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.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist, activist and author. He spoke to Red Flag’s 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.
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).
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.
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
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.
Australia’s official attitude towards asylum seekers is based on cruelty and punishment. We too rarely hear from refugees themselves, the privatised system deliberately obscures their stories and faces.
The Global Mail has produced a stunning piece of multi-media, video journalism that details the reasons Hazara man like Hussein must leave Pakistan, due to threats on their life, and find safe haven somewhere. He films the journey from Pakistan to Australia.
Moving, revealing and telling work.
The role of US drones post 9/11 is shrouded in secrecy. It’s beyond time to challenge the legality, morality and effectiveness of the practice.
He is interviewed by Democracy Now! about the details of the allegations against the US program:
A major concern with the Australian aid program is that it favours commercial interests in aid delivery. The commercialisation of aid often results in ‘boomerang aid’ – where aid ends up funding private Australian companies, consultants, advisors, and goods and services, bypassing those who need it the most and returning large economic gains to Australia. The rapidly expanding areas of public-private partnerships demonstrate a commitment to assisting Australian business.
Commercialisation of aid is concerning because of the lack of transparency, public oversight and accountability in aid provision, and because contracts are often bound by commercial-in-confidence agreements.
AID/WATCH invited guest speakers Wendy Bacon and Antony Loewenstein to discuss these issues and the impacts on targeted communities.
Wendy Bacon is an investigative journalist and Professor of Journalism at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, who has investigated and written about Australian corporate interests and the foreign aid program. She discusses ‘Tracking Corporate Aid’.
Author and journalist Antony Loewenstein discusses aid and development in the context of vulture capitalism, the topic of his latest book, “Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World.”
One of the literary legacies of the financial crisis is a type of travel writing focused on the local social, economic, and environmental effects of unfettered global capitalism. There are two types of such books. Michael Lewis is perhaps the best known and most widely read author of the first kind, in which the reporter becomes a kind of tour guide to the financial freak show. In Boomerang (2011), Lewis shows how greed overwhelmed both the lenders and the borrowers of cheap money in places like Iceland, Ireland, and the United States. Reading him is like watching the circus through binoculars. The spectacle is both vividly close and comfortably distant; we enjoy the show but feel no direct involvement in the unfolding action.
The second type, exemplified in Antony Loewenstein’s important new book Profits of Doom, is written with the fire of the political activist. Loewenstein acknowledges the influence on his work of Naomi Klein, whose The Shock Doctrine (2007) defined a predatory ‘disaster capitalism’ that seeks to exploit war or natural disaster for private profit at the expense of local populations. Loewenstein writes: ‘Vulture, or predatory, capitalism has easily taken root in Australia and many other self-described democracies because of the limited ability and willingness of the public to scrutinise it and demand change.’
Profits of Doom is squarely a post-9/11 book, focused in large part on the unprecedented expansion of privatised surveillance and detention services on behalf of governments and even the United Nations since September 2001. We begin in remote, if familiar, territory at the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. Leaked documents from the British multinational Serco, which manages refugee detention on our behalf (Australia is the only country in the world to outsource all of its detention centres), reveal price gouging, ‘extreme rates of self-harm among detained refugees’, and the ‘non-reporting of mistakes’ to avoid government penalties. Here and in chapters on Afghanistan and Christmas Island, Loewenstein illustrates the disparity between the argument of most Western governments that outsourcing is cost-efficient and the expensive facts of private service delivery. Instead, he argues that the real value of private operators like Serco is to provide governments with ‘a convenient scapegoat for systemic failures’, and reveals the tactics by which those companies avoid or minimise government oversight. ‘This blurring of responsibility and accountability is a fundamental flaw of exploitative capitalism,’ he concludes.
On Christmas Island, witnessing the arrival of a ‘visibly overcrowded boat,’ he asks those standing at the water’s edge whether ‘anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals’. One local man says ‘he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact’. After reading Profits of Doom it would be difficult to remain unaware of the merry-go-round of public policy and private profit in the privatised security industry, let alone comfortable about it. Still, it is hard to agree with the book’s assumption that all outsourcing is potentially corrupt: a privatised rubbish collection and disposal service, for example, is only problematic if the service does not make the savings stipulated in a contract or if that contract is not enforced.
The exploitation of natural resources at the expense of local populations is Loewenstein’s second major theme. In Papua New Guinea, he explores the ‘resource curse’ of poor nations with rich mineral deposits. He travels to Bougainville, twenty-five years after infuriated locals forced the closure of the polluting Panguna mine and sparked a civil war, just as talk of reopening the mine has begun. In Port Moresby he listens to angry locals and records the voices of the otherwise silent majority who seem powerless in the face of a web of vested interests. These moments are among the book’s most powerful.
Some of Loewenstein’s harshest criticism is aimed at non-government organisations (NGOs) in post-disaster zones. He regards them as a ‘conduit that ensures business for Western firms’, concluding that despite noble intentions the ‘NGO-isation of humanitarian relief’ weakens local governments by channelling donor country funds through their own agencies instead of supporting local initiatives.
In the context of these perhaps overly simplistic assessments, the author remains upbeat about the power of democracy, which he optimistically conflates with awareness. As you would expect from the author of The Blogging Revolution (2008), he encourages individual citizen bloggers and social media users to provide the ‘view from the ground’. ‘Awareness doesn’t necessarily bring change,’ he writes, ‘but it’s the first, vital step in doing so.’
Profits of Doom presents research and argument rather than potential solutions. In pressing for greater regulation of NGOs and forms of investment that transcend neo-colonialism, Lowenstein writes: ‘NGOs that are locally accountable, internationally connected and financially independent have made a difference and contributed to the greater sovereignty of those nations.’ It would be easy to think that in all the book’s distressed venues of vulture capitalism there are few such models. Among the despair in Haiti, however, Loewenstein mentions the growth of the renewable energy sector there under a ‘unique model … where local NGOs partner with government departments to reduce deforestation’. This tantalisingly brief reference feels like a missed opportunity to demonstrate what is working amid disaster capitalism’s catalogue of failures. Perhaps it is the beginnings of another book. If so, I for one am looking forward to it.
The horrific attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi continues to generate headlines around the world. But what’s the background to the attacks, who are Somalia’s Al-Shabab terror group and what’s been the position of US and Kenyan intervention in the region?
Jeremy Scahill, author of the recent book Dirty Wars, tells Democracy Now! that Washington’s role in Somalia since 9/11 has been one of supporting some of the most brutal warlords, leading to Islamist resistance:
I’m currently on a seemingly never-ending book tour for Profits of Doom and this week I spoke at a packed event at Stanton Library in North Sydney (the audio is here for 24 September). It was a great opportunity to engage with people, many of whom were over 60, on issues that too rarely receive coverage in the mainstream media. We should never-estimate the passion, commitment and anger over human rights abuses in the wider community.