GREG PALAST is a breath of fresh air in the world of journalism. He began as an investigator, working on behalf of trade unions and consumer groups in the US, highlighting the abuse of corporate power and the destruction of people’s lives and planet. His work led to the prosecution of nuclear power plant builders for racketeering, and the revelation of how the Exxon Valdez crash was allowed to happen because the shipping company cut costs by turning the radars off! Recently he has been in the public eye for exposing how the Republican Party rigged the election in Florida by taking thousands of black men off the electoral role. Gregory Palast visited Dublin to speak at a number of meetings to discuss his new book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and spoke to Socialist Worker.
SW: What effect did the election of George Bush have on the American Left?
IT WAS demoralising and discouraging. Nader has been blamed for taking enough votes in Florida to give Bush the election, when in reality, George Bush, Jeb Bush and Kathrine Harris stole the election. Still, there was this horrible guilt on the left that we’d somehow inadvertently allowed this failed oilman into the White House, so it was depressing for a while. But don’t forget that until September 11th, Bush was the most unpopular president in American history.
Never has a president taken office so mistrusted. September 11th hypnotised Americans, because it was genuinely frightening. My office was in the World Trade Centre so I know exactly how they feel. So there has been and still is a patriotic rally, but Enron broke that spell, it reminded people that “Hang on, this guy sold our country to the rich”.
Enron literally picked their own regulator. They chose the people who were to investigate them. They were already facing prosecution for ripping off Californians but within 48 hours of getting elected, Bush changed the rules in all sorts of ways, allowing Enron to make a killing in the “free electricity market”. Enron’s collapse was a wake up call to Americans. It said, “we looked away for a time but now we get on with the real story.” Lets not forget that after the Gulf War, the Bush family arrived in Kuwait to sell pipelines to the Kuwaitis, before the fires had even gone out. Even Norman Schwarzkopf, not exactly a leftwinger, objected, saying “This isn’t why people died in the Gulf”, for Neil and Marvin Bush to arrive in Kuwait City with their funny hats, felt table and three card tricks! So the focus is back on the Bush family as the American cleptocracy and people are starting to feel disgusted by it.
SW: In your new book, you write at length about the media’s coverage of the election.
YOU mean non-coverage!
SW: OK, their noncoverage of the election. Is the media’s refusal to seriously investigate corporate and political power to do with corruption, with laziness, is it about the expense involved or are they a conscious part of the ruling class?
YES TO all four! My first article is called “The Silence of the Lambs”. If people like Murdoch are able to brainwash people, it’s because they are like shepherds leading a crowd of lazy, docile sheep. But it’s also political. Last month Jim Wolfensson, head of the World Bank refused to appear on CNN if I was on the same show. CNN did the courageous thing and literally yanked me off the air! Most career-journalists in the big media have realised that the way to the top is to keep your head down and cover the press release news and not ask any questions. I gave CBS all the information I uncovered in Florida, which they were quite excited about. When, after four days they hadn’t aired it, I rang the producer, who told me the story didn’t stand up. I asked why and was told that “We rang Jeb Bush’s office and he said it didn’t happen”! In the election in Florida, what we basically had was a South African situation, where telling black people that their votes didn’t count elected Bush. What happened was Bush used computer databases to knock 57,700 voters off the roles on the basis that they were ex-convicts ? who can’t vote in Florida. The majority of these people had committed no crime at all, apart from being black, and black voters are overwhelmingly Democrat voters. In many cases they simply had a name that was similar to a convicted felon. Plus there were 8,000 people disqualified for crimes committed in Texas, which is completely unconstitutional ? and we all know who was governor of that state. The real crimes were firstly Bush doing this and the second crime was the Democrat Party sitting on their hands, saying “Our election was stolen, but we’re not going to scream about it because that would mean screaming on behalf of black people”. There was the vicious racism of the Republican Party that stole the White House and the kow-towing to this racism by the Democrats. If they had been white voters, you can be sure the Democrats wouldn’t just have conceded defeat. I actually left the Democrat Party
SW: Do you agree that the collapse of Argentina is a powerful deathblow to neoliberalism as a theory?
YOU AND I might think so, but not according to Wall St or the World Bank.
SW: But surely, even Bush’s response to the downturn in America’s economy goes against all the neo-liberals have to say about not interfering in the market?
DON’T FORGET that they are exempt from the rules of globalisation. So when Argentina is in a depression, the US is backing the World Bank position that they should cut spending further, which, in capitalist terms is economic suicide. Whereas in the US, when they felt a small wobble in the economy after September 11, Bush demands from Congress that they spend 50- 100 billion dollars just to offset any minor damage. The reason James Wolfensson hates me is that he doesn’t want me talking about the secret documents, with his signature on them, which were basically the IMF’s decision on what was going to happen in Argentina. It amounted to an economic coup d’etat, where the country is ground down to meet interest payments, which they knew would cause what they called “social unrest”, what we call a riot and that it would have to be met with, in their words, “resolve”, what we would call tanks on the street. Thirty five people died in December protesting the IMF conditions and people had died before that but nothing was reported about it because it didn’t come near the Intercontinental Hotel where all the reporters hang out in Buenos Aires. There had been people dying from starvation in the hinterland for months, but no one cared about that. So I think it’s a blow to neo-liberalism, but the IMF isn’t finished with Argentina by a long shot. The country is an economic corpse, but still they’re picking it for anything that can be sold off. The water company in Buenos Aires was sold to?.you guessed it, Enron which immediately stripped all the assets, put in no money and now the water is contaminated and isn’t flowing anyway. Industry has been sold off, the state banks have been sold off, the ports, so now they’re down to privatising insane things like the tax collection system.
YEAH, IT is going back to the medieval system of tax farming where you give private operators the right to collect taxes for you. One item in the documents, under a heading called “Improving the conditions of the poor”, they call for a reduction in unemployment benefit from $200 to $160 a month. How can this possibly help the poor? It’s all about meeting the interest payments.
SW: The people of Argentina have been forced into a revolutionary situation, simply in order to survive. What options do they have now?
WELL, just say no! I see real resistance coming out of places like Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has passed laws giving land to the landless. Any land unused for three years is seized without compensation and given to the landless. He’s doubled the royalties on oil corporations ? a real sin ? when you do that, you go to war with the George Bushes of the world and the financial markets. Watch this space, Chavez will be either assassinated or overthrown within the next three months, they will not tolerate that dissent. But we are seeing the same dissent in Argentina where people are creating local committees to keep food supplies operative, they’re creating their own currencies because all three IMF currencies are worthless. I don’t know what will happen in Argentina. Even calling it a revolution gives a sense of cohesion to the drama which it might not have. It’s about surviving. What’s interesting is the alliance between the middle classes and the poor ? unlike in Venezuela, where the middle classes have allied with the rich. The rich are terrified that the country will be put under a state of siege. Already oil companies are reducing the amount of oil they’re taking from the country, they’re creating fear. The rich are moving their money out and the middle classes are worried that their position is under threat. But what’s interesting about Venezeula is that Chavez has said “Look, the IMF gave us the same advice they gave Argentina. They followed it and fell to pieces. I’m doing okay ? poor people are better off than ever before”.
SW: Is the concentration of American military power connected to real worries about the future of American capitalism and its relative decline since the 1970’s?
IN SOME ways, American military power doesn’t seem as scary as it used to. Maybe I’m getting old, but I went to jail during the Vietnam War, which was about as blatantly imperialist a project as you can get. Three million Vietnamese were killed. America today works more through its proxy operators. Venezuelan troops will murder Hugo Chavez, not American. The rulers of the planet have created a fifth column, through combining with the elites locally. The people who were murdered in Bolivia protesting against the privatisation of water supplies were gunned down by Bolivians. It’s the post-Kissenger style of military diplomacy where they activate local armed forces against popular dissent, which is horrific. It’s amazing, you know the rich have a sense of class solidarity which we in the working class are sorely missing!
SW: Do you see any hope for justice in Palestine?
YES, it’s about justice. If we really believe in socialism, do we really want more states, Jewish states, Arab states, the United States. I don’t believe in any of these states. We shouldn’t promote this endless division based on religion or race, we should promote the commonality of the interests that we as workers have on both sides, be it in Israel, or Northern Ireland or wherever and not get caught up in the puppet show of Arafat vs. Sharon. I’m interested in looking at the puppeteers, the money behind the politicians who are keeping us apart, encouraging us to cut each others’ throats. It’s a brutal world we live in, but if we stay true to our ideals and really work for them, then I think there’s hope for us as a species.
At www.GregPalast.com you can read and subscribe to Greg Palast’s London Observer columns and view his reports for BBC Television’s Newsnight. Pluto Press has just released Palast’s book, “THE BEST DEMOCRACY MONEY CAN BUY: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons and High Finance Fraudsters.”