Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I found myself at a crossroads. As a communication major, my professional outlook was open to diverse challenges while experientially oblique. I also longed for a master’s degree that would increase my prospects for a productive future. Across campus from my main building, an advisory meeting took place between myself and a graduate liaison; the purpose was to learn more about the college’s M.A. in “Parks and Recreational Management”. The meeting took place during the peak years of public support for the “War on Terror”, and even in Higher Education, rumors of a prosperous life overseas amidst the tumult ranged from conventional to inventive.
The advisor nearly talked me into the master’s program on the prospect that I could instantly translate the degree into a gym management position in Bagdad, Iraq, getting paid (with a signing bonus!) to “work out and man the desk” for a start of about $80k a year. The dream seemed a little too good to be true and arguably less safe than I was comfortable with then. Who knows what misadventures (and hidden fortunes) this path could have lead to if I had chosen to “follow the money” to the Middle East.
In Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, veteran war journalist and political activist Antony Loewenstein paints an essential portrait of post-9/11 globalism where he frames war and natural disaster crises as among the most coveted commodities facing mass exploitation for financial gain. At first, the “Introduction” to Disaster Capitalism reads like a dense scholarly polemic. Loewenstein combines critical-cultural history that intertwines the post-9/11 “War on Terror” geopolitical spectrum with the dozens of mediated natural disasters around the world. To compound these seemingly disparate narratives, the author employs a bevy of neoMarxian terms that ultimately assess and critique the diverse roles profit and privatization provide in times of war and crisis.
Unlike many critical scholars, however, Loewenstein does not write from a bubble. He reports from the front lines and with the painstaking details of a field ethnographer. The vivid description helps paint a picture as lifelike as the “thrilling” programs that dramatize wartime crisis and intrigue. The author also knows, reads, and references his contemporaries. He infuses political science discourse initiated by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein throughout the text. Klein is an innovator on this subject, having authored 2007’s influential The Shock Doctrines: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Canada: Knopf Canada) as well as This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2014).
It can be helpful to consider Klein’s former book an essential companion piece to Loewenstein’s war culture conversation. Along with many other long-form exposés from the Bush Administration, the clear emergence of clandestine capitalism amidst shock-and-awe militarism comprises a dialogic rush to reveal and release—
precursors to the Wikileaks phenomenon and efforts to push against State-funded neocolonialism for the last remaining resources in recorded history.
Among the many post-apocalyptic terms in play, “Mad Max economy” (8) is suggested as a way of understanding how the militant anarchy over regions and resources have unfolded, even stateside crises in the US, like when Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the northeast. Loewenstein thus embarks on a labyrinthine journey to explore and explain the contemporary globalized military industrial complex. It’s a macroeconomics lesson crafted on a microeconomics scale of interpersonal relationships and firsthand conversations.
The author defines his preeminent term “disaster capitalism” as “a product of unavoidable excesses and inequalities of capitalism” where the status quo supports “a world rules by unaccountable markets.” (9) He follows the trail of previous and fellow journalists, the last cabal of ideological holdouts in an age of compromised media bias.
Every key term links back with the author’s critique of unchecked capitalism and the evolution towards a world controlled by corporate interests and resource allocation. From “environmental vandalism” (9) to “vulture capitalism” and “predatory capitalism” (11), the picture painted is a dire one; that is, if readers don’t get lost in the author’s adventurous and descriptive prose.
The bulk of Disaster Capitalism is split into a series of chapters that document Loewenstein’s wartime travelogue between devastated regions of prominent and “third world” status, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Greece, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea. The author then subverts the neocolonial war-torn/disaster emphasis by returning to Western nation-states for a homeland assessment of mass privatization. These chapters include tackling government outsourcing of private detention centers, renaming of mercenary services for maximum corporate efficiency and political correctness, and the big business of disaster capitalism for countries like the US, Great Britain, and Australia.
In some ways Loewenstein cleverly embeds the main text in a hybrid between field journalism and descriptive prose. It’s easy to imagine the average non-academic readers skipping the Critical introduction altogether and becoming immersed in the seductive details of the main text chapters (say, “that holiday gift for someone special” that prefers Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series of interpretive histories). One can almost sense the perceived bias among readers to conjure dueling interpretations of the text. On one hand, there’s the overt message of capitalism gone awry and unchecked power spiraling upward in a pyramid of hierarchical profit mongering. This reading of the text aligns with the author’s intent and purpose.
On the other hand, vivid details could appeal to more aggressive demographic, including personal recollections from many embedded with multi-national organizations with elite access and steep compensation, private military contractors living out sustained hardship and deadly lifestyles, and the booming economics of post-military careers supported by war profiteering. No doubt these contemporary swashbucklers make a strong appeal even to those tamed by modernity and “Western civilization”.
Certainly, an untrained eye could easily misinterpret the author’s main text, translating his message into a specialized tunnel vision where reader eyeballs transform into dollar signs. Ideological lines often blur for many Americans struggling through the first world doldrums of costly insurance coverage, student loans, mortgages, retirement, compounded by conflicted fears and concerns of antagonists abroad, both legitimate and “produced”.
Ultimately, Loewenstein rages against the machine with calculated conviction, the recalled minutiae of his collective thoughts a harbinger for the tectonic plates of nation-states already in motion. The Space Race has become a resource game, both for short-term monetary gain and with the long-term efforts to secure and privatize the last of the world’s untapped resources—a stark reality to face, indeed.
Given the overarching economic framework setting up his post-global outlook, the Mad Max worldview starts to sound downright nostalgic by comparison.
In hindsight, the $80k paycheck (plus signing bonus!) I would have received just to manage gyms for wartime correspondents and military personnel might have been a drop in the hat compared to future heightened economic advantages and networked relationships to prosper from. Then again, the ability to closely read both overt and covert aspects of Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism offers a fraction of the bounty I gained in scholarly expertise while advancing an alternative educational pipeline of my own.
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