Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Disasters of Imperial Power

Power, in the wrong hands, leads to disaster. 

The United States-led 'war on terror' has made the world anything but more safe and secure. Australian journalist and activist John Pilger asserts that rather than a war on terrorism, this particular war IS terrorism. Indeed, in the deeply divided Middle East, the resentment of western influence and repeated resource-related intervention solidifies. The bombings, invasions, war crimes, attempted regime change and 'state-building' have not made the powerful western backers of the destruction a whole lot of friends in the region. Suicide attacks in Iraq were unheard of before the US invasion, and are now commonplace. ISIS has arisen from a web of western-backed militia, in the grand design supposed to overthrow non-compliant leaders but now beyond control. Although terrorist attacks are still uncommon on western soil, we have seen well-publicised revenge attacks, of course most recently with France as the target. While desperate people flee the region, the West secures her borders. How willing we are to support regime change, but not take responsibility for the unthinkable losses inflicted on local populations.

Destabilisation of nations and entire regions leaves millions displaced, unemployed, hungry and thirsty, without education opportunities or any kind of security. In terms of disaster risk, imperial power continues to compound the problem. 

This power, wielded by western nations and corporations and intended to devour the resources of country after country, is something that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi defied. Of course, the brutality of these dictators is well documented, but their countries were ultimately targeted for regime change for refusing to bow to proposed imperial masters rather than any human rights agenda. To retain any credibility for a 'humanitarian regime-change' premise, the US/UK and allies would need to not only come clean on their own human rights record, but respond appropriately to the abuses of their friends and not only their enemies. This is simply not going to happen, as weapons and goodwill continue to flow to the blatantly abusive Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. Consolidated imperial power is 'as old as Columbus', as Pilger puts it The New Rulers of the World (p. 4), but it has taken on new robes for the 21st century. How much more destructive is this powerful club than any threat posed by ISIS, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram?

Allied political and corporate power cares little for the vulnerable of the world, so long as they are grateful for the handouts that they receive. Decisions are purely economic, and human rights are not considered (bar as an inconvenience). The vulnerable are generally left worse of than before they were 'liberated'. 

The threat and illusion of 'necessary' endless war (remember Dick Cheney predicting 50 or more years of the 'war on terror') has been used to justify state repression and increased social control. The profiteers of disaster capitalism are gleefully rubbing their hands. Western 'patriots' say that we must blindly follow the instruction of the political elite for 'national security' and wreak eternal carnage on those countries that do not agree to serve our interests. Indeed, carnage in itself is the end game. Peace would not be profitable to the arms industry. The military industrial complex is now part of western psyche. Why are we so compliant? It does not have to be this way. Do we really subscribe to an ideology that says our lives are more valuable than those of Iraqis or Syrians? The horrors of the illegal Bush/Blair/Howard invasion of Iraq (now sold to us as a mistake rather than the obvious war crime and business decision that it was) have somehow fogged the memory of the brutal UN Security Council sanctions regime that killed half a million Iraqi children under Bush Sr. and Clinton, while barely affecting Saddam's rule. These children are the un-people of the world, and today the children of Syria and Yemen face a similar fate as collateral damage. Their deaths are 'worth it' in the scheme of things, as Madeleine Albright infamously reminded us. The delusion of imperial power is supreme.

Those annihilated by imperial power no longer face disaster risk, given their untimely demise. However, those left behind are tortured by the psychological, physical and economic impacts for generations. This risk creation runs deep. 

Richard Nixon called Indonesia 'the greatest prize in South-East Asia' and the World Bank lauded its pro-western 'reorientation' from 1967, going so far as to call it a 'model pupil' of globalization shortly before Suharto's resignation in 1998. The grisly details of another 'worthwhile' regime change are less well known, but were wholly acceptable to imperial power brokers that included the US, British and Australian governments, the IMF and World Bank and countless western corporations. Starting with a US-supplied kill list of 5000, up to a million Indonesians were murdered by the pro-western Suharto regime, while accolades flowed in from the press and western foreign offices. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt clearly approved. "With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off," he said, "I think it's safe to assume that a reorientation has taken place." In the wake of this genocide, the World Bank and IMF were happy to create unrepeatable debt, turn a blind eye to corruption and divide the resources of Indonesia between western corporations. A second western-backed horror in East Timor finally turned the tide on the Suharto regime in 1998.

The fate of both Indonesia and Iraq, mirrored around the world throughout the 'American Century' and today, demonstrate the destructive potential of imperial power and conquest. The human cost is unfathomable and is demonstrably far more devastating than what the west calls terrorism. 

Modern imperial power games not only kill immediately, but they significantly increase disaster risk for the most vulnerable in the societies affected. Minorities are marginalised. Inequality is actually designed to increase. Poverty is entrenched and indeed demanded under this system. Have we, as argued by the advocates of western imperialism, really witnessed such remarkable 'progress' to justify the great cost of crushing all cultures that stand in the way? When our ideas of progress include skyrocketing consumption, a throw-away consumer mindset and culture of entertainment, perhaps we have ceased to represent progress. When we measure the success of a country by GDP growth, perhaps we have ceased to represent progress.

When we see the world's most vulnerable people as collateral damage, cheap labour, a security threat or simply as 'unfortunate' (given our actions that have made them so), perhaps we have ceased to represent progress. 

Maybe we should consider the possibility, uncomfortable as it may be, that our idea of progress is as hollow as our justifications for atrocities that have enabled it.  

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The earthquake in Central Italy: stereotyped narratives and missing social science

The disaster

According to the Civil Protection Department, the earthquake which occurred in a small hill area in the Latium, Marche, Abruzzi, and Umbria regions on 24th August caused 290 reported deaths across three municipalities (230 in Amatrice, 11 in Accumoli, 49 in Arquata del Tronto). There are more than 300 injured. 2,500 have lost their homes and evacuated to tent camps. Some people are still missing. The total number of deaths will be close to that of 309 after the L’Aquila-Abruzzi earthquake, de facto representing one of the most severe disasters in Italy after the 1980 earthquake in Campania (the area I am from) and Basilicata regions, which killed more than 3000 people.

The affected area consists of small villages. Amatrice has around 3000 inhabitants, Accumoli 700, Arquata sul Tronto around 1000. The built environment is mainly constituted by cultural heritage buildings, ranging from medieval times to peasant houses of early XX century, scarcely resilient to earthquakes, and in some cases with limited ordinary maintenance. Legislators are conducting an initial investigation on the bureaucratic process by the Amatrice and Accumoli City Councils for the development approval of 115 collapsed buildings (Del Porto and Tonacci, 2016). Some of the buildings in these areas have been used as holiday houses, for example by people from Rome, which is less than two hours away by road. Among the victims, around 50 were from Rome or close areas, as well as Italian and English tourists. Villages in the Apennines Mountains and, more generally, the vast inland and rural Italy, historically suffer from limited development and few job opportunities. This has led to depopulation, abandonment by youth, and a demographic structure that is aging, mirroring the general demographic trends of Italy.  

“You talkin’ me?” (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, 1976)

Some of the reports I have read on this earthquake seem to be using a pure hard science approach for analysing the chronic problem of disasters in Italy. For example, Gully (2016) on the IRIN website focuses on cultural heritage conservation in Italy, and claims the sacrosanct necessity for Italy to investment in earthquake-proof retrofitting. However, individuals and families have to also increase their risk awareness and to retrofit their buildings in order to be earthquake proof. In this regard, the same article quotes Michele Calvi, professor of earthquake engineering at IUSS Pavia. Calvi claims that most of the houses in the affected area were owned by the elderly, or were holiday homes, so they had no great motivation for retrofitting, and that it is necessary to create significant incentives for people to update these buildings codes. 

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. What is wrong is the selection of the expert to talk about disasters including statements on local communities. Calvi is in fact a “hard scientist” that de facto projected, promoted, and helped the Berlusconi’s government in 2009 to realize the CASE Project (Calvi and Spaziante, 2009), still now one the most ignominious and widely-criticized post-disaster housing projects worldwide. A project of 19 new settlements spread across L’Aquila, paradoxically built through a superficial top-down approach as a temporary measure in emergency but with permanent purposes (Alexander, 2013). A project which radically altered the land use and the local landscape and spatial organization, with no public services, public transport, social spaces (Calandra, 2012; Forino, 2015), and refused by part of the population (Fois and Forino, 2014). Therefore, it is quite shocking to a reader with some experience of Italian disasters that a scientist like Michele Calvi, who neglected progressive disaster social research through his action in L’Aquila, has been given space to talk about communities in the affected areas. Why does he have to talk to me?

Hey, Italiano: Pizza, spaghetti and mandolin

Another interesting piece is by Hooper (2016) in The Guardian, which reports that

“Italian officialdom reflects the values of society, in particular Italians’ generalised contempt for rules of any kind, and the prevalence of lazy officials and apathetic, or even corrupt, politicians”.

Systematic corruption permeates most of the political and institutional levels in Italy, particularly through the overlap of financial/economic lobbies, mafia, and powerful institutional positions. In the current political setting of Italy, illegal activities are often used as manu longa of legally institutionalized systems, harassing territories through industrial pollution, environmental risk, or private use of natural resource, all with the real blessing -but the apparent opposition- by formal and legal institutions. This, of course, is also reflected in disaster recovery. National and international literature is full of examples of seismic disaster recoveries (but not limited to them) in Italy which have been led by powerful lobbies, intruding into the political setting and conniving in order to raise the reconstruction cost, three, four, ten times, and demanding the required funds to be disbursed (Caporale, 2010). This process has been spammed across decades and has been held just by a fistful of powerful people within the political, industrial, and financial environment, while leaving crumbs to the rest of the community and therefore contributing to exacerbate emigration, unemployment and social injustice. In a sort of perennial post-disaster recovery associated with paternalistic development in Southern Italy, the Italian government is still sending reconstruction funds to e.g. the Belice area (1968 earthquake), to Campania and Basilicata regions (1980) and to Molise region (2002), with limited or nil improvement in terms of labour policies, social welfare or culture (Caporale, 2010).

However, as this blog consistently attempts to highlight since its birth, contemporary global politics is demonstrating that concepts such as “legal”/rules and “illegal” have always more overlaps than differences, with the “legal”/rules using -while blaming- the “illegal” to perpetrate social and spatial inequalities or to find a scapegoat for bypassing public responsibilities. Wars, exploitation, neo-colonialism, racism, asylum-seekers debate, civilization clash propaganda demonstrate this, every day and at each scale and latitude. Italy is therefore perfectly framed within, but also exacerbates, the common and contradictory democratic framework that we observe within the global neoliberal society. No. Italy is not a black sheep within an innocent and virtuous flock made by US, European Union, Australia, or puppet dictators worldwide.

In addition, the aforementioned statement does not consider the other side of disaster recovery history in Italy. The country has seen impressive social mobilization, as born in post-earthquake areas to claim democracy, participation, rights, and law requirements, such as the struggle for work rights and prompt reconstruction in Belice or Campania and Basilicata (Ventura, 2010), the bottom-up reconstruction plans by some affected communities (Forino, 2015), the community resilience initiatives (Fois and Forino, 2014), and the participatory practices (Calandra 2012) in L’Aquila, as well as the grassroots mobilization in Emilia Romagna (Hajek, 2013). Hooper (2016) manages to trivialize, probably because he is not aware of, the bottom up requests for transparency, democracy, and laws, in opposition to the systematic corruption after disasters. Talking about “values of a society” is therefore always problematic, particularly when trying to judge an entire national system and its inhabitants in a wicked event such as a disaster. Values are always individual, although mediated by the context in which these are performed and experienced, and claiming that the values of the Italian society are those of laziness, corruption, and bypassing rules is stereotypical and discriminatory.

A missing social science

These articles are just two among the numerous reports of the earthquake in Italy that have proposed a partial analysis to a complex issue such as a disaster. While hard scientists and professionals such as seismologists, geologists, engineers, architects, planners, economists are necessary figures to assist politics and policy-making in being effective, they have to be supported by, and to mutually support, the analysis of social issues that intervene within a disaster scenario and have contributed to shape disaster literature for the past 80 years. Such analysis includes for example history, development, specific needs within communities of people with disability or children, communication, formal and informal network between citizens and institutions (Ventura and Carnelli, 2015). Scientists and professionals such as anthropologists, sociologists, communication and media experts, geographers, and territorial scientists of any sort are fundamental in adding a human and social perspective to disaster studies and actions, and particularly in deconstructing partial and superficial narratives such as those aforementioned.

UPDATE: on 28th August, this post has been republished with some slight revisions in the blog run by ENTITLE, a European network of research and training on political ecology. I strongly recommend this blog, particularly for readers interested in neoliberalism, development and environment. This is their Facebook page. For Italian readers, an Italian version has been published on 29th August on the Facebook page Protezione civile e riduzione del rischio da disastri, and has been uploaded on my Academia.

Alexander, D.E., (2013), An evaluation of the medium-term recovery process after the 6 April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, central Italy. Environmental Hazards, 12 (1), 60– 73.
Calandra, L. M. (2012). Territorio e democrazia. Un laboratorio di geografia sociale nel doposisma aquilano. Edizioni L'Una.
Calvi, G. M., Spaziante, V. (2009). La ricostruzione tra provvisorio e definitivo: il Progetto CASE. Progettazione sismica3, 227-252.
Caporale, A. (2010). Terremoti spa. Dall'Irpinia all'Aquila. Così i politici sfruttano le disgrazie e dividono il paese. Rizzoli.
Del Porto D., Tonacci, F., 2016, Terremoto, l'accusa del procuratore: “Palazzi con più sabbia che cemento”, http://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2016/08/27/news/terremoto_l_accusa_del_procuratore_palazzi_con_piu_sabbia_che_cemento_-146690386/?ref=HREA-1
Fois, F., Forino, G. (2014). The selfbuilt ecovillage in L'Aquila, Italy: community resilience as a grassroots response to environmental shock. Disasters38(4), 719-739.
Forino, G. (2015). Disaster recovery: narrating the resilience process in the reconstruction of L’Aquila (Italy). Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography115(1), 1-13.
Hajek, A., (2013), Learning from L'Aquila: grassroots mobilization in post-earthquake Emilia-Romagna. Journal of Modern Italian Studies18(5), 627-643.
Hooper J., (2016), Italy earthquake throws spotlight on lax construction laws, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/italy-earthquake-throws-spotlight-on-lax-construction-laws?CMP=share_btn_fb
Ventura S., (2010), Non sembrava novembre quella sera, Mephite.
Ventura S., Carnelli, F., (eds.), (2015), Oltre il rischio sismico. Valutare, comunicare e decidere oggi, Carocci.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Punishment Over Reform: A Twisted Morality

When the stories of abuse of Indigenous children at Don Dale juvenile detention centre broke last week, outrage and shock flooded our screens. Anyone following the story on social media may have observed that structural racism and white privilege is still defiantly espoused and resolutely defended in Australia.

Against a backdrop of colonial brutality and a history of racial discrimination and violence, author Tony Birch writes, “that it was a shock to many people is itself a stain on the nation.” Indeed, many Australians adopt the mentality advocated by broadcaster Kyle Sandilands, who says that we should simply, "get over it, it's 200 years ago." This argument denies the ongoing colonialism imposed through policy by every Australian government in history.

In Australia, successful rehabilitation programs are shut down in favour of locking more and more people away for as long as possible (with Indigenous members of society particularly targeted). Perhaps it will encourage 'jobs and growth?' Pray tell, Mike Baird. Undoubtedly the private sector is making a killing out of the commodification and outsourcing of cruelty.

Kathleen Maltzahn tells us that the current culture in Australia allows and indeed implicitly approves of physical, sexual and psychological abuse of prisoners. She asks us to consider whether prisoners really deserve it. I think it is hard to argue that our culture is not simply one that approves of a punishment ethos, and that this is what makes people ignore abuse. 'These are our values', wrote Antony Loewenstein of Australian society's malaise.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the Nauru files scandal erupted. The scale of trauma being inflicted on asylum seekers in offshore concentration camps has been laid bare. Financed by Australian taxpayers. If you were to listen to the government, you would hear that it was the asylum seekers' fault, or the government of Nauru's fault, or the contractors' fault. In turn, those being paid to carry out Australia's punitive policy maintain that they are simply doing a job and diligently reporting abuse to those stakeholders ultimately responsible. Ferrovial, Broadspectrum and Govt of Nauru maintain their claim to innocence and professionalism.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/photomequickbooth/
Will we see the closure of Nauru and Manus? It really makes no sense financially to keep the camps open, considering the military-style turnback operation that is underway to prevent arrivals. Every argument that is put forward to demonise refugees has been repeatedly debunked. We arrive at the fact that they are simply there to be punished; men, women and children. Is this justice? Is this western morality?

We can hope that we are reaching a breaking point, but realistically there is bipartisan political support to continue abusing the most vulnerable in society. Until we decide collectively to fight back and be heard, soulless politicians will not deviate, and corporations will continue to profit from abuse. This SHOULD be an election issue; not as to which party will punish asylum seekers the most, but as to which party will be most welcoming and will work to solve core issues causing displacement in the first place.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

BOOK REVIEW - Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe by Anthony Lowenstein

The US Presidential Election is in full swing. Over the next few months, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will go toe-to-toe in what is already a less than clean scrap. In amongst the media and social media hysteria (on both sides), one could be forgiven for missing an intriguing narrative espoused by alternative voices that opts, rather than criticizing one candidate over the other, to reject both the neoliberal status quo and reactionary neofascist agendas that are the product of unfettered predatory capitalism.

In Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, acclaimed Australian journalist Anthony Loewenstein turns his passion for justice to deliver a stunning critique of the thriving disaster capitalism industry, in its many forms; the profiteers of privatized detention, militarized security, the aid industry and multinational mining are relentlessly skewered with style and poise, and their predatory tactics exposed. According to his narrative, Hillary Clinton is exactly the kind of neoliberal hawk that enables neofascist demagogues like Trump to rise, and allows predatory 'businessmen' like Trump to prosper. Both Presidential candidates are indeed invested in disaster capitalism, but Loewenstein's tale is arguably one that focuses on the Hillary's of the world; the trusted and experienced hand; the status quo; the Establishment.

Disaster Capitalism is the story of Loewenstein's journey into the belly of this particular beast. The book gives us an up-close-and-personal look at how corporations like Serco, G4S, Halliburton and their ilk profit from organized misery, perpetual conflict and the impacts of disaster, and how national governments and international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank are willing collaborators. In Part I, he takes us to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Greece, exposing the various exploitative strategies employed to enrich the local elite and foreign interests, and the devastating effects on the majority of people in each country. In Part II, we visit wealthy Western democracies (Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom) that punish the most vulnerable in their societies while dictating economic conditions to the world, imposing taxpayer funded cruelty for private profit at home and abroad.

This is an absolutely enthralling read; a must for the revolutionary; the dreamer; the activist; the teacher; the learner. Loewenstein has compiled a treasure-trove of evidence on his travels. His dismantling of the social and economic myths that enable predatory disaster capitalism is robust and compels us to action. He offers a "challenge to cherished beliefs concerning aid and development, war and democracy, and in particular the modern, borderless nature of capitalism." (p. 14) For this reader, 3 key themes emerge; a dialogue around crime and punishment; a critique of the idea of benevolent corporations; and the grim reality that this is all part of a plan, a rigged system that empowers and enables predator capitalists to flourish.

Crime and Punishment

As the prison-industrial complex has rapidly taken hold in Western societies, the public clearly favours an ideology of punishment over reform. In addition to highlighting issues around race and class, Loewenstein speaks to issues around the treatment of those in the care of the state, and how "lobbying, ideology and a punishment ethos have colluded to produce one of the most destructive experiments in recent times: mass incarceration."

Judicial processes in the UK, US and Australia target the marginalized for what amounts to, essentially, punishment for being unable to escape their systemic disadvantage. Loewenstein unpacks the ideology behind this phenomenon and asks whether the poor man, the petty criminal, the asylum seeker or the drug user really deserve the punishments that are prescribed and who indeed benefits? What of the bankers that caused a global financial collapse? The CEOs of corporations that destroy the only planet we have? The heads of state that lied in order to enable the invasion and destruction of Iraq, leading to the destabilisation of the region and a current displacement crisis of epic proportions? Should not our justice system be designed to protect society from such individuals and the devastating consequences of their actions?

Over the past 2 months, we have witnessed a brutal crackdown on drug sellers and users in the Philippines, since the rise to power of President Duerte. Summary executions on the streets have shocked the world, yet few official condemnations are forthcoming. While it is not difficult to imagine that many politicians and indeed members of the public might secretly support these abuses of power and share the President's disdain for Article 10 of the Declaration of Human Rights, as Loewenstein finds in Australia, America and the UK, there is an infinitely more 'subtle' way to enforce the harshest punishments: through private contractors.

The criminal justice system in Australia ensures sky-high rates of Aboriginal incarceration, and, as the recently revealed abuses of the NT government demonstrate, the hateful punishment of those discarded by society is absolutely state sanctioned. In America, the black population is also disproportionately incarcerated. Loewenstein explores the roots of a system that enables this in the US and the corporations that profit handsomely at the expense of taxpayers, destroying families and leaving little opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. "Private prison corporations saw a unique opportunity" (p. 196) in America, Loewenstein writes, to do everything possible to ensure that more and more people were incarcerated. The prison population is thirty times what it was in the 1990s. The absolutely failed 'War on Drugs' has wreaked havoc on society. For all the posturing about market efficiency, private prison corporations are a spectacular leech off the government purse, with a rigged legal system providing financial and political benefits right down the food chain. All of this is possible, he tells us, due to a lack of "serious questioning of the harsh, punitive ideology underpinning US 'justice'." (p. 207)

In Australia, the UK, the US and Greece, Loewenstein exposes the fact that asylum seekers and migrants are also punished, most often without breaking any law.  In Greece, he provides a rich cultural background of "not just economic harshness, but a culture that tolerated and celebrated exclusion." (p. 69) In the grips of imposed austerity measures, the social fabric began to unravel and "Popular frustration was taken out on the most marginalized group in society: refugees." (p. 72) The mandate for demonization of the vulnerable that was secured in Greece, as in Australia, was just one tactic used to ensure profit for human rights abuses across the countries that Loewenstein investigates.

Time and again, Loewenstein finds governments all too eager to enable those corporations in a position to cash in. He details how the EU has become central in "funding, encouraging and pressuring EU nations to isolate and imprison asylum seekers." He discusses the industries that have sprung up and thrived, often with the EU leading "the charge in working with corporations that have been very willing to develop and hone methods for repelling the desperate hordes." As 'Fortress Europe' closes her borders, deals like that done between the EU with Turkey are sealed without a second thought for the human cost. Corporations and corrupt governments profit; the vulnerable are turned away and suffer.

Benevolent Corporations

Loewenstein picks up where Naomi Klein left off in her 2007 bestseller Shock Doctrine. She pointed out that privatization of government has accelerated in the U.S., as private sector opportunities have been generated through the 'war on terror'. She argues that, "now wars and disasters are so fully privatized, that they are themselves the new market: there is no need to wait until after the war for the boom - the medium is the message." Loewenstein builds on this and adds that "it is hard to escape the conclusion that wars are often fought for the key reason of liberating new and willing markets - and with the war on terror likely to continue for decades, there will be no shortage of new business to secure." (p. 16)

We often encounter the myth of the benevolent corporation. As much as it might be comforting to believe that the private sector simply goes about its business in a free market generating jobs and growth, from cover to cover Disaster Capitalism lays bare the impacts of a global privatisation bonanza. For Loewenstein, the US has played a pivotal role. He says that a "central plank" of U.S. foreign policy is "the US model of reducing the role of government while increasing the influence of largely private power has never been so rapacious, though the problem is global." (p. 4)

Loewenstein is no admirer of market fundamentalism, saying that "wealth is concentrated in so few hands in today's world: there is little incentive to advocate for a more equitable planet. The market system guarantees unfairness and rewards greed." (p.2) He shows us examples of open rebellion against this system from communities in Greece, Haiti and PNG, countries exploited long and hard by the status quo. As we have become more enslaved to the neoliberal project, Loewenstein argues "that the corporation is now more powerful than the nation-state, and that it is often the former that dictates terms to the latter." (p.7)

In Bougainville, PNG, Loewenstein meets members of the resistance against resource exploitation, and explores the shady relationships between corporate and political interests. The memories of violence fuelled by greed and repression do not fade easily. The health of the community and the environment have also been terribly compromised. "Environmental vandalism should not be the price tag for 'progress'," he pleads.

In Afghanistan, we are introduced to Jack, the British MD of a private military company (PMC) who provides an inside look at a truly burgeoning industry. He is not shy to admit that his corporation "survives off chaos." (p. 20) Jack anticipates perpetual war and opportunity. "If we can make money, we'll go there," he tells Loewenstein. He sees his industry in a purely positive light, providing "jobs for the boys leaving the army who can continue their trade." In spite of the well documented abuses of PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq, military objectives continue to be dressed in humanitarian robes, government intelligence gathering has been privatized and mercenaries are ensured "a quick buck" (p. 21). Indeed, Loewenstein finds that the PMC industry hopes that the conflict and the profit will never end. When it does, they will be "looking for the new war." (p. 61) 

How often are we outraged at government spending on weaponry and conflicts that we deem unnecessary, but hesitate to question the relationship between corporate interests and government policy and spending. Loewenstein reminds us that the war on terror represents one of the largest wealth transfers in history, with 4 trillion dollars to date being spent, with much of it going to ever-grateful Western contractors. The privatization of prisons and security apparatus is incredibly expensive, while all evidence shows that incarceration does not tackle societal problems that lead to crime, but rather reinforces them. 

The overwhelming message is that simply outsourcing your cruelty is a convenient way to avoid responsibility, transparency and accountability, while profiting corporations and manipulating the economy. Neoliberal governments would like us to accept the notion that corporations are ultimately benevolent entities that exist only to employ people, satisfy market demand and grow GDP. Loewenstein argues that "multinational corporations spent the twentieth century gradually reducing their obligations in the various jurisdictions in which they operated." (p. 243) What we have now is unregulated, unaccountable and secretive private sector entities. Meanwhile, governments with dirty work to outsource are not left disappointed.

Unfortunately, a willful ignorance of the sometimes devastating social impact of 'business' has allowed a mentality of self-righteousness to fester, completely detached from the suffering of people that stand in the way of profit, those targeted by governments for suppression and oppression, and the unfortunate citizens of countries outside of the US circle of trust, whose lives appear to hold so much less value than those of allies. Companies like DynCorp and Blackwater, despite having their abuses repeatedly exposed, thrive in this context.

A Rigged System

Loewenstein exposes, time and again, the fact that the global economy is dominated by anti-democratic and predatory forces that profit the wealthy and the ruthless. The revolving door between corporations, lobby groups and government is clear for all to see. This collusion between powerful actors fans the flames of crisis while selling market fundamentalism as the antidote and positioning 'benevolent' corporations to reap the benefits. In the U.S. the banks were bailed out while personal debt, and indeed poverty rates, soar. Loewenstein offers a stinging critique of a system rigged for the 1%, and the scandalous truth that in the US both major parties represent similar corporate interests while the media feigns ignorance. Indeed, liberal presidents have done little for the vulnerable other than make empty promises.

Meanwhile, in Haiti, Loewenstein describes an environment of "canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of a disaster, looking for business opportunities." (p. 109) His narrative of this historically vulnerable nation describes the strong 20th Century American support for successive brutal dictatorships, enriching U.S. interests and a local elite. We see this model replicated again and again in Disaster Capitalism, and indeed around the world as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. The example, in chapter 3, of the "devoutly anti-Communist" 'Baby Doc' Duvalier is particularly damning, who, "unlike the many African despots targeted by the Hague, remained a friend of the West and was therefore largely untouchable." (p. 110) When the neoliberal agenda was challenged in Haiti by Aristade, the U.S. and local elite conspired to overthrow the government to restore 'order'.

We are often presented with the assertion that the international community, led by U.S. humanitarianism, rescued Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Loewenstein paints a very different picture, and claims that "when Haiti had received lashings of 'help' this generosity had done little but enrich foreign companies." (p. 115) The local reception to UN  intervention was largely hostile. In the context of historical US interventions in Haiti this comes as no surprise, and the sentiment is well founded. As revealed by Wikileaks, the US ambassador to Haiti asserted that the UN military-style solution was "an indispensable tool in realizing core [US government] policy interests in Haiti" (p. 115)

In a similar vein, most development aid to PNG from Australia since its independence either found its way into the pockets of either the wealthy PNG elite or Australian corporations. Far from its claimed humanitarian ideals, Loewenstein says that the main goal of the Australian government in PNG was simply, "to ensure that Australian corporations had a ready market in which to turn a profit." (p. 172) The denial of complicity with oppressors in the violent struggles of the 1980s and the patronizing attitudes displayed by Australian diplomats leaves a bitter taste.

Loewenstein reserves some of his harshest criticism for the mainstream media, and the "false construct of "balance" that permeates the corporate press, which merely pits one powerful interest group against another" and one that "views business and political leaders as far more important than the individuals and societies affected by them." (p. 10) As an independent journalists that opposes the state of his profession, he laments the fact that "90% of Americans rely on information from media outlets owned by only six multinationals, including News Corporation, Comcast and Viacom."


Disaster Capitalism pulls no punches in calling out both profiteers and enablers. Loewenstein exposes a shady cabal operating in plain sight; corporations that will not blink at the thought of misery, death and destruction as part of business as usual. Governments that outsource their most distasteful projects to companies that have neither conscience nor boundaries. A complete lack of transparency and accountability allows whatever abuses that are uncovered to yield few consequences for the perpetrators. 

The book is impossible to put down and rich with memorable lines. It will have the reader coming back to review the stories of friend and foe, of oppressed and oppressor. Loewenstein has skillfully articulated opposing positions, admitting his ideological bent where possible in the text and to those he meets in the field. It is sure to be a book both loved and hated, depending on the beliefs of the reader, for its honest storytelling. The accounts of his journalistic interactions give the book a very personal feel. 

Loewenstein shows us how accepting something terrible (e.g. abuse of asylum seekers, mass incarceration etc.) out of a fear of personal harm, insecurity or loss gives a perceived legitimacy to profiteers (perhaps the American elections will be a case in point of this mechanism, on both sides). He wrote the book to "shock, provoke and reveal." (p. 16) The question is; once we know all about the profiteers of calamity, will we just carry on or will we fight for justice?