I don’t recall at what point I became aware of John Perkin’s tell-all exposé on the seedy underworld of global politics, but while the idea was intriguing, it sounded a bit too exaggerated for my tastes, and I left it well enough alone. Finally, I could not resist the temptation to read this tome by Perkins, who is referred to as a “frothing conspiracy theorist” (more on this later) but praised by a multitude of readers1.
First, the story as Perkins tells it. After being evaluated by the NSA, Perkins is offered a lucrative position by the firm Chas. T. Main, whom Perkins thereafter refers to as MAIN, as though it’s a secret criminal organization like SPECTRE. Taught by a mysterious woman named Claudine, he is told upfront that he will be an “Economic Hit Man,” thereinafter referred to as EHM. The modus operandi of such people is to act as economic advisers to developing nations, convincing them to invest millions or billions of dollars into infrastructure, the creation of which will be contracted out to rich American firms like Chas. T. Main, Halliburton, Brown and Root, and all those other semi-governmental private industries that have come into such prominence in the last decade or so. This, however, was the early 70s, and the US was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and trying to stave off the encroachment of—gasp!—socialism by propping up rightwing dictators in Latin America, and generally engaging in all kinds of general skullduggery of the clock-and-dagger variety. Perkins takes to his job, visiting such locales as Equador, Iran, Indonesia, Panama, and Saudi Arabia. Most of the time, he is plagued by a feeling of guilt that what he’s doing is right. Eventually, he resigns, founds a successful energy company, sells it, and is eventually prompted to finish and publish this book by the events of 11 September 2001.
There are a number of different aspects to consider about this story. First of all: is it true? That’s difficult to say. Perkins relies solely on his authorial voice to win over his audience. There is, after all, no paper trail or mountain of evidence or stolen documents that he produces which gives any concreteness to his claims. Narrator reliability becomes a critical issue for readers, especially as the size and scope of Perkins’ accusations grow and become more wide-eyed and hysterical. It doesn’t help that the whole thing sounds like the plot of a cheesy Ian Fleming impersonator: when Perkins talks about the arsenal of economic hitmen, he doesn’t stop at merely making inflated economic forecasts (which he did), but also likes to throw around lists that include “sex and murder,” as though writing copy for the dustjacket flaps of airport bookstore inventory. Then, too, are the not-quite-accusations that the CIA or some other nefarious government agency was responsible for the deaths of —among others—Jaime Roldós Aguilera, the reformist president of Ecuador, and Omar Torrijos, president of Panama. It’s no secret that the United States was involved in some pretty terrible things in Latin America at this time2, and so Perkins’ accusations in this regard are not terribly far-fetched, though he ultimately ties everything back to what he calls the “corporatocracy”: a shifting conglomerate of politicians and business leaders who exercise both legal and illegal control over world affairs through a variety of means.
We know that there is a revolving door between the private sector and the halls of government in America3; but Perkins’ contention is that, for instance, he was evaluated by the NSA prior to his hiring by “MAIN,” and that even though his paycheck came from Chas. T. Main, he was in essence working for the government, or some governmental-industrial complex which Perkins envisions. One sympathizes with the man, since his accusations resonate with our cynicism about the government, but he ultimately sounds so histrionic that I’m tempted to dismiss him as a quack. I’m sure the events he described happened in some capacity or another, but my guess is that minor discrepancies between his recollections/narrative and the truth make all the difference in the world.
Sebastian Mallaby wrote a scathing critique of the book several years ago. Its thrust was that Perkins is either a raving conspiratorial nutcase with flecks of spittle on his tinfoil hat, or else an opportunist, tapping the guilt of the hysterical left to sell his book. Surprisingly, Mallaby takes the most issue not with Perkins’ position that we swept through developing countries and convincing them to farm out millions of dollars of work to American firms, but rather with Perkins’ bitter note that these infrastructural improvements did not help poor people. Of course they helped the poor people, Mallaby proclaims, as though that is the fine line between fraud and aid. Perhaps he’s missing the point. Or perhaps he is simply an “apologist” for the current “system of exploitation,” as Perkins asserts.
The more pressing concern, in my mind, is that readers have no real reason to believe that anything Perkins’ says is true; he could, by all rights, be lecturing that the moon landings were faked, the president is a robot, or the world exists on the back of a giant turtle. The only way you would be likelt to accept it as gospel is if it feels true, and Perkins makes every attempt to write the book that way. He cakes on the liberal guilt, spending a lot of time in each new locale ruminating about how much he hates himself for ostensibly cheating the poor and the innocent, ruining the environment, or participating in the sort of brutish cultural and economic imperialism that would raise Noam Chomsky’s hackles. It’s a simplistic binary system: the poor are always innocent and downtrodden, and the rich are always part of oligopolies, corrupt governments, and shadowy corporatocracies whose fat, suited leaders smoke cigars in back rooms and laugh big booming laughs about grinding the impoverished masses under their boot-heel in order to make a few more dollars. To whatever extent such characterizations are true4, Perkins stresses them in order to fan the flames of his readers’ paranoia, but he also fails to place any sort of logical limit on corruption. One half-expects him to bellow a cry for class warfare and call for Dick Cheney to be roasted like a suckling pig.
Confessions of an Economic Hitman has a kernel of truth to it, somewhere, but it ultimately falls victim to its own excesses, wallowing in likely exaggeration and embellishment. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call Perkins a “a vainglorious peddler of nonsense” like Mallaby does, but there’s definitely dimensions to his story that make me uncomfortable—and not in the way he intends.
- and, just maybe, Osama bin Laden[↩]
- Some, like Kissinger, still maintain it was important for us to stop the Communists. I think this is farcical, but it’s not necessarily relevant for this purposes of this review.[↩]
- It beats the other common model, wherein presidents are self-appointed Generals.[↩]
- Make no mistake; I’m generally a populist in these matters, and I realize that the inequality between the workers and the bosses is pretty wide in America[↩]