Doing Away with the Death Economy


Open John Perkins’ “New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” and you’d think you were reading a pulpy thriller from the airport bookstand. Stories include dark alleys, secret missions and CIA operatives dispatched to assassinate democratically-elected officials.

But according to Perkins, it’s true. His role in this matter was as a staid-but-impressive-sounding Chief Economist for a privately-owned consulting firm. His job, as he describes it, was to produce inflated economic growth projections and encourage heads of state to take out big loans from the World Bank to finance these infrastructure projects.

Perkins’ firm and others would take contracts to build the infrastructure: roads, electric grids, oil pipelines, etc. and get paid whether or not the projected economic growth materialized. If it didn’t, all the better: The country would be vulnerable to developed countries’ whims as it struggled to pay back the loans it approved under duress. For example, in one of his first projects in Indonesia in the ’60s:

Perkins’ boss Charlie intones while puffing on a cigar: “Speaking of oil, we all know how dependent our country is on oil. Indonesia can be a powerful ally to us in that regard. So, as you develop this master plan, please do everything you can to make sure that the oil industry and all the others that serve it — ports, pipelines, construction companies — get whatever they are likely to need in the way of electricity for the duration of the twenty-five year plan.”

In Indonesia, Perkins was pressured to project 17 percent growth, when the best estimates for electrical demand growth in a comparable situation were in the 6-percent range. He watched this scene play out over and over again in countries around the world before finally leaving the profession in the ’80s.

Unfortunately, in the intervening decades, the intersections between big corporations and government have only gotten more insidious. TriplePundit spoke to Perkins to find out more.

The corporatocracy

While Google defines “corporatocracy” as a society or system that is governed or controlled by corporations, this definition ignores the substantial grey area that exists when independently-elected government officials are influenced by corporations, either through the donations that helped them win or past or future job prospects. Even well-meaning politicians can fall under undue corporate influence.

As Perkins described in our interview, the corporatocracy is: “a vast network of people who run global corporations, collaborating governments and the extremely wealthy who are deeply tied in to this system.” The system includes a revolving door between plum consulting gigs and government office.

The word "corporatocracy has exploded in popularity in the 21st century and its definition is therefore iterating rapidly.
The word “corporatocracy” has exploded in popularity in the 21st century and its definition is therefore iterating rapidly.

Perkins is quick to point out that this isn’t a global conspiracy: “They don’t get together in secret meetings and plot to do evil.” Rather, each group is individually driven by the same goal: to maximize profits regardless of the social and environmental costs. This is the system Perkins calls the death economy.

“We’ve really created a global empire; it’s a corporate empire; it’s controlled by big corporations; the government is controlled by big corporations. It’s based on ravaging the earth and warfare, and it’s a terrible failure — it’s not working.”

He goes on to explain that the death economy is driven by death and fear. This isn’t really a new idea in leadership. In fact, rulers have used debt and fear to get their people to do what they want for millennia. What’s changed is the global, networked nature of the game.

The death economy engages “General Dynamics and Raytheon to make missiles and tanks and armored plating for people’s bodies,” after creating a fear of terrorism, Perkins explained. Fear of the spread of communism used to drive Perkins’ work in the ’60s. Now, “it’s insurgents, immigrants, terrorists, muslims, muslim terrorists.”

But Perkins urges us not to take the bait. “The fact of the matter is that the real enemy is the system. There’s no such thing as global terrorism — it doesn’t exist. There are global acts of terror.” But there is no single, principal that unites al Queda, Somali pirates and FARC in Colombia. The only thing that unites the members of these groups is enough desperation follow a fanatic.

“If you want to deal with terrorism and what gets called ‘the immigration problem,’ we need to do away with the situation that creates a scenario in which people want to or have to flee their countries in order to survive. If we want to do away with terrorism, we need to do away with the circumstances in which people will turn to fanatics. Let’s try to change their situation. In all these cases, the answer is to create a global economy that works.”

Perkins calls the alternative a life economy: an economy that employs a lot of people to do away with the conditions that drive people to desperation. The life economy is driven by renewable power, clean transportation, global hunger eradication and paying someone to fix the great garbage patch in the Pacific ocean. People are realizing that “we live on a very fragile space station with no shuttles,” and a transition to the life economy may be our best bet to turn things around. “I think this is an incredibly exciting time,” Perkins explained optimistically.

So, how do we get there?

The path to change means pressuring companies to comply — boycotting their products and telling them why. Social media makes it easy to contact corporations and tell them you expect them to change for the better: offer fair wages and safe products that don’t pollute the planet.

“Everyone can pick a corporation and go after them. Scratch that, let’s say everyone can pick a corporation and help them survive in a new reality, the reality of the life economy. We want to help these corporations to be successful at creating a world that our children will thank us for inheriting.”

While those individual actions are easy, the corporatocracy will make lasting change an uphill battle. That means we have to pressure corporations directly to change how they engage with the government. At the end of the day, we need to engage the corporatocracy rather than work to defeat it.

To learn more check out the New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man or attend a book signing to talk with John Perkins in person.

Image credits: Book jacket, Google Screenshot

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton has been the editor in chief of TriplePundit for 8 years. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and a degree in Sociology from Pitzer College. She spent a few years in the non-profit policy sector as well, but we won't talk about that. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with her toddler overlord and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Leave a Reply