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.
At one telling moment in this unnerving and convincing book, Antony Loewenstein quotes the managing director of one of the many private military companies (“PMCs”) working in Afghanistan. The United States, says “Jack”, “is not capable of running empires”. Instead, western governments outsource imperialism to people like him in a variety of organisations – Halliburton, G4S, Serco and Capita are the best known of a long list – which make their money from incarceration, the “processing” of asylum seekers or the provision of private “security” in conflict zones. No longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, capitalism now thrives on the management of nightmares. Even the provision of disaster relief is transformed into profit.
Disaster Capitalism takes us on a journey around the victims of this system: Greece, Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It then turns its attention to the centres of outsourcing such as the US, the UK and Loewenstein’s native Australia. It charts the consequences of a double crisis: turmoil in the economic system following the financial crash, and the migration that is the unsurprising effect of the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Greece, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has been the victim of both at once. Loewenstein notes that despite Syriza’s promises to challenge austerity, the state’s hands are tied not only by the troika, but by a wave of popular xenophobia, supported by a supine media. So, instead, non-state forces are stepping in: he visits the medical centres set up by leftwing volunteers to help the victims of both crises, and, more depressingly, the Greeks-only food handouts organised by Golden Dawn.
Similarly, in his account of the “relief” that followed the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, Loewenstein argues that the people of Port-au-Prince were able to organise themselves to respond to the devastation – “makeshift clinics were established”, and “young men and women worked to clear the rubble with their bare hands”. After this, however, the international response was quickly monetised, or, to quote the typically direct words of then-US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, “the gold rush is on”. The response to the disaster combined outsourcing to the largely USAID-funded contractor Chemonics, with American and Korean companies building factories to produce consumer goods for the western market while paying workers well below the already minuscule Haitian minimum wage. A new development was the intervention of celebrity-backed NGOs. The philanthropic efforts of Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates come in for particularly sharp criticism as unaccountable and aloof. All this activity rests, according to Loewenstein, on a perception of Haitians as incapable of looking after themselves, a view his account attempts to challenge. As Pierre Justinvil, the deputy mayor of Cap Haitien, puts it, surveying a housing development built by a Minnesota-based company, “I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of the houses, and more quickly.”
The irony is that Britain, the US and Australia are now inflicting on themselves many of the devastations they have visited on other countries. This is visible in the US’s immense privatised prison system, providing a convict labour force which, the author estimates, is bigger than the Soviet Gulag at its early 1950s height. The militarised response to the Ferguson protests last year are another example: the tooled-up, armour-plated local police “looked like they were equipped to fight insurgents in Iraq”. And they were: a programme had sold off excess military equipment, provided in the first instance by private companies, to local police departments.
In the UK, Loewenstein tracks the results of a decision to open up emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to our beloved volume housebuilders: “Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson”. Meanwhile, Britain has become a major exporter of outsourcing, with G4S and Serco being worldwide leaders in the field.
Disaster capitalism comes across as a thuggish operation, largely based on low-wage, low-conditions work where sensitivity to the often vulnerable people being “cared” for is not a major priority. At a nightclub full of PMC staff in Afghanistan, Loewenstein is “reminded of a comment made by a human rights advocate in Kabul, that if you go to a party in the city, ‘a quarter of the men will have no necks’”, a consequence of widespread steroid use. Everyone is dehumanised by what another outsourcer calls “the human warehousing business”.
One major strength of the book is its interviews. We meet a succession of nice, apparently open spokespeople for outsourcers and mercenaries, and even a well-mannered physicist and active member of Golden Dawn. He lets them speak with their own breathtakingly cynical words. Loewenstein is unashamedly partisan, though, especially in the chapter on the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea, where a mass revolt removed the privatised mining corporation Rio Tinto from the area, leaving it reliant – by popular demand, it would seem – on subsistence agriculture. The corporations are coming back to Bougainville, and Loewenstein gives a sympathetic account of the forces trying to stop them, noting the horrendous ecological record of the companies in question. These divisions can be a little too neat.
After a particularly harrowing account of Australia’s “Pacific solution” to migration (ie, put them all on an island), Disaster Capitalism concludes with a rather pro forma rousing address, insisting that “resistance is never futile” and pointing to those places – small French towns, the city of Hamburg – that have managed to reverse outsourcing and privatisation. That’s fair enough, but as the accounts from Haiti and Papua New Guinea make clear, the system Loewenstein describes thrives by presenting itself as the only possible conduit for development and change. By placing, say, Rio Tinto on the one side and subsistence farming on the other, the choice becomes either virtuous tradition or hyper-exploitation. A model of development that could challenge these ruthless practices would make Disaster Capitalism a lot more convincing, but as an eyewitness account of the vultures’ activities around the world, it does provide a useful warning.
• Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. To order Disaster Capitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
There are few global crises in the world today that do not pull in the UN in some way.
Its security council still sets the terms of reference for war and peace around the world; its peacekeepers take the blue beret to all four corners of the planet, with very differing outcomes. But is it fit for purpose? Where has it made a difference? And what needs reforming?
As the UN turns 70, the Guardian has published a series investigating the organisation’s success and failures. This discussion marked the culmination of the project and featured a panel comprising Harriet Grant (Guardian journalist) Natalie Samarasinghe (executive director, United Nations Association UK) Antony Loewenstein (journalist, documentarian and author) Julian Borger (diplomatic editor, the Guardian) Charles Petrie (20 years experience at policy and operational level within the UN who, at the time of resigning, was the UN secretary general’s representative in Burundi).
This event took place on 14 October at the Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross, London.
I was interviewed by Foyles, one of Britain’s best independent bookstores:
Antony Loewenstein is an award-winning independent journalist, documentary maker and blogger. He has written for, amongst others, the BBC and the Washington Post, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. For his most recent book, Disaster Capitalism, he has travelled across the world to witness first hand the hidden world of making profit from disaster. Here, he talks to us about what disaster capitalism is, why we should be concerned about it, and what we can do about it.
How do you define “disaster capitalism”?
People and corporations making money from misery, from immigration to war and aid, and development to mining. It’s a global problem that is not unique to any one territory, region or country.
Can you give us three fundamental features of “disaster capitalism”?
Opportunists looking to exploit a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Corporations pushing for a deregulated business environment. Moral blackmail from companies who argue, like I examine in Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, that only their mine or operation can assist local communities (when the truth is often the opposite).
You write that “Disaster has become big business” – couldn’t this be positive? Businesses are nimble, so perhaps it is best that they rather than cumbersome states focus on solutions to today’s problems?
Exploiting people and communities when they’re vulnerable can never be noble. For example, in my book I examine how UK companies such as Mitie, Serco and G4S have spent years running privatised detention centres for immigrants and providing poor care for both detainees and the guards minding them. A lack of accountability, both in the media and government, is an issue here. Ultimately, with immigration, Britain’s insistence on warehousing immigrants is the problem, regardless of whether these facilities are run by the state or for profit. But the profit motive by definition removes an incentive to provide adequate care for all.
Can you give us some real world examples of big business causing problems “in the field”?
In my book, I examine the reality of the post-2010 Haiti earthquake environment and the litany of profiteers and aid organisations who flocked to the country and largely failed to help the people most in need (Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in the capital Port-au-Prince explained that there was a “gold-rush” for contracts). During my two trips there in the last years I’ve witnessed how a flawed USAID system is designed to benefit US corporations, and make them a profit, as opposed to empowering, training and hiring local staff. This breeds local resentment. Besides, the US claims to have spent over US$10 billion on aid since 2010 and yet the country remains framed in Washington as little more than a client state to make cheap clothing for Walmart, Gap and others.
There have always been disasters, and then apocalyptic doom-mongering about those disasters. What is new about this particular phase?
Yes, disaster capitalism has been occurring for centuries (the East-India Company was arguably the first example) but since the 1980s, and the era of mass globalisation, more corporations have embraced a deregulated world where they have become more powerful than the states in which they operate. International law remains very slow to act when, say, a US company behaves badly in Afghanistan, and independent nations on paper are shown to be little more than helpless in the face of overwhelming US corporate and government power.
Back in 1972 Jorgen Randers wrote The Limits to Growth – that’s now nearly half a century ago! Are we really reaching the limits to growth? What’s different now compared to the 70s? What’s to say that we don’t have another 50 years of growth in us?
Growth, if defined by increasingly rapacious acts to exploit natural resources, could continue for decades to come but at a massive cost to the environment and people, especially in developing nations. What I hope to achieve in my book is to bring awareness of how Western companies and aid dollars too often cause more problems than they solve in nations with little media coverage. An exploitative ideology has been exported globally. But closer to home, in Greece, UK, US and Australia, often the same firms working with abuses in the non-Western world, are allowed to buy the increasing number of public services being sold. In comparison to the 1970s, today’s inter-connected world makes awareness much easier but also the scale of the exploitation (and dwindling resources) all the most urgent to address.
What are the three things we could do immediately to ease the problem?
Pressure politicians and journalists to properly explain why companies that continually fail continue getting contracts to manage the most vulnerable people. Engage with local communities in developing nations and listen to their concerns (when, say, an earthquake strikes, don’t presume outside contractors have all the answers). Force our elected leaders not to sell off public assets that the majority of the public wants to remain in public hands (and throw them out of office if they do).
What three books would you recommend as further reading for those interested in “disaster capitalism”?
Iraq, Inc by Pratap Chatterjee
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
Private Island by James Meek