An anecdote: as a resident of Chicago, I often use public transit. Although the system is in no way perfect, it is popular, extensive, and runs (mostly) on time, which is quite a feat in itself. In August 2013, the fare card system, previously operated by the Chicago Transit Authority, was outsourced to the privately owned Cubic Transportation Systems. Riders accustomed to the yellow-and-blue Chicago card were forced to switch over to the Ventra card. Savings and efficiencies were promised, as well as utility, since Ventra could also function as a MasterCard, netting riders who by choice or circumstances are unbankable.
The rollout was disastrous. Riders were kept hanging for weeks waiting on their new cards. Card readers wouldn’t work or would take multiple tries, slowing down commuters, especially bus routes. Tens of thousands of dollars were lost from fares as frustrated bus drivers waved through harried riders during system crashes. Customer service calls entailed hour-long waits. One rider ended up receiving 267 Ventra cards in the mail through a fluke.
All of this frustration was supposedly done for the benefit of riders and taxpayers. Yet, the privatization scheme outsourced a piece of public infrastructure (one that was up, running, and embraced by commuters) into private hands that promised a solution to a problem that didn’t exist with a flawed product at the price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars across 12 years.
While Ventra is a relatively low stakes example of privatization, Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein’s latest book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe documents instances far more sobering, far more enraging, and much more relevant, considering the ongoing migrant crises in parts of the world destabilized by war and natural disaster.
Loewenstein is a writer of strong convictions, with formulations such “In many ways, privatization had no moral code, apart from making money.” Those looking for a dispassionate NPR or New Yorker-esque examination of social and economic ills best look elsewhere. Instead, the author treks around the globe, relating his experiences of documenting the dangers of “disaster capitalism”, a term coined by author Naomi Klein, where disasters, natural or manmade, are followed by deep cuts to spending, privatization, and deregulation. What results is an increasing capture of and pressure on those most vulnerable to profit seeking entities.
Reporting on private military contractors in Afghanistan, outside NGOs in Haiti, resource extractors in Papua New Guinea, and large multinational corporations that handle immigrants and refugees arriving in Australia, Britain, and the US, Loewenstein is attentive to the causes and the actors involved in each context. Though largely suspicious of and primed to be dismissive towards those in positions of power (perhaps overly so), the author takes pains to examine and excoriate the systems, rather than the individuals in charge.
This is a fine direction and it allows us to focus more on structures than devolving into painting cardboard cutouts of the company man, the media shill, the heartless non-profit CEO, something reporting on the excesses of capitalism can breed (look to the coverage of pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli’s price gouging, the press anointed ‘pharma-bro’. Much attention was devoted to his “doucheness”, if you will, while little was devoted to the ethics of for-profit medicine). Loewenstein’s attention to structures also draws attention to the contradictions of capitalism, something best embodied in the costs of housing refugees on Australia’s Manus Island by a private contractor.
As Loewenstein reports, a large multinational charges the government, “$74,792 per detainee per year on Manus Island.” Ironically, the privatization of this service, intended to save taxpayers and increase efficiency, did the opposite. The author continues, “It was cheaper to place an asylum seeker in a room in the Sheraton hotel in Sydney than for one night on Manus…”
Combined with a high rate of self-harm reported by detainees, low morale among the staff, and the legal limbo asylum seekers find themselves in, it becomes clear the disaster capitalists aren’t interested in providing a service, but are only interested in milking a cash cow; namely, taxpayers and the economically insecure, along with the politically marginal.
There’s a tendency towards sameness in some of Loewenstein’s sections, as if each portion was tackled piecemeal, without a greater sense of a larger project. Redundancies occur. Essay collections often run into this kind of problem, but it’s a bit odd in a workof extended reportage, considering how wide ranging the author’s case studies are.
However, what cuts through this sameness is when Loewenstein interjects himself into the reporting. This provides a human face that readers might find lacking in his attention to big, impersonal structures. For example, he sits down with a Hazara refugee seeker housed on Australia’s Christmas Island. Loewenstein listened closely to the man’s story. “It was a difficult conversation. I tried to show empathy for his situation—I did not know his exact story or its validity, but I could see he was in a bad way.” Consideration of dollars and cents don’t enter the conversation, here — only the plight of the person does.
Here the author hits what exactly is needed or, at least, one of the essential ingredients to combatting unrestricted capitalism and the neoliberal capture of national governments. “Humanity must not be outsourced to the highest bidder,” he states, “Awareness does not necessarily bring change, but it is the first, vital step in doing so. What we do with this information, living in nations with power, is our choice.”