Profits of Doom: Interview with Antony Loewenstein

Andrej Trbojevic asks Antony Loewenstein about vulture capitalism and his new book

Vulture capitalism for web
Cartoon: Bryant Apolonio

A candid confession, for which I hope to, somewhat cynically, evoke the sympathy of the reader:

From the start of my university ‘career’, I dismissed the actions of campus activists, bearing their crimson placards, as the ravings of zealots. I wrote off their vociferous rallying-cries as empty rhetoric, as the language game of dangerous sloganeers. Why were they so bloody angry? It didn’t help that on the rare occasion I gave them the light of day, one of them was vague, then simply wrong about some Marxist precepts. I left this vain convo chuffed at my exemplary decency.

I have however recently experienced a distinctly non-religious conversion of sorts, of which the Sydney journalist Antony Loewenstein’s new book, Profits of Doom, has had the dubious honour of being a keystone in my education. To read Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, and now Antony Lowenstein is to witness one’s heart sink into the foul entrails of your digestive system, and then have them disembowelled for good measure. It is to confront the traumatic subterfuge of human reality and to look upon all that we love with a tear-blemished vision, tempted to yield to the conclusion that such systemic injustice has no concomitant in language.

Having reproached myself for pathetic emotionality, I asked Antony for an interview to ask him to disabuse me of my hyperbolic ramblings. He wasn’t so good at it.

Q: Profits of Doom shows the consequences of the privatisation of all spheres of life. Can you explain what you mean by “Vulture Capitalism”? How indebted is it to Naomi Klein’s thesis of disaster capitalism, where conflict and chaos, from the Iraq War to post-Katrina New Orleans, are viewed as business opportunities?

A: “One of the things that I was trying to do was expand Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” thesis. She argued that, when it comes to war or natural disasters that big business and governments often collude to make a lot of money. But I say that ‘vulture capitalism’ doesn’t just require something unexpected to happen, but that it feeds off the most vulnerable on a range of issues.”

“What you see in a lot of countries is a predatory capitalism, from Afghanistan, to Pakistan and even here in Australia, which show the corporations that are involved in the neo-liberal agenda, an agenda that has been implemented without really any public consent. This is happening, I would argue, almost by stealth.”

The neo-liberal agenda, for Lowenstein and its critics, is exemplified by exploiting any, and every situation to further the profit motive. Lowenstein’s book gives a perfect example of this skewed logic. In a theme also tackled in Kanye West’s ‘New Slaves’, he highlights the absurdity of privatised prisons being a disincentive to the public good of reducing crime and incarceration rates, where more than six million people are now under the “correctional services system” in the States. To put it simply, more prisoners = more money. More wars = more arms sold and more contracted private mercenaries.

The same goes for the outsourcing of Australian detention centres – that most wicked of un-Christian petri dishes of mental illness – now run by the British Multinational Serco. Our government is all too willing to redirect taxpayers’ money to Serco to pass the buck on thorny questions of mismanagement and resource waste.

 Q: Is wresting public control back from private enterprise the solution to ‘Vulture Capitalism’?

 A: “To an extent it is. Take detention centres. To think that they are run for profit is such an anathema to the idea of transparent democracy. The bottom line is all that matters. Companies do not have the incentive to provide the best care for refugees. The result of that is that you have generations of asylum seekers, and for that matter the guards as well, being traumatised because they are not given proper training. Why would a company give proper training if it involved spending more money?”

“Wresting back public control over detention centres, and war, is certainly one of the answers. However, the fact that a war would be funded by the taxpayer is not a solution either. This would not make the war moral or legal.”

“Wars have been fought for thousands of years. What my book argues however, is that post 9-11, there has been a massive expansion of the corporation in managing tasks that the government used to do.”

Q: Do you believe that the un-checked power of multinationals can be reined in with greater regulation?

A: “That clearly should happen. There needs to be a far greater global legislative ability to hold corporations to account. Governments are choosing to turn a blind eye to these issues, such as Rio Tinto’s horrible human rights violations in Papua New Guinea. What most Australians don’t know is that Rio Tinto was implicated in the bloody crackdown in Bougainville around 25 years ago when the Panguna mine was closed. The following civil war only ended in 1997.”

“Now, AusAid and the Australian government are assisting Rio Tinto, which has never been held accountable for its crimes, and the Papua New Guinea Government is to re-open this mine which caused so much environmental and human carnage.”

Lowenstein also argues that there needs to be more oversight of what he terms “Boomerang Aid”, where private businesses benefit from government programs. He gives the example of some of the woeful results of NGO work in Haiti. Three years after the devastating earthquake, there is “little legacy of their work” and “Haiti is still mired in poverty and corruption.”

I can’t help but think to myself that when one understands the shadowy machinations of Vulture Capitalism, one notices the loss of the faculty of surprise. As I remember how last summer scorched with an unholy vindictiveness, while winter has already morphed into spring, it begins to dawn on me that climate change is not just a symptom, but a propitious business environment.

When one thinks about just how inconceivable it is for governments to raise taxes on the rich, while government services are outsourced and no expenses are spared to bail-out the financial industry, it is apparent that we are in the midst of one of the greatest wealth re-allocations in human history. As the famed American writer Jonathan Franzen has said about the European crisis: “The technicians of finance are making the decisions. It has very little to do with the will of the people.” It is naivety to think Australia is immune to this trend.

Choosing a preferred means of escape is an option to this scary, indifferent Truth. I favour curling into a ball, yearning for my mother’s uteral sanctuary.

Or: start with Game of Thrones for a 101 in the squalid workings of power, then maybe add Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness – to make sure that for once, just maybe, we won’t experience history first as tragedy and then as farce. We simply, whether we know it fully now or not, do not have the luxury to turn away from this global crisis.

Antony Loewenstein is speaking at the John Woolley Building at 1 p.m., Tuesday 27th August. In my cosmically insignificant opinion, you can’t afford not to go.

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