Disaster Capitalism and War on Drugs: An Interview With Antony Loewenstein and Q+A Session at Recovering Justice

A key aim of Antony Loewenstein’s book and film ‘Disaster Capitalism’ is to examine and reveal the dark and manipulative sides of aid as something which is used to extract profit from misery and disaster.  This article covers an interview with Antony as he did a film screening followed by questions and answers at Recovering Justice in Newcastle.  Disaster capitalism is about how economies have risen out of exploiting war, the criminalisation of populations, illness, natural disaster, and vulnerabilities across the world and on our own doorstep.

Disaster Capitalism

Key to the focus of these interviews is the so called ‘war against drugs’ which criminalises and damages people, communities and society as a political scapegoat which uses misunderstanding, apprehension and fear to garner political support.  This sociology needs to be more widely appreciated and the industries which are profiting from the criminalisation of whole sections of the population need to be scrutinised in the light of overwhelming bodies of research and evidence which should inform policy.


I came to be at this event after being invited by Fiona Gilbertson and Suzanne Sharkey who I met as part of a public consultation as the Scottish Government is in the process of critiquing and renewing ten years of drugs policy.  I was invited to be a part of this as I bring lived experience of drug and alcohol recovery to the process.
Recovering Justice started as a subcommittee of the Road to Recovery Trust, who nurtured the group until it got too big. It was too big an issue and demanded it’s own space and identity in the recovery community. Central to the ethos of the group is the question “What if we looked at drug use not as cited in the individual – so not as people who are bad or deviant or sick – but people who are in the middle of a war ?”


When we look at it as we have come off the front lines of a war like the ‘war on drugs’ and we always think that this is something which happens elsewhere. In Recovering Justice people tell their stories and put them into the perspective of ‘what if my first intervention had been a health one rather than s criminal justice one ? What if I hadnt had to have waited until I was 39 years of age, and been traumatised and infected with all sorts of blood borne viruses, and lose my community before I got to recovery ? ‘


What if the money that we spend on criminalising people who use drugs was spent on helping them ? In Recovering Justice people know the truth of their realities; there is nobody who does not know about corruption, about what capitalism does in terms of destruction. What we need to know is the solutions and the solutions for a lot of stuff are in the people who know the front line realities.


The north east has been decimated by Thatcherism who destroyed the communities and social support networks of the north east of the UK. What we are now left with is a lot of communities which have been disrupted and are in pain. When people are in pain, they treat that pain in the best way they can; and on top of that pain an industry has been designed to make money off of that pain, which is putting people in prison before putting them into treatment.


Partly why Recovering Justice invited Antony is because as a journalist he listens to the voices which do not get heard, and he amplifies them. The voices of the community have the solutions.



Disaster Capitalism: Some Key Themes

As accumulating money seems to have become the primary preoccupation of certain enterprises and individuals, we are finding the evolution of a type of economy which courts disaster.  If a company is both legally ruled by making profit (something called the fiduciary duty to profit as the motive for shareholder primacy) and performing functions which relate to the circumstances of disaster, then what clearly happens in some cases is that the business interests become invested in disaster.


Here we have someone who is examining the darker side of capital accumulation, particularly in relation to corporate multinationals which are happy to see local ecologies, economies, sociologies and almost anything fail if it benefits their profiting.  This worrying trend he suggests has been escalating in magnitude compared with the past.

In the interview he cites Naomi Klein as being an inspiration in this work who seems to have coined the term to describe the exploitation of circumstances where aid is commonly given.  This involves the privatisation of people’s misfortune and the outsourcing of violence.  Klein describes a disaster-capitalism-complex which has emerged on the back of the ideology of unregulated free market.

Klein describes a recurring tactic by right wing governments which exploit shocking events. After a war, coup, terrorist attack, market failure or natural disaster, ideologues exploit the public’s disorientation to suspend democracy and push through radical policies which enrich the 1 percent at the expense of the poor and middle class.


When we look at this from the view of the Iraq-Iran war, the private contractors Blackwater were heavily involved.  In the documentary ‘Blackwater: Shadow Government’ it is suggested that it was the first private war.  In legal proceedings, the question ‘Cui bono?’ gets asked meaning literally “to whom is it a benefit?”… The investigations of journalists are identifying how companies like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin are right at the centre of the instability from which exploitative policies are being forged.



The War Against Drugs: Where’s The Money

The history of the ‘war on drugs’ is rooted in the political manipulation of voters in America popularized by in1971 by President Richard Nixon who declared drug abuse “public enemy number one”. This was of course a cynical political manoeuvre to gain a ‘wedge vote’ and created a culture of Wedge Politics.

This is tactical airing of issues which splits apart a demographic or population group in an attempt to weaken the unity of a population, with the aim of enticing polarized individuals to give support to an opponent or to withdraw their support entirely out of disillusionment.  Drugs and the demonisation of people who take drugs is one such issue.

The effect this has is to put manipulative politicians in power and create a prison population and permanent underclass of people who are exploited to make large amounts of money for private companies.  Rather than offering support and recovery to people who might be struggling with an emotional trauma like the loss of a child or the break up of a relationship, individuals are punished, socially excluded and incarcerated.

The UK is suffering from this kind of ‘shock and awe’ economic policy where tax cuts are being given to companies like Group4 whilst support services, child benefits, social security, health and support initiatives are being undermined – just the things which keep people from turning to alcohol and drugs.  In American, the social fabric seems to have been very much damaged by such divisive socio-economic policy.

The documentary ‘The House I Live In; War On Drugs In The United States’ examines how such an underclass is being created and coming to fill the prisons which are part of a disaster capitalism complex that turns a massive profit.  Just like the fictional film The Shawshank Redemption, many people are imprisoned and involved in goods production and service provision such as call centres.  This surely begs the questions about slavery when we discover that many people are penalised when they leave prison too, being excluded from getting jobs by the majority of employers.

The dispossessive economy and culture of the United Kingdom is considerably established.  People are dispossessed from attaining an income by use of criminal record checks systems which breach human rights.   Lord Dyson ruled in the courts that a blanket requirement on job applicants to disclose minor offences, including cautions, amounted to a breach of their right to a private and family life.

For many, something as simple as a cannabis conviction as a young adult has changed their life course and sentenced them to poverty, precarious employment, social isolation and associated mental health problems.  If we pay attention to how Professor Lesley McAra of the University of Edinburgh describes “The criminal justice system in effect, curates its own client group. The consequences for people who get caught up in criminal justice is that it entrenches them in poverty.”

The money is in the provision of services.  It seems obvious when looking at the evidence over decades, from multiple different sectors of expertise that the evidence shows that the ‘war on drugs’ is only benefiting the companies which are enforcing the war.  It is disaster capitalism promulgated by companies such as G4S, who seem consistently immune to critique as they fill their boots with public money.


Cui Bono? Follow the money; it seems that a black market is desirable in as much as it is filling the coffers of private interests with loot made from divisive policies, and these hidden political forces are manipulating how the country operates and ultimately damaging society



So, this notion of disaster capitalism provides us with some very helpful language to see the dangers of hiving off certain functions of our society to private interests.  The includes housing services for the needy, health services, prison services and military exploits.  But extending our perspective is also important and we can do this by reading the research of people like Antony and Naomi Klein.


Here are some articles you can tap into by Antony Loewenstein: