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 protection, 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 perceptions. 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. No political programme aimed at stopping elite wealth accumulation has enjoyed widespread, sustained electoral support. Insurgent parties are doing well – but not well enough to govern. And even if one of them did achieve an electoral breakthrough it is not clear that any party could get around the problem of nation-states competing to attract the rich and powerful with ever lower tax rates.
And there is something else. Even the most angry and envious are willing to take a slice of the action when the opportunity arises. Take the booming London property prices, fueled for years now by vast transfers of dubious money from Russian, European and increasingly Chinese millionaires looking for a safe place to stash their cash. Few London homeowners would support a policy to stop that money flowing if it meant there would be a drop on the value of their homes. In other words they might be rather tempted by the old adage, if you can’t beat them, join them.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.