Book review: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

By John Perkins

Proletarian writers

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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (EHM) is an inside story of the mechanics of operation of US imperialism. It explains how the US state has utilised and developed links between government, big banks and multinational corporations to indebt and enslave other nations, forcing them to take big loans on which the borrowers inevitably default, forcing them to become political and economic pawns of the US.

“This is what we EHM’s do best: we build a global empire. We are an elite group of men and women who utilise international financial organisations to ferment conditions that make other nations subservient to the corporatocracy running our biggest corporations, our governments and our banks. Like our counterparts in the Mafia, EHMs provide favours. These take the forms of loans to develop infrastructure, electric generating plants, highways, ports, airports or industrial parks. A condition of such loans is that engineering and construction companies from our own country must build all these projects. In essence, most of the money never leaves the United States; it is simply transferred from banking offices in Washington to engineering offices in New York, Houston, or San Francisco.

“Despite the fact that the money is returned almost immediately to corporations that are members of the corporatocracy (the creditor), the recipient country is required to pay it all back, principal plus interest. If an EHM is completely successful, the loans are so large that the debtor is forced to default on its payments after a few years. When this happens, then like the Mafia, we demand our pound of flesh. This often includes one or more of the following: control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal. Of course, the debtor still owes us the money – another country is added to our global empire.”

It is interesting to read how the US developed this policy as a direct consequence of the threat posed to imperialism by the mighty Soviet Union, whose example had inspired resistance movements all over the world and thus put paid to traditional forms of empire building based on direct military intervention.

The story is striking because of its honesty. The author explains how he struggled with guilt at the knowledge that he was working deliberately to impoverish whole nations in the interests of US imperialism (or, as he calls it, corporatocracy). He was finally motivated to spill the beans on the system after the events of 11 September 2001, faced with the reality that he had helped strengthen the system that had made the US people the target of attack. He understands implicitly that responsibility for that attack lay in the exploits of US imperialism, which have caused misery and poverty to millions of the world’s people. Throughout the book, he appears completely candid about the circumstances and choices that led him to take up the role of Economic Hit Man.

John Perkins’ role as an EHM spanned over 10 years from 1971. He describes his involvement in successfully snaring the Sukarno regime in Indonesia, in deals in Ecuador and Colombia, and in the immensely important deal struck with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, which, in exchange for completely modernised cities (paid for with oil money and constructed by US companies) and unconditional US support and military backing to ensure the Saudi Royal Family remained in power, gave the US unfettered access to Saudi oil and US bases on Saudi soil.

There were also unsuccessful attempts to corrupt, among others, the Panamanian president Omar Torrijos. When the president proved unsusceptible to the proffered bribes, the CIA stepped in and he was killed.

Other examples given in the book are of defiant Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. If “the jackals” (CIA operatives) were unable to remove such troublemaking leaders, then it was time for the military to invade, as demonstrated by the wars waged against Iraq since 1991. If ever it wasn’t, it is now clear to the majority of the world’s population that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is all about securing Anglo-American imperialist interests, supply of oil and strategic positioning in the Middle East.

Throughout the course of this history, Perkins provides evidence of the increasing sophistication of US imperialism. He himself was recruited to the role of EHM through the National Security Union (NSU – a major US spying organisation), told in no uncertain terms what his role was and what was expected of him as an EHM:

“First I was to justify huge international loans that would funnel money back to MAIN and other US companies (such as Bechtel, Halliburton, Stone & Webster and Brown and Root) through massive engineering and construction projects. Second, I would work to bankrupt the countries that received the loans (after they had paid MAIN and the other contractors of course) so that they would be forever beholden to their creditors, and so they would present easy targets when we needed favours, including military bases, UN votes or access to oil and other natural resources.”

However, over time it was no longer necessary, and ultimately (as Perkins’ individual story shows) even became a liability, to have EHMs who were consciously aware of their role and debilitated by a conscience that could remind them that what they were doing was morally reprehensible. The generation of EHMs that followed Perkins, and whom Perkins himself trained, were encouraged to remain ignorant of their true role. Focussing on the small picture and satisfying requirements of their particular role in the machine, rewarded with the high salaries, bonuses and prestige of working for large corporations, the new generation of EHMs do not have to look up from their desks to question their role in the expansion of US imperialism and the enslavement of the majority of the world’s population:

“I thought about the fact that the people I had trained had now joined the ranks of EHMs. I had brought them in. I had recruited them and trained them. But it had not been the same as when I joined. The world had shifted and the corporatocracy had progressed. We had gotten better or more pernicious. The people who worked for me were a different breed from me … They had never heard the term economic hit man or even EHM … they had simply learned from my example and from my system of rewards and punishments. They knew they were expected to produce the type of studies and results I wanted. Their salaries, Christmas bonuses, indeed their very jobs, depended on pleasing me.

“I, of course, had done everything I could imagine to lighten their burden. I had written papers, given lectures, and taken every possible opportunity to convince them of the importance of optimistic forecasts, of huge loans, of infusions of capital that would spur GNP growth and make the world a better place.”

However, despite this increased sophistication, it is obvious to Perkins that the glory days of US imperialism are over and that the balance of power is tipping away from the US and into the hands of the world’s oppressed, who are organising to cast off the chains of their enslavement.

For all his honesty and enlightenment about the role that he played in strengthening the US empire, expect no solutions from Perkins. While recognising the devastating consequences of imperialist exploitation, he is unable see beyond capitalism or imperialism and is fundamentally prejudiced against communism. He is therefore left with nothing but futile wishes: that capitalism should be made nicer; that businesses should be smaller; that individuals should consume less. He believes that change can only come from the US changing its foreign ‘policy’ and acting ‘fairly’ towards the rest of the world.

Luckily for humankind, however, its salvation does not depend on the willingness of the tools of the imperialist machine to engage in the kind of life-changing soul searching Perkins proposes. Change will come, whether the US (and for that matter Britain and the whole imperialist system) likes it or not. Imperialism will ultimately be forced aside by the determination of people who are no longer willing to be trampled, who have organised and grasped a historic opportunity to determine their own future and build a new society based on socialist principles.