Monday, June 08, 2009

The making and unmaking of a modern monster

John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man interested me less for its revelations about how U.S. con artists ensnare the elites of developing countries in relationships and debts that tie them to empire, than for the picture the author paints of the kind of young man who was ripe to serve one as of these financial lowlifes.

No question that the story is fascinating. Working for a consulting firm, his job was to use any combination of tools -- "fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder" -- to ensure that U.S. companies like Bechtel and Kellogg, Brown and Root captured whatever wealth could be squeezed from Middle Eastern, South Asian and Latin American nations. He became good at it, a swashbuckling modern buccaneer piling up corporate treasure.

What kind of person takes on such a role? Perkins describes his young self in ways that are not flattering. The child of teachers working at an exclusive boy's prep school in New Hampshire, he grew up injured and envious at how his schoolmates treated him: to them, he was their servants' offspring admitted among them only thanks to the school's generosity. He hated that his parents, in order to bolster their own precarious social position, cut him off from the poor people of the town -- among whom were the only girls he might have met. He was taught those off-limits girls were "sluts."

By the time he escaped to college, he was one rebellious, ignorant and slightly twisted puppy. He found a similar male friend, drank a lot, and quit school. But it being the late 1960s at the height of the Vietnam war, he needed to avoid to avoid the draft, so he got a job in Boston and enrolled in business classes. He also quickly married his college girlfriend because it was the only way he could get her to sleep with him.

Facing graduation and the army, he gladly accepted his wife's uncle's suggestion that he take a battery of tests to see whether he might quality to join the National Security Agency. Since he readily admitted he hated the Southeast Asian war, to his surprise he aced his interviews.

...they focused on my upbringing, my attitudes toward my parents, the emotions generated by the fact I grew up as a poor puritan among so many wealthy, hedonistic preppies. They also explored my frustration about the lack of women, sex, and money in my life, and the fantasy world that had evolved as a result. ...

...Their assessment had less to do with issues of loyalty to my country than with the frustrations of my life. Anger at my parents, an obsession with women and my ambition to live the good life gave them a hook; I was seducible.

They were right. They sent Perkins and his wife off to Ecuador in the Peace Corps; he came back tired of living poor and tired of his marriage which quickly fell apart. He was inducted into the life of an "economic hit man" for a private "consulting" corporation by a mysterious temptress who called herself "Claudine" -- and who disappeared as if she'd never existed once she'd given him his lessons.

And for twenty years he created profitable economic projects for "the corporatocracy" in various developing nations. In Ecuador and Panama he met leaders who didn't want to be ensnared, who wanted development that would benefit their peoples, not just the rich -- and he saw these men he admired die in suspicious circumstances.

Eventually the contradictions of profiting from exploiting people for the empire sickened Perkins -- the "confessions" in the title is a moral self-assessment as well as a promise of revelations about a shady business.

In an epilogue, Perkins asks readers to make their own self-examination:

Ask yourself these questions. What do I need to confess? ...Why have I allowed myself to be sucked into a system that I know is unbalanced? ...How can I help our children understand that people who live gluttonous, unbalanced lives should be pitied but never emulated, even if those people present themselves through media they control...and try to convince us that penthouses and yachts bring happiness? ...What forums will I use to teach others and to learn more on my own?

Perkins' Confessions is melodramatic, overwrought and a little banal. There are far more systematic ways to understand the development of U.S. world dominance (and its current challenges), such as Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire.

But Perkins' insistance on the individual moral responsibility of people in the U.S. strikes a nerve. We're not the primary victims; in fact many of us benefit greatly from empire. But we are morally compromised. He stares very hard at that reality in his own life and asks other U.S. citizens to do the same.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

I believe that, at the least subconsciously, we are all aware of the malfeasance of the corporate world in their search for more profits. But we buy into the idea that things will make us happy and look the other way.

Is is so disheartening to think of all the evil in the world and that it never gets better. It's really hard to be an optimist if you let yourself dwell on it.