Profits Can be Made from Catastrophes With Disaster Capitalism
Antony Loewenstein, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, says companies that make profits from disasters around the world also have a vested interest in maintaining these disasters
GREGORY WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
War, earthquakes, refugees, poverty — we often think that all of these things are bad for business. However, according to the book, “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe”, by Antony Loewenstein, corporations and companies are finding ways to make more and more money out of disasters. Not only that, they manage to perpetuate the conditions of disaster, in order to profit ever more from them.
Joining us today from Jerusalem is the book’s author, Antony Loewenstein. Antony is an independent Australian journalist, documentary-maker and blogger, who has written for the BBC, The Nation and the Washington Post. He’s also a weekly Guardian columnist, and the author of several best-selling books.
So good to have you with us today, Antony.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me. Thank you.
GREGORY WILPERT: Two of your blurbs on your book, the one by Naomi Klein and by Jeremy Scahill, essentially say that your book continues where Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine”, leaves off, and actually you make this argument more or less in the introduction of your book, as well. Explain to us briefly what the central argument of the “Shock Doctrine” was, and how your book continues Naomi Klein’s analysis.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: When Naomi’s book came out in 2007, what I liked about and, along, I should also say, with books like, “Blackwater” by Jeremy Scahill, amongst others, also “Iraq Inc.”, which talked about the privatization of Iraq after the 2003 Iraq War -– all those kind of books. What I liked about them was, it gave almost a global economic model for what was happening. In other words, in your introduction, you explained very correctly, that some people would say, well, clearly, a refugee crisis could not be good for business. In other words, it’s going to be bad for human rights, bad for society, bad for a country. But, in fact, it’s actually wonderful for business: corporations can make money from the detention, or other areas like that.
Naomi’s book had a very global perspective, and what I liked about it was, there was room for expanding that thesis. And one of the big differences between my book and hers — apart from the fact that we focus on different countries around the world — is my major focus is on immigration and refugees. The refugees, she, wasn’t as much of an issue in 2007, although of course it was still an issue. And now in the second decade of the 21st century, refugees are arguably the, or of the, great issues.
So, I looked at countries like Australia, the U.S., U.K., Greece, countries that have really gone through a great deal of suffering in the last years, and refugees themselves have been treated pretty badly in all those countries. And the connection between them all, is that often the same corporations are involved, the same corporations running the detention centers. The same corporations often managing the food, healthcare, and I thought it was important for people to see the global connections between these issues.
GREGORY WILPERT: One of the key aspects of your argument, at least what I can glean from it, is that neo-liberalism, which aims to privatize everything, to turn everything over to market forces, is behind disaster capitalism, as an ideology.
Is this correct? Would you say that that’s correct? And tell us a little bit more about this connection between neo-liberalism, and if it’s correct, what’s the connection between neo-liberalism and disaster capitalism?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Definitely. Neo-liberalism essentially, as you rightly say, is this idea somehow that the role of the State should be minimal, or non-existent. And what’s so fascinating and disturbing about that, is that in virtually every country where people are polled, or asked questions about what they think about these policies, they’re fundamentally unpopular.
So, when you will ask Americans, Australians, those in Greece and much of Europe, in fact much of the world, people don’t like the idea that their water could be privatized. Or public services, or various other elements, because they’ve seen often, up close, or in other countries, how disastrous that’s been for service providing.
So, the connection between disaster capitalism and neo-liberalism is that you have really, in many, certainly Western countries, almost a bi-partisan consensus, that somehow outsourcing is the solution. That somehow privatizing detention, privatizing immigration, privatizing war, is the right thing to do. People, I think, often make the mistake, especially in the U.S., for example, when Donald Trump is now president that things will get far worse than it was during Obama. On many issues I would agree with that.
However, when the Bush administration, after 9/11 accelerated the privatization of war, Obama continued that with a very, very disturbing continuity. In other words, the privatization of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan did not stop during Obama. The outsourcing of intelligence continued under Obama. In fact, many elements of the post-9/11 environment that Bush began, Obama has deepened, and Trump will no doubt accelerate even more.
There is a continuity here, and what’s so disturbing to me, and sad, is that many of the activists who are now in the U.S. particularly outraged, rightly, about the disgusting policies of Donald Trump, whether it’s immigration or war or whatever it may be, were often largely silent -– not all, but many –- during the Obama years. The eight years of Obama, because somehow they believed, mistakenly, that he could be more trusted. But, in fact, the reality is when it comes to, say; immigration, outsourcing and war, Obama in fact, accelerated and deepened the policies of the previous president, George W. Bush.
So, neo-liberalism, and disaster capitalism, are connected, and they have bi-partisan support in most, and many countries.
GREGORY WILPERT: And how do you explain that, that even though these policies are so unpopular, populations keep electing people like… that promote these kinds of policies?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: It’s a really good question, and the short answer is, there is no short answer. But the slightly longer answer is that, I think often in many countries — and Western countries at least — there’s not really much of a choice. And I’m not suggesting, for example, that Donald Trump was the same as Hillary Clinton. There were deep similarities, but also major differences.
But at the same time, the key issues around immigration, or outsourcing the immigration, is not generally seen as a popular issue. In other words, when, for example, in America you have growing numbers of immigrants who are dying in privatized immigration facilities during Bush, during Obama, during Trump, that’s generally not seen, sadly, as a so-called sexy issue. It’s not really a vote-winner or vote-loser.
Certainly, maybe Hispanic communities will vote along those issues, but many communities will not. And I think, often — there’s been a lot of studies in the last couple of decades — about why people often vote the parties, and in fact they’re against their economic interests. I just read some study last week, that a lot of Trump supporters in the U.S., some of whom may have buyer’s remorse a few months after he was elected already, are often voting for a person like Donald Trump because they see, in this particular election in 2016, a belief somehow that there was disillusionment with Obama.
Or, disillusion with this idea somehow that they were, as white men and women, lacking advantage in American society, that somehow blacks or minorities or LGBTI or other individuals are somehow getting benefits that they, as white people are not. But often they’re voting for parties like the Republican Party, that in fact, will be against their economic interests.
So, I think what is needed, desperately needed, in many countries –- the U.S., Australia, the U.K., much of the world –- is not this obsession with a two-party consensus. A two-party consensus in general does not help the majority of the population. And the problem is that most people are not given any reliable alternative to vote for when it comes to the election, which I think is a real problem for democracy.
GREGORY WILPERT: Your book actually spans the entire globe, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Papua New Guinea, and Greece, Haiti, the U.S., Britain, Australia. We don’t have time to cover all of these, but let’s take a closer look at one or two of them. I’d like to pick Papua New Guinea, mainly because most people are quite unfamiliar with that country.
Just tell us a little bit about what you found there, and how disaster capitalism works there, just briefly.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Papua New Guinea is a country to the north of Australia. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and also one of the richest. When I say “richest” I mean in terms of natural resources. Many of the global, largest mining companies, American and British companies, are operating copper or gold mines in Papua New Guinea.
It was an Australian colony until 1975, and since then, in the last 40 or so years, it’s become one of the poorest, most devastated countries in that region. I focus on an area called Bougainville, which was the site of one of Asia-Pacific’s most violent civil wars in the 1980s. This was over a Rio Tinto mine, a copper mine, that was incredibly destructive, environmentally devastating, and left the community there in very, very bad shape.
The reason I wanted to mention Papua New Guinea, as you rightly say, most people have never heard of the country, but also to give an example of a nation like Papua New Guinea -– and we say PNG for short –- which is deeply rich, but in fact incredibly poor. In other words, the “resource curse”, which is a term that I did not invent, of course, which I look at in other countries, too, is very, very relevant here.
So, when you have a major multinational, Rio Tinto, operating in Papua New Guinea for decades, you really have a situation where the company itself is making a fortune. They leave after a civil war, after 20,000 individuals were killed in that civil war. And here we are, a few decades on after the end of the civil war, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Bougainville in the last five years, and you still find a beautiful area, very lush, very green, but incredibly poor.
There’s no infrastructure. There is now talk of reopening that dirty mine, that was never cleaned up in the first place. I think the lesson really here is that when we look to our political leaders for some kind of direction, and people often look to those people — and I would argue that we’re not going to find much salvation there — what you find in a place like Bougainville, is a very rare example of locals rising up and actually winning against a multinational.
We should also not forget that Australia, the Papua New Guinea government, others, were onside with the Bougainville mining organization. And the locals were on one side, and the rest of the world was on the other side: the locals won, but at an incredibly high price.
And the film I’m also working on at the moment called, Disaster Capitalism, which I’ll hopefully finish this year in 2017, also features Bougainville, and really shows how local resistance, both then and now, actually can imagine an alternative. Agriculture. Tourism. Mining is not the only solution, or answer, to a poor territory’s problems. And unfortunately many of the powers that be in Papua New Guinea today, and indeed further afield, are arguing that mining must come back. But in fact that’s not the case at all.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, this is all the time we have for Part 1 of this interview. We’ll pick it up again in Part 2. We’re speaking with Antony Loewenstein, the author of the book, “Disaster Capitalism”.
Tune in for Part 2.
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
We’re continuing now on Part 2 of our interview with Antony Loewenstein, who’s the author of, “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe”.
Thanks again, Antony, for being with us here today.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks for having me. Thank you.
GREGORY WILPERT: And I just wanted to look at another situation. You make also the… you also analyze countries such as the U.S. and Britain. Just tell us also how does disaster capitalism manifest itself in a country such as Britain? What I’m also wondering, is there any difference in its manifestation in a country of the north, compared to a country of the so-called third world?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: That’s a good question. Look, in many ways, yes and no. On the one hand, of course, although poverty in countries like Britain it’s incredibly high, it’s actually growing, inequality is rising, obviously the situation is not the same as, say, Afghanistan and the U.K. Of course it’s not. But what you do find in a place like Britain, my focus there was immigration, and how in the last couple of decades in both governments, of Labour, which is a so-called left party, and the Conservative Party, have privatized and outsourced immigration detention.
So, thousands upon thousands of immigrants have come to the U.K. in the last decades, are often housed in incredibly poor conditions. They are mistreated, they’re often abused, some of them have died, some have been sexually assaulted. I visited some of these facilities across the U.K. a few years ago. What I found there was real devastation. People who even were released from these facilities; they’re often put in incredibly poor housing, organized by companies like G4S and Serco.
The reason I wanted to do that, to show that, was to explain that those companies also operate in the U.S., and they also operate in Australia in exactly the same area. In other words, when companies like Serco, or G4S move to Australia, which they have in the last couple of decades, it’s almost like the political powers-that-be and much of the media elite, either ignore, or don’t care about the fact that their records of service in the U.K. and the U.S., has been very, very poor.
So, to me, the book does not, for example, argue that the U.S. is the same as Papua New Guinea. But what I am saying is that there are examples in all those countries, both the West and the rest, as they say, where the same corporations are involved. The same ideology, the same positions of various corporations and governments, and the only way that’s actually going to change, is if there are locals rising up. And I might also add that aid organizations that often are furthering and worsening these problems, are often held to account.
In other words, they do not -– this is what they often do in places like Haiti -– do not often employ locals in jobs when after, say, a massive earthquake in 2010. And to me, having accountability, bringing real accountability, to a place like Haiti, or Papua New Guinea, or Afghanistan is so important. And too often I think aid organizations that sometimes mean well, often are not delivering those goods.
GREGORY WILPERT: One of the things, I mean, aside from the lack of accountability, that I think you mentioned, also that there is a certain amount of callousness, and also a growth in right wing movements that help promote disaster capitalism.
But have you seen anything that undermines this tendency? Anything…? I mean, what… I mean, you mentioned, actually earlier, but what in general do you think can be done to move away from this callousness, and this lack of accountability?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Well, it’s a good question, and it’s a difficult question, because one of the problems at the moment is that when, for example, in Afghanistan, or Iraq, after 9/11, when there’s obviously been wars that have gone on now for 15 years or so — or in Afghanistan at least — is that when contractors, both foreign and local are killed, or they’re injuring locals. Or they’re sexually abusing locals; this does not seem to become –- with a few exceptions –- a political issue in the U.S. or the U.K.
In other words, there is… it’s almost a set of global multinational, unaccountability mechanism. What there needs to be, for one, is actually a legal mechanism instituted both by the UN and others, to hold these organizations to account.
If the U.S. and British courts are not willing to, for example, hold companies like G4S, or Serco, or Blackwater to account — and there are some exceptions where they have, but in general they don’t — there needs to be an international legal body to do so. There have been a few moves in the last few years to institute some kind of global contractor legal facility, that allows certain corporations like G4S, Serco and others to be held to account. Nothing has happened yet.
And I think also one of the things, and I speak, as a journalist here, is that too often journalism is embedded. And when I say embedded, I mean that embedded, not so much just with the military, which is what embedding usually means, but embedded with the powerful. One of the importances of me with this book, and a lot of my work in the last decade or so, is that journalism should not just be about speaking to people in power -– politicians, the media and others -– it needs to speak from the ground up.
And if I think people in the West and the rest, and much of the world, are far more informed about what their corporations are doing in their name, I like to think they’d be more likely to want to hold them to account. For example, there also could be pressure through shareholders; there could be pressure through various local campaigns. There can be also pressure on governments to pressure these corporations. There are ways that this can be done.
350.org is a great example of an environmental group, which has put a lot of pressure on fossil fuel providers. And has some degree of success in pressuring individuals and corporations that invest in these dirty energy sources, and often they’re divesting. That could be a very effective way for shareholders to be pressured, with companies like G4S, and Serco and others. So, there is hope. It’s not a hopeless situation.
But one of the things I try to do in the book is to at least make people more aware of what’s going on, so they can become more empowered.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, unfortunately, we’ve run out of time, but just to make a quick connection to one of the things –- or, actually two of the things -– that you said. One is that, of course, we hope at The Real News that we do something similar to the kind of journalism that you’re talking about. And the other point I wanted to make, is that here in Ecuador actually, there’s been a movement, or it’s actually the government is promoting the idea, under President Rafael Correa, to hold corporations accountable to a human rights standard.
So, that sounds kind of similar to the point you were making about holding companies accountable, right?
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Is your sense of the new Ecuadorian government will have a similar point of view?
GREGORY WILPERT: I hope so. I’m not sure. But I think so, yes.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Let’s hope so, well, thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it.
GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah, thank you, Antony, for having joined us today.
ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thank you.
GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.