Antony Loewenstein, a prominent independent Australian journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, issued the following endorsement of demonstrations and vigils demanding freedom for Julian Assange. The Socialist Equality Party has called a rally in defense of Assange on June 17 at Sydney Town Hall Square. On June 19, vigils are being held in London and in cities around the world.
Loewenstein interviewed Assange in 2008 on the efforts that were already underway to silence WikiLeaks due to its publication of information that whistleblowers wanted known to the world. Since 2010, he has been prominent in defending Assangeagainst the persecution he has faced for publishing leaks that exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the anti-democratic intrigues of governments around the world. Loewenstein’s articles on WikiLeaks are available on his website.
This year, Loewenstein released a documentary, “Disaster Capitalism,” which is a critical exposure of the global aid and investment industry. See here for information and screening locations.
After six years in detention, rightly fearing US retribution for daring to expose the dark reality of US empire, Julian Assange deserves a just resolution of his case and his voice restored. It’s shameful how many governments and journalists have not just abandoned Assange to his fate, but failed to recognise his important role in releasing millions of documents that reveal how the world really works.
I support heavy pressure being placed on the Australian, British and US governments to bring him freedom and justice, along with the many other whistleblowers and reporters languishing in prisons around the world.
Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist, author and film-maker, June 5, 2018
I was recently in the UK researching the “war on drugs” for my forthcoming book, out in 2019, on the global drug war.
While I was there my film Disaster Capitalism screened in Newcastle in the north-east of the country. Sponsored by the great group, Recovering Justice, there was a full house to watch the film and then discuss the drug war and the film’s themes.
Here’s the review of the evening, written by Rugged University’s Alex Dunedin, along with the links between the drug war and disaster capitalism.
Before the event, I was interviewed by You Die Twice, an outlet that covers alternative culture in the north-east of England:
I signed the following public statement to support peaceful protest of the secretive US spy base at Pine Gap in Australia. It’s directed at Attorney General George Brandis:
We seek your urgent intervention to protect the right to freedom of speech, expression, political communication and of religion for six Australian citizens who face up to seven years in jail for a peaceful protest in which they were praying and playing musical instruments.
In September 2016, several hundred Australians of diverse ages, professions and creeds gathered in Alice Springs to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Pine Gap Agreement.
As part of the peaceful protests near the facility, five Christians prayed and played a musical lament, regarding the role of Pine Gap in war-fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. They were arrested.
The peaceful and symbolic ceremonies conducted by Margaret Pestorius, Tim Webb, Franz Dowling, Andrew Paine, Jim Dowling, as well as Paul Christie (arrested in a separate incident), were intended to bear witness to the death and suffering of civilians as a result of United States military operations, including drone assassinations, facilitated by surveillance conducted at Pine Gap.
Since their peaceful protests, more evidence has emerged detailing the role of Pine Gap in the activities that concerned the Peace Pilgrims. It implicates Australia in extrajudicial drone assassinations in countries with which we are not at war, in nuclear weapons targeting and in illegal mass surveillance.
Three months after the protest, you authorised the prosecution of these concerned citizens for ‘unlawful entry’ under the Defence Special Undertakings Act 1952 (Cth).
That legislation was drafted at the height of the Cold War to secure areas for British nuclear testing, and it permits prosecutions to be held in secret, and for records of hearings to be destroyed, imposing penalties of up to $42,000 and 7 years in jail.
This prosecution occurs as Australia prepares to serve on the UN Human Rights Council and when UN Rapporteurs have criticised policies, laws and actions of your government that undermine freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to protest. These are fundamental civil rights, and they are profoundly important when governments are engaged in the sort of conduct which Pine Gap facilitates.
Five of the defendants are devout Christians. Their faith impelled them to give voice to the teachings of peace and love for humanity and creation found in the Bible.
In this case, where Australian citizens were doing no more than praying and peacefully expressing dissent, prosecuting them is not only grossly inappropriate but a shocking waste of court resources.
We, the undersigned, urge you to exercise your discretion to direct this punitive, disproportionate and expensive prosecution be discontinued before the matter comes to court in Alice Springs on 13 November 2017.
- Jennifer Robinson, human rights lawyer, Doughty Chambers
- Ben Oquist, Executive Director, The Australia Institute
- Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author
- Alex Kelly, documentary filmmaker
- Melinda Taylor, international criminal lawyer
- Rebecca Peters AO
- Julian Burnside AO QC
- Scott Ludlam, writer, graphic designer, activist
- Asher Wolf, journalist, Cryptoparty founder
- Dr Giordano Nanni, founder Juice Media
- Kellie Tranter, lawyer and human rights activist
- Benedict Coyne, President, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights
- Anthony Kelly, Executive Officer, Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre Inc.
- Dr Helen Caldicott, President, Beyond Nuclear
- Professor Brian Martin, University of Wollongong
- John Pilger, journalist and filmmaker
- Mark Zirnsak, Director, Justice & International Mission, Uniting Church
- Elizabeth O’Shea, lawyer
- Professor Tilman Ruff AM
- Father Peter Maher OAM
- Archie Law, Chair, Sydney Peace Foundation
- Tim Lo Surdo, founding director, Democracy in Colour
- Richard Tanter, Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne
- Emeritus Professor Joseph A. Camilleri OAM
- Paddy Manning, journalist
- Dr Sue Wareham OAM
- Professor Emeritus Stuart Rees AM, University of Sydney
- Annette Brownlie, Chairperson IPAN
- Romina Beistseen, Secretary CICD
- Helen Razer, writer and broadcaster
- Professor Robert Moody, Melbourne University
- Shirley Winton, Spirit of Eureka (Victoria)
- Jeff Sparrow, writer, editor and broadcaster
- Dr Margaret Beavis, Immediate Past President, Medical Association for Prevention of War
- Andrew Farran, international lawyer
- Dr. Alison Broinowski, writer and former Australian diplomat
- Father John Pettit OCSO
- Chas Licciardello, writer, comedian, broadcaster
- John Menadue AO, businessperson and former Australian diplomat
- Cam Walker, National Liaison Officer, Friends of the Earth
- Rob Stary, criminal defence lawyer, Adjunct Professor of Law Victoria University
- Bernard Keane, Politics Editor, Crikey
- Brett Dean, Composer, Viola player
- Professor Peter Norden AO, Fellow, Australian & New Zealand Society of Criminology
- Dr Tim Sherratt, University of Canberra
- Chris Drummond, Theatre Director
- Paul Barratt, Former Secretary, Dep’t of Defence, President, Australians for War Powers Reform
- Donna Mulhearn, writer and activist
- Harold Wilkinson, Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee
- Anne Sgro OAM, President of Union of Australian Women Victoria
- Professor Mary Heath, Flinders University
- Dr. Peter Burdon, Associate Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide
- Dr Sal Humphreys, Media Studies, University of Adelaide
- Tim Singleton Norton, Chair, Digital Rights Watch
- Greg Barns , Barrister, Former National President Australian Lawyers Alliance
- Richard Broinowski, President, AIIA NSW
- Associate Professor Debra King, Sociology, Flinders University
- Denis Doherty, national co-ordinator, Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition
- Dr Hannah Middleton, peace and justice activist
- Mary Kostakidis, journalist
- Frank Moorehouse AM, writer
- Roger Clarke, UNSW, ANU, Australian Privacy Foundation
- Amanda Tattersall, Host, ChangeMakers
- Tim Hollo, Executive Director, the Green Institute
- Senator Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens and Senator for Victoria
- Adam Bandt MP, Acting Co-Deputy Leader, Australian Greens and Federal Member for Melbourne
- Senator Janet Rice, Senator for Victoria
- Senator Lee Rhiannon, Senator for NSW
- Senator Rachel Siewert, Acting Co-deputy Leader Australian Greens, Senator for Western Australia
- Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, Senator for Tasmania
- Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Senator for South Australia
- David Pledger, artist, curator
- Jo Vallentine, People for Nuclear Disarmament, W.A.
- Rob Pyne MP, Independent Member for Cairns
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
On this episode of Around The Empire, Dan and Joanne interview journalist Antony Loewenstein about his new book and upcoming film Disaster Capitalism. Loewenstein has traveled to the United States, Britain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, and Australia to research how multinational corporations exploit disasters for profit.
The discussion starts with a focus on recent decisions by the Trump Administration to increase the use of private prisons and detention centers. Loewenstein details how companies profit from this approach both in the United States and around the world, and the role such companies play in expanding the surveillance and incarceration state.
Loewenstein also explains the complicated role of non-government organizations (NGOs) in international development and disaster capitalism. Using the failures of NGOs in Haiti as a starting point, he explains the conflicting incentives NGOs have that often lead to them failing to make a positive impact despite ample resources:
My book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, has just been released in paperback (via Verso Books). It’s never been more relevant in the age of Trump, privatisation on crack, shadowy wars and abusive immigration policies.
Last week in New York, I launched the book at the great Manhattan bookstore, Mcnally Jackson. In conversation with journalist Ben Norton (he interviewed me for Salon in 2016), we discussed a wide range of issues:
Journalist Antony Loewenstein spoke with Ben Norton about his book “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe,” at McNally Jackson Books in New York City on February 23, 2017.
Loewenstein discussed his reporting on the privatization of wars and detention facilities for refugees and migrants in Afghanistan, Greece, Australia, the UK, and the US.
The two also examined the refugee crisis, and how Western wars have fueled this refugee crisis. They highlighted the links tying together war, detention, mass incarceration, the military-industrial complex, and the prison-industrial complex — and how private prison and security companies are profiting from it all.
The journalists also addressed the rise of far-right and neo-fascist movements around the world, from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen to Golden Dawn, and how these forces will be incapable of solving the structural global problems exacerbated and reinforced by corporate profits:
In January, my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, was published globally in a paperback edition by Verso.
I wrote a piece for my publisher’s popular blog this week on the ever-growing industry of privatised immigration:
The unaccountability of privatised immigration had rarely been so brazen. Australia is the only country in the world to have fully outsourced the detention of all asylum seekers to the private sector. In January, its officials were found to have spent $2.2 billion on offshore detention without necessary authorisation. The Australian National Audit Office damned the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for handing out contracts to corporations on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the Pacific that established dangerous and excessively expensive facilities.
The story broke over a long, hot Australian summer. After a few days of headlines, the issue disappeared down the memory hole. No ministers or authorities were fired or reprimanded. Although the wasted billions of dollars were taxpayers money, the public outcry was almost non-existent because many Australians supported its country’s draconian treatment of refugees in far-away, secretive camps. Almost any amount of money is justified to manage these fears and prejudices. Occasionally, journalists report from Manus Island, including Roger Cohen from the New York Times, who reveal the horrors inflicted by indefinite detention on the hundreds of refugees trapped there for years, but too few reporters make the journey.
For more than 20 years, Australia has devised increasingly harsh penalties for asylum seekers who claim their legitimate right to request asylum when fleeing repressive regimes. These are often states that the Australian government has waged war against such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Corporations such as Serco, G4S, Ferrovial and International Health and Medical Services, amongst many others, have made huge amounts of money from the warehousing of refugees despite decades of evidence proving inadequacy and criminality. Boycotting and targeting these firms should be the priority for every committed citizen.
The political winds around the world in 2017 indicate a hardening of minds and hearts towards refugees and Australia has become a global model in how to isolate, target, privatise and demonise asylum seekers. The EU now wants to establish centres in northern Africa, including in war-torn Libya, to process refugees. This is a carbon copy of Australia’s off-shoring of asylum seekers in remote locations away from prying media.
Australia nationalists must be so proud. As I wrote in the Guardian in early 2016:
“In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.”
It’s not hard to see why. In the last few years, many European leaders and the European Union made a conscious decision to belittle asylum seekers and make their lives miserable. Unaccountability rules. In my book, Disaster Capitalism, I investigate the reality for refugees in Britain and Greece during these challenging times. It’s only getting worse. Think of the recent, shocking images of refugees freezing and dying in the Balkans and Greece, unwanted and ignored.
It’s a humanitarian catastrophe with men, women and children fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Africa. But it’s also a unique way to make money. A revealing report released in late 2016 by the Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel, Borders Wars, found that profits were soaring in the defence and border security industries. The EU border management organization Frontex had a 2016 budget of €238.7 million, a 67.4% increase compared to the €142.6 million in 2015. The report went on:
“It [the Frontex budget] is expected to grow to an estimated €322 million in 2020, 50 times its budget of €6.3 million in 2005. The 2016 budget for the EU’s Internal Security Fund was similarly increased by €116.4 million in October 2015 to a total of €647.5 million. A substantial proportion of these budgets have benefited arms and security corporations in a border security market that is growing at roughly 8% a year. Airbus, Leonardo, Safran and Thales were all in the news in 2016 for border security contracts. IT firms Indra, Advent and ATOS won significant contracts for projects to identify and track refugees.”
Furthermore, security fences are being built on many European borders, benefitting private firms with the expertise in building them (including from Israel with years of caging Palestinians). The Israelification of security is already upon us, with Western police and army getting training from Israeli forces who have decades of experience occupying, targeting and isolating Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In the last years, Israeli firms have expanded their global reach, exploiting the worldwide desire to copy the Jewish state’s treatment of minorities and its own Arab citizens. The Trump administration is likely to hire Israeli companies to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Mistreating refugees rarely incurs a political price in the 21st century. From Britain to Australia and Afghanistan to Germany, officials are increasingly tasked to look “tough” in the face of legitimate asylum claims. Far-right populism, infused with rampant nationalism, patriotism and anger, has supplanted any strong and viable left-wing alternatives. There are exceptions, of course, but the current worldview trend is towards insularity and punishment of the least fortunate.
President Donald Trump’s announcement to withhold visas for people coming from select Muslims nations – not coincidentally places that the US has bombed for years – is not affecting close US-allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with a higher level of extremism. Along with aggressively kicking out refugees already in the US – many of whom are fleeing US-backed, repressive states such as Honduras, where I visited last year – Trump and his government are heralding an extreme version of disaster capitalism. Private prison companies are licking their lipswith joy. Rich Silicon Valley types are preparing for the end of the world by buying living quarters in redesigned, underground nuclear bunkers. Their tech utopianism apparently has its limits; they fear societal breakdown.
Since my book Disaster Capitalism was released in 2015, I’ve witnessed the deterioration of refugee rights across the world and growing hatred towards them. Corporations sense the public mood and political opportunity and behave accordingly. For example, European Homecare (EHC) is a German company employed by the German government to manage asylum seekers but it’s been engulfed by scandal. In late 2016, a Syrian refuge living near Dusseldorf emailed me information, photos and videos about the abuses being committed by EHC that he had personally witnessed when in detention.
‘Ahmed’, 26, told me about his daily life:
“Every person had a small room with no locks ‘because they cost too much’ and you can’t put locks over the locker to keep your important documents and stuff because it was forbidden and we had something called control. Every morning around 6 am till 8 am, security members and a social worker from EHC enters everyone’s room and look through all the personal things and ask for ID. Sometimes even at midnight. But the daily control happened every morning. Although it’s a military base with perfectly secure gates, security cameras, electric fences and over a hundred security staff, it was tough and humiliating for about 3 months. Not mentioning the multiple times we had robberies inside the camp nearly everyday because of their policy on locks. So you’re basically in the middle of nowhere by the borders. The nearest market is in the Netherlands and you’re not allowed to go there. But you can walk 3 hours back and forth to get your grocery locally. No network coverage. And worst of all was the water issue. You start your day with the lovely control and then head to shower with mud, followed by a nice walk to the cafeteria for a meal. For each meal you have to walk 2 km to get to the cafeteria inside the camp. Of course you need to manage hiding your personal belongings while being away from the room. … The bottled water we had was extremely high in minerals and from a personal experience I know what damage it can cause to the infant’s kidneys. It’s absolutely not meant for babies.”
In an age of walls, militarised fences and attacking minority rights, refugees are both the most vulnerable and easiest target for insecure populations and desperate politicians. Rich, Western democracies sending back asylum seekers to danger, a trend perfected by Israel, Australia, Britain and Germany despite its illegality, is surging. It’s why civil disobedience, company boycotts and divestment and more direct action is essential to resist the global war on asylum seekers. It’s unsurprising that nations with a colonial past, such as Australia, Britain, the US and Israel, are leaders of the pack.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times and many others. He is the author of many books including his most recent, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, now out in paperback.
My book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, was released in 2015 (and it’s out in paperback in January 2017). It received many reviews and the latest is by Dr Jason Von Meding, an academic in Australia:
The US Presidential Election is in full swing. Over the next few months, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will go toe-to-toe in what is already a less than clean scrap. In amongst the media and social media hysteria (on both sides), one could be forgiven for missing an intriguing narrative espoused by alternative voices that opts, rather than criticizing one candidate over the other, to reject both the neoliberal status quo and reactionary neofascist agendas that are the product of unfettered predatory capitalism.
In Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, acclaimed Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein turns his passion for justice to deliver a stunning critique of the thriving disaster capitalism industry, in its many forms; the profiteers of privatized detention, militarized security, the aid industry and multinational mining are relentlessly skewered with style and poise, and their predatory tactics exposed. According to his narrative, Hillary Clinton is exactly the kind of neoliberal hawk that enables neofascist demagogues like Trump to rise, and allows predatory ‘businessmen’ like Trump to prosper. Both Presidential candidates are indeed invested in disaster capitalism, but Loewenstein’s tale is arguably one that focuses on the Hillary’s of the world; the trusted and experienced hand; the status quo; the Establishment.
Disaster Capitalism is the story of Loewenstein’s journey into the belly of this particular beast. The book gives us an up-close-and-personal look at how corporations like Serco, G4S, Halliburton and their ilk profit from organized misery, perpetual conflict and the impacts of disaster, and how national governments and international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank are willing collaborators. In Part I, he takes us to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Greece, exposing the various exploitative strategies employed to enrich the local elite and foreign interests, and the devastating effects on the majority of people in each country. In Part II, we visit wealthy Western democracies (Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom) that punish the most vulnerable in their societies while dictating economic conditions to the world, imposing taxpayer funded cruelty for private profit at home and abroad.
This is an absolutely enthralling read; a must for the revolutionary; the dreamer; the activist; the teacher; the learner. Loewenstein has compiled a treasure-trove of evidence on his travels. His dismantling of the social and economic myths that enable predatory disaster capitalism is robust and compels us to action. He offers a “challenge to cherished beliefs concerning aid and development, war and democracy, and in particular the modern, borderless nature of capitalism.” (p. 14) For this reader, 3 key themes emerge; a dialogue around crime and punishment; a critique of the idea of benevolent corporations; and the grim reality that this is all part of a plan, a rigged system that empowers and enables predator capitalists to flourish.
Crime and Punishment
As the prison-industrial complex has rapidly taken hold in Western societies, the public clearly favours an ideology of punishment over reform. In addition to highlighting issues around race and class, Loewenstein speaks to issues around the treatment of those in the care of the state, and how “lobbying, ideology and a punishment ethos have colluded to produce one of the most destructive experiments in recent times: mass incarceration.”
Judicial processes in the UK, US and Australia target the marginalized for what amounts to, essentially, punishment for being unable to escape their systemic disadvantage. Loewenstein unpacks the ideology behind this phenomenon and asks whether the poor man, the petty criminal, the asylum seeker or the drug user really deserve the punishments that are prescribed and who indeed benefits? What of the bankers that caused a global financial collapse? The CEOs of corporations that destroy the only planet we have? The heads of state that lied in order to enable the invasion and destruction of Iraq, leading to the destabilisation of the region and a current displacement crisis of epic proportions? Should not our justice system be designed to protect society from such individuals and the devastating consequences of their actions?
Over the past 2 months, we have witnessed a brutal crackdown on drug sellers and users in the Philippines, since the rise to power of President Duerte. Summary executions on the streets have shocked the world, yet few official condemnations are forthcoming. While it is not difficult to imagine that many politicians and indeed members of the public might secretly support these abuses of power and share the President’s disdain for Article 10 of the Declaration of Human Rights, as Loewenstein finds in Australia, America and the UK, there is an infinitely more ‘subtle’ way to enforce the harshest punishments: through private contractors.
The criminal justice system in Australia ensures sky-high rates of Aboriginal incarceration, and, as the recently revealed abuses of the NT government demonstrate, the hateful punishment of those discarded by society is absolutely state sanctioned. In America, the black population is also disproportionately incarcerated. Loewenstein explores the roots of a system that enables this in the US and the corporations that profit handsomely at the expense of taxpayers, destroying families and leaving little opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. “Private prison corporations saw a unique opportunity” (p. 196) in America, Loewenstein writes, to do everything possible to ensure that more and more people were incarcerated. The prison population is thirty times what it was in the 1990s. The absolutely failed ‘War on Drugs’ has wreaked havoc on society. For all the posturing about market efficiency, private prison corporations are a spectacular leech off the government purse, with a rigged legal system providing financial and political benefits right down the food chain. All of this is possible, he tells us, due to a lack of “serious questioning of the harsh, punitive ideology underpinning US ‘justice’.” (p. 207)
In Australia, the UK, the US and Greece, Loewenstein exposes the fact that asylum seekers and migrants are also punished, most often without breaking any law. In Greece, he provides a rich cultural background of “not just economic harshness, but a culture that tolerated and celebrated exclusion.” (p. 69) In the grips of imposed austerity measures, the social fabric began to unravel and “Popular frustration was taken out on the most marginalized group in society: refugees.” (p. 72) The mandate for demonization of the vulnerable that was secured in Greece, as in Australia, was just one tactic used to ensure profit for human rights abuses across the countries that Loewenstein investigates.
Time and again, Loewenstein finds governments all too eager to enable those corporations in a position to cash in. He details how the EU has become central in “funding, encouraging and pressuring EU nations to isolate and imprison asylum seekers.” He discusses the industries that have sprung up and thrived, often with the EU leading “the charge in working with corporations that have been very willing to develop and hone methods for repelling the desperate hordes.” As ‘Fortress Europe’ closes her borders, deals like that done between the EU with Turkey are sealed without a second thought for the human cost. Corporations and corrupt governments profit; the vulnerable are turned away and suffer.
Loewenstein picks up where Naomi Klein left off in her 2007 bestseller Shock Doctrine. She pointed out that privatization of government has accelerated in the U.S., as private sector opportunities have been generated through the ‘war on terror’. She argues that, “now wars and disasters are so fully privatized, that they are themselves the new market: there is no need to wait until after the war for the boom – the medium is the message.” Loewenstein builds on this and adds that “it is hard to escape the conclusion that wars are often fought for the key reason of liberating new and willing markets – and with the war on terror likely to continue for decades, there will be no shortage of new business to secure.” (p. 16)
We often encounter the myth of the benevolent corporation. As much as it might be comforting to believe that the private sector simply goes about its business in a free market generating jobs and growth, from cover to cover Disaster Capitalism lays bare the impacts of a global privatisation bonanza. For Loewenstein, the US has played a pivotal role. He says that a “central plank” of U.S. foreign policy is “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.” (p. 4)
Loewenstein is no admirer of market fundamentalism, saying that “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.” (p.2) He shows us examples of open rebellion against this system from communities in Greece, Haiti and PNG, countries exploited long and hard by the status quo. As we have become more enslaved to the neoliberal project, Loewenstein argues “that the corporation is now more powerful than the nation-state, and that it is often the former that dictates terms to the latter.” (p.7)
In Bougainville, PNG, Loewenstein meets members of the resistance against resource exploitation, and explores the shady relationships between corporate and political interests. The memories of violence fuelled by greed and repression do not fade easily. The health of the community and the environment have also been terribly compromised. “Environmental vandalism should not be the price tag for ‘progress’,” he pleads.
In Afghanistan, we are introduced to Jack, the British MD of a private military company (PMC) who provides an inside look at a truly burgeoning industry. He is not shy to admit that his corporation “survives off chaos.” (p. 20) Jack anticipates perpetual war and opportunity. “If we can make money, we’ll go there,” he tells Loewenstein. He sees his industry in a purely positive light, providing “jobs for the boys leaving the army who can continue their trade.” In spite of the well documented abuses of PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq, military objectives continue to be dressed in humanitarian robes, government intelligence gathering has been privatized and mercenaries are ensured “a quick buck” (p. 21). Indeed, Loewenstein finds that the PMC industry hopes that the conflict and the profit will never end. When it does, they will be “looking for the new war.” (p. 61)
How often are we outraged at government spending on weaponry and conflicts that we deem unnecessary, but hesitate to question the relationship between corporate interests and government policy and spending. Loewenstein reminds us that the war on terror represents one of the largest wealth transfers in history, with 4 trillion dollars to date being spent, with much of it going to ever-grateful Western contractors. The privatization of prisons and security apparatus is incredibly expensive, while all evidence shows that incarceration does not tackle societal problems that lead to crime, but rather reinforces them.
The overwhelming message is that simply outsourcing your cruelty is a convenient way to avoid responsibility, transparency and accountability, while profiting corporations and manipulating the economy. Neoliberal governments would like us to accept the notion that corporations are ultimately benevolent entities that exist only to employ people, satisfy market demand and grow GDP. Loewenstein argues that “multinational corporations spent the twentieth century gradually reducing their obligations in the various jurisdictions in which they operated.” (p. 243) What we have now is unregulated, unaccountable and secretive private sector entities. Meanwhile, governments with dirty work to outsource are not left disappointed.Unfortunately, a willful ignorance of the sometimes devastating social impact of ‘business’ has allowed a mentality of self-righteousness to fester, completely detached from the suffering of people that stand in the way of profit, those targeted by governments for suppression and oppression, and the unfortunate citizens of countries outside of the US circle of trust, whose lives appear to hold so much less value than those of allies. Companies like DynCorp and Blackwater, despite having their abuses repeatedly exposed, thrive in this context.
A Rigged System
Loewenstein exposes, time and again, the fact that the global economy is dominated by anti-democratic and predatory forces that profit the wealthy and the ruthless. The revolving door between corporations, lobby groups and government is clear for all to see. This collusion between powerful actors fans the flames of crisis while selling market fundamentalism as the antidote and positioning ‘benevolent’ corporations to reap the benefits. In the U.S. the banks were bailed out while personal debt, and indeed poverty rates, soar. Loewenstein offers a stinging critique of a system rigged for the 1%, and the scandalous truth that in the US both major parties represent similar corporate interests while the media feigns ignorance. Indeed, liberal presidents have done little for the vulnerable other than make empty promises.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, Loewenstein describes an environment of “canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of a disaster, looking for business opportunities.” (p. 109) His narrative of this historically vulnerable nation describes the strong 20th Century American support for successive brutal dictatorships, enriching U.S. interests and a local elite. We see this model replicated again and again in Disaster Capitalism, and indeed around the world as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. The example, in chapter 3, of the “devoutly anti-Communist” ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier is particularly damning, who, “unlike the many African despots targeted by the Hague, remained a friend of the West and was therefore largely untouchable.” (p. 110) When the neoliberal agenda was challenged in Haiti by Aristade, the U.S. and local elite conspired to overthrow the government to restore ‘order’.
We are often presented with the assertion that the international community, led by U.S. humanitarianism, rescued Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Loewenstein paints a very different picture, and claims that “when Haiti had received lashings of ‘help’ this generosity had done little but enrich foreign companies.” (p. 115) The local reception to UN intervention was largely hostile. In the context of historical US interventions in Haiti this comes as no surprise, and the sentiment is well founded. As revealed by Wikileaks, the US ambassador to Haiti asserted that the UN military-style solution was “an indispensable tool in realizing core [US government] policy interests in Haiti” (p. 115)
In a similar vein, most development aid to PNG from Australia since its independence either found its way into the pockets of either the wealthy PNG elite or Australian corporations. Far from its claimed humanitarian ideals, Loewenstein says that the main goal of the Australian government in PNG was simply, “to ensure that Australian corporations had a ready market in which to turn a profit.” (p. 172) The denial of complicity with oppressors in the violent struggles of the 1980s and the patronizing attitudes displayed by Australian diplomats leaves a bitter taste.
Loewenstein reserves some of his harshest criticism for the mainstream media, and the “false construct of “balance” that permeates the corporate press, which merely pits one powerful interest group against another” and one that “views business and political leaders as far more important than the individuals and societies affected by them.” (p. 10) As an independent journalists that opposes the state of his profession, he laments the fact that “90% of Americans rely on information from media outlets owned by only six multinationals, including News Corporation, Comcast and Viacom.”
Disaster Capitalism pulls no punches in calling out both profiteers and enablers. Loewenstein exposes a shady cabal operating in plain sight; corporations that will not blink at the thought of misery, death and destruction as part of business as usual. Governments that outsource their most distasteful projects to companies that have neither conscience nor boundaries. A complete lack of transparency and accountability allows whatever abuses that are uncovered to yield few consequences for the perpetrators.
The book is impossible to put down and rich with memorable lines. It will have the reader coming back to review the stories of friend and foe, of oppressed and oppressor. Loewenstein has skillfully articulated opposing positions, admitting his ideological bent where possible in the text and to those he meets in the field. It is sure to be a book both loved and hated, depending on the beliefs of the reader, for its honest storytelling. The accounts of his journalistic interactions give the book a very personal feel.
Loewenstein shows us how accepting something terrible (e.g. abuse of asylum seekers, mass incarceration etc.) out of a fear of personal harm, insecurity or loss gives a perceived legitimacy to profiteers (perhaps the American elections will be a case in point of this mechanism, on both sides). He wrote the book to “shock, provoke and reveal.” (p. 16) The question is; once we know all about the profiteers of calamity, will we just carry on or will we fight for justice?
My column in the Guardian:
Charisma and persuasion matter in politics. Though neither trait guarantees fair policies or outlook – think Tony Blair backing the catastrophic war against Iraq, or Malcolm Turnbull hailing himself as a free speech champion before pressuring the ABC over its robust journalism – image is apparently more captivating than ever in the 21st century.
That’s the mainstream consensus, anyway. The last 12 months have challenged this reality. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour party and Bernie Sanders as a viable US Presidential candidate proves that the general public increasingly craves potential leaders who understand economic disenfranchisement (likewise the allure of Donald Trump).
Both men’s popularity is despite them being unconventional left-wing politicians, outsiders with little love for the Labour or Democratic elites, with strong messages against the political and media establishments.
Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that anybody remotely as critical of the system will appear in Australia to lead one of the two major political parties. A relatively buoyant economy – despite a growing homeless problem and rampant wealth inequality – has insulated Australia from the worst excesses of the global financial crisis. As a result, the country is left with leaders who rarely stray from reflexive, pro-US and neo-liberal positions on the economy, foreign affairs, intelligence and spying.
Both the United States and Britain have suffered greatly in the last decades from a bi-partisan obsession with supposedly free trade, crony capitalism and privatisation. America’s infrastructure is literally falling apart. The results are clear to see with four out of every 10 households in the UK below the poverty line and 46 million Americans equally poor.
These individuals are mostly invisible in political campaigns and yet Sanders and Corbyn are articulating how this happened and what to do about it. Austerity is rejected. For example, Sanders has an economic plan that favours high spending for vital services and increasing taxation on corporations. Many young people are flocking to him.
Latest opinion polls place Corbyn’s Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories despite Corbyn being accused of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in his own party. His ascension doesn’t mean that the Labour party isn’t still filled with politicians, officials and former leaders who loathe any deviance from the establishment view on politics and are committed to destroying Corbyn and what he claims to represent; the promotion of equality and justice for the majority of the population.
In Australia, why is it impossible to even imagine a person such as Corbyn or Sanders rising to a leadership position? Labor is led by Bill Shorten, a man of stunning unpopularity though both the Liberal and Labor parties are, according to the latest polls, as popular as each other. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is pandering to the far-right base of his party, men he fears could topple him. The Greens are languishing in third place.
The prospect of an election on 2 July (or whenever it may be) will bring little change to Shorten’s posture. His party’s long-term erroneous belief, despite diving membership numbers, is to differentiate itself only marginally from political opponents. Therefore, expect continued blind support for the Liberal party’s positions on foreign policy, spying for Washington through the Five Eyes network, and data retention.
There are some obvious reasons that a proudly left-wing candidate would have little chance in Australia. A reactionary Murdoch empire would aim to topple anybody pushing for, say, companies to pay more tax, asking questions about the nature of the US alliance over intelligence sharing, spying on neighbours and foreign companies. How about ending the privatisation of all prisons, public services and immigration detention centres? It would be deemed as radical, unfriendly to big business and shunning our biggest ally.
The majority of Australians oppose privatising public services, believe the government should be far more critical of Israeli actions in Palestine and want a strong and publicly-funded Medicare and university sector (the deregulated system for higher education in the US has led to massive student fees and institutions turning into corporations).
Of course there remains vital criticisms of the policies pushed by Corbyn and Sanders, including their ability to seriously challenge the might of corporate donors and big business if they made it to power. Recall the Syriza party in Greece promised to unwind harsh austerity then capitulated to even stricter economic strangulation.
But can you imagine an Australian political leader pledging to massively increase funding for schools and universities, hugely invest in sustainable energy solutions, reduce defence spending and not join every failed US misadventure in the Middle East? While much of this is the current Greens party platform, its failure to attract widespread political support is symptomatic of a political and media clique that hates genuine outsiders.
Political uniformity in Australia, with few politicians daring to vote against their party on issues of moral or social significance – sending asylum seekers to be abused on remote Pacific islands or increased surveillance powers – doesn’t create allegiance, but dogma.
What the rise of Corbyn and Sanders shows is that within the strict confines of mainstream politics it’s possible to generate huge public passion for politics. Corbyn has invigorated huge numbers of young Britons and Sanders attracts massive rallies. In Australia, Turnbull and Shorten are lucky to generate any passionate interest in themselves or their parties beyond the true believers.
My debut article in the New York Times:
Berlin — Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls the detention site in Dilley, Tex., a “family residential center.” But to the 2,000 migrant children and mothers who live there, it’s something else: “People who say this is not a prison are lying,” Yancy Maricela Mejia Guerra, a detainee from Central America, told Fusion last year. “It’s a prison for us and a prison for our children, but none of us are criminals.”
The Dilley center holds people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a government agency, but it is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, America’s largest private prison and detention company. It is one part of a worrisome global trend of warehousing immigrants and asylum seekers at remote sites maintained by for-profit corporations. The United Nations estimates that one in every 122 people on the planet is displaced. This is a crisis that requires a humanitarian solution; unfortunately, some people view it as a business opportunity.
In recent decades, many Western governments have increasingly outsourced prisons to private companies, claiming that doing so saves money. As the number of migrants and asylum seekers has grown, governments have found a new use for the private-prison model.
It has become a multimillion-dollar industry. The company Hero Norway runs 90 refugee centers in Norway and 10 in Sweden, charging governments $31 to $75 per refugee per night. Australia’s government has contracted the company Broadspectrum to manage two detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for asylum seekers. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government awarded the security firm Serco a seven-year contract in 2014 worth over $100 million for running the Yarl’s Wood immigrant detention center.
These private companies are too often plagued by scandal and accused of abuse. The Corrections Corporation of America has a long history of ignoring detainee safety and federal laws. Serco has been accused of inadequately training its guards and overcharging the British governmentfor substandard work. One doctor who worked at a site run by Broadspectrum in Nauru told The Guardian that the detention center was “reminiscent of Guantánamo Bay.”
The global flows of refugees are unlikely to abate anytime soon. Wars in the Middle East continue, as does the epidemic of gang violence in Central America. Climate change will send millions more people fleeing their homes in the years to come. Governments must accept that for-profit detention centers are not the way to deal with this issue.
State-run detention centers don’t necessarily guarantee more respect for human rights, but there is evidence that government control brings improvements: A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, found that private immigration detention centers in the United States were more crowded than state-run ones, and detainees in them had less access to educational programs and quality medical care. And public centers, while still flawed, are more transparent.
Opacity is a common denominator in the privatized detention system around the world. In Australia, Europe and the United States, journalists have less access to private prisons than they do to public ones; governments maintain less oversight. That’s not a coincidence. As Matthew J. Gibney, a political scientist at Oxford University, told The New York Times: “When something goes wrong — a death, an escape — the government can blame it on a kind of market failure instead of an accountability failure.”
Advocates of private immigration detention claim they are saving taxpayers money. But that seems unlikely. The American government spends more on immigrant detention today than it did 10 years ago, when the number of border crossings was higher. The Corrections Corporation of America and other companies have lobbied politicians to keep more people behind bars rather than deporting them. Congress requires that at least 34,000 people be housed daily in detention centers — a so-called detention bed mandate.
Making a profit doesn’t just require keeping beds filled, it can often lead companies to skimp on services. This means mental health care, outdoor activities and healthy food are far less available in private detention centers than at those run by the government. Last year, the United Nations described a camp for refugees in Traiskirchen, Austria, that is run by the Swiss firm ORS Service, as “inhumane” because of overcrowding. Similar reports are common not just on Europe’s frontiers but across the world.
Governments that receive migrants and asylum seekers must reverse their reliance on private companies. The current practice is a short-term fix that in the long run will cost governments more and subject refugees to worse conditions. In the meantime, governments from Canberra to Vienna to Washington should institute independent cost analyses to ensure that private centers give taxpayers the best value for their money. They should encourage more oversight of these sites, from government agencies and from the news media. And the 34,000-bed quota must also be done away with immediately.
In its 2014 annual report, the Corrections Corporation of America worried that changes to American immigration policy could cut into the company’s bottom line. Many other such contractors might have similar fears. Let’s hope they do. Unless governments make drastic changes now, these corporations look likely to get richer and richer as more people around the world flee their homes, desperately seeking safety.