The Empire Strikes Home
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Among the flurry of books that appeared during the painful campaign of 2004 — and one of the many that should have made a difference in the outcome — was Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. This is the detailed mea culpa of a Boston University business major who entered government service (Peace Corps) at the end of the Johnson administration. As he describes it in the book, his task — originally a sincere and idealistic one — was to help plan infrastructure projects in the Third World and arrange funding for these governments and their institutions. What he gradually discovered was that from the 1970s on, after the fiasco in Vietnam and during the global economic collapse of the oil embargo era, getting such nations hooked on Western financial aid was the first step to making them desperate and docile puppet states for First World nations and the interests of international finance.
While it is hard to believe that Perkins was as naïve as he makes himself out to be, his confessions are welcome in that they provide names, dates, and details to what might otherwise be a mere anti-globalist conspiracy theory. Under several administrations on both sides of the Atlantic, the U.S. and Britain really have been scheming for decades to control Arab oil (also the topic of Daniel Yergin‘s 1992 The Prize), and the U.S. really was behind the unsuccessful 2003 coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Just in case you had any doubts, Perkins confirms that the World Bank, the IMF, and similar international organizations with ostensible missions of global development have become the new raptors of empire, replacing the nationalist model under which countries like Britain, France, and the U.S. openly operated up to about World War II. In short, in the last half century imperialism has been largely privatized, or at least transformed into an alliance between First World governments and transnational corporations to serve what Perkins calls, not alone but still awkwardly, “the corporatocracy.”
The use of Economic Hit Men — or EHMs, as Perkins abbreviates them — equally serves the interests of these governments and corporations: “their dirty work, if exposed, would be chalked up to corporate greed rather than to government policy. In addition, the corporations that hired them, although paid by government agencies and their multinational banking counterparts (with taxpayer money), would be insulated from government oversight and public scrutiny, shielded by a growing body of legal initiatives . . .” (19).
If you have not yet done so, read it and weep, or read it and nod with a sense of schadenfreudig substantiation, or wonder how it took Perkins a quarter century to discover he was not doing charity work as he helped hook hapless Third Worlders on the narcotic of irredeemable debt.
This essay is not a book review, however. In fact, it is not even about the quest for overseas empire. It is about seeing our own United States turned into a corporate colony on the model Perkins lays out.
In sync with the rest of capitalism, the international aid industry has evolved since the 60s from the precept that money changes hands in return for goods and services to the principle that the accumulation of money for its own sake is the sole goal; benefits to the general populace may theoretically “trickle down” as an epiphenomenon of the concentration of wealth at the top, but services be damned. Indeed, the engine of this modern — or “postmodern,” for some theorists — economic model is massive public and private debt, which allows the corporatocracy simply to kick back and collect interest.
In the process, the creditor agencies extract additional tons of flesh. Throughout the 80s and 90s, debtor nations were required, as part of their payback, to dismantle various social security systems — usually involving the health, education, and welfare of their citizens — to suppress labor organizing and other dissent, and to permit total exploitation of natural resources by transnationals, often the lowest bidder, all under the dangling blade of bloated deficits.
Now let’s bring it all home.
Since the beginning of the Reagan Revolution in 1980, a plethora of regressive social and economic policies have broadened the gap between the rich and poor of this nation, stretched the middle class with ever longer work hours and ever greater private debt, hollowed out the working class, and made us the world’s largest debtor nation. During the Clinton presidency considerable progress was made toward national flushness, but all that has gone down the commode under Bush II.
To state it briefly and succinctly, a fiscally secure American government is not in the interests of the Bush League and the constituency they really serve: the international plutocracy. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s stated goal of making “the government wither up and blow away,” long the mantra of the Reaganesque Right, perfectly serves the insatiable hunger of those who see government functions such as consumer, worker, and environmental protection as a hindrance to total profiteering. While (to be fair and balanced) market forces can bring some prosperity to a people, the transnational penchant for bottom feeding means that any time too much money flows into a local economy, raising expectations for a better life, international business begins looking elsewhere.
For example, after NAFTA Mexico inherited many American factories from the Heartland and our own Southeastern Third World, following the reek of debased environments and labor costs. Now the White House is pushing CAFTA, hoping to open up Central America for its wealthy clients, where wages are one third what they are in Mexico. Our red states find themselves competing directly with the former Red State — the People’s Republic of China, which now manufactures the shoes and toys and clothing found in the Wal-Marts where post-industrial America works for minimum wage and shops for bargains. Likewise, as we know, portions of our service and technical economy are being exported to South Asia, to trickle down to the new middle class of India and Pakistan.
Do not mistake this, by the way, as just another attack on globalization. To read a good liberal case for sharing the wealth, consult Princeton economist and columnist Paul Krugman in his 2003 collection The Great Unraveling. Therein he also, however, details at great length the dangers of living with a narrowly self-interested crony capitalist class. Under the current transnational model, everything gets exploited for quick cash, with nothing set aside for the collective future. A few enjoy the high ground while the masses get swept away in a tsunami of diminished expectations.
Now look at the Bush agenda: strip away government regulations protecting consumers and the environment; appoint lifetime judges who consistently rule against both and in favor of corporate interests. Strip the landscape of natural resources, and make certain all costs of doing so fall on the public, not the exploiters. Use public debt, even if self-created, as a justification for dismantling government programs like health care and Social Security. Funnel all possible public funds directly to megacompanies like Halliburton and Bechtel — often named by John Perkins as the direct recipients of “foreign aid.” Maintain a state of terror that justifies restricting civil rights and expanding police powers; intimidate dissenters and the free press, thus limiting avenues of opposition.
Ultimately, the United States is simply the fattest chicken to be targeted for plucking by a global plutocracy that, frankly, has no national loyalties. It does, however, have a powerful ally in George W. Bush.
If you really hate America, you got to love this president.