A review of the best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Published in In These Times.
From David Horowitz to Christopher Hitchens, progressive turncoats who abandon their youthful convictions seem to have little trouble finding warm welcome on the right. Following conservatives’ example, it would seem prudent not to shun those Republican attack dogs and big-business warriors whose awakened consciences give them a desire to atone for their misdeeds.
This attitude may explain the recent embrace offered to John Perkins, a former corporate consultant and author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Remarkably, his book, which uses an insider’s perspective to construct a forthright critique of neoliberal globalization and U.S. foreign policy, has climbed as high as number nine on The New York Times bestseller list. In recent months Perkins has joined Amy Goodman for an extended radio interview and has lectured attentive audiences at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.
Regrettably, Confessions is not a good book, and readers have reason to feel that Perkins has yet to earn the place of honor granted him by many concerned globalists.
It is true that Perkins has written an engaging account of the “highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank… 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.” These professionals are the titular economic hit men. And Perkins tells us that, for the decade of the 1970s, he was one of them, having risen to the rank of “Chief Economist” at the powerful, if secretive, contracting firm of Chas T. Main.
The author claims that, after being recruited by the National Security Agency (NSA), he was sent to the private sector. There, he knowingly worked to convince poor countries to take on loans that they could never repay, so that firms like Main, Halliburton, and Bechtel could enjoy lucrative construction contracts and the U.S. government could leverage its power over the indebted nations. “My publisher asked whether we actually referred to ourselves as economic hit men,” Perkins writes. “I assured him that we did, although usually only by the initials,” EHMs. That many Americans are learning of the EHMs’ nefarious acts through Perkins’ book is undoubtedly a good thing.
The problem is that actual content of Perkins’ admissions proves distressingly thin. It turns out that, in the twenty-five years since he retired, EHMs have ceased to exist as such. By the end of his tenure, the ruling “corporatocracy” had “gotten better or more pernicious.” Telling of the people he recruited into his firm, Perkins writes that “there had been no NSA polygraphs… in their lives. No one had spelled it out for them, what they were expected to do to carry on the mission of global empire.” Today’s corporate agents, as we suspected long before Perkins ever told us, simply operate in pursuit of profit and power, with the belief that economic growth will yield salvation. The explicit exercise of bad faith foreign policy embodied by the EHM is no longer needed.
In Porto Alegre, Walden Bello placed Confessions in the tradition of the Pentagon Papers and of ex-agent Philip Agee’s anti-CIA memoir. Similarly, in his dust jacket quotation, David Korten writes that Perkins “names names and connects the dots.” But that is precisely what Perkins doesn’t do. Unlike Agee’s extensive listing of CIA operatives, Perkins outs no one. Rather than bringing forth his own evidence of specific offenses, he relies on already published accounts to back his revelations: He uses a Vanity Fair story to discuss the Bushes’ relationship with the Saudi royal family, referring to his own Saudi contact only as “Prince W.”
Then there are his New Age leanings. Toward the end of the book Perkins relates his current nonprofit work with indigenous people in places like Ecuador. In a bizarre turn, he delves into a type of essentialism that, thankfully, has been long banished from university anthropology departments. He recounts “The Prophecy of the Condor and the Eagle,” predicting a time in which “the condor people of the Amazon,” with their “intuitive and mystical” sensibilities, will learn to live in peace with the “rational and material” Eagle.
Putting the fate of the “Third Millennium” aside, it seems that John Perkins’ penance is incomplete—that we should demand something more than his current Confessions. If other ex-EHMs come forward as a result of his book to uncover the specific deals and deal-makers that have shaped the modern age of globalization, it would be an inspiring development. But for now, we have only Perkins. He has written the spy-thriller version of his past life—designed to be accessible, if not to offer much fat on the bone. Now that he has our attention, let’s have the meat.