I remember John Perkins. He was a real jerk. A gold-plated, super-slick lying little butthole shill for corporate gangsters; a snake-oil salesman with a movie-star grin, shiny loafers, a crooked calculator and a tooled leather briefcase full of high-blown bullshit.
– Greg Palast (www.gregpalast.com)
Despite Greg Palast’s spleenish dismissal from an earlier time, John Perkins has emerged as a spiritual, intellectual and political authority. He is an important leader of contemporary neo-shamanism, one of today’s most effective critics of American corporate culture, and a story teller capable of overshadowing the legendary Ian Fleming, who created James Bond, when it comes a tales of imperial adventure and conquest.
He is working to offer a vision, or a ‘dream change’ as he calls it, designed to rescue America, and the world it dominates, from the destruction of rampant corporate energy. He works to achieve these ends by recounting in a disarmingly honest and sensitive way the personal adventures and dilemmas he has experienced in diverse and exotic parts of the world.
Perkins first gained a reputation in the 1990s for a series of books on shamanic cultures amongst remote tribes and peoples. Around a decade later and prompted by the events of 9/11, he published Confessions of an Economic Hit Man in 2005. This describes life as part of an elite group trained to “utilise international financial organisations to foment conditions that make other nations subservient to the corporatocracy running our biggest corporations, our government, and our banks.”
After twenty-seven publishers turned it down, the book came out of nowhere to be an international best seller, and is about to be made into a Hollywood movie. It went to number four on Amazon during its first week and was quickly on all best-seller lists. This was achieved without receiving any mainstream media attention.
Most importantly, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man has provided credibility, authority and celebrity in opening up new areas of thought. These range across corporate power, American empire, shaman spirituality and environmental consciousness.
Perkins has become a rallying figure for critics of the American ‘corporatocracy’. The harm it inflicts with casual neglect on the environment and local tradition is identified wherever there is the potential to seize cheap resources or some other commercial windfall. A second book has now been published in this genre. The Secret History of the American Empire again recounts wild, troubling conspiracies to grab resources from vulnerable third world leaders through the peddling of unserviceable loans. This is what makes it tempting, even if it is an injustice, to say that its author is becoming America’s Ian Fleming, with conscience.
Intriguingly, the American hit man is a much more sophisticated and reflective operator than the British secret agent. He never dirties his own hands with an actual act of execution or termination. That is left to the jackal, a scavenger that cleans up after others and a figure much closer to the persona of James Bond. Yet both Fleming and Perkins leave the feeling that they have witnessed a time of transition, as the challenges of empire begin to outweigh its rewards. Each captures his readers through the exposure of perversely heroic excesses.
John Perkins both writes and plays the story of the economic hit man, as he reveals an institutionalised imperial strategy of which few had previously been aware. This exposure may well make a contribution to constraining the role of laissez faire corporate plundering in maintaining empire. It may also help construct a vision for an American future more in tune with the values of its founding fathers and its constitution.
It is a comment on the paradoxical character of the contemporary world that the legacy from time as an economic hit man is now committed to opposing and constraining such activity. Rarely have the costs and destruction that go with exercising power over vast areas of the world and the enormous demands of imperial authority on energy, talent and resources been rendered more transparent.
Perkins sketches a highly complex world, both at the personal and imperial level. His own heroic personality reflects a messy, if robust, form of schizophrenia. Simultaneously, he confesses to ghastly deeds as an economic hit man, articulates a rare sensitivity to diverse indigenous forms of spirituality, uses his experience of malevolent deeds to awaken readers to the destructive power of corporations and comments on the complex feelings and questionings that accompany his actions and reflections.
A simple, powerful and authoritative style makes it easy to follow these stories of endless exotic adventure. It is also easy to follow the author’s feelings as he learns and grows through personal involvement in a world of calculated intrigue and exploitation that no one had ever explained to him.
The experience of many bright, inexperienced young men is captured with rare honesty. These innocents are recruited to maintain and extend the reach of empire by means that it would be politically unacceptable to explain in an academic text or a university course. Such stories are a powerful means of mocking much of the economic doctrine taught at Western universities and wielded like a weapon by the minions of the IMF and World Bank as self-serving theoretical nonsense.
Greg Palast, in a piece titled John Perkins: Jerk, Conman, Shill posted on his website www.gregpalast.com, captures the profound ambiguity in the author’s character in the following colourful language:
To steal millions, you need a top team of armed robbers. But to steal billions, you need PhD’s with colour charts and economic projections made of fairy dust and eye of newt. Perkins had it all – including a magical thing called a computer-generated spreadsheet (this was well before Excel)…..
But, as in every moral tale, Perkins, the modern Dr. Faust, found redemption in confession…..
And in his writings today, Perkins’ heart goes out to the Third World targets of this new empire ruled by shock troops and spread sheets. His empathy extends to those in the occupied territory known as the USA. Because, says Perkins, when the wretchedly ripped-off of the Earth rise in rebellion, the lash of the backlash is felt by the children of the lobstermen of New Hampshire, shivering under Humvees in Falluja, and never the EHM’s clients’ fortunate sons, frolicking in their Ferraris.
While Perkins is best known today for his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he is best understood in the context of his earlier writing. This explores the wisdom and understanding of shamans in contrasting parts of the world. These revelations can be even more startling than his hit man stories. They raise serious questions about most readers’ perceptions of reality and can leave an elated sense of new possibilities and enhanced insight into the nature of life. It is even possible to read in an exchange with an Amazonian shaman an early contribution to the idea of carbon trading.
Stories of the profound practical wisdom mobilised by forms of shamanic spirituality make this unfamiliar world surprisingly accessible. The struggle for survival in a world threatened with destruction by economic hit men adds further credibility.
Stories of spiritual discovery amongst native shamans are built around a deep but shifting sensitivity. Initial days as a wide-eyed Peace Corps volunteer are followed by subsequent hit man travels surrounded by privilege, sycophantic attendants and murky conspiracies, and then by a role as guide and leader of small groups of spiritual explorers venturing into the Amazon and other threatened environments. A capacity to recognise the mundane daily imperatives of human life in many contrasting environments is a basic strength of these stories. Readers are introduced in a most convincing manner to the surprisingly practical uses to which native spiritual powers are put. These range from the power to track down and destroy a rogue tiger in the jungle to the capacity to navigate vast distances at sea without charts or other recorded knowledge.
Pychonavigation: Techniques for Travel Beyond Time in 1990 displayed a writer and activist deeply concerned with the preservation of native traditions, the understanding of shamanic spirituality and the protection of the environment. It also highlighted the manner in which the contemporary world offers unprecedented opportunities to those with wealth, interest, understanding and accidental opportunity. Such individuals are able to explore and identify with diverse forms of spirituality amongst peoples from many different traditions of belief and behaviour.
The world of shamans may be under threat, but there is also a sense in which the advanced and scientific West needs to turn increasingly to these influences. Christian and scientific dogmas have destroyed essential human qualities in the rush of spread sheets and bottom line calculations.
These discoveries have been followed up and explored further in other books, such as Shapeshifting: Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation. This 1997 book gives readers an almost tactile sense of experience in uncovering new wonders. This powerfully encourages an opening of the mind and spirit to new possibilities. Not only is the reader’s preparedness to explore the seemingly unbelievable tested, but penetrating reflections on the contemporary world challenge many familiar certainties.
The assertion of a sympathetic mentor, a Norwegian engineer and corporate power-broker, that capitalism is here to stay provides the basis for reflections on the future. It is essential to understand as deeply as possible the nature of the corporation, which need not necessarily be predatory and destructive. This gives context and balance to devastating comments about corporate fostering of consumerism and emasculation of education. These products of the European Enlightenment, and the way they have diminished the spiritual qualities and understanding of people in the developed world, are rarely exposed so aptly.
Concern with corporate realities leads to discussion with a Mayan shaman about the need to distinguish dreams from fantasy. While dreams can nourish fulfilment in life and a deep sense of spiritual reality, fantasies only encourage illusion and can be very harmful. This distinction has great practical usefulness because we all vacillate between dreams and fantasies. Yet we rarely pause to recognise the need to distinguish between them, nourish our dreams and discipline our fantasies.
Explorations with the Mayan shaman suggest that critical to realising the potential of dreams is an understanding at the most fundamental level that energy is everything, that spirit is energy and that the sighting of spirits is synonymous with the sighting of energy. From this it follows that the aura that surrounds organic life and that some healers can use to restore well-being is an emanation of spirit and energy. In bold reflections such as these, Perkins offers himself with a genuine sense of humility – attributing his insights to ‘primitive’ shamans – as a serious and profound commentator on the ills of Western progress and development.
Books such as Pychonavigation and Shapeshifting in the 1990s reveal the depth of Perkins experience, reflection and spirituality. While they won him a substantial readership and group of followers, it was the political and corporate expose of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man that catapulted him into the ranks of bestsellers and made him a celebrity leader with a potential to transform many of the spiritual ailments that trouble the contemporary American imperial character.
John Perkins was born in New Hampshire in 1945. He attended Tilton Boys High School, and later Middlebury College and Boston University, before joining the Peace Corps and working in Ecuador in the Amazon. He claims he was vetted by the National Security Agency before being recruited by the Boston strategic consulting firm, Chas T Main, where he rose to the position of chief economist. Not surprisingly, his claims have been disputed by the US State Department.
Then followed some years of internal struggle over the role of persuading third world governments to accept large, unserviceable loans for infrastructure projects contracted to major US corporations. This anguish deepened as understanding grew about subsequent joint US government and international aid agency action, designed to control these governments and dispose of their oil and other resources to serve US interests. Being a witness to such activities all over the world – in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East – led to a decision to quit. Little doubt is left, however, that those who desired silence about earlier work assisted in the success of a subsequent independent energy company.
After the sale of the energy company in the late 1980s Perkins became involved with non-profit work around the world. In addition to his writing, he became active in shifting consciousness and promoting sustainable lifestyles for the individual and global community.
It is possible to question the veracity of accounts of American skulduggery. But there is much evidence to support them and they are rarely subjected to serious critical cross-examination. To the contrary, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man has been followed by books like A Game as Old as Empire: The Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption, a collection of chapters by a variety of writers, edited by Steven Hiatt, which explores the range of such activity.
Even more important, perhaps, unrelated writers such as the German-American William Engdahl have shown in books like A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order that Anglo-American power-brokers have long made devastating use of discreet partnerships between corporate and governmental interests. When the record of the English East India Company is put together with the work of contemporary writers, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Anglo-American empire has largely been the product of the corporation.
These organisations have been effective fronts for imperial expansion. They have been characterised by a remarkable capacity to mobilise adventurous, risk-taking individuals, by skilful, discreet control and manipulation of financial and commodity resources and by the ability to shroud their activities in high-sounding rhetoric about progress and universal values.
The impact of Perkins in exposing this reality has been enhanced by several factors. First, he tells a great story from the perspective of personal involvement and personal anguish. Second, his earlier writings on indigenous spirituality in scattered parts of the world provided him with an established reputation amongst informed and reflective readers in the decade before the appearance of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Third, there is apparent coherence linking his stories of spiritual adventure and discovery and his stories of political adventure and discovery. Finally, 9/11 has created a world, with its enhanced electronic communications and troubled questioning of what has gone wrong, that is disposed to explore the issues raised by corporate excess and economic hit men.
In one sense, the linkage of spiritual and financial adventure and discovery has created a 21st century everyman or icon. Educated and reflective members of economically advanced communities will find it increasingly difficult to avoid the type of issues and questions that are central to these themes.
The fact that Perkins does not claim great erudition but simply recounts a story and a succession of dilemmas enhances the accessibility of the work. The sense of surprised discovery of hidden realities is one that is shared by increasing numbers in a world where even advanced levels of education tend to be narrow and excessively functional. It is easy for even the best intentioned and most responsible of workers to become jerk, con-man, and shill as they toil to fit in, accommodate peer group pressure, win the favour of superiors and build the reputation and wealth needed to support a family.
The modern corporation (or government) demands a certain ignorance and naïvetè of its employees if they are to serve its purpose of maximising profit (or voter support). Only a few are privileged to have the opportunity to see through illusions, opt out and warn others. It is a role where success is improbable.
The title chosen for Perkins’ second book on American financial strategies, The Secret History of the American Empire, invites the reader to revisit and reconsider events like the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and ponder on it as the product of a team of economic hit men. It also raises daunting questions about the longer-term viability of major global institutions like the World Bank and IMF.
There is one story of carrying a book by Joseph Stiglitz during travels to Tibet and of reflections about closely related concerns. Globalization and Its Discontents explains spreading discontent and criticism about the international financial institutions. It does this from the perspective of one who served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, was Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank and was the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics. Yet, it is important to understand why it is John Perkins and not Joseph Stiglitz who will have the greater impact on the popular American consciousness.
However much the authority of the American State Department may dispute them, Perkins’ stories take the reader directly into the action and personalities of events that have shaped the latter half of the 20th century. They involve the reader in the excitement, the fulfilments and the angst of such action and make the most implausible of conspiracies seem commonplace and mundane, even as they unfold in exotic and alien environments. Ultimately, they intensify many dilemmas by focusing on discoveries of the shamanic spirituality and wisdom of peoples whose cultural survival in the contemporary world seems condemned – limited to decades.
Unfortunately, there is little about Japan and China, two large nations that have preserved ancient forms of spirituality while building robust and vibrant modern economies. A chapter on geishas in Secret History hints at great subtlety in Japanese traditions. It recounts a platonic, hungering and fleeting relationship with two geishas who are revealed to be mixed blood daughters of Taiwanese mothers abandoned by American fathers and rescued and raised by a shrewd but kindly Japanese businessman. These, in a single forthright conversation, educate a still naïve American in the way their charms are used to advance Japanese corporate interests. One suspects these are rarely matched by American finesse. Sadly, apart from this early chapter in the latest book nothing more is said about Japan.
Another chapter, The Quiet Giant, reflects in passing, and not unsympathetically, on China in the context of a visit to Tibet. There are no insights of particular interest, however, and China is not addressed again.
Both Japan and China have sheltered and preserved shamanic traditions, generally in the form of Shintoism and Daoism, but also in Zen and Chan Buddhism and other forms. Despite the fact that both Japan and China have been remarkably successful in exporting products of this shamanism in the form of martial arts, physical therapy and spiritual disciplines, it is not popular to recognise such successes in the West.
While this issue is not explored directly by Perkins, exploration of less imposing shamanic traditions invites the thoughtful reader to reflect further on the costs inherent in the West’s ‘intellectual apartheid’. Deployed as a means of advancing the West’s civilising mission and imperial ambitions, ‘intellectual apartheid’ blinded most observers to the power of Japanese and Chinese shamanic spirituality. East Asian nations have shown that educated, disciplined and organised communities can defend themselves against Anglo-American economic hit men, whether it is through the use of geishas or other aspects of traditional practice.
Ultimately, one may question whether Perkins offers serious readers any realistic way forward. He cannot be faulted for his criticism of economic hit men and their plundering corporations and one cannot but applaud his revelations about endangered shamanic cultures. But does he address these issues strategically?
The 21st century world of rapid global communications is ruthless in exposing the vulnerability of communities that are not organised to advance their own interests. Perkins’ Anglo-American world is one that has used the corporation to great effect as an empire-building tool but is one that has neither the disciplined subtlety of the Japanese geisha nor the strategic wisdom inherent in Chinese tradition. These are the areas where Asian shamans have displayed their power but they are not areas where Perkins is well equipped to comment.
It would be misguided to criticise Perkins on these grounds. He is modest in his claims to expertise. Yet his writing covers such a broad spectrum and is so authoritative in speaking of hope derived from tribal shaman traditions that it becomes necessary to probe broader issues. It is a reflection of his value that he gives grounds to address weighty matters and encourages recognition of the growing frailties in aggressive contemporary corporate culture.
Unquestionably, John Perkins is a figure with convincing and disarming talent, with spiritual and moral depth and with political and economic discernment. Men with these qualities who are prepared to speak clearly are rare in America.
Should the continuation of economic hit man stories lead to a series of adventure films that recall James Bond, this is only likely to increase Perkins’ influence and importance. It will be hard for such films not to be educational in terms of the way the world works and sobering in terms of exposing the strategies that have constructed Anglo-American Empire. They may also begin to open the popular imagination to long neglected spiritual realities that challenge false certainties. Perhaps no greater service could be rendered in these days of imperial strain and insecurity.
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