The system of capitalism is always being debated. In most countries people are fighting it, seeking to replace it, or trying to improve it. The mere presence of capitalism also brings with it values and ideas that will have huge consequences for the people who live under it. The ideals and virtues of capitalism hold true, even in times of disaster and chaos. Antony Loewenstein, an Australian journalist, explains this phenomenon in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe . As a current columnist for the Guardian, he has written on this and other similar topics for not only the Guardian, but also other publications like The New York Times, The Nation, and The Washington Post. The Source got a chance to speak with Loewenstein about the premise of his book and to explain what is disaster capitalism.
The Source: What was the motivation behind writing your book Disaster Capitalism?
Antony Loewenstein: As an investigative journalist who doesn’t subscribe to the embedded reporter mindset, I wanted to write a book that questioned the economic system of our age in some of the most challenging places on the planet, such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, how does privatized immigration and war affect civilians in Greece, Britain, Australia, the US and Britain? By visiting these nations, and understanding how rarely the voices of those most affected by discriminatory economic policies are heard in the mainstream media, I hoped to show readers that the corporation has become more powerful than the state, and why that’s a big problem for democracy and accountability.
How does this book differ and how is it similar to Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine?
I was inspired by Klein’s book and wanted to expand her thesis. The Shock Doctrine was released in 2007 and much has changed since then, especially the 2008 global financial crisis. A key focus of my book is the privatized immigration industry across the globe. I wanted to investigate who was making money from the refugee “crisis” in Europe, Australia, the US and beyond, and why exploiting this issue was morally and economically irresponsible.
Is disaster capitalism “imperialism” by another name?
In many ways, yes. Take Afghanistan, consumed by war for decades. There are an estimated trillions of dollars of resources under the ground, but the excavation so far has been beset by corruption and violence. Is it even possible to responsibly mine in the country with a rising insurgency? What about climate change concerns? Imperialism, a word that the corporate media so rarely uses in the 21st century when discussing Western government and corporate policies, is little different to past exploitation by the major powers and multinationals, except that globalization today has allowed domination to occur on an unparalleled scale.
Should it be morally wrong or unethical for a company to make money during a disaster or in the aftermath?
No. It all depends on what the company is doing and how. Are they employing locals and training them? The profit motive often distorts the priorities of a corporation in a disaster or war zone, though I’m not idealizing the state, either. An entity that can and does regularly fail to provide adequately for its citizens—think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A key problem with corporations operating in disaster zones, man-made or natural, is the lack of regulation, oversight and accountability. In Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s biggest copper mines, run by Rio Tinto, caused a civil war and pollution in in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and yet today, the company has paid no compensation and is talking about re-opening the site. It’s an almost invisible struggle against huge odds. I wanted to show how one company could take on a major mining player and win, though at a huge personal cost.
How should the rules of capitalism change or adjust should a disaster strike?
When a disaster strikes, necessary regulations should already be in place, but my book investigates how this is so rarely the case. Even in first-world nations, such as the US and Australia, the ongoing refugee “crisis” finds politicians and their media supporters supporting a “whatever it takes” mentality to manage it. Out of sight and out of mind is often viewed as a positive, short-term solution. For example, Australia is the only country in the world to completely privatize its asylum seeker facilities, including those based on remote Pacific islands. The conditions are awful; mental health problems are rampant and sexual and psychological abuse are common. None of these issues have stopped wily companies from bidding on contracts and making a profit from the misery of others.
Do you see the topic of disaster capitalism being discussed in some part by politicians throughout the world?
The vast majority of corporate politicians don’t discuss disaster capitalism because they’re complicit in continuing it. There are exceptions. US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has pledged to abolish privatized prisons and immigration centers due to the abuses within them.
Where are the latest examples of disaster capitalism taking place in the world?
In Afghanistan, there are still tens of thousands of private contractors with virtually no oversight. There are also many private contractors fighting ISIS in Iraq, but we don’t know the exact number. Once again, US President Barack Obama fights his wars with no transparency. Since 2001, the US has pledged to spend $110 billion in reconstructing Afghanistan and there’s very little to show for it.
Are there opportunities for disaster capitalism to be played out in more developed countries like U.S., Europe and Russia?
Disaster capitalism is borderless and knows no ideology other than the profit motive. Globalization allows unregulated corporations to travel the world looking for nations with low or no tax rates. Without a concerted international effort to challenge tax havens, disaster capitalism will continue to thrive.
What is the role of non profits and NGOs, where disaster capitalism can or is taking place?
NGOs and non-profits can play a central role in disaster and war zones. I’ve seen this myself in Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. But too often, accountability for NGO actions are missing. For example, the American Red Cross raised huge amounts of money after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but little of the money has helped the Haitian people. This case, and many others, is why the public should demand far greater scrutiny of groups that cloak themselves in benign intent.
Can you talk about the links between donor funds from donor countries, companies in those donor countries, the needs of the people in the disaster area, and what appears to be the freezing out of professionals in those countries? Can you also explain the diverging agendas that seem to happen when all these forces collide?
After the Haitian earthquake in 2010, the US government pledged to give the country billions of dollars in support. In reality though, much of this money went to US corporations, who failed to deliver on the ground in Haiti. A major insight during the reporting of my book is how little accountability exists within the aid world, when there’s a major incentive to keep the donor money rolling in. During my work in many troubled places, I’ve seen committed aid workers helping people in need, but it’s important to ask if prolonged conflicts are benefiting long-term NGOs. I want to see locals in developing nations being far more empowered by outside forces, through training, jobs etc, rather than being bystanders in their own country.
What has been the reaction from people about your book?
I’ve been pleased with the global response to the book, including a very positive review in the UK Guardian. I’ve toured the book in the UK and US, and found countless people keen to share their dismay with the political and economic direction of their nations. The immigration issue has been especially potent because the mass of people coming into Europe and the US are easily demonized as numbers and irritants, dismissed and turned into a number to be profited from. We need to resist this dangerous and immoral capitalist tendency.
What are the future plans for the book?
The book will be released in paperback later this year. I’ve also been working for years on a documentary called Disaster Capitalism with New York film-maker Thor Neureiter. It features stories from Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. We’re currently working on a rough edit of the feature. In recent great news, we’ve been accepted into the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in May.