At one telling moment in this unnerving and convincing book, Antony Loewenstein quotes the managing director of one of the many private military companies (“PMCs”) working in Afghanistan. The United States, says “Jack”, “is not capable of running empires”. Instead, western governments outsource imperialism to people like him in a variety of organisations – Halliburton, G4S, Serco and Capita are the best known of a long list – which make their money from incarceration, the “processing” of asylum seekers or the provision of private “security” in conflict zones. No longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, capitalism now thrives on the management of nightmares. Even the provision of disaster relief is transformed into profit.
Disaster Capitalism takes us on a journey around the victims of this system: Greece, Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It then turns its attention to the centres of outsourcing such as the US, the UK and Loewenstein’s native Australia. It charts the consequences of a double crisis: turmoil in the economic system following the financial crash, and the migration that is the unsurprising effect of the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Greece, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has been the victim of both at once. Loewenstein notes that despite Syriza’s promises to challenge austerity, the state’s hands are tied not only by the troika, but by a wave of popular xenophobia, supported by a supine media. So, instead, non-state forces are stepping in: he visits the medical centres set up by leftwing volunteers to help the victims of both crises, and, more depressingly, the Greeks-only food handouts organised by Golden Dawn.
Similarly, in his account of the “relief” that followed the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, Loewenstein argues that the people of Port-au-Prince were able to organise themselves to respond to the devastation – “makeshift clinics were established”, and “young men and women worked to clear the rubble with their bare hands”. After this, however, the international response was quickly monetised, or, to quote the typically direct words of then-US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, “the gold rush is on”. The response to the disaster combined outsourcing to the largely USAID-funded contractor Chemonics, with American and Korean companies building factories to produce consumer goods for the western market while paying workers well below the already minuscule Haitian minimum wage. A new development was the intervention of celebrity-backed NGOs. The philanthropic efforts of Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates come in for particularly sharp criticism as unaccountable and aloof. All this activity rests, according to Loewenstein, on a perception of Haitians as incapable of looking after themselves, a view his account attempts to challenge. As Pierre Justinvil, the deputy mayor of Cap Haitien, puts it, surveying a housing development built by a Minnesota-based company, “I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of the houses, and more quickly.”
The irony is that Britain, the US and Australia are now inflicting on themselves many of the devastations they have visited on other countries. This is visible in the US’s immense privatised prison system, providing a convict labour force which, the author estimates, is bigger than the Soviet Gulag at its early 1950s height. The militarised response to the Ferguson protests last year are another example: the tooled-up, armour-plated local police “looked like they were equipped to fight insurgents in Iraq”. And they were: a programme had sold off excess military equipment, provided in the first instance by private companies, to local police departments.
In the UK, Loewenstein tracks the results of a decision to open up emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to our beloved volume housebuilders: “Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson”. Meanwhile, Britain has become a major exporter of outsourcing, with G4S and Serco being worldwide leaders in the field.
Disaster capitalism comes across as a thuggish operation, largely based on low-wage, low-conditions work where sensitivity to the often vulnerable people being “cared” for is not a major priority. At a nightclub full of PMC staff in Afghanistan, Loewenstein is “reminded of a comment made by a human rights advocate in Kabul, that if you go to a party in the city, ‘a quarter of the men will have no necks’”, a consequence of widespread steroid use. Everyone is dehumanised by what another outsourcer calls “the human warehousing business”.
One major strength of the book is its interviews. We meet a succession of nice, apparently open spokespeople for outsourcers and mercenaries, and even a well-mannered physicist and active member of Golden Dawn. He lets them speak with their own breathtakingly cynical words. Loewenstein is unashamedly partisan, though, especially in the chapter on the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea, where a mass revolt removed the privatised mining corporation Rio Tinto from the area, leaving it reliant – by popular demand, it would seem – on subsistence agriculture. The corporations are coming back to Bougainville, and Loewenstein gives a sympathetic account of the forces trying to stop them, noting the horrendous ecological record of the companies in question. These divisions can be a little too neat.
After a particularly harrowing account of Australia’s “Pacific solution” to migration (ie, put them all on an island), Disaster Capitalism concludes with a rather pro forma rousing address, insisting that “resistance is never futile” and pointing to those places – small French towns, the city of Hamburg – that have managed to reverse outsourcing and privatisation. That’s fair enough, but as the accounts from Haiti and Papua New Guinea make clear, the system Loewenstein describes thrives by presenting itself as the only possible conduit for development and change. By placing, say, Rio Tinto on the one side and subsistence farming on the other, the choice becomes either virtuous tradition or hyper-exploitation. A model of development that could challenge these ruthless practices would make Disaster Capitalism a lot more convincing, but as an eyewitness account of the vultures’ activities around the world, it does provide a useful warning.
• Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. To order Disaster Capitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
During my recent New York book tour for Disaster Capitalism, there was a book event in October at The New School hosted by The Schools of Public Engagement and New School for Social Research. I was in conversation with Nitin Sawhney, Assistant Professor of Media Studies, co-director of the great film on Gaza, Flying Paper, and friend who I met in Cairo in 2010 during the Gaza Freedom March. Thor Neureiter, the director of my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism, also spoke about our project:
I was interviewed by Foyles, one of Britain’s best independent bookstores:
Antony Loewenstein is an award-winning independent journalist, documentary maker and blogger. He has written for, amongst others, the BBC and the Washington Post, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. For his most recent book, Disaster Capitalism, he has travelled across the world to witness first hand the hidden world of making profit from disaster. Here, he talks to us about what disaster capitalism is, why we should be concerned about it, and what we can do about it.
How do you define “disaster capitalism”?
People and corporations making money from misery, from immigration to war and aid, and development to mining. It’s a global problem that is not unique to any one territory, region or country.
Can you give us three fundamental features of “disaster capitalism”?
Opportunists looking to exploit a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Corporations pushing for a deregulated business environment. Moral blackmail from companies who argue, like I examine in Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, that only their mine or operation can assist local communities (when the truth is often the opposite).
You write that “Disaster has become big business” – couldn’t this be positive? Businesses are nimble, so perhaps it is best that they rather than cumbersome states focus on solutions to today’s problems?
Exploiting people and communities when they’re vulnerable can never be noble. For example, in my book I examine how UK companies such as Mitie, Serco and G4S have spent years running privatised detention centres for immigrants and providing poor care for both detainees and the guards minding them. A lack of accountability, both in the media and government, is an issue here. Ultimately, with immigration, Britain’s insistence on warehousing immigrants is the problem, regardless of whether these facilities are run by the state or for profit. But the profit motive by definition removes an incentive to provide adequate care for all.
Can you give us some real world examples of big business causing problems “in the field”?
In my book, I examine the reality of the post-2010 Haiti earthquake environment and the litany of profiteers and aid organisations who flocked to the country and largely failed to help the people most in need (Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in the capital Port-au-Prince explained that there was a “gold-rush” for contracts). During my two trips there in the last years I’ve witnessed how a flawed USAID system is designed to benefit US corporations, and make them a profit, as opposed to empowering, training and hiring local staff. This breeds local resentment. Besides, the US claims to have spent over US$10 billion on aid since 2010 and yet the country remains framed in Washington as little more than a client state to make cheap clothing for Walmart, Gap and others.
There have always been disasters, and then apocalyptic doom-mongering about those disasters. What is new about this particular phase?
Yes, disaster capitalism has been occurring for centuries (the East-India Company was arguably the first example) but since the 1980s, and the era of mass globalisation, more corporations have embraced a deregulated world where they have become more powerful than the states in which they operate. International law remains very slow to act when, say, a US company behaves badly in Afghanistan, and independent nations on paper are shown to be little more than helpless in the face of overwhelming US corporate and government power.
Back in 1972 Jorgen Randers wrote The Limits to Growth – that’s now nearly half a century ago! Are we really reaching the limits to growth? What’s different now compared to the 70s? What’s to say that we don’t have another 50 years of growth in us?
Growth, if defined by increasingly rapacious acts to exploit natural resources, could continue for decades to come but at a massive cost to the environment and people, especially in developing nations. What I hope to achieve in my book is to bring awareness of how Western companies and aid dollars too often cause more problems than they solve in nations with little media coverage. An exploitative ideology has been exported globally. But closer to home, in Greece, UK, US and Australia, often the same firms working with abuses in the non-Western world, are allowed to buy the increasing number of public services being sold. In comparison to the 1970s, today’s inter-connected world makes awareness much easier but also the scale of the exploitation (and dwindling resources) all the most urgent to address.
What are the three things we could do immediately to ease the problem?
Pressure politicians and journalists to properly explain why companies that continually fail continue getting contracts to manage the most vulnerable people. Engage with local communities in developing nations and listen to their concerns (when, say, an earthquake strikes, don’t presume outside contractors have all the answers). Force our elected leaders not to sell off public assets that the majority of the public wants to remain in public hands (and throw them out of office if they do).
What three books would you recommend as further reading for those interested in “disaster capitalism”?
Iraq, Inc by Pratap Chatterjee
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
Private Island by James Meek
My column in the Guardian:
The Australian maintenance, construction and detention centre company Transfield Services officially changed its name last month, to Broadspectrum. The firm claimed it was “a better representation of the company’s business”. Clearly there was an element of necessity too: the corporation’s founding members withdrew permission to use the Transfield name and logo over ongoing allegations of abuse at its facilities on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
A name change isn’t likely to improve its public image, battered by never-ending stories of asylum seekers abused while in limbo.
One of the first rules of public relations is to take heat off a target by attempting to change the focus of controversy. Recall American private security firm Blackwater, embroiled in numerous scandals of employees killing innocent civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, first changing its name to Xe Services, then Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince left the US, moved to Abu Dhabi and today works with Chinese companies that financially benefit from the African resources boom.
In 2014, Academi became a division of Constellis Holdings, along with another private contractor, Triple Canopy. These descendants of Blackwater rake in cash from US government contracts, the years of scandals against its multiple owners and employees seemingly forgotten.
Broadspectrum will be hoping for similar success. Although profits were down 8% this year, a number of key shareholders were publicly opposed to its involvement in detention services. Some protested its recent AGM in Sydney.
The company looks set to continue a billion-dollar contract to run facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. As was the case for Blackwater and its descendents, it’s hard to imagine what would have to transpire for the federal government to sever its contract with the company.
Nonetheless, the growing push for divestment against Broadspectrum is an encouraging sign that companies profiting from offshore misery could suffer serious harm. Shen Narayanasamy, executive director of No Business in Abuse, rightly argues that, “you don’t deal with abuse by changing your name, you deal with abuse by stopping the abuse. No amount of spin changes Transfield’s complicity in abuse. Transfield/Broadspectrum doesn’t have to sign a five-year contract to continue profiting from the abuse of vulnerable people. That’s their decision.”
There’s no reason, apart from corporate Stockholm Syndrome, to defend the actions of Transfield. A recent op-ed by PhD candidate Carly Gordyn, published in SBS Online, made embarrassing excuses for the firm (“The contractors are doing only what they are being asked to do”) and insisted that refugee activists should principally target the government, which implements the detention policy.
Surely a strategy of highlighting official and corporate complicity is the most logical idea. During my years of investigating the role of British multinational Serco, both on the Australian mainland and Christmas Island, leaked internal documents proved that company management was price gouging, under-training staff and instructing regional managers not to report problems to avoid government fines.
And IHMS, the company that provides healthcare for Australia’s asylum seekers in detention, admitted in documents published earlier this year by Guardian Australia that “inevitable” fraud would be committed as it tried to meet government standards.
Of course, one company can be replaced with another with relative ease if the authorities are determined to outsource their responsibilities.
The time is ripe for a vociferous divestment campaign against Serco in Australia for its past and present activities. The firm is having financial troubles and is economically vulnerable to shareholder pressure. Broadspectrum will face a growing public backlash as long as it’s involved in the privatised detention business, although it’s unlikely to collapse from that alone.
Lessons from other states prove that this is only half the battle (for example, European detention firms are making money from the current refugee crisis) and that uncovering the financial and ideological ties that have led to the modern trend of outsourcing asylum seekers to corporations is the far larger and more difficult battle. It means challenging an economic model that places a monetary value on every human being.
After my recent UK and US media tour for Disaster Capitalism, I wrote a post for my publisher Verso:
Antony Loewenstein, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, rounds-up a series of op-eds in response to the ever-worsening global emergency of crisis-profiteering. Loewenstein’s analysis of contemporary news items offers a coherent frame for understanding the source and scope of this ethical catastrophe on a global scale.
Disaster capitalism surrounds us every day, from European firms aiming to make money from the refugee crisis to corporations turning a profit from the man-made crisis rescue business. It’s become so ubiquitous, people turning a profit from misery, that many simply ignore its presence or feel powerless to stop it.
I’ve recently been on a book tour in the US and UK for my new title, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and speaking about the countries that feature in it: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Greece, Britain, America and Australia. These are all nations that either export exploitative policies globally – think of British firm Serco operating detention centres in Australia and unaccountable American contractors in Afghanistan – or abuse the most vulnerable closer to home.
During the recent 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I told Al Jazeera English’s The Stream that opportunists saw a unique opportunity after the disaster to impose unequal education, healthcare and housing options. One decade later, the evidence remains strong that privatizing public services has left African-Americans disadvantaged. And yet there are still defenders, as I explained in Al Jazeera America:
“Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wrote in a recent column, referring to the monster storm that nearly wiped out the city of New Orleans in 2005. “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.
“McQueary wished for a storm to wipe away Chicago’s corruption, slash the city’s budget and introduce private education. However, she did not mention how African-Americans in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by the disaster or how race became a determining factor in what was rebuilt, how and where.”
The economic system is rigged. In my book I follow the money and explain how companies are able to continually score contracts in the West and the rest even though they consistently fail to deliver (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issues regular reports on wasted and lost US money in the war-torn state). I wrote in Al Jazeera America:
“Since the global economic meltdown in 2008, financial firms such as Bank of America received tens of billions of dollars of government money to save them from collapse while committing vast fraud in the process. Virtually nobody was punished. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, legally obligated to hold these companies to account, didn’t just squib his responsibility, he even returned to corporate law firm Covington & Burling after leaving office earlier this year to work again with corporations on its client list that he failed to prosecute when in office.
“While the financial elite plays with each other’s toys, the American population has rarely been so reliant on state handouts. More than 1 in 5 children need food stamps. The middle class often struggles to pay rent, students are burdened with debt, and Americans, according to studies, have little hope for the future.During my various public events in the US and UK I was often asked how to stop this trend of unaccountable corporate and government power. There’s no simple answer though bringing the voices of those assaulted by outsourced power is an important start. I like the recent call by US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to end privatized prisons and detention centers. Such initiatives deserve large public support.”
During interviews on Democracy Now! and Rolling Stone I stressed that refugees, the under-privileged and the interned are often voiceless and don’t deserve to be made little more than numbers to be processed for profit. A healthy society is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable. Greece is one of the worst examples of an undemocratic European Union imposing extreme austerity on a society that is already suffering (Salon published an extract of my chapter here).
A key aim of writing Disaster Capitalism (along with the film in progress of the same name) is to highlight how our modern, globalized world often benefits the corporate elites in the West at the expense of those we have occupied militarily or economically by featuring local individuals who are fighting back.
The following conversation is published on US website Mondoweiss:
Antony Loewenstein came through New York recently to promote his new book Disaster Capitalism. He later related to me that at two NY events, he had gone off on journalists as a profession. I wanted to draw him out, and so we exchanged emails.
You said you’d developed real contempt for the profession of journalism. Why?
Loewenstein: Journalism has the potential to be transformative, to inform and provoke, or at the very least inform. Too often I see reporters desperate to be close to power, whether ministers, minders. Insiders. Being embedded, pre or post 9/11, isn’t just about partnering with US or Western troops in a war zone. Too often it’s a state of mind that requires journalists to not question an economic system (“capitalism is damaged but can be repaired”), or Israeli violence against Palestinians or the apparent necessity of “doing something” in the face of state collapse (as if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya aren’t cautionary tales). Vast parts of the world are routinely ignored by the Western media because they aren’t seen as having value or important enough. This could be “unpeople” such as most of the Muslim world, people of colour or poor whites.
I’ve been living in South Sudan this year and seen some fine and brave journalists, locals and Westerners, covering an incredibly brutal war. What’s been revealing and depressing is some editors in comfortable Western capitals saying that they don’t want stories that are “too depressing”. As if a reporter can prettify an ethic conflict to make Western audiences less uncomfortable when reading during breakfast on their iPhones.
I regularly ask myself what journalism is achieving apart from awareness that often brings little or no changes on the ground. It’s important and necessary to bear witness, and I’ll continue to do so, including in my new book, but what if seeing and witnessing simply isn’t enough?
I got the sense that you went on a more visceral rant against the profession at your events. I’m not going to stand up for the profession, any more than I want to stand up for the human race, but: Are there other professions that you have more admiration for than those parasitic journos?
I don’t have contempt for journalism as a profession, far from it, I have major issues with the ways it’s often undertaken. Media complicity in state violence – from the US bombing of Iraq and Libya, Israeli crimes in Palestine and US involvement in the Indonesian genocide in the 1960s – is the issue here. Reporters often claim they have to play a delicate dance or game with sources, especially in officialdom, to get access. But that access often means sanctioned leaks to a favored journalist. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography. I understand it’s often important to quote off the record information, I do it myself though sparingly, in a sensitive story. But the mentality that many in the media have – don’t stand out, join the crowd, fit in, be liked – means that independent journalism has never been more important.
My professional journalistic career began just after 9/11 so I’m a product of the last decade plus years. There are simply too many stark examples of wilful journalistic dishonesty (and lack of acknowledging mistakes) to believe countless reporters from many major media outlets don’t prefer being wrong to challenging state spin. It’s largely cost-free, career wise. Standing up to a lying Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Dennis Ross or Barack Obama takes guts.
I admire many professions, from brain surgeons to environmental scientists.
As human beings, we are full of faults, contradictions and hypocrisy. Journalists are no exception. But I’ve long believed that reporters have an extra responsibility when covering matters of war, refugees, life and death. We are conveyors of information that can either inform a population, or lie to it. I wish more journalists left their offices and psychologically embedded positions and valued more pissing off those whose outcome (if not primary aim) is to harm civilians. Defending or justifying state violence is the most degrading of arts.
Your critique is a variation of Killing the messenger. The press has always and will always reflect the powers that be, by and large; because they are paid by those powers. It is the role of independent media to challenge the powers that be, but how do they achieve that independence? There are some true independent spirits, but the basis of independence is financial, too. And progressives are a distinct minority in this system; we represent dissent but we also require forms of social support. And we shouldn’t shut off communications with the MSM types. I realize I’m becoming a crabbed conservative in life, somewhat; but I do want a way forward, and for me that involves putting breadcrumbs on the trail for the mainstream journalists.
I’ve never argued that cutting all ties, irreconcilable differences with the MSM, is desirable. I regularly write for the MSM, and will continue doing so. Its audience remains strong and influential. Leading by example by the MSM is rare, very few mainstream reporters will take the way on important social issues. From the gay rights movement to Palestine, they’re often following years after activists have led a path and the general public is usually far savvier and smarter than the MSM (and many of us) presume. That’s fine and should continue. But you seem to be arguing that independent media is hard, and the path is tough and let’s not entirely shut out the possibility that the MSM may one day, say, support BDS because Israel is a pariah and will only change its behaviour though strong outside pressure. When ethics and business collide, the former rarely wins. If history is any guide, the MSM are unlikely to be leading on anything that will upset their power and advertising base.
For me, the constant failings of the MSM are that they don’t reflect the will of the people, views and ideas that are shared by many in the population. War isn’t popular, neither is privatization of public services. Full healthcare is backed by many Americans and yet it’s framed in the MSM as a bitter partisan ‘debate’. It is in Washington but many outside America laugh and cringe at the inability and unwillingness of the DC elite to provide publicly provided medical care for all. I want the MSM to be honest about its agenda and biases. We all have them and yet too often the myth of ‘objectivity’ is wheeled out as a weapon against indy media, as though the MSM is balanced and straight and indy reporters are inherently biased (check out the wonderful UK website Medialens and its recent analysis of the BBC and Afghanistan).