This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
If you cornered me at a dinner party and started talking about economics, I'd totally switch off, probably because—on the rare occasion that's happened—it's been a trainee hedge fund manager dick swinging about their big job in the city. Luckily, I recently met Matt Kennard, down-to-earth Hackney boy and Financial Times journalist turned "rogue" investigate reporter and the person who made me finally want to understand what a free trade agreement is.
Kennard's new book, The Racket, is an ambitious and sweeping account of how US-backed superpowers keep the poor poor and the rich rich. It's a kind of anti-capitalist manifesto, only without all the hipster-Marxist jargon that makes those kinds of books so inaccessible to the people who want to read them. It's also a bit like one of those wacky anti-American conspiracy theory films people love, only more rational and founded in on-the-ground research.
In The Racket, Kennard speaks to everyone from earthquake victims in Haiti, to the leaders of big oil companies, to celebrities in a quest to find out how global, multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF create a world only conducive to the needs of private capital. He patiently explains to his readers how the US government controls banks and big businesses, enforcing their ideology on the rest of the world with the help of a brutal military and the sinister tactics employed by their intelligence agencies.
Essentially, The Racket is the best noir thriller about shady mobsters you've ever read, and all the more terrifying because it's a book about US history. To find out more, I talked to Kennard about the country's very covert and modern methods of imperialism, how much we can believe of what we're fed by the media, and finally, what we can do as individuals to stand up to a neoliberal system that will cut the throat—proverbially or otherwise—of anyone who won't comply.
VICE: To start with, do you want to define "the racket" in your terms?
Matt Kennard: I would say "the racket" is an amalgamation of different players, comprised of transnational corporations, banks, hedge and mutual funds, insurance companies; the many different concentrations of private wealth that we have in our society. We don't often know the names of the people who run these institutions, but they have massive amounts of power.
In the book you talk about the "ulterior motives" of the US government. When did you start to become aware of the "other story," as you might put it?
I think I first became politicized by the attack on Iraq in 2003—that's when I first came across the idea that our leaders don't think twice about lying to us, and they'll trick us into a war without batting an eyelid. I became aware of the potency of the propaganda system as I started looking into the US and the UK's relationship with Saddam Hussein and I realized that we were, in fact, friends with him in the 80s and giving him weapons to fight the Iranians, and now these same leaders were saying we were going to war with him because of our concern for the human rights of Iraqis.
You have to be pretty heavily indoctrinated not to find that a weird contradiction, and yet most of our media class have been through the ideological institutions that make you able to live with these blatant contradictions. When I started at the Financial Times as a journalist, I realized that there was a whole other side to the war industry coin. The leaders that we see on our television screens aren't as powerful as we think they are and public policy within Western democracy is often massively swayed in favor of the interests of private capital and private wealth concentrated within the institutions I mentioned.
I like how you used your job at the Financial Times to gain access to a lot of the big institutions you speak to in the book. I also like how in the book you look at Latin America and Haiti, as opposed to placing the usual focus of America's "War on Terror" on Iraq or Afghanistan...
Well, my first book [Irregular Army] was all about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what happened to the US military during those two wars. But this book is more of a look at the economic system, and the system of enforcement that exists to discipline leaders and countries who want to do it differently. It's a vast web of control that ranges from the World Bank to the National Endowment for Democracy to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Haiti is an interesting case because that was a time when my eyes were really opened up to what was going on. What I saw there was a government that had been literally destroyed, the presidential palace was in tatters. I was there with the Financial Times so, yeah, I had access to all the international institutions, to the World Bank and, in this case, the regional bank, which was the Inter-American Development Bank, and I interviewed all of them.
I was taken round the country with them, to industrial parks where they were building sweatshop facilities, and I saw up front how powerful these institutions are and how they are, often, more powerful than governments. In Haiti this was very clear, but it's the same all over the world, especially in poor countries, where government structures aren't strong, you realize that governments are just being blown about by all these massively powerful institutions with huge amounts of capital—institutions that it's very difficult to say no to.
And, as in the case of Haiti, privatization for profit sometimes comes under the banners of "redevelopment" or "aid"...
A lot of these people within these institutions—they're not going to countries because they're charities. They're going to these countries to enforce a strict, fundamentalist form of capitalism—which is called variously neoliberalism or the Washington Consensus—and what it says is that you need to deregulate, you need to get rid of any obstructions to foreign investment, you need to throw out any subsidies for fuel and the like, and often it says you need to lower any tariffs to products coming in to the country, and you need to move into what they call an "export-orientated economy" which means that you create exports for the market.
It completely destroys ways of life that have been around for thousands of years, like subsistence farming. Institutions like the World Bank and IMF view subsistence farming as an abnormality, they can't understand it because if you're not creating for the market you'd don't exist in their world. Haiti is a very good example of that because agriculture was destroyed in the 1990s, when lots of heavily subsidized US rice was dumped in Haiti and many farmers had to leave the countryside and come into the cities and look for work in sweatshops. That's a model that has been replicated from Mexico, post-NAFTA, to Tanzania. Haiti was informative because it was so emblematic of the system, but the same process happens all over the world. Haiti is what I call in the book a modern-day slave state, and that is by design.
Your book takes away the culpability of the individual by placing the blame on the ideology of capitalism, is that why you feature a chapter on Occupy? Are you suggesting that we can catch the system in moments of weakness?
When you see up close the power of these institutions at World Bank, IMF, they're so much more powerful than many governments. But, the whole system is ridden with contradictions and there's periodic crises, like in 2008. It's not a static system and I think that holds some of the hope. We live in a time where social media is so important and we have a fractured working class, meaning you can't generate a mass movement based on working-class movements because we don't have one in the same way. What we have is these fractured protest movements which are an amalgamation of different groups and there's not much coherency in approach or demands.
I think that Occupy demonstrates that you can change the terms of debate in a very real way. People were talking about inequality in a way that they never had—or I'd never seen—in America in the weeks following Occupy. That was only because the gatekeepers of political discourse at places like CNN could no longer ignore these issues in the face of this movement. But Occupy was a flash in the pan. To create a sustained movement to take on these kinds of powerful forces will take a lot more than Occupy. It'll take a mass raising of consciousness amongst the losers of capitalism, which doesn't exist at the moment, particularly in the West.
Do you think we can see this apathy at play in context of the lead-up to the UK general election?
The losers of the coalition government, many of them are going to vote UKIP and that's because they've been turned away from blaming the people who are responsible for the financial crisis, the bankers, to blaming people who had nothing to do with it, people like Polish builders or disabled people on benefits.
I remember it happening, after the financial crisis there was about a month where the Daily Mail and even the Sun indulged in banker bashing and everyone was saying "Fred the Shred" should be denied his pension etc., and then about two months later, gradually, the ire turned onto benefits and immigrants—"benefits scroungers this," "asylum seekers this," "immigrants this." That happens all the time: the people in power stop us from looking at them so that we fight against each other. It's a tactic as old as capitalism itself.
People are massively confused because they have news that feeds them racism and false enemies. If people were rational and understood that their real oppressors are the people who are benefitting from this system, they would be looking at David Cameron and George Osborne, they wouldn't be looking at the unemployed person down the street who is signing on, or the disabled person with an extra bedroom.
Whilst we're on the context of UK politics, you compare UK politics with US politics in The Racket—although they're very different—in the sense that there's a kind of fake democracy; two parties ultimately backed by the same people, "the racket"...
In academia, they call it "low intensity" democracy, whereby you go out to vote every four or five years, you put an "X" in the box and you go home and have nothing more to do as a "citizen" until the next time. You basically just allow this political class, which is really an elite class alongside political donors, to run the show. In the US, there are no restrictions on rich people giving funding to political candidates now with the Citizens United ruling. If anything, that was a nail in the coffin of American democracy. It happens on a lower level in the UK. For example, a full half of Britain's richest hedge funders have given money to David Cameron in this election cycle—£19 million [$29 million] in total.
I think we're massively deluded in the West. We tell ourselves all the time that we're the hub of democracy, that we're one of the most democratic nations in the world, but if you go to somewhere like Bolivia you realize we're not democratic at all; most decisions, most people have nothing to do with them. Real democracy happens in places we like to laugh at and look down on. It's quite striking when you go to countries where people are involved in the process of democratic decision-making. We are far, far away from that.
Related: Watch our documentary on the Afghanistan occupation:
You worked as a journalist within the confines of the corporate media, which—as you discuss in the book—is hardly a free press. How can social media change things?
I think we're living in a really exciting time for the media, but not the traditional media. What you're seeing is a massive shift of power to people. For two centuries, the upper class has owned the means of intellectual production, so they've owned the newspapers and the printing press, and all the things you need to project your views to society on a mass scale. But now with the advent of the internet, there's many more ways to circumvent what has become a really stale and old world system. People don't need establishment newspapers in the same way to get what we're told is the truth, they'll look at websites, or their favorite bloggers, or their favorite citizen reporters. I think that's a really good thing. It scares the shit out of the establishment because they've had control over this for so long.
"The racket" is a pretty daunting prospect, in terms of resistance and activism, how could we as individuals ever take on these superpowers?
[Laughs] It's like that famous Winston Churchill phrase: "If you're not a socialist in your twenties, you've got no heart; and if you're not a conservative in your thirties, you've got no brain." I always thought that was interesting because it's kind of true, but he's got the reason wrong. If you're not a conservative by your thirties then it doesn't mean you haven't got a brain, it merely means you haven't acclimatized to the conservative institutions that have been set up for you to enter, and that's a good thing!
It's not a coincidence that people get less idealistic as they get older. That's how the system works. It stops you expressing opinions that are different from everyone else, it deprives you of any idealism. If you carry on thinking like that you're a "maverick," you're "immature," you're "deluded"—the list of epithets is long. And it usually works to stop people thinking anything idealistic.
It's very hard to go into work for 20 years and think differently to everyone else, so people change. It's not Machiavellian—people don't actively think, I'm going to become a neoliberal warmonger so I can get higher up the hierarchy of my newspaper, for example. But, and I've seen this with people I know, you slowly temper your opinions, you slowly shave off your "rougher edges" and become part of the institutionalized thinking. If you enter somewhere like the Financial Times, where everyone has a very rigid idea of how the global economy works, and if you don't believe that, you'll be ejected. That's how power systems all work. They don't work by promoting dissidents or people that think differently from everyone else.
Follow Matt Kennard onTwitter.
Follow Milly on Twitter.