During my 2012 visit to Afghanistan, researching the book and film, Disaster Capitalism, I spent time with the country’s reportedly last remaining Jew, Zablon Simintov, and filmed an interview with him. Living in the centre of Kabul, his house was a tiny apartment with a Christmas tree in the corner. Remarkably, he had remained safe during the civil war, Taliban years and post-US invasion period. He was a grumpy man. He managed a synagogue near his home, attended by Jewish, Western diplomats and aid workers based in the country. He said that these people brought him Jewish food such as matzoh on Passover. He lived a simple and poor life. This video shows Simintov praying in his small, one room apartment:
My latest book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, tackles issues related to privatisation, the war in Afghanistan, crisis in Haiti and the private prison industry. Here’s my interview, via my UK/US publisher Verso, conducted a few months ago in Brooklyn, New York and just posted now:
The show has gone viral. One clip, of fellow journalist John Lyons and I talking about the Zionist lobby’s pressuring of critical voices, has been watched nearly 100,000 times (and growing fast). It’s received international attention.
Back in 2014, I argued in The Guardian that Australia should suffer a sports boycott due to its illegal asylum seeker policies. I made the same point on this TV show and many people, with a few notable exceptions, welcomed the idea. Australian legal academic Dr Amy McGuire wrote a story in The Conversation around the issue.
We live in an age of filter bubbles. I’ve been commissioned by Germany’s Goethe Institute to discuss these issues online for the next month alongside Austrian journalist Robert Misik. Here’s the first entry that is distributed in 160 nations around the world (here’s the German version):
Once upon a time there were hopes that the Internet would democratize social discourse – but today the talk is mainly about fake news and filter bubbles whenever the subject turns to the question of how digitization influences politics. What can journalists do to regain the trust that has been lost? And what can ordinary people do to engage to a greater extent in discussions with one another again? Over the next few weeks, this will be debated here by the journalists Robert Misik from Austria and Antony Loewenstein from Australia. Their digital correspondence is postage-free – and open to all, so join in the discussion and give your opinion! Contradict! Ask questions! You can take part using the comments field on this page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #freepost. Geraldine de Bastion, who is chairing the debate, will contribute your comments to the exchange.Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv
Geraldine de Bastion: 4 December 2009 marked a paradigm shift on the Internet, as it was on this day that Google began creating personal profiles for every user and individually filtering search results. Internet activist Eli Pariser described this as the start of an “era of personalization”, coining the term “filter bubble” for it in his book Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.
This growing individualization is evident when we are presented with personalized advertising – and indeed when we use supposedly neutral tools such as search engines to navigate our way through the information medium number one; tools we have to use because otherwise the Internet would be simply impenetrable.
“Customized services” are omnipresent. Rather than being an encyclopaedia of world events, the Internet is more reminiscent of a special interest paper. In our social media profiles too, which should really be connecting rather than isolating us, we find ourselves faced initially with a kind of “one-way mirror”, as Eli Pariser describes it in his book. By watching what we click, algorithms learn more and more about us, and we get increasingly entangled in our own personal bias online: when surfing the web, users only see stuff that matches their profile, their worldviews and their convictions.
Some critics of this theory claim that the filter bubble is not a purely digital phenomenon, and that it is intrinsic in all of us from the start. We view the world through our own particular glasses, surround ourselves with like-minded people and read only things that confirm our own opinions.
So how do you perceive your filter bubble, online and offline? And do filter bubbles in fact exist at all?
Photo: Helena Wimmer
Robert Misik: Of course filter bubbles exist. That is not something that requires any discussion – it is rather a question of interpretation: do the filter bubbles in digital communication enclose and confine us to a greater extent than would otherwise be the case? If this is the question to be addressed, the situation is already more complicated. Modern societies are comprised of a large number of subgroups that differ from one another in terms of their ways of life, political persuasions, personal styles and so on. We have inner city dwellers, working class urban districts, middle classes in the suburbs, the super-rich in their favoured areas, big cities, small towns, villages … The people who live in these various sub-communities also have little contact with those in other sub-communities in real life – and when they do have contact, it tends rather to be on a superficial level.
Digital communication, be it in social networks, forums or other online media, reinforces this logic on the one hand while breaking with it on the other. Reinforced in the sense that, assuming we fit into the patchwork of a community with a particular set of opinions, we will find ourselves inundated with ever more messages that reinforce this community’s prevailing opinions. This entrenches our views and gives us tunnel vision. Yet that is of course only one side of the truth. We can see the opinions of others on a daily basis in the social media and forums – where we are confronted with attitudes that we might otherwise not even notice. That is something that is often overlooked when we talk about filter bubbles.
Photo: Reuben Brand
Antony Loewenstein: A key deficiency of modern society is lack of empathy for the underprivileged, a disease caused by experiencing our daily lives in a bubble. Too often what we read and don’t see online and what we hear and experience in our real lives reduces our ability to relate to others who look or sound different to us. It’s tempting to hate refugees coming from the Middle East or Africa if you feel economic and racial insecurity and are told by your trusted newspaper, TV host or friend that you should fear the “other” because they’re worsening your personal situation. Resisting this impulse requires widening what you consume and consider on a daily basis. This tendency existed before the rise of the internet and social media but it’s now easier to find your own tribe online.
I’ve experienced this in my own work. When I visit Gaza as a journalist and tell people that I don’t feel threatened as a Jew by locals or the Islamist government, the instant reaction is often suspicion because the media has fed a line for decades that Palestinians are inherently violent and Muslims want to kill all Jews. This lie can only be challenged by constantly explaining the truth and showing the fallacy of the position.
The rise of Donald Trump, Brexit and rampant nationalism in Europe, the US and Australia has made me spend even more time reading, listening and reporting on the movements that caused these political earthquakes. Contemptuously dismissing Trump won’t make his supporters disappear. I don’t personally know any Trump or Brexit voters, and nor do I associate with white nationalists who loathe Islam, but I’m drawn to exploring why many people are.
UPDATE: Week two’s question: What has been your experience: how can we seek and conduct constructive discourse outside the filter bubble?
Living and working outside our own filter bubbles requires us to first acknowledge that our own positions are inherently biased and should be challenged. I proudly call myself a liberal and yet I constantly feel disillusioned with the superiority expressed by ‘my side’ in political debates.
Take the 2003 Iraq war, arguably the most consequential conflict of the 21st century. Countless journalists, commentators and supposedly serious politicians around the world backed the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, including many progressively-minded people. They were catastrophically wrong and yet virtually none of these individuals have paid any political or career price for their hubris. Many of the same faces are now advocating the bombing of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. What this seminal experience taught me was that we need to question our own ‘side’ first, online and in person, while also disputing the mistruths and bigotry of our opponents.
Truth-telling can be powerful. If Wikileaks had existed in 2003, and it published the conversations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair conspiring and lying about the Iraq war, would the war have been stopped before it even begin?
The election of Donald Trump fills me with dread but I’m not suddenly more concerned about ‘fake news’ today than 15 years ago. Social media has undeniably fuelled our ability to feel connected and insulated from views we don’t want to hear but I’m far more worried about group think when it comes to questions of war and peace and the millions of lives that have been lost in the name of national security and fighting terrorism since 9/11.
We should aim to conduct constructive and insightful conversations with everybody online, personal abuse should be avoided, but it’s the height of arrogance to believe that only we have facts on our side and others, like Trump, Brexit or Marine Le Pen supporters, are all delusional.
UPDATE: Week three question: Do we need new tools to secure a digital agora?
UPDATE: Week four question: What would your demands be [for greater media education and diversity]?
We are drowning in public relations. Journalism is suffering. According to a recent study in the US, 15 years ago there were two PR people for every reporter in the nation. Today there are 4.8 PR people for every reporter. The result is that the general public is too often bombarded with press releases as “news” because there are too few journalists to analyse and investigate current events.
One way to address this worrying shift is for greater public funding into a wide range of journalistic endeavours but government-sponsored press isn’t the only solution. Escaping our filter bubbles must begin at a young age.
Universities and schools, starting at kindergarten, should emphasize media literacy and stress the importance of accountable and adversarial journalism. A healthy mantra to be repeated time and again is the famous expression by journalist Claud Cockburn: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.”
Scepticism of all government and business claims is a healthy way to assess the news of the day. Don’t simply trust journalists because they’re in positions of privilege; they should earn it by producing work that enhances our understanding of society and brings empathy to the silenced or forgotten.
Despite the proliferation of social media in the last decade, personal contact with people is arguably still far more powerful in changing minds than re-tweeting a thought or sharing a Facebook post. Talk to people with differing views, attend talks with writers and politicians with whom you vehemently disagree and spend less time online.
Finally, some tips for healthy living: enjoy the sun, read a book, have a meal with a friend and don’t always Instagram what food you’re eating.
My book review in The National newspaper:
Twenty years is a long time to wait for new writing but in the case of Indian writer Arundhati Roy she’s remained deeply engaged with her country over the last two decades. After the huge success of her first novel, The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, Roy has transformed herself into one of the world’s most incisive observers of India’s supposed economic boom. Roy calls it a “lie”.
For her outspokenness on human rights, including abuses in Kashmir, Roy has faced criminal charges of contempt and sedition. She fled to London last year after fearing for her life. She has written in support of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and remains deeply opposed to injustice around the world.
In her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy tells the story of a transgender woman, Anjum, who lives in a crumbling Delhi neighbourhood. After a massacre in Gujarat – India’s current prime minister Narendra Modhi stands accused of complicity in the killings of Muslims in the same state in 2002 – she flees to a cemetery and establishes a new life there full of colourful characters.
Alongside this narrative is a wider perspective set in Kashmir. As she recently told the Guardian, these two sections become one book because, “geographically, Kashmir is riven through with borders, and everybody in the book has a border running through them,” she said. “So it’s a book about, how do you understand these borders?”
Roy is scathing of India’s behaviour in Kashmir, accusing the military of torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances. It’s a place where darkness envelops its victims but also entrances its many visitors through natural beauty. As one character Musa is described: “He knew that Kashmir had swallowed him and he was now parts of its entrails … In the heart of a filthy war, up against a bestiality that is hard to imagine, he did what he could to persuade his comrades to hold on to a semblance of humanity, to not turn into the very thing they abhorred and fought against.”
Throughout the book, Roy conjures up imagery reminiscent of the finest magical realism of novelist Salman Rushdie but she never strays far from real life. In one striking passage, Roy utilises her wit and sarcasm to devastating effect, mimicking those who blindly admire or celebrate India (or any country?) without question: “Compared to Kabul, or anywhere else in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or for that matter any other country in our neighbourhood (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Syria – Good God!), this foggy little back lane, with its everyday humdrumness, its vulgarity, its unfortunate but tolerable inequities, its donkeys and its minor cruelties, is like a small corner of paradise.
Roy wants readers to understand that state-backed violence across India is central to economic benefits for the minority who have become enriched through destructive neo-liberal policies. One can’t happen without the other. This violence permeates the book because so many characters either suffer because of it or inflict it on the less fortunate. This could be physical or psychological and the author is often explicit in her descriptions. This is an India that’s far away from the glossy tourist brochures advertising a tranquil holiday at the Taj Mahal. This section could be written by any number of Indian critics about Roy herself, incensed that a citizen of their country dares to publicly shame the human rights abuses of the current and previous governments. Roy’s life is committed to those less fortunate than her, more marginalised and hated by the majority. It’s where the best writers should always be.
It’s hard not to be transported to India with Roy’s love and revulsion of her birth country. The book isn’t a dry exercise in political culture but a rich and detailed look at a nation that overwhelms visitors and citizens. Roy is unforgiving of its mainstream leadership but embraces the myriad of characters she has created.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a fascinating and complex book – about modern India that will challenge anybody who thinks they understand the world’s largest self-described democracy. Roy wants readers to be uncomfortable with characters that sparkle with humanity, wit and anger. It’s hard not to be seduced with a work that forces us to confront what populations in democracies routinely don’t see or choose to ignore. This is as relevant in India as in Palestine.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
Yesterday I appeared on ABC TV’s The Drum talking about refugees, terrorism, comedy and the “war on terror”:
US outlet Truthout has picked my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, as an important title. Here’s my Q&A:
The following is a Truthout interview with Antony Loewenstein, the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
Mark Karlin: Naomi Klein praises your book effusively. How were you galvanized by her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism?
Antony Loewenstein: I’ve long been interested in the intersection between politics, money and conflict. My early years as a professional journalist in Australia from 2003 were spent focusing principally on Israel/Palestine, immigration and the Iraq war. In every case, this revealed dark forces making money from misery.
I was inspired by a book, such as Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation by Pratap Chatterjee, on private contractors in Iraq. I investigated the private companies and nations making huge profits from warehousing mostly Muslim refugees in remote Australia (and also in the Pacific). Increasingly, Israel was successfully selling its occupation of Palestinians to other nations keen to behave similarly toward their own minorities (something that has become even more overt in the last years across Palestine). My first book in 2006, My Israel Question, traversed some of these latter questions.
When I read Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, and Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, it helped join the dots — especially the ways in which they explained how US imperialism, a term too rarely used in the 21st century, was central to exploitation in the far corners of the world. I began working on Disaster Capitalism from around 2010, along with the documentary of the same name (still a work in progress but hopefully, finished this year). My aim was to expand Klein’s thesis, especially around immigration, and show readers how the most vulnerable people on the planet were being turned into dollar signs on a scale never seen before in history.
To what degree do corporations exceed the power of many states today?
The corporation has become more powerful than the state because the state has allowed it to happen. Over decades, by both Democrats and Republicans, unaccountability has become normalised, barely opposed by politicians or the media class. In Disaster Capitalism, I investigate the role of Western and indigenous private contractors in Afghanistan since 2001. They have left a trail of destruction and killed countless civilians. Barely anybody has been held to account, fuelling the insurgency still engulfing the country. President Trump may widen the war there but his chances of success are negligible.
Successive Afghan administrations have done little to prosecute contractor crimes and Washington has pressured Kabul to protect US contractors from legal trouble. Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are killed and maimed and anger grows.
Perhaps the most obvious, contemporary example of unhealthily powerful corporations, allowed and encouraged by Western governments, are tech firms, such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, often paying little or no tax in various jurisdictions. This is justified as allowing enterprise to thrive and employment to be created but these multinational corporations get away with murder because there’s little domestic political pressure or global accountability architecture to change it.
You traveled far and wide to write the book. Is there anything that flat-out surprised you?
I was often shocked by what I saw and heard — from the devastated island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea where a Rio Tinto copper mine ruined the environment and caused one of the Pacific’s most brutal wars of the last 40 years, to refugees living in squalor in Britain while waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed.
What kept me from losing all hope was seeing people resisting seemingly overwhelming political and economic odds. I remember meeting refugees in Greece who were being abused and chased by the far-right, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (currently the third biggest party in the Greek parliament). They were fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Iraq. My guide into the secretive world of isolated, Greek detention centres was a blind, Iranian man, Chaman. He was kind, full of stories and optimistic. We have maintained contact and he’s now a recognised refugee in a European country, working, travelling and building his life.
How does Haiti, for example, represent a nation that the developed West tried to make it appear it was helping, but really was just offering, in large part, corporate opportunities without structural improvements?
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere and for most of the 20th century was ruled by US-backed dictatorships. Today, after failed elections, natural disasters and constant US meddling, the nation is occupied by both a UN “stabilisation mission” and international NGOs. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, killing around 200,000 people, an influx of foreigners, contractors, US evangelical Christians and charlatans descended on the nation. It wasn’t ready — with little regulation or control over who was doing what and where. The Clinton Foundation pledged the world to the people of Haiti but Hillary, Bill and Chelsea have left a trail of disappointment and lies.
The US Red Cross raised half a billion dollars after the earthquake and only built a handful of homes. It was the kind of failure that should have led to prosecutions but little has changed.
In my book, I investigate why this happens and why it’s so hard to change. It’s principally because very few seem to care about Haiti in the US: It’s a poor state with virtually no political power in Washington, and too few journalists visit there. In short, Western contractors can exploit a beautiful country without overly worrying about training locals or leaving a legacy after they leave because nobody is telling them they have to. Haiti is still waiting on financial compensation after the UN brought deadly cholera to the country after the 2010 earthquake.
Talk a little about the Middle Eastern wars since 9/11 costing more than four trillion dollars and how much of that money went to contractors.
The cost of America’s post 9/11 wars is so huge that they’re literally impossible to calculate. It’s the price Washington is willing to pay for endless war. The logic behind the Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations all relying on contractors is because they’re able to operate in the shadows, often conducting illegal or violent activities beyond the law, and without official oversight. Attacks on civilians are common, undermining local laws and customs, and being overly trigger-happy leads to unstable nations. In 2014, the Pentagon spent US$285 billion on federal contracts. War is good for business.
While the Bush and Obama eras were remarkably profitable years, the Trump administration is already filling Pentagon and Homeland Security positions with defense contractors. Disaster capitalism is a bipartisan approach.
Although some NGOs do good, discuss how many of them work hand-in-glove with the corporatization of disaster capitalism.
This is an issue I’ve spent many years considering, especially when visiting nations that rely so heavily on NGOs. In 2015 I was living in South Sudan, the world’s newest country. It’s now collapsed due to extreme violence, corruption, unaccountability, an almost nonexistent functioning oil industry and too little international interest. NGOs and the UN are providing essential services, food and water, without which the population would likely face even greater problems. Yet, nobody elected these people to essentially rule the country because the Juba-based government is incapable and unwilling to do so.
I’m not arguing that NGOs are in South Sudan just to make money, but the humanitarian community needs to ask itself serious questions about whether they’re helping resolve conflicts or perpetuating them. It’s a key issue in my film, Disaster Capitalism, shot over five years in Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Haiti.
US magazine Truthout has picked my book Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe as its “Progressive Pick” (AKA book of the moment). Here’s an extract from the introductory chapter:
“Sometimes we win the skirmishes, but the war continues.” — Rebecca Solnit, 2011
Back in 1972 Jørgen Randers, today the professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School, published a book called The Limits to Growth. He warned of the devastating impact of population and economic growth on a world of limited resources. Revisiting that prognosis in a 2004 essay, he found that his predictions were correct and that global leaders had been much remiss in ignoring the urgent need to battle unsustainable development.
Randers’ key argument was a challenge to the inherent rules of capitalism. By 2015, he was pessimistic that the current financial order was capable of — or even had any interest in — reducing the devastating effects of climate change. “It is cost-effective to postpone global climate action,” he wrote.
“It is profitable to let the world go to hell. I believe that the tyranny of the short term will prevail over the decades to come. As a result, a number of long-term problems will not be solved, even if they could have been, and even as they cause gradually increasing difficulties for all voters.”
To encourage a country such as Norway to tax every citizen, his suggested solution was for people to pay an extra 250 euros every year for a generation, thereby drastically cutting greenhouse gases and providing an example to other industrialized nations. The idea never got off the ground.
“The capitalist system does not help,” Randers explained.
“Capitalism is carefully designed to allocate capital to the most profitable projects. And this is exactly what we don’t need today. We need investments into more expensive wind and solar power, not into cheap coal and gas. The capitalistic market won’t do this on its own. It needs different frame conditions — alternative prices or new regulation.”
Although Randers pushed the worrying idea of “enlightened dictatorship” — “for a limited time period in critical policy areas” — his thesis strikes at the heart of why wealth is concentrated in so few hands in today’s world: there is little incentive to advocate for a more equitable planet. The market system guarantees unfairness and rewards greed.
Such debates are starting to emerge even among the class who most benefits from such inequality. During the annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, in 2015, where the world’s business and political leaders gather to congratulate themselves, some sessions concluded that inequality was a serious problem facing the globe, and participants were pessimistic about solving it.
Such talk was a start, but hardly enough when the dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president — a man responsible for the death of thousands of his own people — was warmly welcomed in Davos and allowed to pontificate about his vision for “sustainable development.” Human rights and economic freedom must not be mutually exclusive concepts.
The figures speak for themselves. The share of wealth in the US owned by its richest 0.01 percent has quadrupled since the eve of the Reagan Revolution. The top 1 percent of the world’s population owns 46 percent of all global assets. US cuts in food stamps have left the nation’s largest food bank, in New York, struggling to cope with demand. Around 16.5 percent of the state’s population requires emergency food assistance. In 2013, roughly 14 percent of the country’s population “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” according to the US Department of Agriculture — a 30 percent increase since 2007. The US middle class, long viewed as the globe’s most successful, now suffers growing income inequality. A crucial factor in this decline has been the failure of educational attainment to progress as successfully as in other industrialized states.
The system is rigged. During the global financial crisis, Bank of America nearly crashed. One of the largest financial institutions in the nation, it was nevertheless granted £45 billion by President Barack Obama to prevent its collapse. Since then, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi explains,
“the Obama administration has looked the other way as the bank committed an astonishing variety of crimes … ripp[ing] off almost everyone with whom it has a significant business relationship, cheating investors, insurers, depositors, homeowners, shareholders, pensioners and taxpayers. It brought tens of thousands of Americans to foreclosure court using bogus, ‘robosigned’ evidence — a type of mass perjury that it helped pioneer. It hawked worthless mortgages to dozens of unions and state pension funds, draining them of hundreds of millions in value.”
This is the modern definition of capitalism. As Taibbi told those attending an Occupy Wall Street day of action in 2012, “this gigantic financial institution is the ultimate symbol of a new kind of corruption at the highest levels of American society: a tendency to marry the near-limitless power of the federal government with increasingly concentrated, increasingly unaccountable private financial interests.” Wall Street bankers were happy. The sum of all executive bonuses in 2014, averaging roughly $173,000 each, came to around double the earnings of all Americans working full-time on the minimum wage.
It is an ideology that thrives despite guaranteeing social disharmony. The US model of reducing the role of government while increasing the influence of largely private power has never been so rapacious, though the problem is global. For-profit colleges burden students with huge debts and worthless credentials while receiving federal student aid. Goldman Sachs, a firm with a large measure of responsibility for the economic meltdown in 2008, now invests in social-impact bonds — a system that enriches the company if former prisoners stay out of jail but reduces the accountability of governments and prioritizes private profit. The corporation also makes money from higher education, pressuring underprivileged students to take on debt while giving scant attention to the standard of teaching.
Republicans in Michigan have pushed for the privatization of public school teachers, using a skewed logic that advocates cutting public schools and selling off facilities at the lowest price. Many tolls operating on public roads and highways in the US service the bottom lines of local and multinational companies. Public libraries have been outsourced, reducing employee salaries or eliminating jobs.
In Europe, many corporations and lawyers shamelessly exploit international investment deals to derive profits from suing crisis-ridden nations. Market speculators pressurize fragile nations such as Greece, whose citizens are forced to survive with fewer public services. British citizens living on the margins face eviction or spiraling rent increases because global fund managers, such as Westbrook — based in the United States — purchase homes as assets to be milked for profit.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) traverses the world with the backing of Western elites, strong-arming nations into privatizing their resources and opening up their markets to multi- nationals. Resistance to this bitter medicine is only one reason that large swathes of Latin America have become more independent since the 2000s. The mass privatization that results — a central plank of US foreign policy — guarantees corruption in autocracies. Wikileaks’ State Department cables offer countless examples of this, including in Egypt under former president Hosni Mubarak. The World Bank is equally complicit and equally unaccountable. In 2015 it admitted that it had no idea how many people had been forced off their lands around the world due to its resettlement policies. The story barely made the news and no heads rolled.
One Californian town, Maywood, took the privatization memo a bit too seriously. It literally outsourced everything in 2010, sacking all municipal workers, including the police department, due to budgetary pressure. “We will become 100 percent a contracted city,” said Angela Spaccia, Maywood’s interim city manager.
Decades of anti-government rhetoric claiming that taxpayer money is always wasted have convinced many voters that the corporation knows best, which is why a sustained campaign against predatory capitalism is so hard to keep up — not helped by the fact that 90 percent of Americans rely on information from media outlets owned by only six multinationals, including News Corporation, Comcast, and Viacom. Rupert Murdoch tried to acquire Time Warner in 2014; had he succeeded, the market would have shrunk even further. In this environment, the fact that movements such as Occupy are born and thrive, albeit briefly, is a remarkable achievement. Indian writer Arundhati Roy saluted the power of this movement in a speech at the People ‘s University in New York’s Washington Square Park in November 2011: “What you have achieved … is to introduce a new imagination, a new political language into the heart of empire. You have reintroduced the right to dream into a system that tried to turn everybody into zombies mesmerized into equating mindless consumerism with happiness and fulfillment.”
Although Occupy was dismissed as an irritant and irrelevant by many on Wall Street and in the corporate media, police unleashed a sophisticated surveillance operation to disrupt the protestors. They recognized the danger represented by the threat of a good idea. The challenge faced by opponents of rampant capitalism was how to focus their rage coherently against increasingly pervasive forces. The study of capitalism is soaring at universities across America, indicating the desire on the part of tomorrow’s graduates to understand the tenuous connection between democracy and the capitalist economy.
The phenomenal success of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century — a work arguing that social discord is the likely outcome of surging financial inequality — indicates that the public knows there is a problem and is in search of clear accounts of it. Piketty advocates a global system of taxation on private property. “This is the only civilized solution,” he told the Observer newspaper.
In 2014, even the world’s leading economic think-tank, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, urged higher taxes for the rich to help the bottom 40 percent of the population. When establishment magazine Foreign Policy publishes an article by the US managing editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, which closes expressing a wish for an “honest debate” about “wealth redistribution,” it is clear that the world has gone a little mad.
US magazine Pop Matters reviews my book Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (the publication positively reviewed it once before in 2015). This 2017 review of the paperback edition is by Garrett Castleberry:
Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I found myself at a crossroads. As a communication major, my professional outlook was open to diverse challenges while experientially oblique. I also longed for a master’s degree that would increase my prospects for a productive future. Across campus from my main building, an advisory meeting took place between myself and a graduate liaison; the purpose was to learn more about the college’s M.A. in “Parks and Recreational Management”. The meeting took place during the peak years of public support for the “War on Terror”, and even in Higher Education, rumors of a prosperous life overseas amidst the tumult ranged from conventional to inventive.
The advisor nearly talked me into the master’s program on the prospect that I could instantly translate the degree into a gym management position in Bagdad, Iraq, getting paid (with a signing bonus!) to “work out and man the desk” for a start of about $80k a year. The dream seemed a little too good to be true and arguably less safe than I was comfortable with then. Who knows what misadventures (and hidden fortunes) this path could have lead to if I had chosen to “follow the money” to the Middle East.
In Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, veteran war journalist and political activist Antony Loewenstein paints an essential portrait of post-9/11 globalism where he frames war and natural disaster crises as among the most coveted commodities facing mass exploitation for financial gain. At first, the “Introduction” to Disaster Capitalismreads like a dense scholarly polemic. Loewenstein combines critical-cultural history that intertwines the post-9/11 “War on Terror” geopolitical spectrum with the dozens of mediated natural disasters around the world. To compound these seemingly disparate narratives, the author employs a bevy of neoMarxian terms that ultimately assess and critique the diverse roles profit and privatization provide in times of war and crisis.
Unlike many critical scholars, however, Loewenstein does not write from a bubble. He reports from the front lines and with the painstaking details of a field ethnographer. The vivid description helps paint a picture as lifelike as the “thrilling” programs that dramatize wartime crisis and intrigue. The author also knows, reads, and references his contemporaries. He infuses political science discourse initiated by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein throughout the text. Klein is an innovator on this subject, having authored 2007’s influential The Shock Doctrines: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Canada: Knopf Canada) as well as This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2014).
It can be helpful to consider Klein’s former book an essential companion piece to Loewenstein’s war culture conversation. Along with many other long-form exposés from the Bush Administration, the clear emergence of clandestine capitalism amidst shock-and-awe militarism comprises a dialogic rush to reveal and release—
precursors to the Wikileaks phenomenon and efforts to push against State-funded neocolonialism for the last remaining resources in recorded history.
Among the many post-apocalyptic terms in play, “Mad Max economy” (8) is suggested as a way of understanding how the militant anarchy over regions and resources have unfolded, even stateside crises in the US, like when Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the northeast. Loewenstein thus embarks on a labyrinthine journey to explore and explain the contemporary globalized military industrial complex. It’s a macroeconomics lesson crafted on a microeconomics scale of interpersonal relationships and firsthand conversations.
The author defines his preeminent term “disaster capitalism” as “a product of unavoidable excesses and inequalities of capitalism” where the status quo supports “a world rules by unaccountable markets.” (9) He follows the trail of previous and fellow journalists, the last cabal of ideological holdouts in an age of compromised media bias.
Every key term links back with the author’s critique of unchecked capitalism and the evolution towards a world controlled by corporate interests and resource allocation. From “environmental vandalism” (9) to “vulture capitalism” and “predatory capitalism” (11), the picture painted is a dire one; that is, if readers don’t get lost in the author’s adventurous and descriptive prose.
The bulk of Disaster Capitalism is split into a series of chapters that document Loewenstein’s wartime travelogue between devastated regions of prominent and “third world” status, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Greece, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea. The author then subverts the neocolonial war-torn/disaster emphasis by returning to Western nation-states for a homeland assessment of mass privatization. These chapters include tackling government outsourcing of private detention centers, renaming of mercenary services for maximum corporate efficiency and political correctness, and the big business of disaster capitalism for countries like the US, Great Britain, and Australia.
In some ways Loewenstein cleverly embeds the main text in a hybrid between field journalism and descriptive prose. It’s easy to imagine the average non-academic readers skipping the Critical introduction altogether and becoming immersed in the seductive details of the main text chapters (say, “that holiday gift for someone special” that prefers Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series of interpretive histories). One can almost sense the perceived bias among readers to conjure dueling interpretations of the text. On one hand, there’s the overt message of capitalism gone awry and unchecked power spiraling upward in a pyramid of hierarchical profit mongering. This reading of the text aligns with the author’s intent and purpose.
On the other hand, vivid details could appeal to more aggressive demographic, including personal recollections from many embedded with multi-national organizations with elite access and steep compensation, private military contractors living out sustained hardship and deadly lifestyles, and the booming economics of post-military careers supported by war profiteering. No doubt these contemporary swashbucklers make a strong appeal even to those tamed by modernity and “Western civilization”.
Certainly, an untrained eye could easily misinterpret the author’s main text, translating his message into a specialized tunnel vision where reader eyeballs transform into dollar signs. Ideological lines often blur for many Americans struggling through the first world doldrums of costly insurance coverage, student loans, mortgages, retirement, compounded by conflicted fears and concerns of antagonists abroad, both legitimate and “produced”.
Ultimately, Loewenstein rages against the machine with calculated conviction, the recalled minutiae of his collective thoughts a harbinger for the tectonic plates of nation-states already in motion. The Space Race has become a resource game, both for short-term monetary gain and with the long-term efforts to secure and privatize the last of the world’s untapped resources—a stark reality to face, indeed.
Given the overarching economic framework setting up his post-global outlook, the Mad Max worldview starts to sound downright nostalgic by comparison.
In hindsight, the $80k paycheck (plus signing bonus!) I would have received just to manage gyms for wartime correspondents and military personnel might have been a drop in the hat compared to future heightened economic advantages and networked relationships to prosper from. Then again, the ability to closely read both overt and covert aspects of Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism offers a fraction of the bounty I gained in scholarly expertise while advancing an alternative educational pipeline of my own.
My investigation for Australian publication Crikey:
British multinational Serco is angling for more work in Australia. In August, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the New South Wales government was preparing to start outsourcing public housing in 2017, with about a third to be transferred to non-government groups over four years. Serco told what was then Mike Baird’s government that it was a horrible idea to allow small providers to take control of housing and authorities should entrust the work to larger, private players.
The new leadership of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is set to continue the plan. In a statement to Crikey, Minister for Family, Community Services and Social Housing Pru Goward said that tenders were to be issued in late March and the result would “grow the supply of social, affordable and private housing”.
Goward claimed that the properties at Macquarie Park, Waterloo, Telopea, Riverwood and Arncliffe guaranteed the delivery of between 2000 and 3000 new households. She went on:
“The announcement to transfer around 18,000 public housing properties to community housing providers for management will provide extra resources for community providers to give more support to vulnerable people.”
Governments and many in the media use the word “reform” when describing the slow but seemingly inevitable push towards removing regulation or outsourcing public services to the private sector. The Trump administration has already massively reduced regulation across the US. Reform should mean a positive shift to better service delivery or a reduction in corruption. Instead, privatisation often worsens inefficiency and unaccountability. The evidence for this is overwhelming in Australia and around the world. The public service is far from perfect, of course, but, in theory at least, provides more checks and balances.
Australia is following the failed path set by the US and UK in allowing unreliable and overcharging corporations the right to manage water, energy services, prisoners, refugees and data. When something goes wrong, privacy is breached or an asylum seeker is murdered, there’s little accountability or change of policy. Heads don’t roll, ministers rarely apologise let alone resign and nobody takes responsibility. Essential polling in 2015 found that the vast majority of Australians believed that privatisation “mainly benefits the private sector”.
When politicians or mainstream commentators push privatisation and claim it’ll be benefit society, they’re likely either extreme ideologues or keen to boost their corporate mates and political party benefactors.
Serco told the Herald that it was keen to “find a solution” to social housing in Australia and backed institutional investment in the scheme. The company promoted its work in Britain as a model for what it could achieve in Australia, perhaps hoping nobody would Google, “Serco housing + Britain + failure”. The conservative UK government’s spending watchdog discovered in 2014 that Serco was unable to provide adequate housing for asylum seekers and often took on housing units without even looking at them to check conditions and quality. Serco has faced constant criticism over providing accommodation in the UK that wasn’t fit for human habitation.
The list of Serco disasters in the UK is long, from lying about its privatised out of hours GP service in Cornwall to abusing refugees at its Yarl’s Wood facility. I visited Yarl’s Wood in 2014 and heard damning complaints about untrained and uncaring staff. In the same year, I witnessed asylum housing in Sheffield managed by Serco competitor G4S and tenants told me horror stories of unsafe properties.
The problems in the UK aren’t just about Serco or G4S but a Home Office and government, both Labor and Tory, that collude with them. One needs the other to provide profit and opportunities. Australia has no excuse to follow this model when damning evidence exists from Britain that proves the unwillingness of corporate entities to provide adequate facilities for the most vulnerable in society. The awful realization after my research was that the most marginalised had little political voice so Serco and G4S could behave as badly as they like and get away with it.
Governments realised long ago that the public was surprisingly willing to accept abuse of those groups deemed worthy of it, such as refugees, Muslims or the poor, if their favoured media partners demonised them enough. If those individuals happen to be housed or managed by a private company, such as Serco, sympathy levels often hit rock bottom. In the British corporate press, Serco is still often treated sympathetically.
Serco is also looking to expand its prisons in Australia to fill a financial gap left by dwindling numbers of refugees in mainland detention centres. In 2015, with the company reeling from scandals in the UK, Australia’s asylum seeker population propped up its bottom line. No more. However, its record is already tainted despite running the country’s largest jail in Acacia, Western Australia until 2021. In New Zealand, with Serco only running one prison, the country’s Department of Corrections recently found the South Auckland jail at Wiri to be deeply flawed with high levels of assault, drug usage and countless complaints from inmates.
I’ve spent years investigating the role of Serco towards asylum seekers in Australia and globally and its record is defined by scandal, cost-cutting, obfuscation and abuse. On Christmas Island in 2011, I found a detention facility shrouded in secrecy with asylum seekers given little information about their fates. Serco exported its draconian policies from Britain and Australia was happy to accept. UK investigative journalist Phil Miller, by examining Serco staff public LinkedIn profiles, discovered that at least 10 Serco managers were shipped to Australia from the UK to manage the surging refugee flows. Many had a military background that shaped the often harsh response to asylum seekers.
In the US, privatised facilities for the most marginal are ubiquitous. Serco is hoping to get in on the action. In August, the Obama administration announced it was ending federal use of private prisons due to cost and safety concerns (new US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has reversed this decision). The move was arguably also helped by a number of high-profile media stories that revealed the unaccountability of the privatised system. However, Donald Trump’s victory will radically improve the financial situation of the private prison and immigration firms. Furthermore, Trump’s dream of a trillion-dollar infrastructure program across the US will end up costing citizens more in tolls and fees. Trump’s corporate friends will be pleased. Think of it as socialism for the billionaire class.
Opponents of privatisation in Australia have options to fight the state and federal government’s love affair with outsourcing. Copy the Australia Institute’s recent campaign to pressure Norway’s pension fund to divest from offshore detention profiteer Ferrovial and direct it towards Serco’s major shareholders. Tell your member of Parliament that agreeing to Serco’s demands will cost them a vote at the next election. Use shareholder activism to pressure Serco directors. Talk to Serco employees, through the various unions representing some of them, and urge action against poor pay and conditions.
The key message, towards Serco or any similar company, is that making money by abusing the marginalised will be bad for business and their public image.
*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in Jerusalem and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe
I was interviewed today by journalist Jacob Burns in the Jordanian publication, Al Bawaba:
Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, said that it was not surprising that countries involved in the war were using aid to further their own agendas. “There’s often now a really political idea of aid, which is supposed to be neutral, as countries are using it in support of their war aims. The militarization of aid is one of the great problems it faces in the 21st century.”
Loewenstein also said that even apparently philanthropic actions could benefit states providing aid. “It’s almost guaranteed, as has been seen in a range of other countries, that contracts used by countries to deliver aid are feeding profit back to the donors.”
Read the whole article here.