As usual, because of my reading habits, I end up recommending this when the issue is already off the newsstand, but it's worth digging around for at a slow-moving bookstore or your local library. (You can also read it online if you subscribe to Harper's or have a friend who does.)
Here's an excerpt.
Everywhere in Iraq, the wildly divergent values assigned to different categories of people are on crude display. Westerners and their Iraqi colleagues have checkpoints at the entrances to their streets, blast walls in front of their houses, body armor, and private security guards on call at all hours. They travel the country in menacing armored convoys, with mercenaries pointing guns out the windows as they follow their prime directive to "protect the principal." With every move they broadcast the same unapologetic message: We are the chosen, our lives are infinitely more precious than yours.
Middle-class Iraqis, meanwhile, cling to the next rung down the ladder: they can afford to buy protection from local militias, they are able to ransom a family member held by kidnappers, they may ultimately escape to a life of poverty in Jordan. But the vast majority of Iraqis have no protection at all. They walk the streets exposed to any possible ravaging, with nothing between them and the next car bomb but a thin layer of fabric. In Iraq, the lucky get Kevlar; the rest get prayer beads.
Like most people, I saw the divide between Baghdad's Green and Red zones as a simple by-product of the war: This is what happens when the richest country in the world sets up camp in one of the poorest. But now, after years spent visiting other disaster zones, from post-tsunami Sri Lanka to post-Katrina New Orleans, I've come to think of these Green Zone/Red Zone worlds as something else: fast-forward versions of what "free market" forces are doing to our societies even in the absence of war. In Iraq the phones, pipes, and roads had been destroyed by weapons and trade embargoes. In many other parts of the world, including the United States, they have been demolished by ideology, the war on "big government," the religion of tax cuts, the fetish for privatization. When that crumbling infrastructure is blasted with increasingly intense weather, the effects can be as devastating as war.
Last February, for instance, Jakarta suffered one of these predictable disasters. The rains had come, as they always do, but this time the water didn't drain out of Jakarta's famously putrid sewers, and half the city filled up like a swimming pool. There were mass evacuations, and at least fifty-seven people were killed. No bombs or trade sanctions were needed for Jakarta's infrastructure to fail-in fact, the steady erosion of the country's public sphere had taken place under the banner of "free trade." For decades, Washington-backed structural-adjustment programs had pampered investors and starved public services, leading to such cliches of lopsided development as glittering shopping malls with indoor skating rinks surrounded by moats of open sewers. Now those sewers had failed completely.
In wealthier countries, where public infrastructure was far more robust before the decline began, it has been possible to delay this kind of reckoning. Politicians have been free to cut taxes and rail against big government even as their constituents drove on, studied in, and drank from the huge publicworks projects of the 1930s and 1940s. But after a few decades, that trick stops working. The American Society of Civil Engineers has warned that the United States has fallen so far behind in maintaining its public infrastructure - roads, bridges, schools, dams-that it would take more than a trillion and a half dollars over five years to bring it back up to standard.
This past summer those statistics came to life: collapsing bridges, flooding subways, exploding steam pipes, and the still-unfolding tragedy that began when New Orleans's levees broke.
After each new disaster, it's tempting to imagine that the loss of life and productivity will finally serve as a wake-up call, provoking the political class to launch some kind of "new New Deal." In fact, the opposite is taking place: disasters have become the preferred moments for advancing a vision of a ruthlessly divided world, one in which the very idea of a public sphere has no place at all. Call it disaster capitalism. Every time a new crisis hits - even when the crisis itself is the direct by-product of free-market ideology - the fear and disorientation that follow are harnessed for radical social and economic re-engineering. Each new shock is midwife to a new course of economic shock therapy. The end result is the same kind of unapologetic partition between the included and the excluded, the protected and the damned, that is on display in Baghdad.
. . . .
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, schools were getting ready to reopen for fall. More than half the city's students would be attending newly minted charter schools, where they would enjoy small classes, well-trained teachers, and refurbished libraries, thanks to special state and foundation funding pouring into what the New York Times has described as "the nation's preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools." But charters are only for the students who are admitted to the system-an educational Green Zone. The rest of New Orleans's public-school students - many of them with special emotional and physical needs, almost all of them African American - are dumped into the pre-Katrina system: no extra money, overcrowded classrooms, more guards than teachers. An educational Red Zone.
Other institutions that had attempted to bridge the gap between New Orleans's super-rich and ultra-poor were also under attack: thousands of units of subsidized housing were slotted for demolition, and Charity Hospital, the city's largest public-health facility, remained shuttered. The original disaster was created and deepened by public infrastructure that was on its last legs; in the years since, the disaster itself has been used as an excuse to finish the job.
There will be more Katrinas. The bones of our states - so frail and aging - will keep getting buffeted by storms both climatic and political. And as key pieces of the infrastructure are knocked out, there is no guarantee that they will be replaced or rebuilt. . . "
. . . .
Iraq and New Orleans both reveal, the markets opened up by crises aren't only the roads, schools, and oil wells; the disasters themselves are major new markets. The military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against in 1961 has expanded and morphed into what is best understood as a disaster-capitalism complex, in which all conflict - and disaster-related functions (waging war, securing borders, spying on citizens, rebuilding cities, treating traumatized soldiers) - can be performed by corporations at a profit. And this complex is not satisfied merely to feed off the state, the way traditional military contractors do; it aims, ultimately, to replace core functions of government with its own profitable enterprises, as it did in Baghdad's Green Zone.
It happened in New Orleans. Within weeks of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast became a domestic laboratory for the same kind of government run by contractors that was pioneered in Iraq. The companies that snatched up the biggest contracts were the familiar Baghdad gang: Halliburton's KBR unit received a $60 million contract to reconstruct military bases along the coast. Blackwater was hired to protect FEMA operations, with the company billing an average of $950 a day per guard. Parsons, infamous for its sloppy work in Iraq, was brought in for a major bridge-construction project in Mississippi. Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, CH2M Hill - all top contractors in Iraq - were handed contracts on the Gulf Coast to provide mobile homes to evacuees just ten days after the levees broke. Their contracts ended up totaling $3.4 billion, no open bidding required. To spearhead its Katrina operation, Shaw hired the former head of the U.S. Army's Iraq reconstruction office. Fluor sent its senior project manager from Iraq to the flood zone. "Our rebuilding work in Iraq is slowing down, and this has made some people available to respond to our work in Louisiana," a company representative explained. Joe Allbaugh, whose company, New Bridge Strategies, had promised to bring Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven to Iraq, was the lobbyist in the middle of many of the deals. The feeling that the Iraq war had somehow just been franchised was so striking that some of the mercenary soldiers, fresh from Baghdad, were having trouble adjusting. When David Enders, a reporter, asked an armed guard outside a New Orleans hotel if there had been much action, he replied, "Nope. It's pretty Green Zone here."
Since then, privatized disaster response has become one of the hottest industries in the South. . . .
For me, Klein's dystopian vision of the US and its global reach is factual confirmation of what what I already know to be true. She's done the research and fleshed out the vision that I've been observing, feeling, sensing, and trying to talk about in my own little way for several years. It's the US as a third-world country. It's neo-colonialism on a massive scale, with the multinationals as the emperors.
Some are dismissing Klein's dystopian vision as conspiracy theory. "The corporations cause the disasters so they can profit by it? Yeah right, isn't that crazy?" Maybe put like that, it sounds crazy. But who caused the disaster in Iraq? And who is profiting from it? If you see the United States government as primarily representing the interests of Blackwater, Bechtel, KBR (etc.) and their shareholders, then what do you get?
If that's unpalatable for you, try this on for size. After decades of deregulation, defunding and privatization, the public sphere has been left to decay and implode. When that crumbling infrastructure - often combined with the effects of climate change - causes a disaster, corporations are brought in to clean up the mess. Despite having been paid for with public funds, the clean-up is only available to those who can afford; those rich enough can avoid the disaster altogether.
Conspiracy theory? Try: the world we live in.