Rich, priv­i­leged and in power

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Owen Ben­nett-Jones

WITH so many vi­o­lent con­flicts around the world, it some­times seems that the dif­fer­ences be­tween peo­ple are be­com­ing ever wider and starker. Rus­sians and Ukraini­ans; lib­er­als and Is­lamists: the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and its op­po­nents - ev­ery­where there seem to be com­pet­ing na­tion­alisms and ide­olo­gies and peo­ple will­ing to ex­press their dif­fer­ences through vi­o­lence.

But there is one po­lit­i­cal trend that unites many peo­ple in all so­ci­eties whether sec­u­lar or re­li­gious, de­vel­oped or de­vel­op­ing, western or Asian. In all these places there are peo­ple who re­sent elite po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate lead­ers.

A re­cently pub­lished book, ' Thieves of State' by Sarah Chayes, analy­ses po­lit­i­cal sys­tems not so much in terms of their demo­cratic de­vel­op­ment but rather through the lens of cor­rup­tion. Chayes, who spent a re­mark­able 10 years liv­ing in Kan­da­har, grad­u­ally came to un­der­stand the con­cerns of most peo­ple liv­ing there and they didn't have much to do with democ­racy.

The Afghan gov­ern­ment, she con­cluded, was best un­der­stood not as a dys­func­tional ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem but as a highly func­tional crim­i­nal en­ter­prise. And it doesn't work in the way most peo­ple think, with the peo­ple at the top steal­ing aid money and tak­ing bribes from big com­pa­nies that they then re­dis­tribute down the sys­tem to buy the loy­alty of lo­cal power bro­kers.

In fact, as she points out, it is pro­tec- tion, not money, that flows down­wards. The money goes up­wards. At the bot­tom of the pile a po­lice­man get­ting a bribe from a mo­torist has to pass a pro­por­tion of his ill-got­ten gains to his boss. The po­lice chief gath­er­ing from all his po­lice­man sim­i­larly has to pay off the state of­fi­cial who ap­points po­lice chiefs. And so it goes, right up the chain, with the sums get­ting ever larger.

In the more de­vel­oped coun­tries the sys­tems are rather dif­fer­ent. The ac­crual of vast wealth by the elite is done, for the most part, within the law. Mu­tu­ally ex­changed di­rec­tor­ships, bonuses al­lo­cated by se­cre­tive re­mu­ner­a­tion com­mit­tees, lob­by­ing fees for par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and vast sums earned by re­tired politi­cians who pro­vide com­pa­nies with ac­cess to de­ci­sion mak­ers is all en­tirely le­gal. Many Amer­i­can and Euro­pean politi­cians end up just as fab­u­lously wealthy as those in the de­vel­op­ing world do. It's just that they don't need to break any laws to do so.

Rapidly in­creas­ing elite wealth ac­cu­mu­la­tion is a global phe­nom­e­non and it has caused a global re­ac­tion. Which is why peo­ple who fight about many is­sues for the most part agree that, wher­ever they live, the peo­ple at the top are rip­ping them off.

In the UK the eas­i­est way for a public speaker to get a rous­ing round of ap­plause is to launch a rhetor­i­cal at­tack on the bankers and/or Tony Blair's lob­by­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Blair's un­pop­u­lar­ity in the UK is not so much be­cause he took the UK to war in Iraq (although that is part of it) but also be­cause he is now mak­ing so much money be­cause of the con­tacts he made as prime min­is­ter.

One of the mes­sages that res­onated most ef­fec­tively in the re­cent Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum was not so much the idea that Scot­land was be­ing run by English peo­ple, but that it was be­ing run by a group of un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive, priv­i­leged English peo­ple, many of whom went to the same elite school.

Such re­sent­ments are felt still more acutely in the Mid­dle East. The most com­mon slo­gans in the Arab Spring were not for democ­racy and free­dom. More of­ten the cry was for dig­nity and an end to hu­mil­i­a­tion. The idea that Gaddafi, Mubarak and their ilk had been laugh­ing at the peo­ple as they filled their Swiss and off­shore bank ac­counts was more than many peo­ple could tol­er­ate. Let's not for­get the Arab Spring was not started by a pro-democ­racy ac­tivist but by an ed­u­cated man who could not even sell fruit on a street cart with­out pay­ing off the lo­cal po­lice.

Fur­ther east there are sim­i­lar per­cep- tions. China's Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping seems aware of the prob­lem. China ex­perts say his in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive anti-cor­rup­tion drives are mo­ti­vated in part by the pres­i­dent's con­cern that one of the few things that could un­der­mine the au­thor­ity of the Com­mu­nist Party is the per­cep­tion that the ap­pa­ratchiks are en­rich­ing them­selves on the backs of the peo­ple and there is noth­ing the peo­ple can do to stop them.

De­spite the at­tempted anti-cor­rup­tion drive in China (which any­way does not reach the very high­est ech­e­lons) there is lit­tle rea­son to be­lieve that these widely shared re­sent­ments will make much of a dif­fer­ence to the way pol­i­tics around the world is con­ducted.

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