warlords and the insurgency. Historically, Pakistan has been a major recipient of these illicitly obtained minerals. A SIGAR report found that illegal mining has been costing the state up to $300 million annually since the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. Insecurity in eastern Nangarhar Province and elsewhere prompted Saba to warn Afghan lawmakers in 2015 that monitoring the thousands of mines around the country was impossible and that the complete and unrestrained looting of local resources could happen in the absence of a peace deal with the Taliban.
A senior source at the US embassy in Kabul, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told me that mineral revenues today were barely enough to support the operations of the mining ministry itself. He claimed that although Ghani now recognizes that natural resources won’t resolve the country’s budgetary problems, no alternative solutions have been proposed. “China is absolutely waiting in the wings, with many transport corridors and investment options [contingent on] improved Afghan security,” he explained. “They take a longer view and will be players in time, but for now they’ve been burned over copper [at Aynak], so they’ve stepped back.”
Yet mining remains a key plank of the Ghani administration’s economic plans as international aid dwindles. Stephen Carter, the Afghanistan campaign leader at Global Witness, told The Nation that after meeting with Ghani this year in Kabul, he sensed a new “sensible, strategic approach from the government—they have said they do not want to do any large-scale mining” (Aynak is the major exception), “and even small-scale is doubtful until they get stronger oversight and management capacity.” But, Carter added, “the government will inevitably be judged on actions, not words, and the next six months will be crucial. If there is not progress in substantive reforms in this time frame, it will be very worrying.” Six months after those comments were made, the signs are ominous: There is no evidence that the Ghani government is willing or able to eradicate the massive mineral theft by the Taliban or to institute a regulated resource sector.
Whether Afghanistan should actively pursue a mining industry or ignore its vast mineral wealth is a contentious issue. Pajhwok Afghan News journalist Ahmad Zia Rahimzai told me in Kabul that “many Afghans believe that our resources should stay in the ground until laws and accountability in the country are stronger.” Arguably, the risks incurred by leaving resources in the ground are both fewer and less severe than those posed by rampant exploitation. Noorani has argued that the Ghani administration should “leave the resources underground” because warlords control today’s industry. Indeed, minerals are the Taliban’s second major source of funds, after narcotics.
Global Witness’s Carter concurs, arguing that only in the long term should the country pursue mining: “It is too important a source of revenue and growth to ignore, given the desperate need, [but] be ready not to mine for however long it takes to put in place the right structures.” At this point, Afghanistan is years away from such a resolution.
* * *
The hazards posed by climate change and environmental degradation appear nowhere in the US government’s assessments of the Afghan resource industry. Mining without environmental safeguards guarantees worsening air and water pollution. Countless residents of Kabul visit hospitals every day because of health complications caused by poor air quality. Open sewers and the burning of dung only add to the problem. The illegal and uncontrolled extraction of coal happens daily across the city. In addition to low-quality fuel, Afghanistan is already suffering seasonal shifts in its rain and snowfall, and many farmers complain of declining agricultural yields due to climate change. A huge mining industry in vulnerable parts of the country would only exacerbate these issues.
Carter pointed to the increasingly international initiative to leave resources in the ground to reduce global temperatures. “Afghanistan should be first in line for compensation in return for nonexploitation,” he said, “which might also provide a chance to get the money out of the hands” of local warlords.
President Obama, during his announcement in October of an extended US military presence in Afghanistan, claimed that US troops “could take great pride in the progress that they helped achieve.” He was against fighting an “endless war,” he said. But that’s exactly what Afghanistan has become: the longest war in American history. In terms of civilian casualties, 2014 was the deadliest year for the people of Afghanistan since the United Nations started compiling figures in 2009. Today, nobody is seriously talking about a viable resource industry funding the country’s future. Indefinite occupation is the preferred solution.
In 2012 I co-edited a collection with Ahmed Moor called After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine. The issues within it have continued to become more relevant as the two-state “solution” is increasingly viewed as unworkable and unethical.
A long essay in the New Left Review by Perry Anderson discusses the necessity of one-state for long-term peace:
From the beginning, no-one saw more clearly the nature of the Oslo Accords than Edward Said. Before his death he started to speak of a bi-national state, not as a programme but as a regulative idea—the only long-term prospect for peace in Palestine, however utopian it might seem in the short-run. In the decade and a half since, the number of voices making the same proposal, at greater length and with much greater specification, has multiplied. What in the inter-war period was a minority line of thinking in the Yishuv, extinguished in 1948, has become a significant strand in Palestinian opinion, with some echoes in Israel. The expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the construction of the Separation Wall, the insulation of Gaza, the scission between Fatah and Hamas, the futility of Arab representation within Israel, have leached credibility, however weak, from the Road Map. Some months into the Second Intifada, the first incisive argument by a Palestinian for a one-state solution appeared in early December 2001, in an article by Lama Abu-Odeh in the Boston Review—to this day, one of the most lucid and eloquent statements of the case. In the summer of 2002 it was succeeded by a powerful and more pointedly political piece from Ghada Karmi in the Lebanese journal Al-Adab. Three years later, the first book-length advocacy came with The One-State Solution from the American scholar Virginia Tilley, further developed in an effective rejoinder to a left-wing critic from Israel.
Thereafter the dikes opened. In 2006 appeared the Palestinian-American Ali Abunimah’s One Country, in grace of style and inspiration of outlook the single book closest to Said’s own work. In 2007 Joel Kovel published a blistering attack on the conventions of Jewish nationalism in Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine. In 2008 Said’s nephew Saree Makdisi produced what remains the best documented, most moving of all reports on the condition of the Occupied Territories, Palestine Inside Out, which ends with its own case for a single state. In 2012 two works by Israelis and a third with Israeli and Palestinian contributors appeared within a few months of each other: The One-State Condition by Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, Beyond the Two-State Solution by Yehouda Shenhav and After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine, edited by Anthony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moor. In 2013, Rashid Khalidi’s Brokers of Deceit called for the self-dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and shift to a struggle for full democratic rights in a single state, while the volume edited by Hani Faris, The Failure of the Two-State Solution, brought together the most comprehensive set of reflections and proposals on a one-state agenda to date, from some twenty contributors. Ripostes to this literature have not been slow in coming, from both Israeli and Palestinian sides. In 2009, Benny Morris produced One State, Two States, Hussein Ibish What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?; in 2012, Asher Susser Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative; in 2014, a group of Israeli and Palestinian insiders collaborated on One Land, Two States, under Swedish guidance. A new intellectual landscape has begun to emerge, one in which Olmert himself could warn of the dangers to Israel of increased discussion of a single state in the Promised Land.
The forms envisaged for such a state vary across the literature proposing it, from a unitary democracy with equal civil and political rights for all, to a bi-national federation along Belgian lines, to a confederation of ethnic cantons. But the general case they make rests on a set of common observations and arguments. Across the West Bank, not to speak of East Jerusalem, the grid of Jewish logistics and pattern of Jewish settlements have sunk too deep to be reversible: Israeli expansion has effectively destroyed the possibility of a second state nested within Zion. If it were ever to take shape, the second state offered Palestinians since Oslo could only be a dependency of the first, lacking geographical contiguity, economic viability or the rudiments of genuine political sovereignty: not an independent structure, but an outhouse of Israel. But since even the delivery of that is perpetually postponed, it would be better to turn the tables on the oppressor, and demand a single state in which at least there would be demographic parity between the two. As a political banner under which to fight, civil rights—so the argument goes—have a more powerful international appeal than national liberation. If Israel is impregnable to ethnic attack, it is vulnerable to democratic pressure.
At one telling moment in this unnerving and convincing book, Antony Loewenstein quotes the managing director of one of the many private military companies (“PMCs”) working in Afghanistan. The United States, says “Jack”, “is not capable of running empires”. Instead, western governments outsource imperialism to people like him in a variety of organisations – Halliburton, G4S, Serco and Capita are the best known of a long list – which make their money from incarceration, the “processing” of asylum seekers or the provision of private “security” in conflict zones. No longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, capitalism now thrives on the management of nightmares. Even the provision of disaster relief is transformed into profit.
Disaster Capitalism takes us on a journey around the victims of this system: Greece, Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It then turns its attention to the centres of outsourcing such as the US, the UK and Loewenstein’s native Australia. It charts the consequences of a double crisis: turmoil in the economic system following the financial crash, and the migration that is the unsurprising effect of the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Greece, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has been the victim of both at once. Loewenstein notes that despite Syriza’s promises to challenge austerity, the state’s hands are tied not only by the troika, but by a wave of popular xenophobia, supported by a supine media. So, instead, non-state forces are stepping in: he visits the medical centres set up by leftwing volunteers to help the victims of both crises, and, more depressingly, the Greeks-only food handouts organised by Golden Dawn.
Similarly, in his account of the “relief” that followed the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, Loewenstein argues that the people of Port-au-Prince were able to organise themselves to respond to the devastation – “makeshift clinics were established”, and “young men and women worked to clear the rubble with their bare hands”. After this, however, the international response was quickly monetised, or, to quote the typically direct words of then-US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, “the gold rush is on”. The response to the disaster combined outsourcing to the largely USAID-funded contractor Chemonics, with American and Korean companies building factories to produce consumer goods for the western market while paying workers well below the already minuscule Haitian minimum wage. A new development was the intervention of celebrity-backed NGOs. The philanthropic efforts of Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates come in for particularly sharp criticism as unaccountable and aloof. All this activity rests, according to Loewenstein, on a perception of Haitians as incapable of looking after themselves, a view his account attempts to challenge. As Pierre Justinvil, the deputy mayor of Cap Haitien, puts it, surveying a housing development built by a Minnesota-based company, “I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of the houses, and more quickly.”
The irony is that Britain, the US and Australia are now inflicting on themselves many of the devastations they have visited on other countries. This is visible in the US’s immense privatised prison system, providing a convict labour force which, the author estimates, is bigger than the Soviet Gulag at its early 1950s height. The militarised response to the Ferguson protests last year are another example: the tooled-up, armour-plated local police “looked like they were equipped to fight insurgents in Iraq”. And they were: a programme had sold off excess military equipment, provided in the first instance by private companies, to local police departments.
In the UK, Loewenstein tracks the results of a decision to open up emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to our beloved volume housebuilders: “Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson”. Meanwhile, Britain has become a major exporter of outsourcing, with G4S and Serco being worldwide leaders in the field.
Disaster capitalism comes across as a thuggish operation, largely based on low-wage, low-conditions work where sensitivity to the often vulnerable people being “cared” for is not a major priority. At a nightclub full of PMC staff in Afghanistan, Loewenstein is “reminded of a comment made by a human rights advocate in Kabul, that if you go to a party in the city, ‘a quarter of the men will have no necks’”, a consequence of widespread steroid use. Everyone is dehumanised by what another outsourcer calls “the human warehousing business”.
One major strength of the book is its interviews. We meet a succession of nice, apparently open spokespeople for outsourcers and mercenaries, and even a well-mannered physicist and active member of Golden Dawn. He lets them speak with their own breathtakingly cynical words. Loewenstein is unashamedly partisan, though, especially in the chapter on the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea, where a mass revolt removed the privatised mining corporation Rio Tinto from the area, leaving it reliant – by popular demand, it would seem – on subsistence agriculture. The corporations are coming back to Bougainville, and Loewenstein gives a sympathetic account of the forces trying to stop them, noting the horrendous ecological record of the companies in question. These divisions can be a little too neat.
After a particularly harrowing account of Australia’s “Pacific solution” to migration (ie, put them all on an island), Disaster Capitalism concludes with a rather pro forma rousing address, insisting that “resistance is never futile” and pointing to those places – small French towns, the city of Hamburg – that have managed to reverse outsourcing and privatisation. That’s fair enough, but as the accounts from Haiti and Papua New Guinea make clear, the system Loewenstein describes thrives by presenting itself as the only possible conduit for development and change. By placing, say, Rio Tinto on the one side and subsistence farming on the other, the choice becomes either virtuous tradition or hyper-exploitation. A model of development that could challenge these ruthless practices would make Disaster Capitalism a lot more convincing, but as an eyewitness account of the vultures’ activities around the world, it does provide a useful warning.
• Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. To order Disaster Capitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
There are few global crises in the world today that do not pull in the UN in some way.
Its security council still sets the terms of reference for war and peace around the world; its peacekeepers take the blue beret to all four corners of the planet, with very differing outcomes. But is it fit for purpose? Where has it made a difference? And what needs reforming?
As the UN turns 70, the Guardian has published a series investigating the organisation’s success and failures. This discussion marked the culmination of the project and featured a panel comprising Harriet Grant (Guardian journalist) Natalie Samarasinghe (executive director, United Nations Association UK) Antony Loewenstein (journalist, documentarian and author) Julian Borger (diplomatic editor, the Guardian) Charles Petrie (20 years experience at policy and operational level within the UN who, at the time of resigning, was the UN secretary general’s representative in Burundi).
This event took place on 14 October at the Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross, London.