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PLATFORM works across disciplines for social and ecological justice. It combines the transformatory power of art with the tangible goals of campaigning, the rigour of in-depth research with the vision to promote alternative futures.
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Desk Killer - a forthcoming book...

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin’. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labour camps. in those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”
C.S. Lewis

Desk Killer

Killing from a desk

The colonial continuum

Breaking through the compartmentalisation of the mind

A walk from humanism to extermination

 


Killing from a Desk

By shining a light into the world of the bureaucrats, planners and businessmen who contributed to Nazism and the Holocaust, the desk killer raises a critical question as to whether such an event can be viewed as a finished, historical episode or whether the psychology and behaviour that enabled genocide to occur then is not only still present today, but exists quite specifically both in the institutional culture of transnational corporations and in the mindset and activity of many individuals working for such corporations.

In post-war Germany’s attempt to come to a reckoning with the Holocaust, particularly after the trial and conviction of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 the term ‘schreibtischtaeter’ was coined. This can be translated as ‘desk-murderer’. Strangely this term has hardly ever been used outside Germany, despite its clear relevence to much 20th century and contemporary capitalism.

This concept is at the heart of the desk killer’s argument. International trade has never been less personal. The vast majority of BP's or Shell's workforce in London will never see the oil pipeline in Colombia or Nigeria that they work on daily from their desks, let alone meet the villagers intimidated, displaced or killed in order to enable those valuable pipelines to operate. This distancing creates the greatest imaginative challenge - how is it possible to link the BP head office at Finsbury Circus to Casanare? How is it possible to enable human beings in London to feel linked on a personal basis with human beings in Colombia? Or to link the people at the Shell Centre with people in Southern Nigeria?

  Engineer working at the Saurer factory in the 1940s. Saurer manufactured the Gaswagen used in the murder of up to 400,000 people in Eastern Europe, between 1941 and 1945.  

“I see a man of around 50, coming back from his work in the City of London. It’s a soft summer’s evening, so there’s no need to put the car in the garage. He can hear the sound of his children’s voices coming from the garden, and he feels an acute sense of wellbeing as he walks around the side of the house, only pausing to smell the exquisite scent of the white roses he planted last year. Earlier that day, the man, a senior accountant at one of Britain’s leading oil corporations, had presented the final spreadsheets in the report which determined that a coastal area the size of Scotland in southern Nigeria would soon be developed. He cannot connect this fragrant evening in leafy north London with his work earlier that day. He cannot, or perhaps will not allow himself to, connect his life in London with the lives of those in Nigeria about to be devastated by his tapping at a keyboard.

Who was the senior accountant who looked at the spreadsheets for this project?
Who at the merchant bank dealt with the finance capital?
Who authorised the project to go ahead?
Who decided that they wouldn’t negotiate with the Ogoni villagers?
Who telephoned the Nigerian Government to ask for the mobile police force to be sent?

How are we to show the violence of a spreadsheet?
How are we to show the violence of a set of minutes?
How are we to show the violence of an idea?"
from the performance 'killing us softly'

  PLATFORM reasearch trip to Saurer in Arbon, Switzerland in August 2001

Perhaps a starting point would be to recognise a double proximity:

Firstly, the proximity of corporations to genocide. For example the enormous number of corporations, including many British and American transnationals, involved in supporting the German state between 1933 and 1939 - in some cases, quite literally fuelling Nazism. BP’s 3rd biggest oil market in the world in the 1930s was in Germany. Between 1932-38, almost mirroring the establishment of Nazism, BP’s oil exports to Germany doubled, with a particular increase in aviation fuel. In fact, in 1938, one of the most critical years in German re-armament, BP, Standard Oil (later Exxon) and Shell between them were supplying 58% of Germany’s oil.

“What for us today appears to be the contradictory nature of Nazism in fact explains its success: the connection between destruction and modernisation. Auschwitz cannot be seen without the V.W. plant in Wolfsburg.”
Christian Pross, ‘Cleansing the Fatherland’

Secondly, the behavioural proximity between contemporary corporate mentality and ways of thinking supposedly from a different time and a different culture.

“Had I been born twenty years later I would be a highly respected man today. Maybe the head of Daimler-Benz, Chairman of the Board of Hoechst, Chief Executive of Deutsche Bank.”
Albert Speer, quoted in ‘Speer’ by Esther Vilar

A Hollerith machine used by the Third Reich for processing information relating to ‘enemies of the state’ produced by D.E.H.O.M.A.G. under license from the original American manufacturers, I.B.M.

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The colonial continuum

1889
“The right to establish banking and other companies and associations; to make and maintain railways, telegraphs, and lines of steamships; to carry on mining operations and license mining companies; to settle, cultivate and improve the lands; to preserve peace and order... and for that object to obtain a force of police and have its own flag.”
Cecil Rhodes’ charter for the British South Africa Company, 1889

2002
"Baker Botts has been drawing up the oil companies' contract documents that are becoming nothing less than the new rules that will govern this country's future. Touching everything from land acquisition for military security actions, the contracts supersede all conflicting domestic legislation. On behalf of BP and its partners, Baker Botts is shaping the future of Azerbaijan...The agreements don't trump only current domestic laws, but also all future laws for up to 60 years."
from the journal'American Lawyer', 2002.

The prototype concentration camp? De Beers company compound, Kimberley, South Africa, 1880’s

A genocidal psychology does not come out of a clear sky, but is the result of many years, often hundreds of years of prejudice, oppression and violence. What has been the damage to our collective psyche of hundreds of years of colonial-ism? What does it do to a country when a pattern of ‘successful violence’ is repeated again and again? On some days you can look around our society and almost everything seems to be founded upon the suffering of others - be it the marbled buildings of the City of London or the pillars of the Tate Gallery.

Yet how often do we really question the right of a British transnational corporation to be operating in a developing world country? In an era of ‘globalisation’ you cannot even ask this question. Of course there is consensus that the British Empire is over, only a small minority regret its passing - yet, at its root, perhaps military violence has simply been replaced by economic violence? Harder to see and for that reason more pernicious.

What has our material comfort been founded upon? What do we allow to happen in our name?

“Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Buenos Aires & Pacific Railway, City of Bahia, Durban Roodepoort Deep Ltd, Indian Copper Corporation, Imperial Chemical Industries, Panama Corporation Ltd... an inventory of the British Empire. Suddenly, momentarily, I could see the skull beneath the skin...... I don’t feel we’ve begun, as a culture, to ‘open our minds and spirits to suffering’ with regard to our history. And I often think about how our children, and grandchildren will judge us in this regard - not just in our collective failure to come to terms with our past, or even try to, but in what this means to our relationship to the present. On some days the continuum between the British Empire and British transnationals seems overwhelming.”
from the performance 'killing us softly'

The XV1 Brigade of the Colombian Army, closely associated with security for BP facilities, has been implicated in human rights abuses. Here soldiers and BP staff observe a community meeting about BP's oilfield developments.

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Breaking through the Compartmentalisation of Mind


“I accuse Shell and Chevron of practising racism against the Ogoni people because they do in Ogoni what they do not do in other parts of the world where they prospect for oil. I accuse the oil companies of encouraging genocide against the Ogoni people... The profits from oil come to Britain because it is their technology that is keeping Nigerian oil going. So they have a moral responsibility to intervene... My mission has been to inform the West of the truth of what is happening in Nigeria, which has been hidden from them. I believe if people knew they’d do something about it and stop this robbery and murder that is going on in broad daylight.”
Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ogoni writer and anti-Shell activist, 1993, killed by the Nigerian Government on 10/12/95

“To reassure you however, of the dreadful things I knew nothing. The Americans told me later that they never thought I did. Even so, I’m not entirely content to leave it at that, for I ask myself what, given my lofty position, I could have found out had I wanted to. Even then, perhaps not everything, but certainly a great deal... I saw my fate, if you like as God’s judgement - not for having infringed any laws (for my transgressions in that sense were comparatively minimal) but for the deeper guilt of having so readily and unthinkingly gone along.”
Albert Speer, letter to his daughter Hilde, May1953


“The only way I could live was by compartmentalising my thinking.”
Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka

Out of all the research carried out so far in the desk killer into different aspects of what is known as ‘perpetrator psychology’ the most disturbing, and recurring, theme has been that of mental and emotional compartmentalization - the process which allows a seemingly ‘civilised’ or ‘moral’ individual to participate in systems and organisations which have terrifyingly destructive end results. Although such compartmentalisation is a clear feature of both historical examples of perpetrator psychology and contemporary corporate psychology, it is remarkable that so little research has been conducted into this phenomenon.

With more analysis of patterns of deep-rooted psychology and behaviour, we hope to contribute to a significant shift in the way our society and its corporations function - that we may be able to contribute to a growing understanding of the hidden violence of contemporary capitalism.

“The planet today is the battlefield of a 4th world war (the 3rd was the so-called ‘Cold War’). The aim of the belligerants is the conquest of the entire world through the market. The arsenals are financial; there are nevertheless millions of people being maimed or killed every moment... Globalisation is merely the totalitarian extension of the logic of the finance markets to all aspects of life.” “.. The first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world picture implanted in our minds and all the false promises used everywhere to justify and idealise the delinquent and insatiable need to sell. Another space is vitally necessary... First, a horizon has to be discovered. And for this we have to re-find hope - against all the odds of what the new order pretends and perpetrates.... The act of resistance means not only refusing to accept the absurdity of the world picture offered us, but denouncing it. And when hell is denounced from within, it ceases to be hell.”

 

from an exchange of letters between Subcommandante Marcos and John Berger, 1999


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A walk from 'civilisation' to barbarism

In August 1999, PLATFORM walked between Goethe's house in Weimar and the Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany - a distance of 10,166 steps


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