Panama Papers: Plutocracy, Kleptocracy, or Both?

plutocracy  [ploo-tok-ruh-see]

noun, plural plutocracies.

  1. the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.
  2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.
  3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

kleptocracy  [klep-tok-ruh-see]

noun, plural kleptocracies.

  1. a government or state in which those in power exploit national resources and steal; rule by a thief or thieves.

1815-20; klepto- (combining form of Greek kléptēs thief) + -cracy

Related forms:

kleptocrat [klep-tuh-krat] (Show IPA), noun

kleptocratic [klep-tuhkrat-ik] (Show IPA), adjective

[Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2016.]

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Never begin an essay with a dictionary definition. It is bad form. You should assume the readers of your work understand the words you write.

Well, the Panama Papers may provide us an excuse to violate that rule. In fact, I offer here two dictionary definitions, because the two words involved are so close in meaning. Is a plutocracy also a kleptocracy? Are most societies run by the wealthiest members also societies in which the rulers are thieves? Given revelations published in the “Panama Papers,” and given what many people have suspected all along, that would appear to be the case.

Who Rules?

In various posts on this site I have used the word plutocracy to describe the fact that in the industrialized world, if not the rest of the world as well, the wealthy class rules politics, culture, and the economy. We maintain a façade of democracy, but really…who rules? Ask William Domhoff,[i] who has studied the ruling class in America since before I was in graduate school in the 1960s. Domhoff cleverly got into the social circles of the very rich and observed their behavior just like and ethnographer might observe some remote tribe in the Amazon rain forest. C. Wright Mills,[ii] in his classic, The Power Elite, wrote of the extended reach of the political, military, and economic elites that President Dwight Eisenhower had warned us against in his farewell address to the nation in 1961 with the iconic phrase, “The Military Industrial Complex.”

Mills, Domhoff, and others were astute observers of the trends already present in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, already shaping the corporate state. I wonder whether they could grasp how far the concentration of power would go and what form it has taken today. But the crimes of the extremely rich are far more complex and deep rooted and pervasive than such otherwise exceptionally valuable analyses would suggest. And the corporate state has grown deeper and more complex with the help of digital technology than could have been imagined over a half century ago. The leveraging of the political power by digital technology has produced an astoundingly concentrated plutocracy in the U.S. and elsewhere in the industrial world.

Another Kind of “Big Data”

We usually think of “big data” as all the demographic and personal data big organizations collect on all of us to better market their products and perform political surveillance. But there is another kind, data on the economic infrastructure of the political and financial elites of the world.

It is only by way of the power of “big data” and the professional persistence of the members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists could all of this been exposed in its massive detail. These dedicated journalists carried out textual database analyses of 11.5 million digital files or about 2.5 terabytes of data anonymously leaked from a Panamanian law firm. By the collective efforts of investigative journalists around the world, the first indications of the vast scope of global corruption of the super-rich was brought to light. The revelations so far only scratch the surface of deep global kleptocracy.

More recent social science has revealed the characteristics of the new corporate state that feed the kleptocracy. Sheldon Wolin’s work developing the theory of “inverted totalitarianism”[iii] shows how the corporate state operates as a complex organizational dictatorship under the guise of democratic forms but not substance. Wolin’s project focused on the operational characteristics of the corporate state, but not how the rich and powerful steal from the commonwealth.

Plutocracy IS Kleptocracy

The integration of the nation-state with the corporate and financial elites form the corporate state, controlled by those elites. The Panama Papers give some indication of how widespread among the super-rich some key techniques of global kleptocracy. Many people had heard of secret overseas accounts held by corrupt politicians and the super-rich in places like the Cayman Islands. But most people had no idea of the extent of their use by political and financial elites to hide and launder bribes and stolen money, and to avoid taxes on profits, both legal and illegal. The kleptocracy many suspected has been revealed in far more detail than anyone imagined possible. And so far, only the tip of the data-iceberg has been exposed to the light of investigative journalism.

So, what does all this mean? Well, first, it is clear that much more depth and breadth of corruption pervades the global political economy than even the most cynical critic imagined. Second, the data reveal that, given the corruption exposed, nothing short of massive transformation of the political process can realign global politics and economics with the interests of the publics they are supposed to serve.

Remember, all corporations are chartered by the government, supposedly for particular economic purposes that are allowable by presumably being consistent with the public interest. Today, that has become a fiction waiting to be made real again, even as the fiction of corporate personhood has reached its ascendancy. Realigning political economy with the public interest will be a hard battle to win. But the physical necessity of fighting global warming will force the hand of the both the corporate state and the super-rich. Little time remains. Will their economic interests continue to override the human interest in survival?

______________

[i] G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America ? 1st ed. 1967

[ii] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Grove Press, 1962

[iii] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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