In the last 7+ years, I’ve been investigating and reporting on disaster capitalism around the world. This culminated in my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and the documentary, Disaster Capitalism.
There’s a great, long essay in the US magazine Public Books about disaster capitalism in the modern age, written by US academic Tom Winterbottom, and he assesses the various ways that three writers view the issue: Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and me. Below are some extracts from the essay:
That there are many cases of disaster capitalism is a point made by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe (2015), and in the 2018 documentary Disaster Capitalism. In these comprehensive and unsettling works, he covers war (in Afghanistan), aid (in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake), and environmental exploitation (in Papua New Guinea). He also cites many other examples of exploitative economic practices—those that aim to make money for corporations or purposefully impoverish citizens—in Greece, the UK, the US, and Australia.
Early on in the book, Loewenstein makes an important terminological point: “Whether we call this disaster capitalism,” he writes, “or just a product of the unavoidable excesses and inequalities of capitalism itself, the end result is still a world ruled by unaccountable markets.” Although Loewenstein neglects to flesh this out, it is a crucial observation: what he sees in disparate locations and contexts is not necessarily produced or predicated by a disaster or extraordinary event. The crisis that Loewenstein documents pervades capitalist societies and lies in actors systematically embracing exploitative and damaging practices in the unfolding of the neoliberal story.
Be it detention centers in the US, relief aid in Haiti, military contractors in Afghanistan, economic sanctions on Greece, complicit corporate-sponsored NGOs in the developing world, or prison systems across much of the Western world, “predatory behavior” does vary “from country to country, but the strategy is the same: exaggerate a threat, man-made or natural, and let loose unaccountable private-sector contractors to exploit it.” Loewenstein frequently uses the term “disaster” seemingly interchangeably with terms like “exploitative,” “crisis,” and “predatory” as descriptors of capitalism. That he settles on no single word is not a weakness, but rather an intriguing diagnosis: capitalism in its current expression and at its worst is all of those things and more.
Once you pry open the terminology a little bit, as Loewenstein implies, one finds that the leverage of “disaster capitalism” now stretches far beyond that which Klein identified. In Loewenstein’s reckoning, there are still the more “traditional” disasters and economic shock therapy “solutions,” and perhaps it is those more obvious shocks that generate the conditions that allow for a particularly nefarious and obvious expression of largely harmful neoliberal capitalism, as is beginning to unfold in Puerto Rico.
In the background, however, a more unsettling picture also emerges, in which those exploitative machinations continue to take hold, progressively and aggressively, even without a disaster or shock. Indeed, after reading Loewenstein’s book, one is left wondering what isn’t impacted by the nefarious tendrils of “disaster” capitalism—education, the aid system, non-profit organizations, the democratic electoral system, privacy, healthcare, big tech, big data, underemployment. Nothing is safe from the imperial reach of a commodified system of capital. Disaster or not, it now seems that capitalism seeks to get into unexplored cracks and expand whether or not we like or even recognize it. A disaster often serves to foreground these ever-present traits. As such, “disaster” may no longer refer to specific shocks or changes in the economic system but rather to the system itself. “Disaster” can serve as a modifier concerning the very nature of capitalism and its development within a broad framework of neoliberalism. That is, it is inherently disastrous and in crisis, not exceptionally.
Klein, Monbiot, and Loewenstein chime with the positive possibility of resolution and change, often by citing cases in which the greedy reach of capitalism has been at least limited: the ongoing fight for Puerto Rico is testament to that. The three authors also ultimately demand—somewhat hopefully, or perhaps hopelessly—a need for modern societies “to view humans as more than just consumers.” Monbiot goes further, pushing for a “regime change,” in which the system is replaced rather than reformed.5 As such, their objective seems not to be “benevolent capitalism” or “sustainable capitalism” but rather “not capitalism.”