Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Democracy Now! interview on Disaster Capitalism

Last week I appeared on the wonderful US TV/radio show in New York, Democracy Now! talking about my new book, Disaster Capitalism, and the film in progress of the same name:

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. When disaster strikes, who profits? That’s the question asked by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Traveling across the globe, Antony examines how companies, such as G4S, Serco, Halliburton, are cashing in on calamity. He describes how they’re deploying for-profit private contractors to war zones and building for-profit private detention facilities to warehouse refugees, prisoners, asylum seekers. Now Loewenstein has teamed up with filmmaker Thor Neureiter for an upcoming documentary by the same name that chronicles how international aid and investment has impacted communities from Haiti to Afghanistan to Papua New Guinea and beyond. This is the trailer.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: For three years, I’ve investigated what happens after the spotlight fades from disasters in developing countries. What comes when the money and goodwill ends?

UNIDENTIFIED: This country is like a republic of NGOs. And these people, as employees, they are getting paid very fat salaries.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Often these natural and man-made disasters create an atmosphere reliant on foreign money.

UNIDENTIFIED: They say first we should bring security, then investment. I say first we should invest, then security will come.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: When aid runs out and most NGOs move on to the next disaster, pro-business policies are created in the name of recovery. This investigation has taken me to the streets of Haiti, the mountains of Afghanistan and the lush forests of Papua New Guinea, where I’ve met the people caught up in a struggle between recovery and the policies that cater to foreign interests.

UNIDENTIFIED: When you talk about disaster capitalism and the capitalists coming in and sweeping up and taking over, they don’t need a conspiracy, because those are the interests that prevail, and they’re going to get their way.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the forthcoming documentary based on Antony Loewenstein’s new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Well, journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins us now in studio, also a columnist for The Guardian.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Antony. So, explain disaster capitalism.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: People who make money from misery. So, one of the reasons—I was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, and she coined the term “disaster capitalism” in 2007. For me, it was really about deepening and widening that definition. So I focus particularly on Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, U.S., U.K., Greece and Australia. Immigration is a key part of that. So, the fact that—as you said in your introduction, there are key companies—G4S, Transfield, Serco and others—who are very happy about the massive influx of refugees. Warehousing refugees is huge profit-making business. So I was focusing on that, going to these places and actually seeing the effects of that on both immigrants and also those who work in those centers; looking at, say, in Haiti, the issue of aid and development after the earthquake in 2010, which was a key reason why the U.S. government, as WikiLeaks documents showed, were keen for U.S. contractors to make a fortune; in Papua New Guinea, a country near my own country, Australia, a situation where you have massive mining interests—Rio Tinto and others—again, making a fortune from mining and misery. So, for me, it was about making the connections between various different countries and corporations, and saying—I’m not arguing that Afghanistan is the same as Greece, of course they’re different, but ultimately often the same corporations are at play, and the fact that the corporation has become more powerful than the state, which, to me, is a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a place some call the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific. The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The prisoners are not accused of any crimes; they’re asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determination. Earlier this year, Democracy Now! spoke to Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson about Manus Island.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I’ve been to PNG, and I’ve spent times in West Papuan refugee settlement camps, so I can speak with first-hand experience that PNG is not a state that is capable of accepting our asylum seekers and refugees. Ninety percent of these people who come by boat to Australia have been determined to be refugees in the past. The conditions in PNG are terrible. Australia is—it is unlawful for Australia to be continuing to send asylum seekers to conditions the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman, degrading treatment. We are in breach of our international obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson. Antony Loewenstein?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: It’s a problem. I mean, one of the things also we should also say is there’s Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, but also Nauru, which is a Pacific island. So, Australia for the last years has been sending thousands of refugees to essentially prison camps in these islands, as you rightly say. They run for profit. It was G4S, it’s now Transfield. In a recent Australian Senate report, it was found, clear evidence, that often refugees are being raped and tortured. This is not an allegation, this is a fact. There was one allegation by a guard that he saw evidence of waterboarding. So, ultimately we have a situation where the Australian government, which increasingly, I might add, is being used by the European Union as inspiration in potentially how to deal with their refugee crisis—the key point about the offshore detention camps, and indeed onshore in Australia, is that they’re privately run. And the key problem—it wouldn’t make a difference if it was publicly run. I mean, it shouldn’t be there in the first place. But Australia wants an unaccountable system. Journalists can’t get there, as Jennifer rightly said. You essentially have a—it’s a black site. The journalists can’t get in there, human rights workers can’t get in there. You can visit Manus Island as a tourist, but you can’t get into the center. Nauru charges $8,000 to apply for a visa. And if you don’t get the visa, which you wouldn’t, you don’t get that money back. So, essentially, many Australians—and sadly, I would argue, only a minority of Australians are outraged by this. But the truth is, like in Europe and like in the U.S., after decades in my country have privatized detention camps, sadly, a lot of people regard those people as a threat who need to be essentially seen as silenced and as a number, that’s all. It’s a massive problem, and I write about that in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the larger issue of for-profit prisons. Last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate—


AMY GOODMAN: —introduced new legislation aimed at banning government contracts with private prisons. Sanders said banning for-profit incarceration is the first step to ending the system of mass incarceration.

SENBERNIE SANDERS: As a first step, we need to start treating prisoners like human beings. Private companies, private corporations should not be profiteering from their incarceration.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, also a senator.


AMY GOODMAN: So he’s introduced legislation.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: So encouraging. I mean, one of the things that is less talked about in the U.S., Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio have taken massive amounts of money from the private prison industry. I’m not saying that their policies are solely based around that, but it’s an important part. In the book, I visit some private detention camps in Georgia, particularly run by CCA, which is the largest American privatized corporation running prisons and detention camps. In these centers, human rights are awful. Healthcare is bad. Food is bad. Mental health is bad. And ultimately, like we see in Australia and the U.K. and elsewhere—

AMY GOODMAN: And CCA is Corrections Corporation of America.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Indeed, indeed. And ultimately, I think one of the things is, these corporations have no incentive to provide decent care. I mean, that’s the bottom line. Profit, of course, is the most important. So putting aside the rights of refugees and immigrants themselves, what I find also in the book is that the guards who are working in those centers, without proper training, they’re almost by definition going to abuse refugees. That’s part of the problem. I think Bernie Sanders’ call was an important one, but sadly, no other major candidate has come out and agreed. And I think one of the interesting things in the U.S., as we move forward with your presidential campaign, someone like a Donald Trump, who talks, as we know, about potentially getting rid of 11 million undocumented migrants, the private prison industry is very excited about his presidency, and they’re scared of any serious reform in the U.S. One of the things that CCA and GEO Group, the two major companies, talk about in their annual reports are that serious reform—in other words, less people locked up—is bad for business. And they’ve spent over the last 20 years at least $30 million to $40 million. One of the things that comes out in my book, in my investigations, is that this is legalized corruption, that it’s nothing—it’s not illegal for CCA to assist a congressman or woman in their campaign. That’s legal. But the problem is that the result, in state—in state after state in the U.S., is a mass incarceration culture. And sadly, even under President Obama, there’s been no serious look at removing that incentive. I mean, there’s a Congress-approved quota that every single night there are 34,000 refugees locked up in the U.S.—every night.

AMY GOODMAN: “Richard Sullivan”—this is from The Intercept, I believe—”of the lobbying [group] Capitol Counsel, is a bundler for the Clinton campaign, bringing in $44,859 in contributions in a few short months. Sullivan is also a registered lobbyist for the GEO Group, a company that operates a number of jails, including immigrant detention centers, for profit.”

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: That’s the nexus, Amy, that I’m talking about in the book, that is—again, this sort of thing is not illegal. It is legal. But the problem is that almost by definition that means that major candidates—Hillary Clinton has said, Jeb Bush, particularly Marco Rubio in his state, as well, has taken massive contributions. And the fact is, without those contributions, the policies would be different, obviously.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Afghanistan. Wednesday marked the 14th anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001. President Obama declared an official end to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan last year; however, the U.S. has around 9,800 troops there. And according to Foreign Policy magazine, there are three times as many for-profit private contractors in Afghanistan than U.S. troops, not including the contractors supporting the CIA, State Department, USAID or other government agencies. You have traveled to Afghanistan, Antony Loewenstein, and spoke to some of these contractors. What did they tell you?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: They are worried about the war winding down. For them, they are scared about—I was there in 2012 and also this year in May, in 2015. And one of the things that many of them were saying, both in 2012 and in 2015, is that they realize that the U.S. is winding down its war, but ultimately, as you say, Obama has declared the war finished. It’s been rebranded. The occupation continues. There is now talk about possibly raising troops. The Afghan security forces, which, I might add, were trained by private companies—DynCorp trained the Iraqi security forces and the Afghan security forces, massive failures on both fronts, which has had no impact on DynCorp getting more contracts, I might add. So, ultimately, one of the things in Afghanistan—and the attack on the Kunduz medical center, MSF medical center, goes to the heart of that—there’s a reduction in space for humanitarian actors.

I mean, I was there this year with my film partner, Thor Neureiter. We were looking at what Afghanistan’s likely to look like in the next five or 10 years. And the resource industry is what the Afghan government and the U.S. government talks about. Briefly, there are apparently $4 trillion of resources under the ground in Afghanistan, mostly untapped, including copper. And one of the things we do in our film is go to an area called—in Logar province about an hour from Kabul, which has the largest copper deposit in the world, run by a Chinese company. They are desperate to start mining those resources. And the problem is, in the last years, the U.S. has given hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to support a resource industry there. So the nexus between private security and mining industry in that country is devastating for the local people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to testimony just yesterday in the House. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, is pushing to keep more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than under President Obama’s scheduled drawdown, following the Taliban seizure of Kunduz last week. California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez pressed General Campbell during his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.

REPLORETTA SANCHEZ: So, within your own current testimony, let alone the testimony that Mr. Jones brought before you from before, you basically are saying, “I don’t know that there’s a long-term viability for these security forces.” We’re paying the majority of that. How much is the majority? How much money does that mean, to have a force that you don’t believe has a long-term viability?

GENJOHN CAMPBELL: Ma’am, if I could—

REPLORETTA SANCHEZ: How much? How much? That’s the question. How much?

GENJOHN CAMPBELL: Yes, ma’am. Today, for calendar year ’15, the United States put $4.1 billion to build the Afghan security forces.


GENJOHN CAMPBELL: For ’16, $3.86 billion.

REPLORETTA SANCHEZ: Thank you. $4.1 billion.

GENJOHN CAMPBELL: Every year we continue to reduce that by gaining efficiencies. We’re not providing infrastructure that—

REPLORETTA SANCHEZ: General, I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this for 14 years.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Doctors Without Borders says 24 of its staff members are still missing, following the U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz Saturday. That’s in addition to at least 22 people who died in the strike, including 12 medical workers, 10 patients, including three children. Antony Loewenstein?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I mean, what that testimony shows is that the U.S. has spent over $100 billion since 2001. As you say, it’s the 14-year anniversary now. And even the U.S. government itself, SIGAR, which is the sort of the government arm to investigate where money has gone, has found that the vast majority of that has gone to corruption. It’s disappeared. It’s gone to helping a failing mining industry. It’s gone to pay private security. Afghanistan is one of the great disgraces, in some ways, of our time, because, in many ways, the fact that private companies—U.S. companies, Australian companies, British companies—have been used as a replacement for government. One of the things that’s so often ignored, and I talk about this in the book, is that the U.S. routinely was paying, to transport goods from A to B, Afghan security, private security or foreign security to basically give money to pay off insurgents to not hit them, to not attack them. So, really, the U.S. taxpayer is weirdly either comfortable or doesn’t know about the fact that America is fighting a war against insurgents that they’re also paying off to not attack them. It’s a crazy situation, but that’s what’s been happening for years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Haiti. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake that killed, oh, 300,000 people and left more than one-and-a-half million Haitians homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In tent camps housing the displaced, Haitian residents said international donors have left them behind.

CLAUTAIRE FENEL: [translated] My message to the international donors is that the money they gave to help the people in Haiti is being put to use for the interest of other people instead. It is used to buy luxury cars, pay for hotels and go to high-priced restaurants paid in U.S. dollars.

EUNICE ELIASSAINT: [translated] I don’t see a future here. I can’t hide anything from you. There is no tomorrow. Last night, the children went to bed without anything to eat.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay out what’s happened in Haiti, Antony.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Soon after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the U.S. ambassador at the time—WikiLeaks documents showed this—wrote a cable essentially saying that a gold rush is on, a gold rush meaning for U.S. corporations and others. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars there, mostly for U.S. contractors. Most of the money the U.S. has spent there since the earthquake has remained in America. Haitians are not really being trained. Haitians are not really being supported. The solution that the Obama administration gave for Haiti, pushed by Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, their daughter, were industrial parks—essentially, places that Haitians can get underpaid and not trained to make cheap clothing for Gap and Wal-Mart that you and I maybe, hopefully, won’t buy in the U.S. That’s the solution that the U.S. sees for Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: You know—

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: And many Haitians—sorry—actually also argue that they feel occupied by foreign interests, the U.N. and the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! went down to Haiti a number of times before and after the earthquake. And I remember one of those times, President Clinton, he was down in Haiti giving a speech, saying there’s two things he cares about in the world. One is his daughter’s wedding. She was just—Chelsea Clinton was about to get married. And the other is restoring Haiti.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, the legacy of the Clinton Foundation—and I examine this deeply in the book—is utterly appalling. There are example after example of the Clinton Foundation funding a number of centers that have been infected by chemicals, which also, I might add, the Clinton Foundation were investing in failed things after Hurricane Katrina, as well, here in the U.S. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and others—I mean, they’re one example—their solution has primarily been industrial parks. And one of the things that comes out very clearly, the suggestions—and we talk about this in our film, as well—that the solution for Haiti is not to build massive industrial parks to make clothing that you and I can buy in the U.S. The solution is empowering locals. It’s about speaking to locals and saying, “We actually have a solution that empowers you and trains you.” And one of the things that comes out also clearly is that so many Haitians feel pretty pissed off with the fact that so often there’s actually little or no encouragement of them. And ultimately, Haiti really has never been an independent country, Amy. I mean, the U.S. has had involvement there for a hundred years. And many Haitians ultimately feel that they actually really need to separate themselves from the U.S., but America doesn’t actually view that as a viable option. And the book goes into detail about why that is the case. Haiti is seen as too economically viable for America to let it go.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where do you see the hope in this dark history of multinational corporations and the plunder of the most vulnerable?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: The hope are hearing local stories. And one of the things I talk about in the book, and we do in the film, is actually say that so many in the media—and I’m obviously part of that, and you are, as well—I know Democracy Now! is an exception to this—but too often don’t report local stories, don’t actually hear local people saying what they want. So when disaster strikes in Haiti, don’t just focus on celebrities like Sean Penn, focus on other people actually there who are doing good work, empower them, pay them, train them. It’s not rocket science how to change this. Ultimately, Haiti’s economic structure, as one example, needs to change, but it’s not going to change with U.S. contractors doing the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Antony Loewenstein’s new book is Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the new U.S. poet laureate. Stay with us.

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The Lahore Times reviews “Disaster Capitalism”

The following review of my newly released book is written by Robert J. Burrowes and appears in The Lahore Times:

In his just-released book, ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe‘, Antony Loewenstein offers us a superb description of the diminishing power of national governments and international organisations to exercise power in the modern world as multinational corporations consolidate their control over the political and economic life of the planet.

While ostensibly a book about how national governments increasingly abrogate their duty to provide ‘public’ services to their domestic constituencies by paying corporations to provide a privatized version of the same service – which is invariably inferior and exploitative, and often explicitly violent as well – the book’s subtext is easy to read: in order to maximize corporate profits, major corporations are engaged in a struggle to wrest all power from ordinary people and those institutions that supposedly represent them. And the cost to ordinary people (including their own corporate employees) and the environment is irrelevant, from the corporate perspective.

Loewenstein spent five years researching this book so that he could report ‘the ways in which our world is being sold to the highest bidder without public consent’. In my view, he does this job admirably.

Taking as his starting point the observation of famed future studies and limits to growth expert Professor Jørgen Randers that ‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’, Loewenstein set out to describe precisely how this is happening. He went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to explore the world of ‘private military companies’, Greece to listen to refugees imprisoned in ‘brutal’ privatized detention centres, Haiti to investigate its ‘occupation’ by the United Nations and ‘aid’ organizations following the earthquake in 2010, and Bougainville to understand the dilemma faced by those who want progress without the price of further corporate environmental vandalism (for which they have paid heavily already).

Loewenstein also checked out the ‘outsourced incarceration’ that now ensures that the US rate of imprisonment far exceeds that in all other countries, the privatized asylum seeker detention centres in the UK which are the end product of ‘a system that demonizes the vulnerable’, and the equivalent centres in Australia which ‘warehouse’ many asylum seekers in appalling privatized detention centres, including those located on offshore islands.

It is easy and appropriate to be outraged by some of the details Loewenstein provides, like the ‘three strike’ laws in the United States ‘that put people behind bars for life for stealing a chocolate bar’, but it is obviously important to comprehend the nature of the systemic crisis in which we are being enveloped by ‘disaster capitalism’ if we are to have any chance of resisting it effectively. So what are it’s key features?

In essence, predatory corporations (which usually keep a low profile) are financed by government money (that is, your taxes), supported by tax concessions and insulated from genuine accountability, political criticism and media scrutiny while being given enormous power to provide the infrastructure and labor to conduct a function, domestically or internationally, which has previously been performed by a government or international organization. If this happens at the expense of a nation truly exercising its independence, then too bad.

Moreover, because the corporate function is being performed ‘solely to benefit international shareholders’ which means that maximum profit is the primary aim, both the people who are supposedly being served by the corporation (citizens, refugees, prisoners…) and the corporation’s own employees are invariably subjected to far greater levels of abuse, exploitation, violence and/or corruption than they would have experienced under a public service equivalent.

Loewenstein provides the evidence to demonstrate this fact in one case after another. The ones that I found most interesting are the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan which provided further evidence that US policy, and even its military strategy and tactics ‘on the ground’, is being progressively taken over by corporations, and the ‘occupation’ of Haiti, post-earthquake in 2010, by the UN and NGO ‘aid’ agencies which forced locals into the perpetual victimhood of corporate-skewed ‘development’.

The use of private military companies (jargon for government-contracted companies that hire and deploy mercenary soldiers, ‘intelligence’ personnel, private security staff, construction teams, training personnel and provide base services such as food, laundry and maintenance) in Afghanistan has meant that there are far more US contractors than US soldiers in Afghanistan and ‘troop withdrawal’ means just that: troops not contractors. The occupation is far from over, Loewenstein notes.

Moreover, he asserts, the US mission in Afghanistan is ‘intimately tied to these unaccountable forces’. As many of us have been observing for considerable time, with control of US government policy now largely in the hands of the US elite (a select group compared with the military-industrial complex of which departing president Eisenhower warned us in 1961), its controlling tentacles reach ever more deeply into US actions at all levels. This is reflected in the way that military tactics are often designed in response to the development of weapons (such as drones) rather than, as should be the case, policy and strategy determining the nature of the tactics and weapons (if any) designed and used. It’s not so much that the corporate ‘tail’ is now wagging the government ‘dog’: the ‘tail’ is now bigger and more powerful than the ‘dog’ itself. In essence, the ‘US government interest’ means the ‘US corporate interest’.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only ‘horror story’ in Loewenstein’s book. I was particularly pained by his account of the multi-faceted violence that has been inflicted on Haiti since the devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010 that affected three million Haitians, killing more than 300,000. On 1 February 2010, US Ambassador Kenneth Merton headlined his cable ‘The Gold Rush Is On’ and went on to explain his excitement: ‘As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services.’ Merton’s lack of compassion for those killed, injured or left homeless by the earthquake is breathtaking.

Tragically, it isn’t just corporate exploitation of Haitians that exacerbated the adverse impact of the earthquake. The United Nations was horrific too. The evidence clearly pointed to its responsibility for a cholera epidemic shortly after the earthquake, which affected more than 700,000 people, killing 9,000. And given the responsibility of UN troops, allegedly present to enhance safety, for previous violence against Haitians, most Haitians simply regarded the presence of UN troops as ‘another occupation’ following the French colonization, which they overthrew in 1794, and the US occupation which led to the Duvalier dictatorships, that were resisted until their defeat in 1986.

But whatever damage the UN has done, it is the governments of the US, France and Canada, whose aid dollars via many corporations never reach those in need, NGOs like the Clinton Foundation, and the predatory corporations that truly know how to exploit a country. This is why the civil infrastructure in Port-au-Prince remains unrepaired nearly six years after the earthquake and the average city resident still lives in ‘rubbish, filth, and squalor’. Somehow, the corporations that were given the aid money to rebuild Haiti or provide other services were able to absorb billions of dollars without doing much at all. Although, it should be noted, company profits have been healthy. Are they held accountable? Of course not. Disaster capitalism at its best.

So can we predict the outcome for Nepal following its earthquakes earlier this year? We certainly can. The corrupt diversion of aid funds to corporate bank accounts. And ordinary Nepalese will continue to suffer.

I could go on but you will be better off checking out the book yourself. Loewenstein writes well and he has fascinating material with which to hold your interest. By the way, his personal website if you want to keep track of his journalism is here. He has recently been doing research in South Sudan.

So is there anything I didn’t like? Well, given my own passion for analysis and strategy, I would have liked to read more about Loewenstein’s thoughts on why, precisely, this all happens and how we can get out of this mess. He is an astute observer of reality and hopefully, in future, he will be more forthcoming in making suggestions.

In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding why many individuals have a dysfunctional compulsion to make profits at the expense of human and environmental needs, my own analysis is briefly outlined in this article: ‘Love Denied: The Psychology of Materialism, Violence and War‘. But there is much more detail explaining the psychological origins of violent and exploitative behaviours in ‘Why Violence?

And if you are someone who does not outsource your own responsibility to play a role in ending the elite-driven violence and exploitation in our world, you might like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘. The Nonviolence Charter references other documents for action if you are so inclined.

Anyway, apart from this observation, the main reason why I think this is such a good book is because it gave me much new and carefully researched information that got me thinking, more deeply, about issues that I often ponder. There is a good chance that it will enlighten you too.

Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is and his website is at

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Interview about my documentary-in-progress, Disaster Capitalism

I was recently interviewed by Green Left Weekly newspaper:

Independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein has made a name for himself writing about war crimes, human rights abuses and corporate profiteering.

For the first time, he is seeking to speak truth to power through the medium of film — with his first documentary Disaster Capitalism now in production. Loewenstein is also releasing a new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe through Verso in September.

Green Left Weekly‘s Paul Benedek spoke to Loewenstein

* * *

Until now, your work has been writing book and articles. What made you move into film with Disaster Capitalism?

For many years, I have realised the power of film and TV to emotionally reach people in ways that the written word cannot.

After a number of books that I know could have benefitted from a complimentary film — My Israel Question would have shown the vicious reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and The Blogging Revolution would have featured some of the inspiring dissidents challenging repressive regimes globally — I started talking to Australian filmmakers in 2010/2011 when I began researching my book, Profits of Doom.

To cut a long story short, various partnerships started and stalled, various local funders showed interest, then didn’t. I realised that I should just start filming myself as I was visiting Christmas Island and Curtin detention centres, Haiti, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I shot on an HD handycam, the images looked fine, but I was keen to collaborate with a filmmaker to shape my vision.

Who is the team you are working with on the film and what role/s are each of you playing?

In 2012, I met New York filmmaker Thor Neureiter through a mutual friend and we visited Haiti together. Since then we’ve been filming, raising money and crafting the documentary from different corners of the globe. Norwegian filmmaker Spencer Austad, based in Australia, is also involved, and he filmed me in Bougainville and Afghanistan.

Thor is the director, producer and cinematographer, Spencer is the co-cinematographer and I’m the presenter, writer and co-producer. Sydney-based production company Media Stockade are our producing partners.

Briefly sum up the theme of Disaster Capitalism, and why this is an important film to make.

The film features three countries: Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Afghanistan. We are investigating the reality and rhetoric of aid and development and how they shape, affect and change people’s lives, often negatively.

Natural resources are often cited as the best way to help developing nations thrive, but in all three nations minerals and mining are leading to greater poverty and displacement. Despite all these problems, many people are making serious money. This is an inevitable result of exploitative policies that aim to enrich local and foreign contractors at the expense of the population.

The aim of the film isn’t simply to shock and seduce people, it’s shot in a beautiful way, but to show how these industries could be different. Our outreach plan includes showing the film to a wide audience, from cinemas to film-festivals, the UN and aid workers and screenings in Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan themselves.

Where has the film taken you, who have you met and what are one or two highlights?

We have travelled twice to each country, Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan, and each time we wanted to have local characters tell their stories, about how the promises from the international community regularly falls short.

One of the highlights was recently visiting Logar Province in Afghanistan, one of the hearts of the insurgency, to meet villagers displaced by the Chinese-owned Aynak mine nearby, one of the largest copper deposits in the world.

The Afghan and Chinese governments and the Chinese company all claim the mine is beneficial to the country, but we saw and heard angry village elders explaining how they faced violence, uncertainty and poverty because of it.

As a film team working very differently from established or mainstream film production companies, what technology has the team used and what have been the challenges on the shoot?

The challenges are immense because we have faced rugged terrain, an insurgency, poverty and access issues. We have shot on a Sony FS100 camera and Black Magic Design camera, Go Pro, iPhone 6 and other devices.

What avenues have you used to fund the film until now, and what are the plans for further funding to complete it?

We have self-funded, raised money on Kickstarter and successfully applied for money from the Bertha Foundation, funders of Citizen Four, Dirty Wars and other successful documentaries. We’re currently speaking to local and international funders to raise the remaining amount. If readers would like to help, they know where to find me.

Where is the film currently at, what needs to be done to complete it and when are you aiming to release it?

Principal shooting of the film is complete, with only minor shooting still required in a few locations. We are raising funds for post-production and hope to have this completed within the next six to 12 months. This project began four to five years ago, so we’re committed to finishing it as soon as possible.

Where do you plan on the film ending up, do you have a distributor and what is your distribution plan?

Our aim for the film is for a global cinema release, to be seen by as many people as possible. We will aim for film festivals, TV, Al Jazeera, BBC, Netflix and a range of other options.

We do not yet have a distributor but are talking to a few. The distribution and outreach plan revolves around changing the conversation on aid and development in a way that challenges the gatekeepers in that industry.

To achieve this goal, we’ll have an active social media campaign and partner with local and global human rights NGOs to spread the message. We’ll also use our various media platforms to discuss the film.

Do you think film is a medium that other progressive journalists and writers should be looking at moving into?

Although making a documentary is a slow process, I certainly believe in its power and worth to compliment other types of writing and activism. There’s a reason Naomi Klein is making a documentary version of her book, This Changes Everything, on climate change. She wants to reach large audiences with a message.

Disaster Capitalism has similar goals because these issues don’t just affect elite policy makers at the UN or NGOs. As our film shows, locals are often negatively affected by policy decisions made in Western nations. We are all complicit.

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Serco bleeding but helped by Australian immigration contract

My article appears today in The Guardian:

British multinational Serco is in trouble. After years as the favoured outsourcer for public services in Britain and countless countries around the world, the latest figures show a financial crash of unprecedented proportions. The firm announced it is writing down its business value by nearly AU $3bn with no dividend for shareholders and a plea for an injection of a billion more dollars. This is a “bitter pill”, according to its chief executive Rupert Soames.

Revealingly, the corporation admitted that without its Australian detention network, its profit would have been even worse. In other words, imprisoning asylum seekers in poor conditions for extended periods of time in remote locations is good for business. Serco won the contract to manage all of Australia’s mainland facilities and Christmas Island in 2009 – I was part of a team that first published the contract between Serco and Canberra in 2011 – and the profits have soared ever since.

From a $370m contract in 2009 to well over $1bn today, surging refugee boats have been invaluable to Serco’s bottom line. Serco has benefitted from an opaque reporting process and desperate federal politicians and bureaucrats who needed corporate help with an immigration system that ran out of control when asylum seekers started arriving in large numbers from Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Neither the government nor Serco could handle the influx, and both detainees and guards suffered.

During the writing of my book Profits of Doom, I spoke to a senior Serco manager who told me how his superiors gamed the system to increase income. Staff are reduced to “keep profits high” and managers are routinely moved from the most difficult centres such as Darwin and Christmas Island because they’re told that “if they get abatements [fines from Canberra], they’ll be fired’’.

Another senior Serco source recently told me that his company had planned to turn the Australian centres into less prison-like environments. A spike in boats ruined that dream, he lamented.

It’s a sign of the times that a company like Serco, with murky financial statements masking its true economic shape, is continually rewarded for failure with new and larger contracts. Just this week, the Australian government announced a “cop on the beat” system within the immigration department to strengthen oversight. This is little more than window dressing after years of Serco and government obfuscation over assessing self-harm inside detention, profit margins, guard misbehaviour and a culture of secrecy that pervades everything the firm does in Australia and Britain (I recently witnessed this when visiting the notorious Yarl’s Wood facility in England).

Vulture capitalism has become the ideology of our age, with Serco just a symptom of wider economic failure. Outsourcing remains hugely appealing, with Mitie now becoming the UK Home Office’s largest provider of immigration detention. A clean-skin, without the troubles of G4S and Serco, proves that it’ll take more than a Serco collapse to arrest three decades of privatised failure.

Privatisation doesn’t deliver better and cheaper services for our society, or even shareholder democracy. The public knows it. It’s time to empower individuals who want to wrest power from the corporations and return it to the people.

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Talking vulture capitalism at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival

I’ve returned from the wonderful Byron Bay Writer’s Festival where I’ve enjoyed the outdoor festival in the sun talking about Gaza, Palestine, politics, war (on a very interesting and sometimes heated panel with Washington Post journalist David Finkel and writer Abbas El-Zein and another one on free speech) and vulture capitalism. My 2013 best-selling book, Profits of Doom, has just been released in an updated edition so I spoke to a packed audience about the issues within it:

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Alternative Law Journal reviews Profits of Doom

The following review by Kate Galloway appears in the Alternative Law Journal:

Antony Loewenstein; Melbourne University Press, 2013; 261 pages; $32.99 (paperback)

In this extensively researched book, journalist Antony Loewenstein takes the reader on a world tour. From the remotest parts of Australia — at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, Christmas Island and James Price Point, to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and finally Haiti — Loewenstein prosecutes his argument that, worldwide, ‘vulture capitalism’ is thriving on the misery of those dispossessed and impoverished by disaster.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this is that there is no incentive to stop the misery — as this would impinge on profits. For example though Australian detention centres are bursting at the seams, the more asylum seekers who arrive by boat, the more call there is for the services of Serco, the current provider of detention facilities to the Australian government. While detainees were referred to as clients (until the recent direction of the new minister, Scott Morrison, that they be called ‘illegal’ arrivals and ‘detainees’) it is of course the Australian government that is the client of Serco, and its shareholders who are the stakeholders in a profit-making venture.

The book reads journalistically, and Loewenstein is adept at setting the scene in each site he visits. The reader is brought along with the pace and mood, as the author engages with company officials and locals alike. While very readable, the message is strongly brought home about the context for this ‘disaster capitalism’ and its effects, sustained ‘when the lines between the public and private realms are rendered invisible’.

For those in favour of small government, there may be an argument as to the ‘efficiency’ of privatisation of services. However the scale and pervasiveness of the profit-driven model of service delivery chronicled in this book calls on us to question the very nature of what it is that governments are there to do. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the Panguna mine on Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea. As a result of the mine’s operations and dispossession of local people, the very sovereignty of PNG itself has been challenged through a bloody separatist movement. Now lying idle, the mine’s operation has caused significant environmental damage and social disruption. How this model of public/private partnership can be sustained is debatable at best.

This book will appeal to those who care about justice and who question the devolution of the role of government as a consequence of neoliberal ideals. Importantly, through the six case studies, it offers a cohesive argument against blurring the public/private enterprise divide in the interests of a sustainable and just world.

KATE GALLOWAY teaches law at James Cook University.

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We know too little about US drone attacks

My weekly Guardian column:

The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.

Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).

The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.

Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English. The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.

It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing “threats” without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way – this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:

‘You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.”

Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.

Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants” without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before. The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).

I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.

In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are herehere and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can’t release a single name; this tells it all.”

Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn’t be a flaw, but an asset.

The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges). The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don’t think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”

This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.” This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.

The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.

Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.

Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”

The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.

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Never ignoring the realities of vulture capitalism

One of Australia’s leading literary bloggers, Angela Mayer, has positively reviewed my 2013 book, Profits of Doom:

In Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein investigates the effects of predatory, vulture or disaster capitalism on individuals, communities, the environment, and future prospects of entire countries. Loewenstein’s work is powerful because he goes to Afghanistan, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea, and other places ravaged by greed, corruption, complacency, and misdirected aid. He takes us there, and he talks to people at all levels, unafraid to present us with opinions that contradict his own (though reinforcing his own argument effortlessly through the picture he paints of the damage done).

In Australia, he visits detention centres, exploring the effects (on the detainees, the staff, and the wider community) of privatisation, revealing the fact that companies with dodgy track records are still given contracts. To avoid fines, there is also a culture of dishonesty: ‘… cover-ups of breaches [such as incidences of abuse] are routine and both tolerated and implicitly supported by the highest echelons of the Serco [company] hierarchy’. Loewenstein discovers a general ignorance of asylum seekers’ rights in order to maximise profits (ie. drawn-out processing times), and a dehumanisation of asylum seekers who, at the top, are referred to as ‘products’.

In Papua New Guinea Loewenstein visits ‘an abandoned wasteland’, Bouganville, where there are talks to reopen the mine which caused so much strife and continues to effect the environment. Disaster capitalism, as Loewenstein describes it in regards to PNG, is predatory corporations supported by foreign aid payments and tax concessions, insulated from media and political scrutiny, preventing a country from reaching true independence. In another village, Loewenstein hears of women selling their bodies for food because the company that has moved in has stopped them from fishing.

In Afghanistan Loewenstein looks at the local war economy, investigating private security personnel—their role in the conflict, how the officials see it and how the locals do.

In Haiti Loewenstein finds large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince still in pieces after the 2010 earthquake, and provides many examples of ‘canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of disaster, looking for business opportunities’. For those who argue in favour of job creation when multinationals move in, Loewenstein has found that it’s more likely that cheap, exploitative labour is the effect, in vulnerable areas, tying locals to an (often restricting, often polluting) corporation, removing other chances of sustainable growth in a community.

Loewenstein uncovered an unfortunate structural failure where many big NGOs (not all, there are some great examples of on-the-ground charities working with locals in the book) act as conduits to ensure Western business interests.

Profits of Doom provides essential, eye-opening information about systems of exploitative capitalism, how they operate, who profits, and the effects on the ground. It’s written in an accessible, engaging style, with quotes from people at all levels, and Loewenstein’s first-hand observations and experiences. I was a big fan of his 2008 book The Blogging Revolution, and will continue to read the work of a journalist whose concerns are undeniably relevant, who investigates and presents cases with care, rigour, and verve.

Antony Loewenstein’s website/blog is always a great source of information on current events.

Loewenstein will also be appearing at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.

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Talking Profits of Doom and messing with vulture capitalism

I was interviewed by Red Flag newspaper late in 2013 about my book Profits of Doom:

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist, activist and author. He spoke to Red Flag’Alexis Vassiley about his latest work, the recently published Profits of doom: how vulture capitalism is swallowing the world.

Tell us a bit about the book.

Profits of doom looks at the way in which vulture capitalism has infected the world. I went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Australia, especially Western Australia, to examine the ways in which detention centres, intelligence, resources and aid have increasingly been sold to the highest bidder – often the worst kind of human rights abusers.

This is bipartisan, but there’s very little public consent for it; whenever an opinion poll is taken about privatisation in these areas, the vast majority oppose it.

The idea behind the book is to challenge that. There is an alternative – there are people and groups around the world and Australia that are fighting it and think there can be a different way.

What has been the role of the Australian state, aid, and companies like Rio Tinto in Papua New Guinea?

One of the articles of faith in parts of the left is that aid is good – that Australia as a rich Western country has an obligation to help those less fortunate. In theory I support that. The problem is that too much of the $500 million in aid per year going to PNG – which since 1975 has been officially independent from Australia – actually does not stay there.

It’s the concept of boomerang aid – so much aid goes to private, for-profit Australian companies, and too little actually empowers local communities. When the foreign aid groups leave, there’s virtually nothing left. I met a lot of people in PNG who view Australian aid as a noose around their neck. It is too aligned with mining interests, yet there are countless examples, not least in Ok Tedi and Bougainville, where Australian mining companies have committed appalling human rights abuses.

Bougainville had a very profitable Rio Tinto mine, but with massive pollution spewing from the mine and human rights abuses. In 1988 the locals rose up, resulting in a brutal nine year civil war. The PNG government, the Australian government and Rio Tinto were on one side and the Bougainville Resistance Army on the other.

Remarkably the locals won but at great cost: 15-20,000 were killed. In 2013 the Australian government is paying white consultants to go over to Bougainville and help them draft legislation to allow the return of Rio Tinto.

This is problematic, as there has never been any compensation or clean-up. The Australian government’s agenda seems to be that the way you develop a poor society is through mining, and through backing Australian businesses, including those like Rio Tinto with an appalling human rights record. But there’s a great deal of resistance within Bougainville, within PNG and indeed in Australia to all of this.

You write of the massive profits made by the British multinational Serco out of the human misery inflicted on asylum seekers. What is the relationship between the government and Serco?

Serco’s record in Britain is unbelievably appalling. Successive government reports find human rights abuses against women and vulnerable children. Yet in 2009 the Rudd Labor government awarded it a $370 million contract to manage our detention centres. Fast forward to 2013 and it’s over $1.86 billion.

And the government is so desperate to cover up mistakes that both sides need the other. You speak to Serco, they say talk to the immigration department; you talk to the immigration department and they say talk to Serco. It’s a revolving door that reduces transparency, and that’s exactly what the government wants. It’s very difficult for journalists to access detention centres. Humanising asylum seekers, seeing their faces, hearing their stories means people might empathise with them. This is dangerous to a political system that requires people to be demonised.

Has your research for the book changed your political views?

I don’t know if it has fundamentally changed my views. But I suppose it did open my eyes to the fact that there is actually a massive groundswell of opposition to what is being done in our name across the world, with mining, with detention centres, with privatised war. The challenge is finding a way to harness that opposition into some kind of effective force to bring political change.

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The heartbreaking journey taken by asylum seekers

Understanding the mentality, background and reason for asylum seekers coming to Australia is vital to humanise their stories.

The New York Times magazine has an incredible feature in its magazine this week, written by Luke Mogelson (background to the story here) and photographed by Joel Van Houdt, that stunningly captures the challenges, heartache and uncertainty of refugees desperately wanting to settle in Australia from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

This is one of the most lyrical and moving pieces of journalism I’ve read in ages:

It’s surprisingly simple, from Kabul, to enlist the services of the smugglers Australian authorities are so keen to apprehend. The problem was that every Afghan I spoke to who had been to Indonesia insisted that no Western journalist would ever be allowed onto a boat: Paranoia over agents was too high. Consequently, the photographer Joel van Houdt and I decided to pose as refugees. Because we are both white, we thought it prudent to devise a cover. We would say we were Georgian (other options in the region were rejected for fear of running into Russian speakers), had sensitive information about our government’s activities during the 2008 war (hence, in the event of a search, our cameras and recorders), traveled to Kabul in search of a smuggler and learned some Dari during our stay. An Afghan colleague of mine, Hakim (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), would pretend to be a local schemer angling for a foothold in the trade. It was all overly elaborate and highly implausible.

When we were ready, Hakim phoned an elderly Afghan man, living in Jakarta, who goes by the honorific Hajji Sahib. Hajji Sahib is a well-known smuggler in Indonesia; his cellphone number, among Afghans, is relatively easy to obtain. Hakim explained that he had two Georgians — “Levan” and “Mikheil” — whom he wished to send Hajji Sahib’s way. Hajji Sahib, never questioning our story, agreed to get Joel and me from Jakarta to Christmas Island for $4,000 each. This represents a slightly discounted rate, for which Hakim, aspiring middleman, promised more business down the road.

A few days later, we visited Sarai Shahzada, Kabul’s bustling currency market. Tucked behind an outdoor bazaar on the banks of a polluted river that bends through the Old City, the entrance to Sarai Shahzada is a narrow corridor mobbed with traders presiding over stacks of Pakistani rupees, Iranian rials, American dollars and Afghan afghanis. The enclosed courtyard to which the corridor leads, the exterior stairwells ascending the surrounding buildings, the balconies that run the length of every floor — no piece of real estate is spared a hard-nosed dealer hawking bundled bricks of cash. The more illustrious operators occupy cramped offices and offer a variety of services in addition to exchange. Most of them are brokers of the money-transfer system, known as hawala, used throughout the Muslim world. Under the hawala system, if someone in Kabul wishes to send money to a relative in Pakistan, say, he will pay the amount, plus a small commission, to a broker in Sarai Shahzada, and in return receive a code. The recipient uses this code to collect the funds from a broker in Peshawar, who is then owed the transferred sum by the broker in Sarai Shahzada (a debt that can be settled with future transactions flowing in reverse).


David Hicks deserves justice, an apology and compensation

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.

Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.

Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.

Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.

This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.

Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.

There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.

It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.

Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”

Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.

Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”

Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.


Launching Profits of Doom at Curtin University in Perth

I launched my book Profits of Doom at Curtin University in Perth on 29 November to a packed house (more details and photos here and audio is here). The focus was on Australia’s privatised immigration detention system.

Dr Caroline Fleay from The Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE) introduced me with a generous speech that I re-publish below:

Profits of Doom – Perth Book Launch

Centre for Human Rights Education

29 October 2013

Caroline Fleay

Curtin University

Book Launch Introductions

It is my pleasure to introduce Antony Loewenstein.

Antony is an independent journalist, blogger, photographer and documentary film-maker. He has written and co-authored a number of best-selling books, including My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution. He has written for The Nation, Huffington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, and is now a weekly columnist for The Guardian. He has also appeared on a range of television current affairs programs on the ABC, the BBC, Al Jazeera English, and a range of other media outlets. And, of course, he is the author of Profits of Doom.

I first met Antony at the Perth Domestic Airport, very early in the morning, in November 2011. Antony had been persistently emailing during the second half of 2011 as he knew through some mutual acquaintances that Linda Briskman and I were visiting the Curtin immigration detention centre, and he wanted to come along for the purposes of his research.

So up we flew to Broome and then hired a car for the 2 hour drive to the detention centre which is about 50 km from Derby. I spent many long hours with Antony during the following four days and I learned a few things about him as a journalist and as a person. One thing that I did observe was his skill in finding out information from those who work within the detention system. But the thing that impressed me most about him was his empathy that was clearly evident as we sat and talked with the few people detained in that large centre that we were allowed to meet with. Antony’s response to what he witnessed, and to what he was told by the people we visited about being in detention for many months, I think speaks volumes about his understanding of the issue.

And this is reflected in the book we are very happy to be launching in Perth tonight.

Antony’s book, Profits of Doom, provides a much needed spotlight on the operations of some of the private corporations that make large profits in industries that emerge from government outsourcing. And they do so in an environment where the details of much of their operations

One of these corporations, Serco, is a big player in Australia and two of the chapters in the book explore their role in the immigration detention industry. One of the big problems of privatisation in immigration detention is that it deepens the system’s lack of transparency.

The involvement of private corporations in this area not only enables governments to expand immigration detention, it also helps to obscure what is going on within detention centres.Commercial-in-confidence clauses that apply to contracts between the government and private operators mean that it is exceedingly difficult to access information in relation to costs and other operational matters, as Antony highlights in his book.

Accountability issues around who is responsible for what happens within immigration detention centres become more opaque under a system of privatisation. For example, in the midst of a rooftop protest and following the death of someone detained at the Villawood immigration detention centre in 2010, Serco told media reporters to contact the Department of Immigration for comment. In turn, the Department said they could not comment in any detail on Serco’s operations.

Profits of Doom helps to lift a lid on the secrecy of Serco and its operations within Australia’s detention network. For one thing, the book highlights the hefty profit rates that Serco is making out of its immigration detention contract.

But Antony’s writing also allows us to get some understanding of the remote sites of detention at the Curtin airbase in the north of WA, and on Christmas Island. His writing helps us to get a sense of the people detained within those electrified fences, and those responsible for enabling this government policy. He highlights how this privatised system of imprisonment harms the people it detains. And he highlights how it harms some of the staff who become traumatised by what they witness, and what they have become complicit in.

As Antony expresses it: “desert prison camps are not normal”. Indeed, imprisoning people for indefinite periods of time in any site of detention is not normal.

Antony’s book is a compelling read and I highly recommend it.

Please welcome Antony to talk more about his book and these issues.