Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman

27 03 2009

I just realized that my book group book, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, is due back at the library today, but I have to write about it before it goes back to the shelf. It is not the sort of book toward which I would ordinarily gravitate. And yet I’m obsessed with it.

It’s a horrifying and riveting true tale of an EHM, an “economic hitman” whose job it is to convince developing countries to take out massive loans that will leave them indebted to the United States, allowing the latter to then call upon these countries for their pound of flesh—money, oil, UN votes or sundry other benefits—whenever necessary. It’s a system author John Perkins describes as “the most subtle and effective form of imperialism the world has ever known.”

The book is well-written and truly thought-provoking. It also had me seething at many, many moments, especially reading about how much the government is tied up in private business and how many government decisions—such as the 1989 invasion of Panama (which President Bush called a way of ending Noriega‘s dictatorship and Perkins calls “an unprovoked attack on a civilian population”)—were based on business concerns (oil, disputes over who should control the Panama Canal,…). I know that I shouldn’t be surprised, and in many ways I’m not. I am horrified nonetheless. While there were points when I alternately felt sorry for Perkins because he felt trapped in this system and annoyed at his justifications of his own involvement, I realize that the good of his experience is that this book could come from it. And hopefully this book will enlighten and help to end the cycle.

On top of that, I must say that I loved it for the travel journalistic qualities it had about it. Perkins visited some fascinating places and describes them vividly, along with his interactions with real people there, and real glimpses into the cultures of these places. It was refreshing that, amid all the gloom and doom of discovering what a monster your country is, you get inside glimpses at the indigenous cultures of Ecuador or a puppet show (dalang) in a tiny town of Indonesia. It also made the U.S. actions all the more despicable.

For me, ultimately, the book is about memory. It’s about the writing of history, how we write it and also how we read it, and, most importantly, what is left out. By telling his story, Perkins helps to reclaim a little of that history, but the most important part of reclaiming history, it seems, is to learn from it.

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