[Welcome John Perkins, and Host Marcy Wheeler.] [As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
The title of John Perkins’ latest book, Hoodwinked: An Economic Hit Man Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded–and What We Need to Do to Remake Them, comes from a conversation the author had with Panama’s populist head of government, Omar Torrijos, in the late 1970s. Perkins describes that he was trying to convince Panama to assume huge World Bank loans, which would bankrupt Panama, and thereby ensure that the US retained control over the Canal. But Torrijos wasn’t interested.
“I don’t need your damn money, Juanito.”
He went on to tell me that his goal was to set his people free from “Yankee shackles” to make sure his country controlled the canal, and help Latin America liberate itself from the very thing I represented and he referred to as “predatory capitalism.”
“You know,” he added, “what I’m suggesting will ultimately benefit your children too.” He explained that the system I was promoting where a few exploited the many was doomed. “The same as the old Spanish Empire–it will implode.” He took a drag off his Cuban cigar and exhaled the smoke slowly, like a man blowing a kiss. “Unless you and I and all our friends fight the predatory capitalists,” he warned, “the global economy will go into shock.” He glanced across the water at the sandy beach and palm trees of Contadora and then back at me. “No permitas que te engañen,” he said, (“Don’t allow yourself to be hoodwinked”).
Perkins discussed his relationship with Torrijos in his two earlier books on the means by which the US has exercised power over the developing world, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and The Secret American Empire. In both, he described Torrijos’ ill-fated attempt to free his country from taking on debt that the US would use to dominate Panama (Torrijos’ efforts may have led to his assassination). In this latest book, Perkins uses the incidence of the financial crash to demonstrate how Torrijos’ prediction has come true: the means by which corporations have ruled the world for decades is hurting the children not just of the developing world, but also the developed world, including the United States.
We have been hoodwinked.
Starting with the example of Iceland–what he calls the first “hit” on a developed country–Perkins explains how the process applied to developing nations like Panama has increasingly been applied in the developed world.
Iceland, along with the United States and much of the world, had suffered from a specific type of capitalism, a deviant that my business school professors had foreseen and railed against in the late 1960s.
The guiding philosophy for this particular form of capitalism is an uncompromising belief in the privatization of resources, the granting of unfettered powers to corporate executives, and the encouragement of debt so extreme that it results in contemporary modes of enslavement–for countries and individuals alike. Based on the assumption that the CEOs running our most powerful corporations constitute a special class of royalty who, unlike normal people, do not need to be governed by regulations, it totally altered geopolitics. Now we have entered a time not unlike that when city-states were replaced by nations–except that today the nations have been usurped by giant corporations.
Much later in the book, Perkins describes how the nexus of this form of capitalism is losing its national–American–face.
For a while, a single country dominated: the United States. That is now ending. The planet’s geopolitics have changed. We have entered a time of realignment not unlike the one that occurred when city-states joined together to form nations. Except this time it is global; nations are becoming less relevant. The emerging rulers are not presidents, dictators, government officials, or politicians.
The rulers are corporate CEOs, members of the corporatocracy. Like huge clouds swirling the globe, their conglomerates reach every continent, country, and village. They are unrestricted by national borders or any particular sets of law. Although many are headquartered in the United States and call upon the U.S. military to protect their interests, they feel no sense of loyalty to any one country.
Perkins illustrates the progression from US-based contracting and extraction companies using debt to control developing nations to corporations using debt and other tools to control people. Perkins presents that progression by providing a list of the problems–the outsized role of CEOs, deregulation, fake accounting, and our hollowed out economy, followed by a list of solutions–using the power of consumer choice, fostering more productive models for capitalism, and New Age prescriptions like “honoring your passion.”
As with all his books, Perkins writes in a fluid anecdotal style, which makes the book an enjoyable read. But that same style prevents him, here, from focusing closely (either narratively or chronologically) on the precise circumstances that have brought about this crisis moment. Rather than discussing how the former CEO of a military contractor, Dick Cheney, schemed to bring the country and its contractors to war in an oil-rich nation and in the process bankrupt the country, Perkin’s chapter on our “militarized, paper economy” focuses on a prediction a colleague made 30 years ago and on the garbage we currently make. Rather than laying out clearly how the mortgage and credit card industries–backed before and still by the power and resources of the federal government–have decimated the American way of life, Perkins focuses chiefly on Ecuador’s historic plight, with just four pages applying that to the American experience. In his solutions section, Perkins offers some good, pointed solutions, but many of those, too, are situated historically rather than in the present. At that level then, this book merely lays the foundation for further work that must be done to expose the debt-based system by which the corporatocracy rules.
But this book (along with Perkins’ other work) does lay a necessary foundation. Perkins’ first book on these issues, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, provided an absolutely crucial missing piece to our understanding of globalization: the way debt was used to compromise the sovereignty of developing nations. In showing that the same process has been used to dismantle US sovereignty–to subject Americans (and people from other developed nations) to the rule of corporations–Hoodwinked shows how Torrijos’ prediction has come true. We have been hoodwinked by the corporations dominating the world.