Corruption from Afghanistan and Russia to the USA: 3 new books

Corruption is popular, as least with publishers. New volumes flow from the presses like fresh loaves of bread rising from a baker’s ovens. Like the loaves, the books have universal appeal.

Some of the recent books are attracting extraordinary attention in the United States. Sarah Chayes’s brand new Thieves of State – Why Corruption Threatens Global Security has been the topic of an hour-long national radio programme, the focus of a lengthy The New Yorker article and centre stage in Washington’s think tank seminar listings.

Professor Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who owns Russia? is the basis of a major television documentary. Then, Professor Zephyr Teachout has become a star of the lecture circuit thanks to her Corruption in America – From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United.

These books have remarkably won praise from both academics and mass media reviewers. Each is compelling, each surprises the reader at times, and each, when all is said and done, will make an anti-corruption activist miserable.

Corruption is a nasty business. Chayes, a former US radio journalist and now at the Carnegie Endowment think tank in Washington, writes in the first person about events she has witnessed from years living in Afghanistan and journeys to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Nigeria. She brings out the intense frustrations that ordinary people, who strive to be honest, can face as they confront extortion at every turn with the belief that the justice systems are run by the corrupt.

Chayes concludes that corruption in Afghanistan and Nigeria is so pervasive and pernicious that it drives people into the arms of the Taliban and Boko Haram. One story topples upon another to drive home the conclusion that, “Acute permanent corruption may in fact lie at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges – among them the spread of violent extremism.”

Karen Dawisha, a Russian studies expert at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, asserts a case for the prosecution against Vladimir Putin. Dawisha claims that Putin has never had the slightest interest in building democracy in Russia. Rather, going right back to the late 1980s before the collapse of the Soviet Union, she reports that he was part of a determined KGB effort to ensure its control of Russia’s government and financial reserves, irrespective of what happened to the Communist Party.

Chayes describes Afghanistan under then-president Hamid Karzai and Dawisha portrays Russia under President Putin very differently, but the similarities that come to the fore are striking. Both men reportedly head powerful networks of cronies that they knew well for many years. According to the authors, these networks worked seamlessly with organised crime, which thrived while providing money-laundering systems for the politically powerful and their acolytes.

In countries ruled by kleptocratic networks, the system works from the bottom upwards: low-level officials and businesspeople make payments to more powerful people in order to obtain good positions that give them the freedom to steal and extort. Bigger and bigger payments can then be made to superiors the higher up the chain of command. In return, those in absolute power hold the reigns of impunity, ensuring that all in the networks who are loyal are protected from prosecution. The systems are efficient and ruthless.

It is hard to imagine that the US could ever be home to similar conditions and Professor Teachout from Fordham University would not suggest any such thing. And, yet her book reaches a chilling conclusion.

It begins by discussing whether Benjamin Franklin accepted a bribe on being given a diamond-encrusted snuff box in 1785 by King Louis 16th of France as he departed Paris after several years as America’s representative. Such gifts were no doubt commonplace in Europe’s royal courts and no suggestion was made to Franklin that the present had any strings attached. Yet, did the gift, perhaps, seduce Franklin and endear him to the French to the degree that it undermined his objectivity? Did the acceptance of the gift produce a perception that Franklin could be bought?

After considerable discussion the young Congress of the United States allowed Franklin to keep his French snuff box. But the debate then  and among constitutional lawyers, politicians and public commentators for more than 200 years thereafter – was often heated when it came to ensuring that American democracy was kept clean of corruption and that no party held undue influence, or was seen to have the opportunity to corrupt the system.

And then, like a thunderbolt, the Supreme Court of the United States voted by five to four in the 2010 Citizens United case and, as Teachout suggests, the floodgates for special interests with pots of cash were opened wide to distort and undermine elections. Now, those with huge financial coffers can have a far greater influence in the election process than ordinary citizens. The majority of the justices did not see it this way and suggested that unless there was an explicit quid pro quo for the cash provided to a politician in a campaign it was not reasonable to talk of corruption.

Teachout challenges the logic of the advocates of the case. She worries about the prospects for a democracy that sought for years to guard against corruption, but now capitulated to those who demand to spend vast sums as and how they wish in US elections. She concludes, “Democracy without constant vigilance against corruption is an unstable, unmoored thing, subject to great gusts of whimsy, and likely to collapse.”

Carousel image: Copyright, Flickr / Horia Varlan

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