John Perkins used to be corporate hotshot. As a young man he was what he calls an “economic hit man.” His job was to scout out poor nations and convince their governments to take American loans, knowing the governments had no hope of paying them back.
The nations would be forced to make economic concessions to American companies. This cycle, Perkins says, was the foundation of a global empire. In The Secret History of the American Empire: Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth About Global Corruption he exposes the corporate misdeeds and influence spanning the world.
City Pages: Explain what the title of your book refers to.
John Perkins: Well, I think it's fair to say that we've created the world's first truly global empire, and for the first time we've created an empire primarily without the military; we've done it with economics. Perhaps the most common method is that we will identify a third-world country that has resources that corporations covet, like oil.
Then we arrange a huge bank loan to the country from the World Bank. However, the money doesn't go to the country. Instead, it goes to our own corporations, which build things like power plants, industrial parks, highways; projects that benefit a few rich people in the country and our corporations. They don't help the majority of the people who are too poor to buy electricity, don't have the skills for industrial parks, don't own cars to drive on the highways, but the whole country is left with this huge debt; they can't afford to pay it. So we go back in and say, "Listen, you owe us a lot of money, so sell your oil real cheap to our oil companies, or vote with us on the next critical UN vote, or send troops in support of ours in Iraq or some other place of the world." In that way we've really managed to create this empire without people even realizing we've done it.
CP:First world empire, really? The British empire at it's height ruled 25 percent of the world's land and people
JP:Absolutely. The British didn't go into South America much. The Romans, of course, were a relatively small empire by modern standards. I grew up looking at the world as a large globe with 180-some odd countries. A few of those countries had influence over others like the United State and the Soviet Union. But today we see different geopolitics. We see this globe with 180-some odd countries with these huge clouds drifting around that know no national borders, that don't have to abide by any set of laws. These are the big corporations. They form partnerships with the Chinese government or the Argentine government or the South African Government or the US government, whoever best serves them at the time. It's truly different geopolitics than we've ever experienced on the planet before. This is a time that's roughly equivalent to when the city-states became nations. We're at a time similar to that now when the nations are becoming somewhat irrelevant, and it's the big corporations that are calling the shots.
CP: Could you just give me a thumbnail sketch of how, in your experience, the world functions as a whole?
JP: The world is run by institutions whose primary goal is to maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental cost. That's extremely dangerous. It's very shortsighted. But I'm also extremely hopeful that we can change this. The fact that we have a world empire that's been created primarily without the military means that for the first time in history, we probably don't have to defeat it with the military. We can defeat it, change it, transform it by how we shop and by the way we relate to businesses. These corporations are vulnerable to us as consumers and workers. For example, we've forced corporations to clean up polluted rivers, or to get trans fat out of food at KFC and McDonald's.
We need to convince corporations to change their overall goal. Rather than maximizing profits regardless of social and environmental costs, maximize profits within the context of creating an environmentally sustainable, socially just, peaceful world.
CP: Part of the subtitle is "How to Change the World." What do you suggest the average American do to change the world?
JP: Shop more responsibly. Don't buy things made in sweatshops, do a little research. Don't buy water that's sapping the aquifers of Fiji. Cut back on things. We all have to be less consumption-oriented and realize that real joy doesn't come from buying things in stores, it comes from the way we relate to our friends and neighbors and the world around us. We can all walk down different paths as long as all those paths are headed toward a destination of an environmentally sustainable and peaceful world. Every executive I've ever known has been a decent human being. I've never met an evil executive. But they're living in an old paradigm that says maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental costs. We need to change the paradigm of our leaders and ourselves.
CP: How do you remain so optimistic despite the horrible things you document in your book?
JP:Well, I've seen incredible changes in my lifetime. Organizations like Rainforest Action Network have had a huge impact on helping to save rainforests, and consumer advocacy groups have had a tremendous impact on corporations. I remember in the early 1970s when China was a mystery, a very poor country until Nixon went in and opened it up. And look how China has changed in the past 35 years or so. I'm not sure it's the kind of change we want to see for this planet, but the fact is horrendous change is possible for this planet. The human being is capable of adjusting and changing once we understand. We've shown that time and time in history. Corporations are also flexible. We've seen them change radically in the way they do business. What we're looking for now is another radical change. And we've demonstrated over the history of our species that when push comes to shove we're capable of radical changes. We're at one of those times in history today. We see ourselves as very threatened by global warming, terrorism, terrible starvation and poverty around the world.
John Perkins will read from his book on Wed. at Borders (800 W 78th St. in Richfield).