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The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Naomi Klein

May 2, 2005

Last summer, in the lull of the August media doze, the Bush Administration’s doctrine of preventive war took a major leap forward. On August 5, 2004, the White House created the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, headed by former US Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual. Its mandate is to draw up elaborate “post-conflict” plans for up to twenty-five countries that are not, as of yet, in conflict. Fittingly, a government devoted to perpetual pre-emptive deconstruction now has a standing office of perpetual pre-emptive reconstruction.

It certainly seems that ever-larger portions of the globe are under active reconstruction: being rebuilt by a parallel government made up of a familiar cast of for-profit consulting firms, engineering companies, mega-NGOs, government and UN aid agencies and international financial institutions. And from the people living in these reconstruction sites—Iraq to Aceh, Afghanistan to Haiti—a similar chorus of complaints can be heard. The work is far too slow, if it is happening at all. Foreign consultants live high on cost-plus expense accounts and thousand-dollar-a-day salaries, while locals are shut out of much-needed jobs, training and decision-making. Expert “democracy builders” lecture governments on the importance of transparency and “good governance,” yet most contractors and NGOs refuse to open their books to those same governments, let alone give them control over how their aid money is spent.

But if anything, stories of corruption and incompetence serve to mask this deeper scandal: the rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. On this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them.

But shattered countries are attractive to the World Bank for another reason: They take orders well. After a cataclysmic event, governments will usually do whatever it takes to get aid dollars—even if it means racking up huge debts and agreeing to sweeping policy reforms. And with the local population struggling to find shelter and food, political organizing against privatization can seem like an unimaginable luxury.

In January Condoleezza Rice sparked a small controversy by describing the tsunami as “a wonderful opportunity” that “has paid great dividends for us.” Many were horrified at the idea of treating a massive human tragedy as a chance to seek advantage. But, if anything, Rice was understating the case. A group calling itself Thailand Tsunami Survivors and Supporters says that for “businessmen-politicians, the tsunami was the answer to their prayers, since it literally wiped these coastal areas clean of the communities which had previously stood in the way of their plans for resorts, hotels, casinos and shrimp farms. To them, all these coastal areas are now open land!”

Disaster, it seems, is the new terra nullius.

Naomi Klein has been contributing to The Nation since 2000. Her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), began as a Nation cover story. 

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Blood Is Thicker Than Blackwater

Jeremy Scahill

May 8, 2006

It is one of the most infamous incidents of the war in Iraq: On March 31, 2004, four private American security contractors get lost and end up driving through the center of Falluja, a hotbed of Sunni resistance to the US occupation. Shortly after entering the city, they get stuck in traffic, and their small convoy is ambushed. Several armed men approach the two vehicles and open fire from behind, repeatedly shooting the men at point-blank range. Within moments, their bodies are dragged from the vehicles and a crowd descends on them, tearing them to pieces. Eventually, their corpses are chopped and burned. The remains of two of the men are strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River and left to dangle. The gruesome image is soon beamed across the globe. Within days of the ambush, US forces laid siege to Falluja, beginning what would be one of the most brutal and sustained US operations of the occupation.

For most people, the gruesome killings were the first they had ever heard of Blackwater USA, a small, North Carolina-based private security company. Since the Falluja incident, and because of it, Blackwater has emerged as one of the most successful and profitable security contractors operating in Iraq. The company and its secretive, mega-millionaire, right-wing Christian founder, Erik Prince, position Blackwater as a patriotic extension of the US military, and its employees are required to take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

But today, Blackwater is facing a potentially devastating battle—this time not in Iraq but in court. The company is being sued for the wrongful deaths of Stephen “Scott” Helvenston, Mike Teague, Jerko Zovko and Wesley Batalona by the families of the men slain in Falluja.

“Blackwater sent my son and the other three into Falluja knowing that there was a very good possibility this could happen,” says Katy Helvenston, the mother of 38-year-old Scott Helvenston, whose charred body was hung from the Falluja bridge. “Iraqis physically did it, and it doesn’t get any more horrible than what they did to my son, does it? But I hold Blackwater responsible one thousand percent.”

In one of its few statements on the suit, Blackwater spokesperson Chris Bertelli said, “Blackwater hopes that the honor and dignity of our fallen comrades are not diminished by the use of the legal process.” Katy Helvenston calls that “total BS in my opinion,” and says that the families decided to sue only after being stonewalled, misled and lied to by the company. “Blackwater seems to understand money. That’s the only thing they understand,” she says. “They have no values, they have no morals. They’re whores. They’re the whores of war.”

Blackwater has friends in high places. It’s a well-connected, Republican-controlled business that has made its fortune because of the Bush Administration. Company founder Erik Prince and his family have poured serious money into Republican causes and campaign coffers over the past twenty years. While it is not unheard of for a successful business to cast its lot entirely with one party, it has clearly paid off.

The White House, for its part, has turned the issue of accountability of Blackwater and other private security companies into a joke, literally. This April at a forum at Johns Hopkins, Bush was asked by a student about bringing “private military contractors under a system of law,” to which Bush replied, laughing, that he was going to ask Defense Secretary Rumsfeld: “I was going to—I pick up the phone and say, Mr. Secretary, I’ve got an interesting question [laughter]. This is what delegation—I don’t mean to be dodging the question, although it’s kind of convenient in this case, but never—[laughter]. I really will—I’m going to call the Secretary and say you brought up a very valid question, and what are we doing about it? That’s how I work.”

Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (2013) and co-founder of the Intercept, first contributed to The Nation in 1998 and was The Nation’s national security correspondent until 2013. He is now a contributing editor. 

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Patricia Williams

March 5, 2007

Frankly, what I found most unforgivable about Senator Biden’s recent remarks was his utter failure to learn from a past in which he was intimately implicated. He was, after all, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when our spectacularly inarticulate President’s father nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. As every last minority graduate of Yale—whew, ten or fifteen at least—came forward to weigh in about whether Thomas or Anita Hill was more believable, media forces expressed shock and awe that there were—gasp—just so many black people who could string a whole sentence together! Astonishing sequences of subject-verb-object! A few years later, it was Colin Powell who was perceived as shockingly articulate; then Condoleezza Rice.

The persistence of this narrative is not limited to Biden. On MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Show, Matthews hosted a discussion of Obama’s decision to run for President. “No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery,” Matthews opined. “All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.” Not true, I thought. The “bad stuff in our history” rests heavily upon each and every one of us. It shapes us all, whether me, Matthews, Obama, Biden—or Amadou Diallo, the decent, hard-working Guinean immigrant without any American racial “history,” who died in a hail of bullets fired by New York City police officers because he looked like what the officers, groaning with racial “baggage,” imagined to be a criminal.

American identity is defined by the experience of the willing diaspora, the break by choice that is the heart of the immigrant myth. It is that narrative of chosen migration that has exiled most African-Americans from a substantial part of the American narrative—and it is precisely his place in that narrative that makes Obama so attractive, so intriguing and yet so strange.

Obama’s family history is an assemblage of elements of the American dream. His late father migrated from Kenya to the United States; his mother was from Kansas. Before him, the archetypal narrative of immigrant odyssey had been an almost exclusively white and European one. I suspect that Obama’s aura stems not just from a Tiger Woods-ishly fashionable taste for “biracialism” but from the fact that he’s managed to fuse the immigrant myth of meteoric upward mobility onto the figure of a black man.

Senator Obama has many attractive attributes—he’s smart, a great writer and speaker, a skilled tactician, full of fresh vision, youthful, with a good-looking Kennedy-esque appeal. Yet there are many people to whom his appeal rests not on what he is but on what they imagine he isn’t. He’s not a whiner; he’s not angry. He doesn’t hate white people. He doesn’t wear his hair like Al Sharpton. He is not the whole list of negatives that people like Chris Matthews or Joe Biden or a whole generation of fucked-up middle-class college students identify as “blackness.” Indeed, part of the reason I am anxious about the trustworthiness of Obama’s widespread appeal is this unacknowledged value placed on his ability to perform “unexpected” aspects of both whiteness and blackness.

Flipped endlessly down a hall of mirrored images of blackness and whiteness, he is no less celebrated than Frederick Douglass was as one whose entire identity is mired in the exhausted exceptionalism of the “surprisingly” hyperarticulate African phenotype; yet simultaneously embraced as one who has transcended the embodiment of a troublesome past and emerged on the other side—bright as a newly minted coin, “cleansed” of baggage, of roots, of the unacknowledged rupture that is, paradoxically, our greatest national bond.

Patricia J. Williams, professor of law at Columbia University, has written the “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” column for The Nation since 1997.

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Bailout Nation


October 13, 2008

It is rare that this magazine has occasion to cite approvingly the words of a reactionary Republican like Jim Bunning of Kentucky. But when faced with the audacious attempt by the Bush administration to bail out its Wall Street allies with $700 billion of the citizens’ money, Senator Bunning was succinct and correct: “The free market for all intents and purposes is dead in America.” To which we would only add: this realization couldn’t come soon enough.

The administration’s proposal to buy up Wall Street’s garbage didn’t so much kill the free market as make clear that it is largely a convenient fiction. While conservatives have invoked market fundamentalist dogma in defense of their class war against working Americans, the fact is they’ve turned to the state for bailouts, contracts and special favors at nearly every turn. At least now the mechanics of the heist have been laid bare. With ardent free marketeers like former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson publicly throwing in the towel, we preserve hope that this crisis will finally retire the neoliberal era.

The unlikely and unpredictable cross-ideological alliances that have formed in response to the bailout show that the central philosophical debate is shifting: it is no longer about the size of government, for there will be more government in the years to come. The question is, What kind of government intervention will we have, and, most important, Whom will it benefit? Will the final contours of this bailout bring us “Goldman Sachs socialism,” as William Greider calls it, or more democratic financial governance? As journalists, writers and thinkers, we welcome this new debate. As political actors and citizens, we embrace this new battle.

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Deficits of Mass Destruction

Christopher Hayes

August 2, 2010

Right now we face a joblessness crisis that threatens to pitch us into a long, ugly period of low growth, the kind of lost decade that will cause tremendous misery, degrade the nation’s human capital, undermine an entire cohort of young workers for years and blow a hole in the government’s bank sheet. The best chance we have to stave off this scenario is more government spending to nurse the economy back to health. The economy may be alive, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. There’s a reason you keep taking anti-
biotics even after you start to feel better.

And yet: the drumbeat of deficit hysterics thumping in self-righteous panic grows louder by the day. This all seems eerily familiar. The conversation—if it can be called that—about deficits recalls the national conversation about war in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. From one day to the next, what was once accepted by the establishment as tolerable—Saddam Hussein—became intolerable, a crisis of such pressing urgency that “serious people” were required to present their ideas about how to deal with it. Once the burden of proof shifted from those who favored war to those who opposed it, the argument was lost.

We are poised on the same tipping point with regard to the debt. Amid official unemployment of 9.5 percent and a global contraction, we shouldn’t even be talking about deficits in the short run. Yet these days, entrance into the club of the “serious” requires not a plan for reducing unemployment but a plan to do battle with the invisible and as yet unmaterialized international bond traders preparing an attack on the dollar.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the selling of the Iraq War was its false pretext. It never really was about weapons of mass destruction, as Paul Wolfowitz admitted. WMDs were just “what everyone could agree on.” So it is with deficits. Conservatives and their neoliberal allies don’t really care about deficits; they care about austerity—about gutting the welfare state and redistributing wealth upward. That’s the objective. Deficits are just what they can all agree on, the WMDs of this manufactured crisis.

Christopher Hayes, host of All In on MSNBC, has contributed to The Nation since 2005 and is the magazine’s editor at large. 

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The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street

Richard Kim

November 21, 2011

Since September 17, the first day of the Occupation, thousands of people have flocked to Liberty [Plaza] to follow this impulse to live life anew. To stay for even a few days there is to be caught up in an incredible delirium of talking, making, doing and more talking—a beehive in which the drones have overthrown the queen but are still buzzing about furiously without any immediately apparent purpose. Someone might shout over the human microphone, “Mic check! (Mic check!) We need! (We need!) Some volunteers! (Some volunteers!) To go to Home Depot! (To go to Home Depot!) And get cleaning supplies! (And get cleaning supplies!)” A handful of people might perk up and answer the call—or not, in which case it is made again and again. Sometimes too many show up and are sent away; sometimes an Occupier jumps to attention but gets distracted by something or someone shiny in Liberty’s evolving alleyways, and instead of shopping for the revolution is next seen discussing the politics of micro-finance. Somehow, some way—brooms and mops, bleach and scrub brushes show up. They mysteriously vanish, and an ad hoc committee is organized to replenish them and then to guard them. To this day, Liberty is kept relatively clean, which keeps the cops out; the mums in the planters still bloom, hardy by stock but made hardier by the Occupation’s life-sustaining and downwardly distributed ethic of care.

Richard Kim was a Nation intern in 1997 and is now the executive editor. 

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What It’s Like to Be a Problem

Melissa Harris-Perry

April 16, 2012

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois described the experience of being black in America as a constant awareness that others viewed him as a problem. “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question…. How does it feel to be a problem?” This is not a statement about black people having more problems than their white counterparts. Du Bois captures the defining element of African-American life as the very self, but most especially the visible, black self in public space as being a problem.

Despite the dramatic changes brought about by the ending of Jim Crow, it is once again socially, politically and legally acceptable to presume the guilt of nonwhite bodies. This is the political setting for the moment when George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin as he walked home in the rain with a bag of Skittles. During an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Zimmerman’s neighbor Frank 
Taaffe suggested “if he [Trayvon] had just answered him in an appropriate manner, ‘I’m just here visiting. My mother’s house is around the corner,’ and be upfront and truthful, there wouldn’t be any problem.” Fox News host Geraldo Rivera weighed in on the case by saying, “I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.” Conservative commentators and websites piled on, pointing to Trayvon’s gold teeth and his tattoos. These statements suggest that the unarmed teenager was culpable in the encounter that led to his death, not because of any aggressive or illegal act but because he was not following the appropriate protocol for being black in public. A black body in public space must presume its own guilt and be prepared to present a rigidly controlled public performance of docility and respectability.

Sagging-pants laws in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas attempt to legislate that public performance of black bodies by making it illegal to enact particular versions of youth fashion associated with blackness. Philadelphia, New Orleans, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities have responded to violence in predominantly black communities by imposing curfews on young people and then policing these rules most vehemently among black youth—making it a crime for them to be in public space. New York City’s “stop and frisk” law empowers police to temporarily detain a person based merely on “reasonable suspicion” of involvement in criminal activity, which in practice has been vastly disproportionately applied to young men of color.

It is easy, but wrong, to write off Zimmerman as a deranged man whose violence against Trayvon Martin was tragic but unpreventable. Zimmerman was acting in ways entirely consistent with the long history and contemporary reality that assumes the criminality and potential danger of black bodies.

Melissa Harris-Perry, host of a weekend show on MSNBC, wrote The Nation’s “Sister Citizen” column from 2010 to 2014. 

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Why Cold War Again?

Stephen F. Cohen

April 21, 2014


April 6, 2015

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Against Easy Stories

Laila Lalami

February 2, 2015

Two armed men in balaclavas attacked Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris and opened fire on the editorial staff, in the end killing five cartoonists, a columnist, a copy editor, a maintenance worker, an economist, a visitor and two police officers.

To make sense of the senseless, we tell ourselves stories. In this case, the story is that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is the latest salvo in an ongoing clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The story is that the satirical magazine was the last bastion of free thought in an otherwise cowed press—a press that has given in to political correctness and is now too afraid to criticize Islam. The story is that Muslim leaders remain silent about this atrocity. The story is that France has failed to integrate its Muslim citizens, the descendants of immigrants from its former colonies. The story is that France has sent troops to fight in Muslim countries. The story is that there are double standards.

None of these stories will do, at least not for me. I find myself reading them in different guises in the national press, hoping they will satisfy or enlighten me, but something is always missing.

I am tired. Tired that the drawing of a cartoon about Muhammad attracts more anger than the spilling of blood. Tired that casual bigotry is equated with serious criticism. Tired that providing context is seen as providing an excuse. I’m also afraid for the rights of writers and artists. Afraid of the restrictive legislation that is sure to follow. And afraid for all the innocents who will suffer.

All I know is this: we are in this together. We must accept that we cannot go through life without being offended. We must accept that the right to say offensive things is a fundamental part of free speech. But we must also accept that we have a responsibility for one another. We must speak out against racism, sexism and bigotry in all its forms. Let us use reason, but let us use our hearts too.

Laila Lalami has written for The Nation since 2005. Her novel The Moor’s Account was published last year. 

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