DECEMBER 13, 2020
My first adult trip to Los Angeles was also the first time I was treated with junketry, which has often been used by corporations and governments to skew decisions made by other institutions in their favor. I don’t remember much about the trip itself – there were free drinks from the moment the city car picked me up at my Manhattan apartment until my return flight began its descent – but I remember wondering if it was It might have made more sense for my hosts to just give me an envelope with cash, which in Nigeria happened the other way around later that year. I was beaten no less than five times for bribing money.
America has always had a posh relationship with corruption, including a special gift for making Talmudic distinctions regarding legal transplants and other low-profile parts of everyday life. For example, in the very real New Jersey commuter town where I live, it’s normal for parents to send envelopes to public school teachers and bus assistants. But to do the same for the headmaster would be scandalous.
At the same time, there seems to be a growing consensus with Michael Kinsley’s adage about scandals – it’s legal, not illegal – and hence the tendency to use the word “corruption” very liberally. Not only do Americans now have to grapple with eyewear like Ivanka Trump’s Chinese licensing deals and Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian board memberships, but also with heavy pressures to believe that one issue is a harmless corporate retreat and another issue is bold Payola. Two recent books try in different ways to look at this vague stew of corruption.
The new book Kleptopia by investigative reporter Tom Burgis offers an excellent introduction to making the sausage of the kleptocracy in the post-Soviet east, and tires an insatiable crowd of bankers, lawyers, and other supporters in the west. It interweaves several different stories spanning a dozen years and is home to a handful of memorable characters, most notably a selfless and doomed British banker who became a regulator. The digressive approach is thin in some places (a 180-word riff about a lawyer’s relationship with his Parisian barber), but it helps make the often confusing plot a reality. Kleptopia is exciting read.
Burgis concludes with a grim warning about how what he lyrically calls the “black aquifer” of dirty money filled by foreign kleptocrats threatens to poison us all. “Globalization meant that rule by theft and the rule of law coexisted. It was like China and Hong Kong: one country, two systems, only global. Such tension could not be sustained indefinitely. One system would have to dominate and leave the other as a facade. “
However, he makes it clear that he believes the damage has already been done and today calls corruption “the main mechanism by which power works around the world.” It also offers the harrowing picture of an international kleptocracy made up of “five families”: nationalists; the financial Disneyland that is modern Britain; a mixture of spies and crooks (“Sprooks”); Resource Companies (“Petros”); and the ruthless conglomerate of the Chinese Communist Party.
Certainly the world’s kleptocrats have had great success in the past three decades, and the black aquifer has been a source of life for a generation of bankers, lawyers, luxury real estate developers, and others in the west. At the same time, Burgis’ fatalism is refuted by a global awareness of the problem of kleptopia and a determination to deal with it. Indeed, times are downright dystopian for some of the “kleptocratic kids on Instagram”. Teodoro Obiang, son of the current strong man of the African petrostate Equatorial Guinea, appears briefly in the book following the purchase of a $ 30 million mansion in California. Obiang recently ran into trouble in France for embezzlement while Switzerland confiscated and auctioned his collection of exotic cars. Isabel Dos Santos, daughter of the Marxist-Leninist independence leader in nearby Angola, has also switched from the princess of Paris Fashion Week to the international pariah thanks to the investigation initiative “Luanda Leaks”. Meanwhile, Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the late dictator of Uzbekistan, is in jail in Tashkent while Switzerland is duly repatriating some of the many millions she has driven out of the country. Most spectacularly, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was charged in mid-October with allegedly accepting dark money from Libya. One can understand why Burgis would not end happier writing from the city to the west (London) that so blatantly depends on the illicit gains of the east and the global south. Nevertheless, great progress has been made.
Needless to say, the black aquifer extends under the Atlantic. And thanks to the growing ubiquity of anonymous Shell companies in the United States, America’s developments are now the most productive in the world. However, given America’s far larger and insular economy, corruption in the US is necessarily less about the influence of dark money flowing in from abroad than about our own darker side.
About Corruption in America: And what is at stake is an ambitious attempt to put American corruption in the context of the rest of the world and all of history. Sarah Chayes is a veteran of various anti-corruption campaigns in the Global South and an expert not only on the causes of corruption, but also on how this in turn leads to other problems such as terrorism and environmental crises. In her acknowledgments, Chayes said of her multiple researchers on the project that she “sold them a bill of materials” by moving from a narrow focus on contemporary networks to a broader view of the “basic principles” of corruption. And in doing so, she provides a comprehensive history and investigation of corruption, from the creation of money to the untested greed of the gilded age to the sheen of the black aquifer.
This is fascinating and rewarding in some places. But the strands of color are gathered haphazardly – there are multilateral deviations from the history of anarchism and prairie populism – and are quickly clumped together by Chayes’ overly broad idea of what constitutes corruption. This is not intended to deny Kinsley’s scandal rule or the larger concept of legal corruption, including the ongoing trend in American jurisprudence towards an ever narrower definition of what constitutes official corruption (the judicial redefinition of corruption was also a focus of the similar 2014 book Corruption In America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuffbox to Citizens United by Law Professor and Political Crusader Zephyr Teachout). But whatever you define corruption, it cannot just be synonymous with economic and social injustice as a whole, or, as Chayes suggests in some places, money itself.
Chayes’ belief that the American government and economic system is inherently corrupt turns the narrative of a corrupt post-Soviet East and Global South on its head. It is we who corrupt it, it seems to conclude, and not the other way around.
This is not a new idea that clearly has some value. As Burgis’ report makes clear, the mad rush to cleanse the bones of the Soviet empire was not only corrupt to the core, it was made possible by the West. Further to the left, scholars such as Jason Hickel have made compelling arguments that the widespread adoption of corruption rankings such as Transparency International’s, given the positive results that invariably go to countries that are centers of banking secrecy, or dubious tax practices such as transfer pricing that does Enable multinational corporations to withdraw the taxes they are rightfully entitled to from developing country governments
But the image of a fallen, consumerist West corrupting a more communitarian, pastoral South is not very convincing, apart from the uncomfortable questions of Orientalism it inevitably raises. The black aquifer flows into places like London, New York and Amsterdam, not because such places are corrupt or because they offer banking secrecy – Moldova or Myanmar could do that – but because they are places known for respecting the rule of law.
Again, this is not to say that anything that follows legal subtleties by definition is not corrupt. I find it undeniably corrupt that the Trump Organization benefited from foreign dignitaries hoping to win the president’s favor and that my state’s governor was in office only because of his ability to write an eight-digit check on his campaign account Both crimes are apparently perfectly legal. But the two are corrupt in different ways, and their corruption is also different from that of my senior US Senator, who was “severely admonished” by the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics in April 2018 after being charged with 18 cases of bribery and fraud. and later that year was conveniently re-elected for a third term.
Donald Trump’s defeat is likely to diminish the immediacy and prestige of the corruption attack and, in particular, put pressure on the market for books on corruption. On the other hand, there are indications that the foreign policy of the new Biden government will focus on issues such as kleptocracy and the “strategic corruption” with which powers like China and Russia seduce or co-opt the leaders of other countries. And the grotesque ravages of the Trump years unleashed a new generation of talented and tenacious writers on the subject who are unlikely to retreat even if the zeitgeist continues. I’m particularly looking forward to the upcoming book by Casey Michel, a tireless young American journalist who has virtuously cornered the international kleptocracy beat at the US end of the black aquifer.
And even if you take a close look at what constitutes corruption, there is still so much to explore about our own corruption and how it relates to that of the rest of the world. As America slowly but inexorably moves towards a more European model of health care, there should be a better understanding that in some European countries, your “free” health care often comes at the expense of an envelope that is passed on to your doctor. In fact, in some places, it is considered no more corrupt than a gift card for the teacher or a corporate junket to Los Angeles.
Erik D’Amato is a New York-based corporate intelligence agent and journalist and author of the Little Book of Left-Right Equivalence: 350 Mutual Blind Spots, Dueling Hypocrisy, Double Flip-Flops, and other eerie parallels between the two tribes of Today’s Day America. He’s on Twitter @erikdamato.