By Vijay Prashad
The idea of the “conspiracy theory” is a red herring. Power is loath to reveal details of the various nefarious policies and projects conducted in its interest. In 1997, the Moynihan Commission studied the realm of US governmental secrecy, and concluded that excessive state secrecy corrodes democracy. If “secrecy is a form of government regulation,” the Report noted, then it is the one area where the public can neither know the extent of the regulation over information nor the kind of information being regulated. For that reason, the Report argued, secrecy not only serves to protect “national security,” but it also shelters government officials and agencies.
Secrecy is a convenient way to protect one’s personal legacy or else to protect unconstitutional policies until their hold on social life is established. “Conspiracy theories,” in this climate, are not the province of the overheated imagination, but they are the necessary outcome of far too little information. The more openness from powerful (governmental and private) agencies, the less need for us, the citizenry, to indulge in speculation, rumor and “conspiracy theories.”
That’s the reason I read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2004). All the advance press indicated that this book would have the smoking gun: now we’d know for sure how the world economic system is rigged on behalf of the global plutocracy. Perkins does validate much of what is commonplace in the “conspiracy theories” regarding imperialism.
The broad outlines of the “conspiracy” are as follows: the World Bank commissions a US-based “consultancy group” to do a study of some aspect of infrastructural development in an economically devastated country. The report from the consultants generally overstates the country’s needs, asking, for example, for a power grid that can produce far more electricity than the country wants or needs. The World Bank then hires a consortium of generally US or else G-7 based engineering firms (such as Bechtel) to take on the contracts. This consortium then sub-contracts the work to various local firms for a fraction of the bid, and it imports materials and expertise from the G-7 at fabulous prices. The World Bank, therefore, subsidizes the industrial and technical sector within the G-7, not in the country it claims to aid.
That country, be it Indonesia or Ecuador, accepted a loan from the World Bank which is used to pay the consortium for its work. The Bechtels of the world benefit, whereas the Indonesian and Ecuadorian people are left holding the bill. Unable to pay, these countries go into severe debt, and when they can’t pay this off they have to entertain the notorious debt-for-equity swaps: rights to the precious resources within these countries (such as oil) are then mortgaged toward the impossible debt. Why do the leadership in these countries accede to this logic?
Because if they don’t, Perkins suggests, they are killed (Ecuador’s Jaime Roldos and Panama’s Omar Torrijos, per example), they act out of class (rather than national) interests or else they feel compelled (“The more time I spent with [mid-level Indonesian politicians], the more convinced I became that I was an intruder, that an order to cooperate had come from someone, and that they had little choice but to comply. I had no idea whether a governmental official, a banker, a general or the U. S. Embassy had sent the order. All I knew was that although they invited me into their offices, offered me tea, politely answered my questions, and in every overt manner seemed to welcome my presence, beneath the surface there was a shadow of resignation and rancor”).
While the bureaucrats and politicians of the darker nations angrily resign themselves to the like of Perkins, their countries are indebted for what might as well be millennia. Who are these people, like Perkins? They are the Economic Hit Men, a term Perkins claims, is widely used among his fraternity. “We build a global empire. WE are an elite group of men and women who utilize international financial organizations to foment conditions that make other nations subservient to the corporatocracy running our biggest corporations, our government, and our banks.”
These men and women opportunistically take the conditions of global inequality to further trap large parts of the world into the web of abstract capitalist domination, and once the country is ensnared “we demand our pound of flesh. This often includes one or more of the following: control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal. Of course the debtor still owes us the money and another country is added to our global empire.”
Nothing Perkins writes about is news. Indeed, this “plan” for domination provided the basis for the creation of the alternative political agenda, known as the Third World. The Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77, the Singer-Prebisch theory of import substitution, the Tricontinental Conference in Havana, and the many UN institutions (such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) offered an alternative to the rapaciousness of imperialist capital, or the EHM.
That nationalist ethos and program provided the foundations for people like Omar Torrijos, Jamie Roldos, Jacob Arbenz and others whom Perkins admires. But they are not simply courageous individuals or that “rare modern politician who was not afraid to oppose the status quo.” These people were pushed by a groundswell of nationalist sentiment that wanted to use natural resources for human-centered development rather than for profit-centered aggrandizement. These people knew the logic of the EHM (for instance, the 1965 book by Kwame Nkrumah entitled Neocolonialism: the last stage of imperialism). This is the reason that they faced denigration from the powers that be, and many of their international schemes (such as commodity cartels) came in for ridicule from G-7 politicians and intellectuals.
Perkins offers a validation of much that was already written about and known among those social movements that tried to follow an alternative development agenda. His book is a useful marker, even if it is not always easy to read. There is a discomforting sanctimoniousness from empire’s dissidents, as they spend an inordinate time in their confessions telling us that they never really had their heart in their jobs. I often tell my students that I don’t insist that they follow any prescribed ideology, but I do require them to be authentic to themselves: if you want to live like an EHM, then don’t pretend to be a liberal. They must see the choices before them for what they are, and make an informed decision about their lives. Mid-life crises are horrid, but worst of all are those people who become EHMs and rely upon their dissident friends for absolution. If you want to be an EHM, then don’t try to tell me that you are actually torn up about it. Apart from that, Perkins’ account is readable.
Toward the end of the book, Perkins offers this view of conspiracy, “It would be great if we could just blame it all on a conspiracy, but we cannot. The empire depends on the efficacy of big banks, corporations, and governments the corporatocracy but it is not a conspiracy. This corporatocracy is ourselves we make it happen which, of course, is why most of us find it difficult to stand up and oppose it. We would rather glimpse conspirators lurking in the shadows, because most of us work of one of those banks, corporations or governments, or in some way are dependent on them for the goods and services they produce and market. We cannot bring ourselves to bite the hand of the master who feeds us.”
While it is true that we are all implicated in the system, there are some, like the EHMs, who reproduce the system in an active, and deadly way. Those of us whose contribution to the social reproduction of empire is consumerism cannot see ourselves as part of the problem. Well, partly we’re not the problem, even if we contribute to it. We know that other hands drive the system, and since we cannot see them we take whatever flimsy evidence we have of them and knit it into a narrative, a conspiracy theory. Moynihan’s report argues that “greater openness permits more public understanding of the government’s actions,” which is another way of saying that the secrecy of the EHM system prevents us to properly grasp the actions of power.
[Stay tuned for Darker Nations: The Rise and Fall of the Third World, from the New Press in the Fall of 2005]