The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, by Greg Palast (review)

Listener: 9 August, 2003.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

With sex no longer secret, we move on to the mysteries of corporations and their couplings with governments. Investigative journalists, among whom American Greg Palast is exceptional, today lift the curtains from the corporate bedroom windows. This book describes his recent investigations.

Its first chapter shows how, at the behest of the state government, over 57,700 voters were wrongly deleted from the Florida electoral roll in 1999. Most were black and probably voted Democrat. George W Bush, the brother of Florida’s governor, won Florida –– and the presidency –– by a mere 537 votes. The Bush administration’s dealings with the rich follow in the chapter that gives the book its title.

Later chapters are on the Californian energy crisis, globalisation and business, Walmart, the Christian-evangelist-cum-businessman Pat Robertson, Chile, Alaska (the Exxon Valdez as well as the appalling treatment of the natives), Pepsi-cola, Tony Blair’s government’s connections with big business, and a whole lot more besides.

Despite the book’s 400 pages, not all are detailed. Readers will know the broad outlines of many of the “scandals” via international news reports, often triggered by Palast.

He writes vigorously, sometimes wittily (“Blake’s ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ have been replaced by ‘Bright Demonic Happy Meals’ at McDonald’s”), and often crudely. The introduction for British readers is titled “Who gives a shit?”, after an editor who canned a story because he thought no one would be interested. Palast is excoriating about the timidity of the media. Some of his best US stories had to be released in Britain (he has worked for the BBC, the Guardian and the Observer).

Despite the guarantee of freedom of speech, the American media were not interested. Yet the UK media is stifled by restrictive laws. Palast suggests that Brits “trade in your Queen for a written guarantee of freedom of the press. In fact, you can borrow America’s –– we aren’t using ours.”

That said, any editor who is offered a Palast story faces severe problems. Although the goings-on in corporate bedrooms are far more titillating than in royal bedrooms, getting the complex story right is not easy. Palast can be casual. He quotes Keynes as writing “the mad rantings of men in authority often have their origins in jottings of some professor of economics”, but that is not exactly what Keynes wrote. If Palast does not check simple quotations, can we be sure of his reports of complex facts? Unchecked ones can be misleading. Activities in bedrooms are open to misunderstandings by outsiders, particularly those, such as Palast, who have a highly committed perspective.

There is no doubt that sometimes corporations and governments get together at the expense of the public good: probably more so in the US than anywhere else in the West. But they also get together to do good things. It is not sufficient to say that “corporate capitalism” is corrupt. Palast identifies a number of outrageous cases, but others may be misinterpretations, drawing invalid conclusions based on incomplete evidence or tenuous connections. And, although his indignation may be justified in some instances, the book does not go beyond rage to add to our understanding of why such things happen. One finishes reading it, fearful for a world led by “the best democracy money can buy”, but with little indication of the alternatives.

Even so, when asked “What do you feel is the biggest threat to the world?”, Palast replied, “Cowardice.” But why give a shit? As Edmund Burke more elegantly said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”