Winner Takes All: John Perkins on the Global Economy

CAPITALISM, 1 May 2023

Stephanie Hiller – TRANSCEND Media Service

“Senate Finance Chief: Nothing Unites GOP More Than Helping Rich People Cheat on Their Taxes” headline, Common Dreams, 20 Apr 2023.

But actually that has been the strategy of both parties in US development programs for decades, according to John Perkins, who was a “hit man” for MAIN, an engineering company building infrastructure all over the world. His job consisted of persuading leaders of developing countries that his company could help their country modernize.

For a price.

The price, paid in the form of loans, enables the rich, in our country and theirs, to rake in enormous profits, while chaining the country to the U.S. by growing debt.

He calls it a four pillar strategy: fear, debt, anxiety, and divide and conquer.

John Perkins spoke to the members of Praxis Peace, a Sonoma-based organization, on April 17 via zoom. The third edition of his book, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, has just been published. It contains 12 new chapters about how China’s development policy is spreading Chinese influence throughout the world.

The job of the hit man is to identify countries that have resources the company wants, such as oil or lithium, and then to arrange a loan from American-dominated lenders like the World Bank to pay the cost of developing the resource.

“But the money didn’t actually go to the country. It never saw the money. Instead, the money went to corporations in the United States to build big infrastructure projects in those countries. Power plants, industrial parks, highways, ports, airports, things that help the very rich people because they own the businesses and the industries that benefited from big infrastructure.

“But in the long run it hurt just about everybody else, because money was diverted from healthcare, education and other social services to pay the interest on the debt, and in the end the debt couldn’t be repaid. So we’d go back and say, Hey, since you can’t pay your debt, we’ll help you restructure it.

“But you need to implement neoliberal economic policies, which essentially means reduce taxes on your rich, reduce just everything else on everybody else, and, you know, cut back on your regulations, privatize your utility companies, or water and sewage systems, and so forth to private investors.

“Vote with us at the United Nations on some issue. That’s important to us. Let us build a military base on your soil.

“What we were doing was creating a global empire.”

If leaders don’t accept this deal, they will be pursued by “jackals” and overthrown or perhaps assassinated.

If that sounds nasty, the book conveys in greater detail, country by country, chapter by chapter, how sleazy, corrupt and inhumane all this high-power money-making is. And there’s a lot of money involved. While Perkins does not spell out how much he made, the money and the perks – travel expenses, elegant restaurants and hotels, and so on – allowed him a very plush lifestyle and powerful sense of identity and purpose to which one easily becomes addicted. That’s essential because “once you’re in, you can never get out,” said Perkins’ mysterious mentor Claudine before he accepted the job.

Money and belief kept hit men in the game, as well as the threat of punishment mafia-style if they tried to quit. Couched in reassuring language and, for some, including Perkins at the beginning of his career, that was the dirty game that has been masquerading as “foreign aid” since the Cold War, its tactics employed because the existence of the nuclear bomb had made the prospect of war untenable. (Alas, that is no longer the case. The weapons trade has its own perverted modus operandi.)  But despite its attractions, Perkins became increasingly disturbed by his role, and eventually found a way to get out.

In the meantime, China has developed another way to conduct international business, offering a more alluring, superficially less damaging way to spread its influence throughout the world. Promising “peace and stability,” China has succeeded largely by reassuring developing countries that unlike the U.S., (whom many of these leaders have come to hate) it does not intend to take over their country but to help them connect with the rest of the world. Likely it is even more dangerous,” Perkins writes, “since it is controlled by an authoritarian government.” Also the Chinese are sloppy engineers, he adds.

The book is well worth reading, offering both memoir and political history as Perkin struggles to find the good and the noble amidst the shreds of corruption, extortion and deceit. It’s not an easy struggle, but a modern-style hero’s journey with which progressives can empathize. Significantly, Perkins does not believe this is all a conspiracy of some sort; rather he finds good people trapped in an evil system, a “death economy, an economic system that’s consuming and polluting itself into extinction and causing climate change”, that must become a “life economy” if people and planet are to survive. He describes what we can do to expedite that transformation in the last chapter of his book.

In the one-hour zoom format Georgia Kelly, Executive Director of Praxis Peace, selects three or four salient questions to guide the interview to its key points, with the second half reserved for questions from the audience. In that short time, Perkins addressed some of the central subjects of his book, including China’s dominance in the global marketplace, which appears to be very threatening to America’s hegemonic ambitions, as well as the features of a “life economy” which we must create if we are to survive. It was a lively discussion.

Regarding the life economy he said, “It’s something that has been happening. We’ve seen the idea of conscious capitalism. “B Corporations.”, benefit corporations, great new deal. The tremendous boom in technologies that are taking us toward a life economy.

“And I want to emphasize that this is not about stopping growth. This is about transforming growth from things that are ravaging the earth like much of the materialism that we currently advocate, and the idea that corporations need to maximize short-term profits. They need to make some profits, because that’s how they keep going, but the tremendous amounts of profits that hedge funds and other industries are looking at is outrageous.”

How to change it? That will have to be another discussion, based on the last chapter of the book. Suffice it to say that a life economy is one designed to help everybody thrive. Not just the rich people.

That change of intention could change everything.


Stephanie Hiller is a free lance writer who blogs at Particle Beams, Sonoma Sun and Medium. She is an adjunct instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she teaches autobiographical writing to older adults. She lives in Sonoma, USA.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 May 2023.

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