Six years ago this week, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake. Billions of dollars in aid were pledged but little made it to the people in need. Why did that happen?
Social solidarity smashed by mysterious forces in debt laden Greece, a medical clinic targeted in Afghanistan. Could all of this reflect the chaos and cruelty off which disaster capitalists get rich?
Our next guest lays out that argument pretty clearly in a searing new, globally reported book. He is Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author. His latest book Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe is just out from Verso Books. Antony, welcome to the program.
Antony Loewenstein: Thanks for having me.
Laura Flanders: Your book draws a lot and you acknowledge it on Naomi Klein’s work-
Antony Loewenstein: It does.
Laura Flanders: The Shock Doctrine with which that phrase Disaster Capitalism is often associated. How would you say you differ from it, although beyond the work she did?
Antony Loewenstein: I was inspired by that book, came out in 2007, and I really wanted to continue it and deepen it, and I guess in a few different ways. I felt that one issue that book didn’t touch on ... Not a criticism, but just didn’t focus on so much was immigration particularly.
I think in the years since her book came out, immigration and the privatization of that in the U.S., in the UK, in Greece, in my country, Australia and elsewhere has become a central way that private corporations are making money and maintaining and deepening the refugee crisis. That was an important point.
I think also for me, it was important to say that her ideology and the one that I share is I think the ideology of our age still. Her book didn’t come out that long ago and I think for me also that Disaster Capitalism was a way to explain so many events. Not in a kind of conspiratorial sense. I’m not arguing in the book that what’s happening in Afghanistan is exactly the same as what’s happening in Greece for example. I do think that there are deep connections, and often the same companies, which I think I focused on more on those companies more than she did particularly.
Laura Flanders: Lay out a little bit this Mad Max economy that you’re talking about. When did you first realize, oh, all these pieces are fitting together?
Antony Loewenstein: I think that partly came about through various different reporting, and particularly I think I used that reference in relation to Papua New Guinea, a country that doesn’t really get much press here in the U.S. Papua New Guinea is a country near Australia. It’s north of my country. It’s one of the richest countries in the world and yet also one of the poorest. Some of the largest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto and others are based there.
I focus on an area called Bougainville which is a small province. It had the largest copper mine in the world until the 1980s. People were getting virtually nothing. Rio Tinto was getting everything. A very typical relationship.
When you visit there now, there was a civil war that existed for about 10 years. It killed about 20,000 people. Locals essentially rose up against the mine. The locals won, which is pretty rare because normally in these situations, the mining company who align themselves with the Papua New Guinean government, the Australian government and the U.S. government and the British government.
I use the Mad Max analogy not that because Mad Max is obviously an Australian film, but because the landscape now is almost like this industrial wasteland.
Laura Flanders: So the people won.
Antony Loewenstein: They won, but now the issue has become that there is talk about reopening the mine. Bougainville wanted to be independent. Bougainville wanted to split from Papua New Guinea. The way that can be done according to the local government is the only way is if you reopen this mine. There has been no environmental cleanup. There has been none of that.
I wanted to use that as an example for global readers to say, A, it is possible to resist these forces that seem overwhelming. It’s possible to resist massive mining interests. The cost of that is huge, and I’m not saying it’s not worth the cost. It’s not for me to say, but I do think it’s important that we look at the reality of what that means on the ground.
Laura Flanders: In some places, it’s not so obvious what the predatory capitalists are after or what they are getting. You write about Haiti. A lot of people watching might say, what’s there to get in Haiti?
Antony Loewenstein: Well, a lot. I talk about the context post-earthquake. There was an earthquake in 2010. There was 200,000 people killed. It’s a devastating event. WikiLeaks cables show really interesting that soon after the earthquake happened, the then-U.S. ambassador was talking about a gold rush in Haiti. What he meant at the time was a gold rush for U.S. businesses and corporations.
In Haiti itself, yes, there are resources. Yes, there are natural resources which haven’t mostly been mined. The U.S. solution, so to speak to that, pushed by the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and now increasingly Chelsea Clinton, the daughter, is industrial parks.
Basically buying cheap clothes for you and I to buy at Wal-Mart or Gap or wherever. That’s a so-called solution, which has not worked.
More importantly, the way in which USAID, the U.S. aid arm operates there through contractors has been to hugely benefit U.S. contractors here.
When Haiti was given by the U.S. government and other organizations up to $10 billion in relief, most of that money does not go to Haiti.
Laura Flanders: Never leaves the United States, right?
Antony Loewenstein: Absolutely. That’s I think one of the great myths about the aid and development industry that an event happened, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan. Most of it doesn’t go to the country. It doesn’t even go to the people in those countries. A lot of Haitians ... I have been there twice in the last years are saying, "well, all this money is there, but we’re not getting trained, we’re not getting jobs." It brings clearly resentment. I’m not saying there is going to be physical attacks against Americans. In Afghanistan, there clearly has been a massive reason for the insurgency.
The predatory nature of aid and development, not always of course, but can be, that contractors are benefiting at the expense of people, and that’s not the rhetoric that often we hear about in the NGO world.
Laura Flanders: Absolutely. Now just to push on that a little bit further, I remember after the Haitian earthquake that we interviewed some entrepreneurs. We had some conversations about exactly this. Who is going to benefit from the aid money? They were confident that they would be able to bid, that they would be able to bring money into fairly innovative projects inside Haiti, benefiting local people. Why can't they?
Antony Loewenstein: Maybe they did. Look, as I said, I don’t know who you spoke to and as I said, I don’t want to say every single person who was in Haiti was a gold digger. Far from it. There were some good people doing good work and NGOs doing good work,
Laura Flanders: But It is hard for Haitian contractors to bid.
Antony Loewenstein: Well it’s virtually impossible. In fact, often, it’s a no bid contract process anyway. The U.S. government and the USAID doesn’t even have a bidding process. That pretty much is problematic on its own. I think the issue here is not so much that the U.S. government is not that interested in helping Haitians. The rhetoric obviously is we are aiming to help Haiti, and that’s the idea.
Haiti is a U.S. client state and Haiti has been seen for really 100 years, but more so in the last 30 as a way and a base for the U.S. to get cheap clothing for its citizens. The problem is that the solution that successive governments, Bush administration and now Obama and no doubt the next president after next year, their solution is to basically build industrial parks, which is another word for slave labor. That I think really goes to the heart of why we need to really questioning of - particularly now that Hillary is a candidate - her record in Haiti is pretty bad, and I think often, that is glossed over, her focusing on-
Laura Flanders: Aid, aid, aid.
Antony Loewenstein: Yes.
Laura Flanders: Let’s talk about Greece for a minute. There is a country where a lot of people came up with an alternative solution to the austerity imposed cuts that were threatening healthcare, basic food supplies, education, legal support, you name it. You were quite helpful at the beginning of your chapter about Greece- That Greeks were finding a way to practice social solidarity rather than just call in outside contractors to deal with their crisis.
Antony Loewenstein: I was.
Laura Flanders: Are you still hopeful?
Antony Loewenstein: Less so. I was in Greece last year and I was there before Syriza, which is the governing party now. It won the election in January. It won another election last month ... well, in September this year, 2015. I think Syriza was elected on the basis of rejecting European Union austerity. To say there is another way for Greece to be independent.
The truth is that I would argue, and many I think Greeks would argue this too, even those who voted for Syriza this year twice, it’s been the great betrayal. Ultimately, there is a sense. The European Union now is so powerful and so undemocratic and so bureaucratic, and the IMF for that matter, that they essentially had a gun to their head, which was arguably the case before Syriza won.
The solution that the European Union has imposed on Greece says privatization is the only outcome. You must cut costs, you must cut benefits. The reality on the ground - and I spent time with people there - is health care has been slashed. Obviously, in America, healthcare has been slashed forever, but in many European countries, there is a publicly funded healthcare system. That’s collapsed.
Of course, the result of that apart from the rise of Syriza is the rise of the far right and the rise of Golden Dawn, which is a neo-Nazi party. I think in the West, often we have this idea that Nazism is something in the past. The truth is in Greece and many other European countries now, neo-Nazi parties are mainstream. They are acceptable, they are seen as a respectable way to solve problems. Now most of them are not the leaders of the government. They are not.
But the fear that I have, and many other people who write about Europe, is that with the migrant crisis overwhelming Europe that the rise of the far right is inevitable. In fact, in many European countries, you see including in normally liberal Scandinavia, far right parties are doing very well. In Greece, that’s the case too.
Laura Flanders: We see obviously in Hungary, which has one of the most far right parties elected into government control.
Antony Loewenstein: Absolutely.
Laura Flanders: You’ve beautifully put together this refugee crisis, migrant crisis with the economic crisis. You say that the need there in Greece was to create a new sense of identity really.
Antony Loewenstein: Absolutely.
Laura Flanders: I wonder how that sense of the national identity is affected by all this contracting. Isn’t that also a threat to national identity?
Antony Loewenstein: In Greece or just in general?
Laura Flanders: In Greece but also in general.
Antony Loewenstein: One of the things I talked about in Greece was that the solution that was being imposed or really forced upon Greece by the European Union based in Brussels, the IMF and others was that we don’t really care about social problems. It’s almost like a de-humanitarian answer, that in other words you might be suffering as medical problems and health problems. We don’t care. We are determined that we’re going to impose financial restraints on your country.
The problem is of course that the economy is not growing. Virtually every economist in the world from liberal to more conservative have been saying for years, it’s not working. This is from Paul Krugman to Thomas Piketty, a range of people who are mostly on the left, but some on the right as well, have been saying, this does not work. Despite that, there seems to be an insistence on doing so.
The challenge really now I would argue in Greece is when you have a far left party in government, pledging to change the terms of austerity, and they don’t do it, what does that say about now with the far left government in power, what does that say about your ability to resist that? The result now in Greece and much of Europe and the UK is that the dream of a European Union, a sort of unified dream, is really crumbling. Because I think if there were votes across Europe about the EU, do we stay in? Do we go out? The UK is going to have that vote in a couple of years. Many on the left and the right don’t believe that dream. I would argue that they are right to be cynical about that now.
Laura Flanders: The more that you see your national treasures up for sale, the more your sense of identity gets fractured, gets shattered.
Antony Loewenstein: Absolutely. Greece is about to privatize a lot more.
Laura Flanders: I'm very discouraged already.
Antony Loewenstein: There is hope too in the book by the way.
Laura Flanders: Alright, I'll get there eventually! Is it predatory capitalism or just capitalism? You talk about capitalism off the rails. Are these the rails on which capitalism runs?
Antony Loewenstein: Yes, yes, but I’d say it’s more extreme so. Obviously, some people will certainly say, well you know, just take out the "disaster" it's just capitalism by definition. Yes, to an extent, but to me there is a particular form of exploiting the most extreme form for it to make it mainstream. Haiti, obviously, if you go back to that briefly, was an awful natural disaster. The way in which the U.S. government and others deal with that is a choice. To me, it’s not a question of the only way to manage Haiti is to privatize its industry and to mine its resources. There is another way to empower locals. It’s not a radical solution.
Laura Flanders: Which in the fact the Greek solution, the Greek social solidarity efforts kind of showed. Moving to Afghanistan for a second, I have to say, I was reading your chapter on the trans-Caspian pipeline.
As the news was breaking this fall around the, what we now know as a U.S. assault on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz. It’s controversial what happened. We’re still finding out. I wondered what you were making of that situation, and first, whether you could tell us how critical a medical institution like that is in the context of Afghanistan.
Antony Loewenstein: I think in many ways, I was obviously shocked but not that surprised. One looks at the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudi war currently in Yemen. Medical facilities are not immune from attack. The truth of the matter is that there is virtually never any accountability for doing so. I’m not saying that - It’s obviously hard to tell at this stage - if there was a deliberate plan to target a hospital. There may well have been. I don’t know. Or the fact that we don’t really care that we are targeting a hospital and therefore, what does it matter that we do?
The critical reality of a neutral space in a war like Afghanistan, which is very far and few between ... MSF particularly, I have spent time with them in Afghanistan, but also in South Sudan. I have been based there this year. They are seen as neutral. Now MSF is not perfect. No organization is. They make a deliberate choice to base themselves in places where they are forced to negotiate with all sides.
In theory at least, it doesn’t always work this way, they are able to manage the left side and the right side and they can operate. I have some colleagues who I know I have worked in the Kunduz facility in Afghanistan, and it was vital. The fact that that now has been destroyed, if nothing else, plays into the narrative that I heard over and over again in Afghanistan, the U.S. deliberately targets humanitarian outfits.
Now the U.S. will come back and say, we don’t do that deliberately. It was an accident. Let’s wait and see if that was the case. Yes, I think ultimately the reality will be that the space for humanitarian actors in Afghanistan will reduce.
Laura Flanders: Meanwhile the negotiations around this incredibly lucrative pipeline that was at the beginning of our relationship with Afghanistan going back over a decade-
Antony Loewenstein: Is ongoing.
Laura Flanders: Is ongoing and on track of all things to be opened and thriving in a couple of years.
Antony Loewenstein: It is. Another thing also -- I was just in Afghanistan this year again. I’m working on a film also called Disaster Capitalism, which is a work in progress. The focus in that is Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. In Afghanistan, the focus is the untapped mineral resources in that country. The U.S. estimates roughly $3 to $4 trillion of resources under the ground, mostly untapped because the country has been at war for 30 odd years.
Now there is a really serious discussion from the U.S. and private corporations in China, the U.S. and Europe to just somehow exploit those resources, especially copper. We spent time in an area called Mes Aynak, about one hour from Kabul, which has the largest copper deposit in the world run by the Chinese.
The question really is ... We spent time with the locals who clearly are pretty upset about the fact that there is a mine maybe about to open down the road and they are getting nothing from that. Again, Afghanistan is at the crossroads. Is it going to make a decision from the government perspective, from the U.S. government pressure perspective, from a corporation perspective to actually exploit its resources? I would argue by doing so, you’re almost guaranteeing bringing more conflict. The insurgency is fuelled by that.
Laura Flanders: We have about a minute left. Your solutions. How do we unravel some of this you say at the end? You quote Arundhati Roy really beautifully saying, it’s not about tinkering with a system that needs to be replaced.
Antony Loewenstein: It’s true. I guess one of the things I tried to do in the book and also in the film is give at least a voice to people who are trying to resist what’s going on in these countries. There is no simple, single solution. I haven’t got a simple, single solution. To me in every country, there are simple things that can be done.
To me, the idea of say after a natural disaster, making a clear policy to actually empower and employ locals. It’s not that difficult. Yes, sometimes it might require training. Fine. Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the U.S., wherever it may be.
It’s also I think a question to me of - I feel in the book, a challenge to the mainstream press, which I think routinely failed reporting on these countries accurately to say, actually, listen to what locals are saying. Don’t just - and I sometimes feel like as a journalist, often fairly, not hopeless, but a sense of challenging my own industry to say - we actually can do better than we’re doing. It’s not impossible to listen to locals in these countries. That’s one - goes a long way to changing this situation.
Laura Flanders: Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe is just out from Verso Books. We’ll have a link at our website.