By Kumar David –
Power Grabs And Desecration Of Democracy Serve To Amass Shady Wealth; Politics! That’s Where The Real Money Is
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” ~ Immanuel Kant in 1784
The real money cannot flourish without power and in modern times, whether in democratic or non-democratic states, power resides in politics. In rich countries great captains of finance, business and industry adorn the top of the dollar rankings; but they are circuitously beholden to political connections, Congressional lobbyists and old fashioned payoffs. Nevertheless, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John D Rockefeller and the Rothschilds – to take the American case – were not politicians. Money and politics were not seamlessly fused in the great capitalist citadels in the last century. (Donald Trump, a mix of shoddy showman and shady businessman, and a self-obsessed politician who values appearance over substance, is an odd if not unique decoction. I will have more to say about him anon).
In post Second World War Africa and Asia, the Middle East and Russia, and in South and Central America, politics is where the real money was and is. The examples are so many they will bore you but the crème de la crème is the Middle East where power and wealth (oil) are synonymous in Kingdoms and Emirates, and Africa where military dictatorship or presidency is open-sesame to robbery. In Nigeria oil wealth, in Congo’ minerals, in Zimbabwe mines and land in Mugabe’s time are prime examples; and Sudan, Somalia, the list goes on. There are men who love power and ones who love money, the two are connected, but often in Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Central America the two are fused inextricably. It is true that religion is a bigger business but much of it is retail trade. Religious bodies have gigantic inherited assets and a steady income-flow thanks to the credulous offerings of the faithful, but most of this wealth is dispersed into retail holdings – individual temples, mosques and churches.
The great paradox of modern democracy is that people know how venal, lecherous or criminal their leaders are, but nevertheless thrust power upon them again and again. I have heard many learned discourses purporting to explain this paradox, but as the Persian versifier moaned:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.
Research has revealed that despite the rise of Alt-Right and Alt-Left revolts there has been no push back in income inequality. The real household income of the poorest 25% of the population has continued to fall in the West despite the neo-populist surge. The rich have continued to grow richer. Their access to influence has not diminished; for example Lebanese born Ahmad Khawaja met Trump at a $5,000-per-person fundraiser after his election – then donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee earning himself a photo with the president inside the Oval Office. On average 80% of campaign finance is contributed by 0.01% of the population (in Sri Lanka that translates to just 2120 mega contributors).
The wealthy buy control of the media, push legislation on “law and order”, or sell narratives on race and immigrants to the exclusion of measures to alleviate inequality and poverty and diffuse racial tension. Neo-populism will fall apart as it does not build institutions, raise productivity, or sooth racial wrath and it erodes social harmony. But what will follow; social-democracy, a variant of fascism or anarchy? That’s not a topic for today.
A child is abducted and sold into prostitution or slave labour every 8 minutes in India. Gangsters have the police on the inside, but without umbrella protection from state and national ministers and MPs – big beneficiaries – business will collapse. Thankfully in India and Lanka the power-apex and sleaze were not wedded in early post-independence decades. (Below head of state/government that is with Ministers and corporate/departmental heads, it was endemic). My recollection is that prior to Bofors (late 1980s) in India and the diesel power contracts of the 1990s in Lanka, there weren’t mega corruption allegations against apex leaders. It has since subsided in India – Manmohan Singh and Modi are uncontaminated – but in Lanka horrendous corrosion accompanied the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency.
“On 7 May 2015, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera received intelligence reports from four foreign nations involved in tracing the billions of dollars stashed aboard stating that the Rajapaksa family hold $18 billion (Rs. 2.8 trillion) worth of assets in foreign countries. Minister Samaraweera didn’t name the countries in this investigation. The government asserted that it only traced $2 billion (Rs 320 billion) and is seeking access to bank accounts held by the Rajapaksa family”.
More reliable is Forbes: Dhammika Perera is the richest man in Sri Lanka, his wealth estimated at $550 million. He is a big supporter of Rajapaksa but that’s another matter. Keeping relative scales in mind, it is unlikely that the total wealth of the Rajapaksa clan, including monies stashed away in ghost and offshore accounts and the value of overseas properties, exceeds one hundred million dollars. One must not be misled by hundreds of millions of rupees injected by China Harbour Engineering and similar amounts from other sources. Ten million dollars is Rs 1.6 billion! And the aforesaid kickbacks are unlikely to have been accumulated; more likely they are squandered on corrupt election practices. Old DA and DM Rajapaksa were men of means only in domestic reckoning and Medamulana is no Windsor Castle. But one hundred million dollars dwarfs the loot of Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. The point I am making is that the way to sustained accumulation in countries at our stage of development is via political power, not inheritance, honest business or election fraud.
Maestro Putin and grovelling Trump
Putin has consistently denied sitting on a fortune, declaring in April 2015 that his annual income was £95,000 made up of a Presidential salary and income from his ownership of two apartments and a car park. His alleged access to 58 planes and helicopters and 20 palaces and country retreats, a Russian wag mocked “Is like calling Airforce One and the White House, Trump’s private property”. The most oft cited contrarian estimate is from KGB defector Stanislav Belkovsky who implausibly claimed that Putin had a fortune of “at least $40 billion”. The UK’s bigoted Sun paper wrote “Putin owns a Black Sea palace thought to be worth £800million and a £28m superyacht and is said by scholars and insiders to be an expert at hoarding huge sums of money”. Responding, Putin sneered “They have picked their noses and smeared the mucilage across the paper”.
Propaganda denigration misses the point. Putin has no need to be a billionaire; he is the most powerful man in the world; imagine the president of the United States crawling at your feet; imagine an approval rating of 80%; imagine a corpus of servile oligarchs trembling at your every word. Politics is where power is and power commands the ship on which money sails. My point has nothing to do with sanitising Putin the authoritarian as Putin the saviour. I remain focussed on the topic of this essay; the relationship of political power to money in movement.
A friend who is obsessed with conspiracy theories posed the question “Is Trump inadvertently playing Russia’s game or is he being instructed by Moscow to serve Russian interests? If the latter, it will be the greatest espionage tale of history!” I usually shun conspiracy theories and plumb for conventional explanations. Trump is not a Russian ‘agent’ in the usual way the word agent is used, but Putin holds the whip and is extracting value. He would prefer not to let Trump be impeached; that would terminate the latter’s usefulness. He may have evidence of Trump’s money laundering, shady financial transactions such a loans from Russian Banks unreported to IRS (Trump is fighting tooth and nail to conceal tax returns), or Moscow real estate deals with Russian oligarchs. Not sordid videos I think; Trump’s Base and Melania are immune to the salacious and the scandalous. Impressive Q2-2018 economic growth stats will further sanitise criticism from the Base for a while.
Trump and war
It would be improper to sign off without warning that Trump poses a war threat. Iranian president Rouhani reacted to Trump’s call to European allies toembargo Iran and cut economic ties if they wish to continue trading with America. Rouhani declared: “America should know that war with Iran will be the mother of all wars”. Trump’s tweeted all-caps response was in effect to threaten World War III.
To Iranian President Rouhani: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH”.
It is risky to read this only as bombast like his empty threats at North Korea, or as an attempt to divert attention from kow-towing to Putin, or distract the public from embarrassing revelations by his former lawyers. It could be an atttempt to divert attention from the Muller Probe which is sniffing ever closer. (It is amazing that a sitting president publicly refers to an ongoing investigation into his alleged misdeeds as “The totally conflicted and discredited Mueller Witch Hunt!”) The risk in such presumptions is that this aberrant loudmouth may really unleash war unless the deep-state sees him off first. To muddy the waters, a few days later Trump tweeted he was ready to meet Rouhani with “no preconditions”!