Some burglars will try to trick their way into your home. A distraction burglary is where a bogus caller to your home gains entry on a pretext / lie or creates a diversion so that an accomplice can sneak in separately.
– Personal Safety Security for the Older Person, An Garda Síochána Crime Prevention Information Sheet
What does it feel like to live in a kleptocracy? How would you know if you lived in one? Here are a few pointers.
- A kleptocrat, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a ruler who uses their power to steal their country’s resources’. It is true that no dictionary definition of anything is ever truly definitive. Nonetheless it is worth dwelling on the fact that the definition of a kleptocrat says nothing about what kind of ruler a kleptocrat is. There’s nothing specified about the institutional role afforded to the ruler, or whether the ruler is legitimated by popular authority, or the number of rulers that make up a kleptocracy.
- Therefore the ruler need not mean an individual who holds a position in government, or any other official position of State power. The ruler may simply be a rich person who can make the power of the State bend to his will. And a ruler who, for example, makes the power of the State bend to his will in order to steal from other people is known as a kleptocrat. However, it is of course true that a public official or representative can also be a kleptocrat.
- There is nothing in the definition about the number of rulers that make up a kleptocracy, or how power among their number differs in degree. Therefore a ruling class may also be a kleptocratic class: it may use its power -over political institutions, over wage labourers, over slaves, over public perceptions and reflexes- to expropriate the resources of a country -its wealth, its land, its natural resources, its labour power- for its own ends and edification. and it may do so through violence, the threat of violence, manipulation, swindle: whatever is needed to carry off the heist.
- As befits a class that sustains itself through stealing, its members will cut each other’s throats when expedient, but collaborate when it is in their mutual interest.
- There is nothing in the definition about the kind of legal order in which kleptocracy operates. Therefore the stealing -of what is public- may be considered illegal, but conversely it may also be perfectly legal. It depends.
- In modern societies characterised by a legal order in which public ownership is to the fore, kleptocrats will resort to legal means to steal a country’s resources, often having used their power beforehand to define what is legal in this regard. Sometimes, this takes the form of what is known as privatisation.
- The word private and the word deprive have the same etymology: from the Latin privare: to deprive. That is, when a public good or service is privatised -for example, telecommunications, water, oil, gas, education, health- this means that the public is deprived of access to it, pending the decision of the new designated owners, who will name their price as they see fit. Therefore privatisation can be doubly kleptocratic: first, through the stealing of the public resource itself. Second, through the imposition of high prices designed to maximise profitability, thereby transferring the wealth held by the public into private hands.
- Kleptocracy need not simply entail stealing the resource directly. It may just mean that the loss of access to public goods is the price that the public have to pay for the accumulation of profits. So if the construction of fracked gas pipelines, for instance, built through the power of the extraction lobby over state institutions, and through the control of dominant media institutions over public opinion, results in the loss of access to potable water, or farmable land, that too is characteristic of kleptocratic rule.
- Ireland is a kleptocracy. It would take a long time to dig deep to trace its roots that spread thick and wide, and its numerous manifestations, such as the transfer of gas and oil resources to private corporations, or the presence of a major onshore tax haven. But here is one salient example: the power of the financial sector over State institutions, used to force the public to shoulder massive debt burdens. Debt is not often thought of as a form of stealing. And yet when it is a debt burden imposed without consent on the public, it clearly is. After all, if I go into your house and see €500 on your mantlepiece, and I say “give me that €500 or I will hit you with this iron bar”, few people would argue that this is a form of stealing. And most people will recognise that it would also be stealing if I go round to your house and the conversation goes something like this. “You owe me €500.” “No I don’t.” “Yes you do, and if you don’t give me €500, I’ll hit you over the head with this iron bar.”
Some will keep you talking at the front door while their accomplice sneaks in the back door.
– Personal Safety Security for the Older Person, An Garda Síochána Crime Prevention Information Sheet
The imposition of the debt burden on the public, then, and the consequent slashing of welfare payments, cutbacks in public services, purposely high unemployment rates, wage depression, regressive tax measures and the handing over of public assets to private firms at knockdown prices is a form of stealing. But why don’t we see manage to it that way? Why don’t we recognise it as stealing -imposed on the threat of starvation, deprivation (that word again), unemployment and misery- just as we might recognise it if someone arrived at the door with an iron bar and says “you owe me €500”?
One reason is that the police might come to your aid in the aftermath of an attack on your home. Another, related, is the sanctification of the home as a form of private property to be religiously protected. Another still, perhaps more important, is the imposition of the debt burden is thought to be legal, arising out of a sequence of perfectly legal actions. Legality and legitimacy are regularly presented successfully as the same thing in a liberal democratic regime. Partly because of the conviction that the market is the optimal means of allocating resources and distributing wealth and therefore identifiable with justice, and partly because the imposition was approved and consented to by public representatives.
In a liberal democratic regime, what is decided by public representatives is considered as carrying out the will of the people ipso facto. This happens even though the vast majority of people take no part in any discussions, negotiations or formulation of legislation during the decision-making process (see, for example this: ‘Mr Kenny insisted that the Cabinet had not settled down to discuss the Budget and that it would not be drafted in public’). It happens even though the information the people have available to them is filtered, censored and sanitised by media institutions owned by kleptocrats, and by other media institutions that rely on the patronage of kleptocratic interests in order to sustain themselves.
Moreover, to call into question the legitimacy of this ‘will of the people’ -which, in Ireland, is currently indistinguishable from the will of the IMF, the will of the ECB and the will of the European Commission, all of whom execute the will of that supreme unelected sovereign, ‘the markets’- is to be treated, by these same institutions, as a threat to democracy.
Conventional wisdom. relentlessly reproduced via dominant media institutions, holds that ‘democracy’ -which is to say, bourgeois representative democracy- is the only form of government worth having; hence the decisions taken by its representatives, regardless of how destructive they are of public welfare, regardless of how much wealth they transfer into private hands, regardless of how the reality of their decisions is obscured from public view, are legitimate and unimpeachable.
Recall the mating call of the liberal authoritarian – Churchill’s famous quote that democracy (i.e. bourgeois representative democracy) is the ‘worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. In short, if the public is burdened with massive debts on account of a crisis caused by private banks, it is the public’s own fault for failing to vote for representatives who might have forestalled such an occurrence. And if the government decides to impose taxes to ensure that these debts are paid off, then the people must obey, or face the consequences.
An excellent example of such liberal authoritarianism is displayed in today’s Irish Times editorial. Writing on the campaign against the household tax, it calls for ‘discipline’ to deal with ‘political resistance’ and ‘disregard for democratic institutions’. It claims the use of Dáil expenses, by TDs Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Joan Collins, to offset travelling expenses outside Dublin whilst participating in the household tax campaign, is an ‘abuse of Dáil funds’.
Whilst the Irish Times does not deign to offer any justification for this claim, the likely reasoning behind it is that the TDs are elected to Dublin constituencies, and therefore travel related to constituency affairs must only take place within some kind of Dublin-specific boundary (The Red Cow roundabout? The Julianstown exit on the M1?). Never mind the fact that if people elected any of the aforementioned TDs it was out of an expectation that they would use their seat, in line with their duties as a representative, to help organise mass popular protest.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a single voter for any of these politicians who might have thought that by receiving their vote, they were binding themselves to speak only to people within the bounds of Dublin West, or Dublin North, or Dublin South Central, and the road to the Dáil. Furthermore, if a TD were to have claimed expenses for traveling back and forth to the offices of banks, property developers, employer organisations, real estate agents and so on, we can be sure there would be no issue, but a TD engaging in democratic activity -resisting kleptocratic rule- is cause for scandal and outrage on the part of the political and media establishment.
Moreover, for all its crocodile tears about the shortfall in funds for the provision of local services that the non-payment of the household charge will supposedly generate (as if the total amount of funding made available for local services were not determined by political considerations such as giving priority to the repayment of unsecured private bondholder debt, and other measures intended to keep the financial sector sated), and its stern demands for discipline, the Irish Times has rarely had anything so righteously robust to say about imposing such a thing on the main culprits for the current crisis: financial institutions.
Thus the decision of Michael Noonan to rule out the implementation of a Europe-wide financial transaction tax, was passed over in relative silence, even though the tax revenues lost and the decisive social power accumulated by finance capital as a result of the current arrangement is deeply corrosive of democratic influence over public institutions, and even though there is a several orders-of-magnitude difference between the revenues lost on account of non-payment of a household charge, and those lost through tax avoidance arrangements facilitated by the ‘democratic institutions’ of the Irish State.
Of bourgeois democracy, Raymond Williams wrote the following in the 1980s: ‘The description has been sloganized, but it has a precise meaning: it is the coexistence of political representation and participation with an economic system which admits no such rights, procedures or claims (emphasis mine)’. What is passed off as Irish democracy, however, goes further than this, in that it is not simply coexistence, but the gradual devouring of the former by the latter.
Consider this image:
When it appeared in circulation, attention focused -at least in those newspapers and radio stations that do not belong to telecoms magnate, media oligarch and tax ‘exile’ Denis O’Brien- on the appearance of the Taoiseach Enda Kenny alongside a man -Denis O’Brien- whom the Moriarty Tribunal had found to have made a payment of £500k and a loan of £420k to Michael Lowry, the erstwhile Fine Gael Minister for Telecommunications, who had held the position when O’Brien bid for and successfully won the second mobile phone licence.
The photo, and the appearance it documented, was cited -albeit fleeetingly and certainly not universally- as evidence of the dangerously close relationship between the Fine Gael ruling party and O’Brien, whose ownership of radio stations Newstalk and Today FM and control over Independent News and Media, among other interests, give him an immense influence over public life in Ireland.
Joan Burton, the current Minister for Social Protection (a Newspeak job title if ever one existed) warned, with some justification, to be sure, of the danger of ‘a Berlusconi-style, media-political complex with its attendant codes of omertà undermining the principles of transparent democracy‘.
Fine. But is there nothing else wrong with picture? What would we have seen if O’Brien had not appeared? Let’s try an experiment.
With O’Brien now removed from the photograph, we can glimpse what the photo opportunity was really intended to convey: the idea that Ireland is not a country at all, but a commodity to be traded on stock exchanges, and that the ‘head of the Government, the central co-ordinator of the work of the Ministers and their Departments of State, the person who sets ‘broad Government policy’ (source) is not a public servant at all, but in fact a Chief Executive Officer, beholden to the will of shareholders, that is, of Capital.
How to make sense of this?
- Media obsession with corruption, or misappropriation of public funds, is selective and self-serving, since a focus on singular corrupt individuals functions as an alibi for the operation of a kleptocratic system.
- Kleptocratic control over public institutions is strengthened when the venality of elected representatives is revealed. Since democracy -bourgeois liberal representative democracy, that is- is the ‘worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’, stories about expense claims, high salaries, perks and so on, help to perpetuate the idea that politics is both a professional activity and largely irredeemable. With regard to the expense claims of TDs taking part in the campaign against the household tax (an anti-kleptocratic activity), this is intended as part of the same spectacle of corrupt individuals making off with public funds for their own purposes.
- Thus the intended message, as regards the TDs is: Beware! Politics is an activity for self-serving professionals, and anyone who gets involved in a mass campaign that also involves such individuals is likely to be made a means to their end.
- And since any other form of rule would be intolerable, there is no alternative to democracy (kleptocracy). Thus there is no alternative to the economic system which admits of no political rights, procedures or claims, to use Williams’s description, and which must be kept free of political interference.
In this way, we are kept talking at the front door, by the political and media establishments, about individual cases of corruption and supposed threats to the democratic system, whilst round the back, their accomplices in kleptocracy are looting us of everything we have.