‘Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World’ by Tom Burgis | Credit: Courtesy

Kleptocracy is nothing new. Dictators and tyrants such as the Shah of Iran, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Vladimir Putin in Russia, all helped themselves to whatever riches their countries had to offer. Today the world’s most audacious thieves wear finely tailored suits, travel by private jet, and operate at the intersection of the market and the state, mining the latter in order to enrich themselves and expand their power. From the Kremlin to Beijing, Riyadh to Washington D.C., with assistance from secretive Swiss banks; offshore tax havens in Monaco, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands; pliant regulators; and laws riddled with loopholes, kleptocrats amass wealth and solidify their power. 

As investigative journalist Tom Burgis meticulously documents in Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, kleptocrats first subvert the state by using its institutions against themselves; once the institutions are weakened, it’s much easier for the kleptocrats to take what rightfully belongs to the people. Burgis exposes the origins of dirty money and the networks of bankers, lawyers, and auditors in major financial centers like the City of London who help wash it clean. Readers are introduced to a cast of characters like Felix Sater, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Semyon Mogilevich and Nursultan Nazarbayev. The latter was the last communist boss of Soviet Kazakhstan and the first capitalist leader when Kazakhstan became independent. Kazakhstan possessed valuable natural resources such as uranium, copper, chromium, iron, and Caspian Sea oil. As father of the new nation, Nazarbayev demanded two things: unwavering loyalty to him and a share of the booty. Nazarbayev, as Burgis notes, “had learned that Westerners could be just as adept as he was in turning money into power and power back into money.” Untold millions belonging to the people of Kazakhstan were siphoned off and shepherded beyond the nation’s borders. As is usually the case in kleptocracies, a few became staggeringly wealthy while millions suffered privation and powerlessness. 

The world got a rare glimpse into the realm of dirty money in 2016 when a computer hacker extracted the confidential files of a Panamanian law firm called Mossack Fonseca. The Panama Papers, as they came to be known, exposed a global financial network that serviced the needs of presidents, prime ministers, generals, intelligence chiefs, and legislators. “It was as though,” Burgis writes, “monetising public office was no longer an aberration but the purpose of seeking that office.” 

Americans saw a creeping form of kleptocracy during the reign of the Trump Administration. The now former president had no qualms about directing taxpayer money to his hotels, resorts and other businesses, or to appoint family members to key advisory roles. Through audacity and bluster, Trump trampled norms and bent laws to his will. Other presidents released their tax returns and placed their assets in blind trusts; Trump refused to do either and paid no political penalty. 

The Trump Administration attempted to follow the kleptocratic playbook by removing or dismantling as many obstacles to the privatization of power as possible. Rules and regulations on everything from drinking water to air pollution to protection of wetlands were rolled back or invalidated. Many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries were openly contemptuous of the agencies they headed. “Of the teams appointed to government departments to cut back regulations,” writes Burgis, “one in three had a conflict of interest.” But it was more than just conflicts of interest, it was a confluence of interests. Trump and many in his Cabinet “fused their interests with government policy, mining the offices of state for riches.” 

Corruption on the scale Burgis writes about should trouble us, not only because it undermines the legitimate economy, but also because of its corrosive effect on public institutions and democracy. How much better off, for example, would the people of Kazakhstan be if the wealth Nazarbayev and his cronies looted had remained in the country and been invested in public goods that improved people’s lives, opportunities, and the prospect of expanded democracy? 

Burgis argues that wherever they operate, kleptocrats are engaged in a common endeavor: to seize power through fear and the force of money and then to privatize that power. Like a parasite that invades a cell, kleptocrats transform their host. “Those who use their public office to steal must hold on to it not just for the chance of further riches but in order to maintain the immunity from prosecution that goes with it.”

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.


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