If it weren't for the generous injection of black humour, this book would feel almost unbearable. There's no doubting it's a great read, full of revelatory investigation into a huge array of issues, but it's enough to bring you out in a sweat every time you pick it up, with its extensive evidence on how every corner of corporate life is riddled with systemic abuse, and every self-declaring bastion of democracy is hiding some big secrets.
Few of the bigger stories are new in themselves - Bush stealing the Presidency, US involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile, corporate takeover of basic services such as health, education and the provision of water the world over - but they are given a whole new vigour as Palast puts himself at the centre of the story. And like any good old private eye, on the trail of misdeeds and scandals, he also charts his own, usually deteriorating, relation with the main players and the media.
Indeed, this book is almost a biography, tracing Palast's time in education at the University of Chicago, experiencing first hand the deathly cold logic of the “Chicago Boys”, through to its first application in Chile in the early 1970s and then to its far more widely-accepted but not so distant relative, the privatisation-driven globalisation of today.
Palast provides more than enough detail to make concrete his allegations. His speciality lies in presenting the facts on, for example, the tendency towards self-censorship in the British media that nicely complements more formal straightjackets; the degradation and brutality endemic to private prisons in New Mexico, operated by a company subsequently given contracts in Britain; and the poverty-line salaries at Wal-Mart (the largest employer in the US) meaning that those without second jobs can qualify for government food stamps, resulting in one huge state subsidy of private profit.
This unrelenting catalogue of anti-democratic activity is also relieved with tales of hope - of the individual fighting on and sometimes fighting back. Central to the thesis, however, is an understanding of the cold corporate momentum and the massiveness of its structures, which divide individuals within them from the smaller and larger human tragedies that are often the result of such a system.
Palast starts with the question, “Who gives a shit?” and ends with the political disillusionment of his father, his “deep and intelligent patriotism” betrayed by the indiscriminate killing in Vietnam. In between, among the stories of loss, illness and injustice, Palast is also looking questioningly at us.