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Talking about Disaster Capitalism in Britain

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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

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“Disaster Capitalism”

The Lahore Times reviews

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 flametree@riseup.net and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com

11 Things The Koch Brothers Don’t Want You To Know, From Robert Greenwald’s Newly Updated Documentary

The poster boys for the top 1 percent are even worse than you thought.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The mega-billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch, stand apart in the world of Republicans.

In 2012, their network of hardcore libertarian political donors spent $400 million on negative campaign ads intended to destroy government safety nets and defeat Democrats. They want to repeal Obamacare, dismantle labor unions, repeal any environmental law protecting clean water and air, roll back voting rights, privatize Social Security, stop a minimum wage increase and more. They don’t care about destroying the checks and balances in American democracy to get their way.

In an updated documentary by Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, Koch Brothers Exposed: 2014 Edition, we learn many things the Kochs don’t want you to know, from the origin of their radical agenda to other issues they’ve championed that haven’t made the national news, such as resegregating public schools.

Here are 11 things the Kochs don’t want you to know about them.

1. The family’s $100 billion fortune comes mostly from a massive network of oil and gas pipelines, and investments in other polluting industries like paper and plastics. The brothers inherited the seed money for their holdings from their father Fred Koch, who made his first fortune building oil pipelines for the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. Back in the states, Fred Koch supported racial segregation and white supremacist groups like the John Birch Society.

2. Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in America, worth upwards of $80 billion. It is one of the country’s top 15 polluters, responsible for more than 300 oil spills. It has paid over $100 million in fines and been found guilty by a federal jury of stealing oil from Native American lands.

3. The Kochs have invested multi-millions in more than 85 right-wing organizations over the years to push an anti-government, libertarian agenda. Many local Tea Party chapters were fronts for Americans for Prosperity, one of their groups. Another big recipient, ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, drafts bills and talking points that Republican officials cite again and again. In the 2012 presidential election cycle, the Koch’s right-wing donor network spent $400 million on electioneering.

4. The brothers work to create legal decisions to empower their efforts. They brought two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, to give speeches at their invitation-only gatherings for libertarian industrialists. That was before the Court issued itsCitizens Unitedruling, gutting federal laws that restricted the kinds of outside campaigns they bankroll. They funded groups that filed thousands of pages of legal briefs to attack those election laws. After the Court threw out federal campaign restrictions in 2010—a ruling they help to write—the Kochs began to spend unprecedented sums to sway elections.

5. Americans for Prosperity led a successful takeover of the school board in Wake County, North Carolina in 2009, which then ended student busing to resegregate high schools. They resurrected the coded rhetoric of the old South, using terms like “forced busing” and “neighborhood schools.” After hundreds of students were sent to other schools, the uproar was so great the AFP slate was voted out two years later, but not before the kids experienced racism and prejudice.

6. As donors to higher education, the Kochs have designed grant agreements with more than 150 colleges and universities where they restrict academic freedom by exerting control over who gets hired. The programs they fund present only their views in class, curricula and in their research. They promote pro-business, libertarian inquiry, which does not allow the facts and results to lead to their own conclusions. Faculties at many universities have protested these donations and threats to academic freedom.

7. AFP was one of the lead groups in Wisconsin, encouraging Republican Gov. Scott Walker to revoke collective bargaining agreements with public employees—except for police and firefighters, who tend to support the GOP and law-and-order politicians. Through national legal advocacy groups like ALEC, they have introduced scores of reactionary anti-union bills in dozens of states.

8. Other Koch-funded efforts include the Republican national effort to unduly police the voting process to discourage young people, minorities and senior from casting ballots. The reactionary voting rights bills they have introduced in dozens of states impose stricter voter ID requirements, which do not prevent people from registering to vote but will keep them from getting a ballot if they cannot present specific paperwork. AFP and other Koch-funded groups, such as True The Vote, have recruited and trained mostly white poll watchers to challenge the credentials of mostly non-white voters, creating a climate of fear and intimidation around voting.

9. The Koch brothers make $13 million a day from their investments, but they want to eliminate minimum wage laws and oppose any increases. People earning the federal minimum wage earn about $60 a day. A minimum wage worker would have to work almost 700 years to earn what the Kochs make in a day. (Koch-funded politicians have proposed 67 bills in 25 states to reduce the minimum wage.)

10. The Koch brothers want to destroy the most popular government program of all, Social Security, by funding right-wing think tanks that spread misinformation about Social Security’s long-term financial health, claiming it will not survive. They want people to invest their retirement savings on Wall Street, which is riskier and would earn billions in fees for investment firms. They want to raise the retirement age for Social Security to 70, which would especially penalize blue-collar workers who do manual labor, as their bodies wear out more quickly than white-collar workers.

11. The Koch brothers’ massive investments and holdings are literally killing the planet, because their primary business is transporting gas and oil. That includes the Canadian oil tar sands, which is the dirtiest source of fossil fuel on earth. If these sands are developed for the U.S. or Chinese markets, it would be the biggest carbon bomb in decades, hastening the progress of global climate change.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008)

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Dole’s Corporate Greed with Fredrik Gertten of Big Boys Gone Bananas

Thomas Piketty

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AND SEE THIS LECTURE BY PIKETTY

Who Goes to Jail? Matt Taibbi on American Injustice Gap from Wall Street to Main Street

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220px-Matt_Taibbi

Democracy Now, a very interesting show with Richard Wolff

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Among other topics :
Capitalism in Crisis: Richard Wolff Urges End to Austerity, New Jobs Program, Democratizing Work

As Washington lawmakers pushes new austerity measures, economist Richard Wolff calls for a radical restructuring of the U.S. economic and financial systems. We talk about the $85 billion budget cuts as part of the sequester, banks too big to fail, Congress’ failure to learn the lessons of the 2008 economic collapse, and his new book, “Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.” Wolff also gives Fox News host Bill O’Reilly a lesson in economics 101. [includes rush transcript]

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