The lure

“Few ideologues can resist the allure of a blank slate – that was colonialism’s seductive promise: “discovering” wide-open new lands where utopia seemed possible. But colonialism is dead, or so we are told; there are no new places to discover, no terra nullius (there never was), no more blank pages on which, as Mao once said, “the newest and most beautiful words can be written.” There is, however, plenty of destruction – countries smashed to rubble, whether by so-called Acts of God or by Acts of Bush (on orders from God). And where there is destruction there is reconstruction, a chance to grab hold of “the terrible barrenness,” as a UN official recently described the devastation in Aceh, and fill it with the most perfect, beautiful plans.

“We used to have vulgar colonialism,” says Shalmali Guttal, a Bangalore-based researcher with Focus on the Global South. “Now we have sophisticated colonialism, and they call it ‘reconstruction.'”

So writes Naomi Klein in the May 2 edition of The Nation. She highlights the increasing use of private contractors for the rebuilding of countries and economies. Iraq is a perfect example. Baghdad was still burning and the “American occupation officials rewrote the investment laws and announced that the country’s state-owned companies would be privatised.”

When Western leaders talk about “reconstruction” or “assistance”, they’re speaking in code. I remember reading some months ago of the recent election victory of President Yushchenko in Ukraine. An International Monetary Fund spokesperson was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying that the country would need to “reassure” foreign investment and “engage in a policy of rapid privatisation” before serious overseas capital could arrive. The Bush administration even wanted to privatise Iraqi oil before the invasion.

What exactly does democracy mean to the powerbrokers in Canberra, Washington and London? Take Indonesia. Before the Boxing Day tsunami, the country owned over $100 billion to the World Bank. It was an unpayable amount. The result is that millions of citizens are living in poverty because the government is forever paying back this debt.

Before the first Gulf War, many Arab countries, such as Syria and Egypt, joined the “Coalition” because America provided either massive “debt relief” or arms. Coalition of the Willing, indeed.

The “outbreak” of democracy in many countries is simply language for a new kind of colonialism. The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2004 that Halliburton could not justify why it billed the Pentagon for $1.8 billion of work in Iraq and Kuwait. Just who gets rich when invasion and occupation strikes?

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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