Book review: The Racket by Matt Kennard - conspiracy theory fails
The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs the Masters of the Universe
by Matt Kennard
It's a comforting thought that the world is run behind closed doors by an evil cabal: it makes sense of everything. "The inevitable conclusion," Matt Kennard states at the outset, "is that our entire world is at the mercy of an elite business community who run it in secret".
This is certainly partially true: finance trumps democracy not just in the lower-income but even in advanced countries. Kennard's book contains vivid reporting from Haiti and Egypt (where, in an optimistic conclusion, he celebrates a new flowering of urban graffiti). He reports on the depredations of mining companies and the baleful effects of the "war on drugs" in Honduras, Bolivia and elsewhere.
To this extent, the book is a little brother to Naomi Klein's brilliant The Shock Doctrine (2007), which shows how civil wars and natural disasters in poor countries are exploited by US and global business interests pushing for privatisation from which they intend to profit. Kennard's book is less forensic than Klein's, however, and operates under a much shakier - because more generalised - governing thesis.
Kennard calls the "elite business community" running the world in secret "the racket", and he insists the racket explains not just US and International Monetary Fund pressure for privatisation in places such as Haiti - notoriously euphemised as "structural adjustment programmes" - but pretty much everything.
Such an absolutist theory has familiar shortcomings. There is, first, the periodic condescension and self-congratulation - Kennard thinks foreign aid workers, for example, are "dupes" who believe "myths". Second, it becomes difficult to keep all the facts consistent with a single conspiriological explanation for everything. Writing of how the Delaware tribe of Native Americans found it difficult (like everyone else) to get bank loans after the financial crisis, he states: "The racketeers work to keep the poor world underdeveloped, and they do the same with the tribes within their own borders." Yet, on the next page, we learn large amounts of financing have gone to "select successful and thus creditworthy tribes".
Surely such tribes shouldn't exist if the all-powerful "racket" is determined to keep them poor?
Elsewhere Kennard bends over backwards to say nice things about bad people, as long as they aren't American. In Haiti, he writes, "the economy grew from 1960 to 1980 under the Duvalier dictatorships because, despite their brutality, they actually had a development strategy. It wasn't great but it did move the country forward." It is not clear whether "It wasn't great" refers to life under the Duvaliers or their development strategy, but either way it's the kind of euphemistic understatement he deplores when it's used by the officials he despises.
Indeed the most admirable strand of Kennard's book is his dedication to unmasking the Unspeak of international affairs. He is quick with a sardonic translation of "development" itself ("A term that refers to the economic progress of countries that have been kept underdeveloped by the policies of the same people overseeing their 'development'"). "Decentralisation" in a foreign target country, he points out, really means "strengthening the opposition".
When the US wants to open a foreign military base, meanwhile, it doesn't call it a base. "The US officially calls these areas Forward Operating Locations because apparently they are temporary, and it's embarrassing to call them bases as an American empire, of course, does not exist," he writes.
"Forward Operating Locations" makes these military bases sound like field hospitals set up in the middle of nowhere for anyone needing life-saving surgery. Sometimes, as the best of this book shows, language itself is a racket.