IT IS scandal time again in US capitalism as the Worldcom accounting fraud follows hot on the heel of the Enron collapse. Xerox also find their accountants can’t actually count.
Against this highly topical background comes a series of articles by the investigative journalist Gregory Palast in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
The fact that giant multinational corporations are not only corrupt but also routinely interfere in the politics, economies and working class communities of every nation on earth comes as no surprise. Palast’s contribution is to put some detail onto the goings on of these companies.
The articles cover a wide range of issues starting with George Bush’s brother’s fixing of the Florida vote in the presidential elections, through to the scandalous operations of the IMF and World Bank. Palast deals with the ownership of increasing amounts of the planet by corporate America (and Europe) and ends with the hold that big business has over the market-obsessed Blair government.
Palast is particularly good at getting his hands on documents exposing the IMF and World Bank.
These two organisations specialise in the bailing out of failing economies (Palast quotes Argentina in his example). In return for inadequate short-term loans these countries are locked into long-term debt and forced to sell their national assets, particularly energy resources, at knockdown prices to multinationals.
In return these companies, previously led by the now defunct Enron, wring the already impoverished population dry. The results are always the same – massive profits and appalling poverty.
Significantly the US has been active in preventing this neo-liberal madness in its own economy. An exception resulted in the San Francisco electricity crisis where private monopolies trebled their prices and power cuts became a routine part of life as the energy sellers raised their prices beyond the buyers’ scope.
In the ‘third’ world the result has been what Palast describes as the "IMF riot" when a poverty-ridden population takes to the streets.
Also exposed is the diabolical "TRIPS" agreement whereby big business patents the intellectual property rights of essential goods, particularly medicines. Palast quotes the case of the medicines developed to counter AIDS, such as AZT.
Glaxo-Wellcome owns this drug despite it being mainly developed by the US government’s National Institute of Health. When Brazil and Argentina also acquired the ability to make AZT-based drugs, their governments appear to have been ‘reminded’ of their commercial obligations.
With millions facing death from AIDS in Africa the big issue for these characters was their intellectual property rights, their profits, in plain language. (see page 9)
It isn’t possible to cover the full range of articles in this review but mention should be made of the role of lobbyists in the Blair government. The obsession with all things private has opened the door to some truly dreadful characters (Murdoch, Enron, Tesco, PowerGen) giving them influence and even veto over government policy.
The author himself keeps his own politics in the background in these articles which, given his description of the World Trade Centre as a symbol of American socialism (due to its ownership by a municipal authority) this is probably just as well.
Surprisingly for a book written by a journalist it can be heavy going because of Palast’s writing style.
But it’s well worth a read, price permitting. Some of the articles are shocking even for a hardened cynic. As a description of how the working class is being exploited on an ever greater scale the world over, this is a useful book.