I used to worry that the United States was in the grip of extremists who sincerely believed that the Apocalypse was coming and that they and their friends would be airlifted to heavenly safety. I have since reconsidered. The country is indeed in the grip of extremists who are determined to act out the biblical climax--the saving of the chosen and the burning of the masses--but without any divine intervention. Heaven can wait. Thanks to the booming business of privatized disaster services, we're getting the Rapture right here on earth.
Just look at what is happening in Southern California. Even as wildfires devoured whole swaths of the region, some homes in the heart of the inferno were left intact, as if saved by a higher power. But it wasn't the hand of God; in several cases it was the handiwork of Firebreak Spray Systems. Firebreak is a special service offered to customers of insurance giant American International Group (AIG)--but only if they happen to live in the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country. Members of the company's Private Client Group pay an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant. During the wildfires, the "mobile units"--racing around in red firetrucks--even extinguished fires for their clients.
One customer described a scene of modern-day Revelation. "Just picture it. Here you are in that raging wildfire. Smoke everywhere. Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the hills," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's a couple guys showing up in what looks like a firetruck who are experts trained in fighting wildfire and they're there specifically to protect your home."
On a recent visit to Calgary, Alberta, I was taken aback to see my book on disaster capitalism selling briskly at the airport. Calgary is ground zero of North America's oil and gas boom, where business suits and cowboy hats are the de facto uniform. I had a sudden sinking feeling: did Calgary's business class think The Shock Doctrine was a how-to guide - a manual for making millions from catastrophe? Were they hoping for tips on landing no-bid contracts if the US bombs Iran?
When I get worried about inadvertently fueling the disaster complex, I take comfort in the response the book has elicited from the world's leading business journalists. That's where I learn that the very notion of disaster capitalism is my delusion - or, as Otto Reich, former adviser to President George Bush, told BBC Business Daily, it is the work "of a very confused person".
'We didn't want to get stuck with a lemon." That's what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said to a House committee last month. He was referring to the "virtual fence" planned for the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. If the entire project goes as badly as the 28-mile prototype, it could turn out to be one of the most expensive lemons in history, projected to cost $8 billion by 2011.
Boeing, the company that landed the contract -- the largest ever awarded by the Department of Homeland Security -- announced this week that it will finally test the fence after months of delay due to computer problems. Heavy rains have confused its remote-controlled cameras and radar, and the sensors can't tell the difference between moving people, grazing cows or rustling bushes.
But this debacle points to more than faulty technology. It exposes the faulty logic of the Bush administration's vision of a hollowed-out government run everywhere possible by private contractors.
The tall graduate student, visiting the United States from Sweden, would not be satisfied with a quip. He wanted answers.
"They cannot only be driven by greed and power. They must be driven by something higher. What?"
Don't knock power and greed, I tried to suggest--they have built empires. But he wanted more.
"What about a belief that they are building a better world?"
Since I began touring with my book The Shock Doctrine, I have had a number of exchanges like this, revolving around the same basic question: When hard-right political leaders and their advisers apply brutal economic shock therapy, do they honestly believe the trickle-down effects will build equitable societies--or are they just deliberately creating the conditions for yet another corporate feeding frenzy? Put bluntly, Has the world been transformed over the past three decades by lofty ideology or by lowly greed?
Recently, as protesters gathered outside the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) summit in Montebello, Quebec, to confront US President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Associated Press reported this surreal detail: "Leaders were not able to see the protesters in person, but they could watch the protesters on TV monitors inside the hotel.... Cameramen hired to ensure that demonstrators would be able to pass along their messages to the three leaders sat idly in a tent full of audio and video equipment.... A sign on the outside of the tent said, 'Our cameras are here today providing your right to be seen and heard. Please let us help you get your message out. Thank You.'"
Yes, it's true: Like contestants on a reality TV show, protesters at the SPP were invited to vent into video cameras, their rants to be beamed to protest-trons inside the summit enclave. It was security state as infotainment--Big Brother meets, well, Big Brother.