Confessions of an Economic
A review of the new book by John Perkins
New Statesman, 13th March 2006
As a New Statesman reader, I'll bet that at some stage
you have used the word 'empire' to refer to the global
dominance of the USA. You may have used it in connection
with the war on Iraq, or to refer to the US-led project
of economic globalisation. It's a good bet, too, that
you will have been scoffed at by someone for using the
term; painted as a naïve old lefty who doesn't
understand the subtleties of politics and power.
If so, John Perkins is here to show that you were right
all along - and that, if anything, you were probably
understating the case.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Perkins' painfully
confessional autobiography, is one of the most remarkable
books I have read in a long time. It is also one of
the most frightening. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Perkins
was employed as an EHM - an Economic Hit Man. An EHM's
role is to 'cheat countries around the globe out of
trillions of dollars. Their tools include fraudulent
financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion,
sex and murder. They play a game as old as Empire, but
one that has taken on terrifying dimensions during this
time if globalisation.'
It sounds more like the cover blurb for a John Le Carre
thriller than a work of non-fiction, and many of the
events Perkins describes would stretch credibility had
he not participated first-hand. So much so, he tells
us, that his publisher initially suggested he fictionalise
the book, as no-one would believe it otherwise.
Perkins story starts in the late 1960s when the young
graduate was approached by an international consulting
firm called MAIN, and offered a job as an economist.
He soon found out what the work entailed.
'There were two primary objectives of my work', he writes.
'First I was to justify huge international loans that
would funnel money to MAIN and other US companies (Such
as Bechtel, Halliburton, Stone and Webster and Brown
and Root) through massive engineering and construction
projects. Second, I would work to bankrupt the countries
that received those loans
so they would be forever
beholden to their creditors, and so they would present
easy targets when we [the US] needed favours, including
military bases, UN votes or access to oil and other
There, in a paragraph, is your recipe for Empire - and
over the next 20 years, Perkins helps build it. He begins
in Indonesia, where his task is to plan an electricity
grid for Java. He is instructed to produce wildly-inflated
economic growth forecasts which will allow international
banks and USAID to justify vast loans to Indonesia,
which its government will be unable to pay back - creating
dependency on the US.
He does well, and is sent on to Panama, to do the same
thing for the country's 'master development plan', under
which the World Bank will invest billions in the country's
infrastructure, sell the construction rights to US corporations
and hopefully force an anti-American government to climb
down over its ambitions to take back control of the
Then it's on to Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the most shocking
story of all. In Saudi, Perkins is required not simply
to produce the usual inflated growth forecasts to justify
loans and corporate contracts but to 'find ways that
would ensure that a large portion of petrodollars found
their way back to the United States.' America needs
dependable supplies of oil, and no repeat of the OPEC-led
1970s oil crisis that nearly bankrupted its economy.
Perkins does his masters proud with a plan which makes
Saudi Arabia 'the cow we can milk until the sun sets
on our retirement.' The Saudi government agrees to maintain
oil supplies and prices which will be acceptable to
the US. In return, the US offers total political and
military support. But the clincher is the desert kingdom's
promise to use its petrodollars to purchase US government
securities, the interest on which will be spent 'developing'
the Kingdom along Western lines. In other words 'our
own US Department of the Treasury would hire us, at
Saudi expense, to build infrastructure projects and
even entire cities throughout the Arabian peninsula.'
It's tempting to stop reading at this point in despair,
but it's worth persevering, for Perkins' aim is to expose
the Empire in order to dismantle it. He got out, he
emphasises - and the wider world can get out too. We
can disband the Empire - but only if we know how it
really functions. There are few better places to find