John Perkins – Confessions of an Economic Hitman

Confessions coverAlthough it was originally released in 2004, and I bought it in 2005, it was only this year that I finally read this book – which courted some controversy when it originally shot up the bestseller lists. The short summary is that this purports to be an autobiography which focuses on some of the most significant events of the author’s life in relation to US foreign and economic policy. In Perkins’ college years he was put under observation by the NSA, who felt that he fit the psychological profile of an economic hitman, EHM for short; a combination of intelligence, patriotism and manipulable weakness. He joined the peace corps for a spell in South America after which he was recruited by an organisation known as MAIN, a US engineering and consultancy firm which specialised in overseas contracts for states the NSA wanted to bind together with the USA in a mutually beneficial economic arrangement. This meant that these nations would either accept development loans from the IMF and World Bank or utilise their own wealth, which funds would then be funnelled into US corporations who would modernise private and public infrastructure in the client states.

The general facts of these relationships are not particularly controversial these days; it’s common knowledge that the IMF and the World Bank are institutions in which the USA has a lot of power, and that states which accept development funds are obliged to adopt certain neoliberal doctrines (primarily privatising state assets and infrastructure and opening them up to bids from international, often US, corporations). It’s also common knowledge that this process of ‘modernisation’ often does as much bad as it does good. Where natural resources are opened up to exploitation indigenous peoples see their lifestyles destroyed; where hydroelectric dams are constructed tens or even hundreds of thousands of people find themselves forcibly relocated. Serious health risks can arise as a result of pollutants or disease; funds often find themselves funnelled into the pockets or pet projects of elites in client states at the expense of those who are worst off.

What is unusual about this book is that Perkins purports to have been a major player in this process and have worked alongside a lot of powerful people. Officially he was a manager and economic consultant at an engineering firm; however, unofficially a lot of his roles involved encouraging elites that accepting IMF policy and international contractors was to their benefit. When EHM like him fail, Perkins argues, the CIA ‘jackals’ are prowling at the borders – arranging targeted assassinations such as those of Ecuadorian president Jaime Roldós Aguilera and Panamian leader Omar Torrijos, both of whom died in suspicious plane crashes in 1981. When even the jackals fail, the military comes into play – as in the first and second Gulf Wars. It’s a process by which first a carrot is offered, and if it is refused a variety of sticks come out to encourage smaller nations to play ball.

Over the course of his life Perkins sees the nature of the EHM change. At first, he argues, men like himself are recruited by the NSA, secretly trained and indoctrinated into their role, and then arranged senior positions in firms like MAIN where they can do their job of encouraging other nations that adopting the neoliberal model and the patronage of the USA is to their benefit. As time passes, however, it’s no longer necessary to specifically train EHM – new generations of contractors, diplomats and corporate emissaries have been born, to whom the role of an EHM is simply a part of their job. The process of economic imposition has been normalised.

It’s a fascinating book though it must, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt. Perkins often seems a little self-aggrandising. Of course, it is entirely possible that everything he writes is true, and certainly where the book interacts with known historical fact and political ideology it’s difficult to pick holes in it. At the same time, with something that is essentially so clandestine it is difficult to prove anything. Did he really arrange female company for a Saudi Arabian prince in order to build a relationship? Did he really become a close personal friend of Omar Torrijos? There is no way of truly knowing.

What’s important, though, is that this book offers a picture of the everyday interactions of the men and women whose role it is to share and spread the doctrines of corporatism and neoliberal capitalist ideology; to bind rich nations to the USA through mutually beneficial arrangements, and to bind poorer nations with development loans they can never repay. In essence, it’s a ‘behind the scenes’ look at economic imperialism, and it’s both a convincing and chilling one.

In the final chapter Perkins tries to answer the question of ‘what can you do?’ He admits throughout the book that his own self-interest, and his desire to not betray friends and confidences, kept him from writing this book for almost thirty years. Unfortunately, as he himself observes, by now the process which began with economic hitmen has become the regular order of business. It is perhaps too late to expose the system through shock revelation. In the end, he can only suggest reading groups for his books, spreading the word about what is happening, and beginning with personal changes in one’s own life. The book “is not a prescription; it is a confession”. As a confessional tale, though, it’s a powerful one; in a perfect world this seasoned economic hitman might have suggested more significant and powerful ways to hit back at the process he facilitated, but in the absence of that I can only reiterate the importance of the old phrase “inform, educate, agitate, organise” – and note that this book may be useful for the first two steps.

Official author website | Official book website | Ebury Publishing

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