Last night I drive to Sonoma to hear John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and of a number of other books, give a talk sponsored by the Praxis Peace Institute. The audience was filled with people more or less like myself: progressives who are feeling amore than a little whip lashed between depraved Republican politics and the unnerving weakness of their Democratic opposition. I at least was expecting a clear analysis of the corporate threat to America and decency in general. This was not quite what we got.
Perkins immediately caught my attention by telling us that we live during a time in history more revolutionary than either the agricultural revolution thousands of years ago, or the industrial revolution. This was the same point I am developing in the book that has taken most of my attention over the past several years. He then underlined my interest by pointing out this time had been prophesized years ago in countless indigenous cultures. He had had his world view fractured while in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, where he became deathly ill until a native shaman had cured him in one night. It took a while for the seeds that experience planted to sprout, but sprout they eventually did.
Here was no traditional critic of the corporate empire!
But first a brief word about who Perkins is. It puts the rest in perspective. In his introduction to Economic Hit Man, Perkins starts with a definition.
Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign “aid” organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but on that has taken on new and more terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.
I should know; I was an EHM.
Perkins wrote that the initial draft of his book had been dedicated “to the presidents of two countries whom I respected and thought of as kindred spirits – Jaime Roldos, president of Ecuador, and Omar Torrijos, president of Panama. Both had just died in firey crashes. Their deaths were not accidental….”
Equally significantly, while Economic Hit Man was on the New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half, it was never reviewed by the Times. Never. That had never happened, before or since.
Perkins began by asking his audience how many knew of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the terrible threat to America posed by the “military-industrial complex?” Many of us raised our hands. He then asked us why Eisenhower had mentioned it only once, in his farewell speech to the nation. We did not. (I had often wondered myself why Ike waited till he was leaving office to give his warning.) Because, Perkins said, Eisenhower had only “one shot.” He had to make it his best one. The military industrial complex would otherwise have “brought him down.” That, he said, is also why Obama has turned into such a milk toast. He learned that if he did not he would not last out his term of office.
(Perkins was more sympathetic to Obama than I am, and that remains unchanged. No one forced him to run. If he can send others into harm’s way, as he does, he shouldn’t shrink from it himself.)
In other words, we are dominated by gangsters, and what they have created is not the “free market” but “predatory capitalism.”
Today they are applying to the American people the same methods they used against so many peoples around the world, with similar results. The formula for most is simple – convince people to accept loans they cannot repay, then foreclose. People will do all they can to keep their house, and not cause trouble. The same holds for politicians dependent of corporate funding.
I thought of today’s college students: burden them with debt. Then they cannot cause trouble and even thinking for themselves is financially risky. The rapid rise in student debt is no accident.
He gave an interesting example of the degree of corporate control that has grown in this country. During the 1960s the antiwar protests were covered nationally, and many politicians listened to the people. Before Bush attacked Iraq millions protested both here and around the world: the biggest protests in world history. They received almost no coverage. And (these are my additions) in Wisconsin far more people protested in the cold and for far longer than the tea Baggers in Washington, yet received essentially no national coverage. Then there is the mysterious 7000+ votes for Prosser discovered by a woman who worked for him and was a Republican hack. Votes that magically reversed an election. Meanwhile the idiots and whores who were wrong about Iraq continue with big media contracts and those who were right are still ignored.
Perkins explained that at a national level we are not a democracy any more. I believe he is correct. We are an oligarchy, an exceptionally corrupt and brutal one.
But the biggest part of Perkins’ talk was not on the horrors of corporate America, they were on what we could do about it and the larger context within which we live.
Most importantly, the corporate thieves utterly depend on our paying for their products. In a memorable quote that I wish could be compressed into a bumper sticker, he said “The vote you cast when you buy something is s important as the vote you cast in the ballot box.” And maybe more important under current circumstances, he added.
Corporations care only about money and will hurt anyone to get more. But that means they will also stop hurting people if that is how to get more.
The winning strategy is to go after their bottom lines, and go after their CEOs, to embarrass them for their thievery. Not all of them are complete sociopaths.
That requires shopping and consuming as a citizen, not a consumer. A consumer buys what will be most beneficial for him or herself personally, and that usually means paying attention only to price, and maybe quality. A citizen also pays attention to values that cannot be reflected in terms of price and quality, such as support for sustainability, fair treatment, and decency.
Some people might think this is acting on too small a scale. But – and I am giving my own analysis here – they are wrong for several reasons. First, the money they spend goes to reward decent businesses rather than gangsters. Thinks of who you help when you spend as well as what you get. Second, you help the growth and development of sustainable technologies and business models more generally. New MBAs and the like have career options other than work for gangsters. Third, when others learns what you are doing they are more likely to do it themselves. We begin to regain a sense of community rather than what the gangsters want- that we are isolated consumers.
But there was more to Perkins talk than this. In addition, he said, pursue a society where you can look forward for your grandchildren to live in. Do this by “following your passion.” He gave the example of George Washington and Thomas Paine. If Paine had tried to lead an army and Washington had written pamphlets, we would never have freed ourselves from Britain. Each followed his passion in pursuing a better world. The point is not to follow a grand strategy, but to integrate our loves with our actions.
Again, in my words, as we do this we automatically create new institutions to replace the corrupt ones with corrupt leaders that now dominate. We need to see our actions as individuals as collectively building the future, and doing so based on the needs and opportunities within out own communities. Of course initially that cannot impact the oil industry, but it builds the foundations of alternatives that can. Buying local and organic first and organic second strikes at the heart of monstrosities such as Monsanto. Here is California there are the beginnings of efforts to establish state banks such as have long existed in North Dakota, a really exciting possibility. Alternatively, bank at credit unions or, second best, at local institutions.
He also reminded those of us who like himself, are older, “If you’re retired you can’t be fired.” We are free in a sense we have not been since we were students. We should make the most of it.
Perkins continually put his arguments within a spiritual context: that acting in this way would help heal the enormous and destructive gulf between our autistic civilization and the more than human world around us. If the prophesies were right, we are in a propitious time for doing so. The very soullessness of the corporate world means few truly love it – its greatest strength is the sense that we have no alternatives.
We do and we need to create them.
Perkins closed with a fascinating tale of his encounter with the Dalai Lama. He was at an airport in Ladakh, with a group of people, as was the Dalai Lama. Someone noticed His Holiness was carrying Perkins’ book Shape Shifting.
Informed that the book’s author was present, the Dalai Lama invited him to join him on their flight. The two sat together for the one hour flight, after which the Dalai Lama invited him and his group to his residence for more conversation. Among the fascinating points that arose from their interaction, the Dalai Lama said that while he was, as prophecies had long foretold, the last Tibetan Dalai Lama, he thought the next would be in another high mountain area, perhaps the Andes. He agreed that this person, who might even be a woman, would not necessarily be a Buddhist.
In fact His Holiness told the people assembled there that they should not think of becoming Buddhists, but rather to apply the Buddha’s teachings about compassion and kindness in their lives. Forget the institutional rigmarole that goes with an organized tradition.
Here was a common theme from fighting corporate criminals to living a spiritual life: keep it small and local even while always trying to keep the bigger picture in mind.
As a Pagan I could not have been more impressed.
Perkins web page and a blog are located here.
An organization associated with South American issues and indigenous people is the Pachamama Alliance.
One more broadly focused but with similar values is Dream Change.