Antony Loewenstein’s “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe”

(This review is published in AlterNet.)

“It is profitable to let the world go to hell,” wrote Jørgen Randers, professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, in 2015. “I believe that the tyranny of the short term will prevail over the decades to come. As a result, a number of long-term problems will not be solved, even if they could have been, and even as they cause gradually increasing difficulties.”

Journalist Antony Loewenstein opens his book “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe” with these portentous words. Having crossed the globe, he has seen firsthand just how profitable disaster can be.

Loewenstein is a veritable journalistic virtuoso. He has traveled to dozens of countries on multiple continents in recent years for his multifaceted reporting. Like his wildly accomplished compatriot John Pilger, Loewenstein has tackled a dizzying array of topics, with the grasp and expertise of a scholar, and the dexterity and vigor of an explorer. (No, not in the Steve Irwin sense — RIP.)

“Disaster Capitalism,” a dense 300-page tome that is more like seven-books-in-one, is based on more than a decade of research and on-the-ground reporting. Loewenstein traveled to war-torn Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, to study how the defense industry and for-profit private military companies are turning one of the longest wars in U.S. history into a lucrative business opportunity. He also visited crowded refugee camps in Greece and fully privatized detention centers at the ironically named Christmas Island, off the coast of his native Australia, to meet asylum-seekers fleeing wars off of which multinational corporations are profiting.

Loewenstein continued his reporting in post-earthquake Haiti, where he witnessed the destructive disaster capitalist policies imposed on the impoverished nation. He also saw how international mining corporations are profiting from the extraction boom in Papa New Guinea. In addition to these expeditions, Loewenstein also recently spent time doing even more reporting in South Sudan, Kenya, and Israel.

“I believe that bearing witness to what I see, and giving unequal players the right of reply, gives balance to the privatization debate, rather than the false construct of ‘balance’ that permeates the corporate press, which merely pits one powerful interest against another,” Loewenstein explains in the book.

The concept behind “Disaster Capitalism” is loosely rooted in Naomi Klein’s 2007 opus “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” But Loewnestein picks up where Klein left off, analyzing not only how natural disasters and war can be vehicles for disaster capitalist policies, but also how corporations push their neoliberal agenda, and rake in enormous sums of cash, off of immigration, refugee detention, prisons, discoveries of natural resource reserves, and more.

“This book is a product of the post-9/11 environment,” he notes. The explosion of the so-called War on Terror; the rapid expansion the surveillance state; the slew of never-ending wars; the privation of public institutions and services; the militarization of police, the border, and all of society — this brave new world is what Loewenstein devotes himself to dissecting in the work.

And there is even a movie! A “Disaster Capitalism” documentary has been several years in the making. Loewenstein says they are wrapping up the production process, and is in discussions for distribution of the film.

“Disaster Capitalism” is one of several books penned by Antony Loewenstein. His previous book, “Profits of Doom,” explores similar matters, while his 2008 work “The Blogging Revolution” presages the 2011 protests that swept the globe. Loewenstein’s 2007 book “My Israel Question” became a best-seller, and helped foment critical public debate about Israel-Palestine.

In the past several months, Loewenstein, who presently lives in Israel-Palestine, has in fact come under attack for his critical reporting on the government’s violations of international law and oppression of the Palestinians. Since he asked prominent Israeli politician Yair Lapid a frank question at a press conference, the government has moved to kick Loewenstein out of the country, citing his support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

Loewenstein is the definition of a cosmopolitan. In an article in The Guardian about his Australian-German-Jewish identity, he wrote, “My identity is a conflicted and messy mix that incorporates Judaism, atheism, anti-Zionism, Germanic traditions and Anglo-Saxon-Australian beliefs. And yet I both routinely reject and embrace them all.”

He’s also a darn good writer — something we all envy, regardless of our politics.

While he boasts an impressive collection of bylines in prestigious publications, however, Loewenstein has largely been relegated to the sidelines of mainstream, corporate journalism — much like the muckrakers before him. Yet he remains unafraid to lash out at the deferential and lackadaisical media establishment.

“Far too few reporters demand transparency or challenge capitalism, preferring instead to operate comfortably within it,” he observes in his book. “This work is an antidote to such thinking. … This book considers the view from below, the experiences of people who are all too often invisible in the daily news cycle.”

Public discussion

I joined Antony Loewenstein for a public discussion of “Disaster Capitalism,” at McNally Jackson Books in New York City on February 23.

Loewenstein discussed his reporting on the privatization of wars and detention facilities for refugees and migrants. He also examined the refugee crisis, and how Western wars have fueled this refugee crisis — highlighting the links tying together war, detention, mass incarceration, the military-industrial complex, and the prison-industrial complex, and how private prison and security companies are profiting from it all.

We also addressed the rise of far-right and neo-fascist movements around the world, from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen to Golden Dawn, and how these forces will be incapable of solving the structural global problems exacerbated and reinforced by corporate profits.