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Information overload

Armed Madhouse

By Greg Palast

Penguin (Allen Lane), 2006, £14-99

Reviewed by

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

THIS BOOK does what it says on the tin. "You want something heart warming? Buy a puppy. But if you want just the facts, Ma’am – facts rarely cuddly or cute – here’s your book", shouts the back cover of Armed Madhouse. And the book certainly keeps its promise, both of facts-aplenty and of sustaining this particular style of writing, highly energetic and in-your-face informality.

Greg Palast bombards us with all the dirt on Bush and his neo-con pals, covering major events such as the methods involved in winning the elections in 2000 and 2004, the motivations behind the Iraq war, and the policies designed for the destruction of manufacturing and welfare in the US, with plenty of other tasty titbits thrown in.

No one could read this book and not be conscious of the hard graft put in to establish those aforementioned facts. Documents aplenty, sources, gotten and ill-gotten, and a variety of tables and graphs leave us convinced that he’s done his homework. But, although it is incredibly informative, it left me feeling somewhat breathless, with a sense of being buried under a massive heap of facts. Palast is clearly very passionate about the task he set himself – to make sure everyone is armed with the info to back up what most people have already decided they believe: that Bush and the neo-cons are the last people we would want in the stewardship of our planet.

What I really liked about Palast is his absolute aversion to the unturned stone. Everything must be questioned and investigated. The first chapter includes an examination of Osama bin Laden’s motivations and background in construction, to the dealings of ChoicePoint which, according to the Transportation Security Administration, keeps more than 17 billion records of individuals and businesses, which it sells to more than half of America’s top 1,000 companies. It also has contracts with over 7,500 state and local government agencies, including law enforcement. That kind of carry-on seems to really whet Greg’s appetite.

Later, in a chapter entitled The Network, he gives evidence of the impact of the collapse of Stalinism on Russia and Eastern Europe. The number of billionaires has gone from zero to 36 in Russia. Palast explains how this has been paid for by cutting spending on medicine and hospital care by two-thirds. This chapter outlines the development of the neo-liberal model but the writing style here particularly inhibits the clarity of analysis. It seems that he is fumbling a little through the weight of evidence he had amassed for an analysis and solution.

In later chapters a magnifying glass is put on the theory of ‘peak oil’. Palast refers back to the initial research for Shell, by the geologist M King Hubbert, and makes the case that the claim is made on an economic and political basis rather than on solid fact. His point is that peak oil signifies the end of easily retrievable oil, whether that be due to the political or the geological circumstances.

It is difficult to get a clear idea of what Palast is for. It’s obvious what he’s against. The book is peppered with fleeting mentions of times past, where the New Deal in the 1930s, for example, is compared favourably to the neo-conservatism of Bush and his predecessors, Reagan and ‘Poppy Bush’. There is a chapter entitled Class War which comes towards the end and I was hoping that, having outlined all the shenanigans and goings on of Washington and the administration’s big-business pals, this would provide some hope and balance that there is an alternative, at least some opposition. But no. The chapter outlines the extremes of education privatisation, the scams pulled off by the energy companies and how useless Bush’s response was to Hurricane Katrina. Last year the US was rocked by the massive protests of immigrant workers, saw the foundation of the Soldiers of Solidarity by trade unionists in the car industry, and the growth of the anti-war movement. Of course, a political alternative is still absent, but the idea that there is a growing audience for Palast’s own writings was not clear from the book.

Facts are raw material, and the book is undoubtedly useful, but without an analytical framework or a clear idea of what an alternative would look like it’s hard not to be frustrated. It is an impressive book in that it covers a lot of ground at a rapid pace. But in that mad sprint it seems to leap over and ignore the gaping hole made by the absence of an answer to the implicit question: what do we do about all of this? After the final chapter there is a section entitled Insurgency USA – Join Today! Out of 370-odd pages this section comprises of four lines recommending that you sign up to the author’s website for more news.

I was left impressed but with a sense of being a little bamboozled afterwards. The sheer amount of facts and figures and the investigative lengths gone to are remarkable and yet unsatisfying. What do we do with all of this information? Are we in a better situation to know that Bush is really, really, really bad than when we knew that he was really bad? There must be a saturation point for all of this information. Young people and workers on demonstrations are looking for more than affirmations of what they already know to be true.

This year hundreds of thousands of school students took to the streets of Chile and occupied their schools. In the US, car workers, transport workers and hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers in all sectors took action to try to stem the tide of privatisation and cuts and the massive subsidies the poor are forced to contribute to the already overflowing coffers of America’s wealthy. Would it have helped them to read this book?

It could, of course, be argued that Palast never set out to answer any programmatic questions or to propose an alternative. After all, he promised the facts and that’s what we got, nothing more, nothing less. The question is whether we need more of this type of book, or that now, especially in the wake of the mid-term elections, these journalists and leftish writers can be pushed to comment on what is needed, and whether they will get their hands dirty in the battles that are to come.

Palast and others are in danger of being left behind by workers and young people who are involved in the day-to-day struggles for their rights and their future. Palast does not put forward a socialist alternative. Socialists are sometimes accused of rubbishing anything that fails to do so but, as the resistance to capitalism and all its heinous crimes develops, there will be more and more dissatisfaction with hand-wringing, no matter how thoroughly researched its basis. I have to say, I cannot give my full quota of gold stars and recommend this for your Christmas gift list, but it was an interesting read.


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