Thomas Jefferson once claimed if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Today, the children of Jefferson’s beloved nation don’t seem to have taken the hint. A Newsweek survey found that three-quarters of Americans didn’t know why they had been involved in the Cold War. Around two-thirds of respondents to a National Geographic poll couldn’t find Saudi Arabia or Iraq on a map of the Middle-East, while a Washington Post survey in 2005 found 70% to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for 9/11.
In the midst of this amnesiac haze, 2004 saw a book reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list that threatened to teach the citizenry a thing or two. John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man would go on to sell more than a million copies; yet it contained unsettlingly weird chapter titles for the average American reader. ‘Panama’s President and Hero’; ‘The Saudi-Arabian Money Laundry Affair’; even the Bible-Belt antagonising ‘Jesus seen differently’, in which Christ appears to Perkins – not as a blonde and blue-eyed Californian – but as an Indonesian beggar.
Perkins’ personal story is, however, unambiguously riveting. He plays an ‘Economic Hit Man’, rebelling against a sanitised upbringing by entering the corrupt and conniving world of the ‘corporatocracy’. His official role as ‘Economic analyst’ belies his true role as an Empire builder, forcing nations around the world to take on prohibitive loans while paying American corporations for their infrastructural development programmes.
The narrative contains everything a good thriller requires: crime, intrigue and Jesus hallucinations, eventually ending in our protagonist’s cathartic renunciation of his evil ways. CEHM’s bad guys are really bad: corporate bosses, Saudi kings, Ronald Reagan; its heroes on the other hand – defiant populists like Omar Torrijos and Jaime Roldós, leaders of Panama and Ecuador respectively – are inspirational.
This, however, isn’t a novel. In what novel would the heroes die in secretive and mysterious plane crashes, and the villains keep on winning? Our tendency in the developed world is to regard the assassinations, corruption and corporate ownership of poorer nations as tragic yet detached political concerns. Stories like Perkins can almost feel fictional in this way; his dramatic writing style, though powerful, threatens to leave us with a sense of detachment to the events it recounts.
This ambivalence is all the more unsettling given the tragedy of it all. Take Perkin’s account of a mammoth Ecuadorian oil rig: 75% of its profits go directly to the (American) oil company, while of the rest, three quarters goes to paying off national debt, and ‘less than 3% goes to the people who need the money most, those whose lives have been so adversely impacted by the dams, the drilling and the pipelines, and who are dying from lack of edible food and potable water’. It is impossible not to feel the injustice; but when it is happening so far away, we have a tendency to overlook.
Change, however, is in the air. Reflecting on the indigenous Ecuadorians affected by the oil rig, CEHM concludes that their desperate situation means ‘All of these people…are potential terrorists’. Last week, in the midst of the present electoral circus, the leader of the opposition dared to echo this view. His wording was cautious, measured, tentative; yet its symbolism cannot be underplayed.
Jeremy Corbyn is a pacifist, a socialist, and a lifelong critic of Western foreign policy and its vast network of corporate interests. Should he walk in to Number 10 on June 9th, his victory will legitimise a field of previously fringe views regarding global politics and the location of power.
This poses a serious threat to what CEHM calls the ‘corporatocracy’. Corbyn will be entering a political conflict with an international order ruthless in its disposal of regimes that oppose it. Perkins’ book tragically illuminates this, and if we are, as progressives, to regard his narrative as detached from own political moment, we risk falling prey to the very same mechanisms Perkins once was complicit in.
Over half of our stock market is foreign owned. Hinckley Point, the controversial nuclear facility under construction, is funded by China and France, while our Trident missile programme is, predominantly, American. With the help of modern Economic Hit Men, Britain is being colonised. As it is, the distance we feel from Perkins’ stories of Panama, Ecuador, Singapore and Iran should be drawing in.
Yet for most, it remains an invisible subject within political discussion. In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell claimed that most of the British public were unaware of the Empire their society was built on. Today, that ignorance lingers, both regarding the active role we take in ensuring the dominance of modern corporate Empires, and how that same system is expanding its control over our own domestic landscape.
Reading Perkins’ book today, with less than a week to go until the impossible dream of the British left may be realised, is humbling. Jeremy Corbyn may overcome the machinations of his own party; of the mainstream media; of the most entrenched political establishment in the world. It would be nothing short of a miraculous achievement should he do it. But Perkins’ book is a warning: far greater opponents will lie in store. The tragic stories of Omar Torrijos and Jaime Roldὀs are reminders, moreover, that their destructive capabilities must not be underestimated.
Americans may (mostly) be able to point to the UK on a map of Europe. But this will not exempt us from the consequences of disobedience. Were their closest ally to turn red, America will act, just as they have done throughout much of the world. After he was elected Labour leader, an anonymous General told the Times that a coup would ensue should he be elected Prime Minister. Suddenly, the events of Perkins’ book seem a little less distant…