Kleptocracy: What it is and what it is not

Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

I: Defining and Comparing Democracy and Kleptocracy

russia In an article published in Tribune a year ago, ‘Kleptocracy Versus Democracy in Ukraine: Why the Cold War Never Ended’[i] I describe the crisis in Ukraine as a choice between kleptocracy, offered by Russia, and democracy, offered by the European Union.

That choice is now made. Making it has involved insurrection, revolution and elections, the secession of Crimea and its annexation by Russia, and ongoing intermittent civil war in Ukraine. Given my terms of description, most western Ukrainians appear to have chosen European democracy, but many in the east seem to prefer Russian kleptocracy. The latter choice sounds perverse. It needs more explanation.

In another article, ‘Is Putin Hitler?’, published this month, first in Modern Security Culture,[ii] then in Tribune,[iii] I compare Putin’s motives and actions in Ukraine and elsewhere with those of Hitler in mid-twentieth century Europe, leading to the Second World War.

I note that, unlike Hitler, Putin seems not to be irrationally controlled by, but rather, rationally in control of, his own nationalist narrative. I surmise that Putin’s real main underlying motive and strategy is to make the world safe for kleptocracy. This, too, needs more explanation than can be given in a relatively short article, focused on Putin and Hitler.

Here, therefore, to fill both needs for further explanation, I treat Putin’s motives and strategy, and the Ukrainian peoples’ choice, in depth. I consider the nature and consequences of their interaction in logical, geopolitical, historical, ideological and cultural terms.

I do not limit this discussion to the current Ukrainian crisis, but use it as an example better to define kleptocracy: what it is, and what it is not. The reason for choosing this formulation (modelled, fittingly enough, on Florence Nightingale’s ‘Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not’,[iv] based partly on her experience of the Crimean War) is that there are theories current which deny the difference between kleptocracy and democracy.

Some, mainly American and Western European intellectuals – but, importantly, not those Ukrainian separatists who have chosen Russian kleptocracy over European democracy – may use such theories to explain or defend those separatists’ choice. I shall challenge and rebut those theories here later, and discuss how those who have made that choice see it, and why they have made it. But first let me define democracy and kleptocracy in simple terms that clearly state the difference between them. Let me also give some examples of kleptocracies. Both definitions and examples will serve as terms of reference in the following discussion.

Democracy is simply defined as the rule of the people;[v] kleptocracy as the rule of thieves.[vi] These definitions will later be developed, and their implications explicated. Among other things, they imply a difference between kleptocracy and democracy that can only be denied if ‘the people’ in question are themselves thieves, or knowingly choose to be ruled by thieves. It may happen that people choose to be ruled by thieves, either because that is what they are used to, and cannot imagine anything else, or without knowing that they have done so.

Examples of kleptocracy abound. We may distinguish current and former kleptocrats. In terms of assets plundered, the greatest current kleptocrat is Russia’s Putin, with 130 bn.[vii] Much lesser is Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev, with only 7 bn.[viii] Both Russia and Kazakhstan are founder states of the Eurasian Union. Another is Belarus, ruled by Lukashenko. Lukashenko, before assuming power, allegedly opposed corruption.[ix] Once in power, he seems to have repented.[x] So the nascent Eurasian Union may rightly be called a club of current kleptocrats.

Ukraine’s Yanukovych was planning to join this club, but is now a former kleptocrat, since he was overthrown, and his palaces and treasuries opened for inspection.[xi] His overthrow was directly provoked by his last minute withdrawal from association with the European Union, which he had been courting simultaneously. As well as enticing, threatening and bullying Yanukovych, Putin must have persuaded him of what should have been quite obvious to him from the start: that he could not carry on kleptocracy as usual in association with the EU. Its insistence on observing international accounting standards, plus its enforcement of contracts and the rule of law in commerce, politics and human rights, would make kleptocratic business as usual impossible. Yanukovych’s consequent decision, to throw in his, and so his country’s, lot with Russia sparked a popular revolt, resulting in the present government under Poroshenko. Poroshenko has signed the same agreement with the EU whose repudiation cost Yanukovych his job. Thus Yanukovych joins a growing list of former kleptocrats.

One such list is provided by Transparency International.[xii] It includes Indonesia’s Suharto, the Philippines’ Marcos, the Congo’s Mobutu, Nigeria’s Abacha, Serbia’s Milosevic, Haiti’s two Duvaliers, Peru’s Fujimori, Ukraine’s Lazarenko, Nicaragua’s Alemán, and the Philippines’ Estrada. Other sources cite Egypt’s Mubarak,[xiii] Palestine’s Arafat,[xiv] Argentina’s Kirchner,[xv] and Pakistan’s Zardari.[xvi] Recent additions include Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Libya`s Gadhafi.[xvii] The most recent inclusion, that of Ukraine’s Yanukovych, leads one to ask: Who is next?

Indeed, these lists of kleptocrats, current and former, raise many observations and questions. One observation is that the fate of kleptocracies is mixed. Some fall, others survive. This leads one to ask: Why? What makes the difference? What prospects do remaining kleptocracies have? Another observation is that some countries are permanent kleptocracies. Why? Conversely, in some cases, kleptocracy has been replaced by democracy. How so? In others, however, the question of what replaces overthrown kleptocracy still remains open.

Ukraine, for instance, offers a clear example of people choosing democracy over kleptocracy. Whether they get democracy or not is quite another matter, dependent on outcomes. But their choice is clear, if one accepts the definitions of democracy and kleptocracy given above, and rejects theories denying the difference between them, which I shall here challenge and rebut.

Doing so will involve discussing these terms, democracy and kleptocracy, generically, from a philosophical, historical, geopolitical and economic point of view.  Before I do that, however, let me reconsider the Ukrainian crisis, first from a logical, then from an ideological, point of view, and finally from the points of view, stated in their own terms, of those who have made their choices in that crisis, as derived from media reports and interviews with them.[xviii]

II: Analysing the Ukrainian Crisis

From a logical point of view, because involving four terms of two kinds, Ukraine and Russia, democracy and kleptocracy, the crisis invites multiple analyses, regarding motives, workings and outcomes. Regarding motives, those Ukrainians who have chosen democracy may have done so because it is European. Conversely, those who have chosen Europe may have done so because it is democratic. Perhaps both simultaneously. But while one may plausibly argue that those who have chosen kleptocracy have done so because it is Russian, have those who have chosen Russia done so because it is kleptocratic? This final choice seems strange.

While choosing kleptocracy because it is Russian is plausible for an unconditional nationalist, the converse is counterintuitive. One may reasonably choose between Russia and Ukraine, if the choice is diplomatically, commercially or militarily open, in various contexts, in terms of enlightened self-interest, but to choose kleptocracy over democracy seems irrational, in those terms, in any context, unless one is a kleptocrat, or unenlightened. Most Ukrainians are not kleptocrats, including most Crimeans, and those now fighting for a Greater or New Russia. So one may conclude that those who have chosen Russian kleptocracy are unenlightened, factually, logically and emotionally. Indeed, one may conclude that they are deceived.

Factually, they do not realise that Russia is a kleptocracy, as was Ukraine till recently, and may still turn out to be. Logically, they do not realise that choosing Russia means choosing kleptocracy. Emotionally, they confuse ethno-linguistic identity with economic and political self-interest. While those who chose European democracy may understand that, for now, in this context, one term, democracy, mutually implies the other, Europe, those who chose Russian kleptocracy do not understand the corresponding implication. That is an asymmetry.

This is not to say that all those who chose European democracy are universally enlightened. Not all Ukrainians necessarily know or understand any or all the implications of their choice, either way. In particular, not all those who have chosen democracy realise that this involves submitting to the often irritating restraints of the rule of law, as enforced by an independent bureaucracy, which one must constantly watch to prevent from corruption and overreach. Not all those who have chosen Russian, rather than Ukrainian identity, realise that this, under the present Russian political dispensation, means submitting to autocracy, and so to kleptocracy.

So logical analysis suggests that not all Ukrainians have chosen on the basis of enlightened self-interest. It therefore raises the possibility that they may have chosen, not logically, in view of that criterion, but ideologically, in view of preference for one form of modernity over another. For their choice may be understood as one between authoritarian and liberal modernity, the former offered by Russia, the latter by Europe. Modernity as such differs from pre- or anti-modern polities in preferring knowledge to belief, reason to emotion, and achievement to tradition. Both authoritarian and liberal modernity share these preferences. They differ in that authoritarian modernity prefers the rule of will, usually that of an autocrat or oligarchy. Liberal modernity prefers the rule of law, usually in some form of democracy.

Pre-modern polities are few, represented by traditional theocracies, such as the Vatican, or absolute monarchies, such as Bhutan or Saudi Arabia. Anti-modern polities like those of Iran are reactionary, seeking to repeal ideological modernity, while keeping modern technology. Authoritarian modernity, emerging earlier than its liberal counterpart, though also preferring knowledge, reason and achievement,  is quite prepared to use belief, emotion and tradition as instruments of propaganda and control. Putin’s Russia is an example of this. Putin uses Russian nationalism to keep his kleptocracy in power, and to try to spread that power beyond its present borders. The measure of his success, so far, is that those in Ukraine who have chosen Russia over Europe do not equate Russia with authoritarian, autocratic modernity, so with kleptocracy. While this is objectively true, it is not how they see it subjectively.

So, in order to try to understand why Ukrainians have chosen as they have, let us now look at  their choice from their own points of view, as reported in the media. What most clearly emerges from these sources is that those who have chosen Europe do equate it with liberal, democratic modernity, leading to relatively wide-spread prosperity and personal freedom. This is a reasonably accurate equation, roughly corresponding to the real example offered by some countries of the European Union, at least compared with those of the Eurasian Union. Thus it is a choice that can reasonably be defended in terms of enlightened self-interest.

But, asymmetrically, Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists do not see their choice in terms of different forms of modernity, authoritarian versus liberal, autocracy versus democracy, but rather in terms derived from pre-modern categories of self-definition and identity: language and ethnicity. These are more deeply emotionally rooted than the calculations of enlightened self-interest leading their Ukrainian pro-European counterparts to the opposite choice.

The emotions here involved include hope and expectation versus resentment and nostalgia, all of which are framed in terms of time. The liberal democratic modernity that Ukrainians who have chosen Europe hope for and expect differs radically from all that has gone before. Conversely, those who have chosen Russia equate it with continuity – more of the same – or even with reconstitution of what was previously the case, under or before the Soviet Union. The former focus their hopes on an uncertain future. The latter yearn for an idealised past.

This much of Ukrainians’ choices seems symmetrical enough: future versus past. But there is a deeper asymmetry. While those who have chosen Europe have done so on the basis of more or less enlightened self-interest, the same cannot be said of those who have chosen Russia. The Russia whose past they yearn for is, and always has been, a kleptocracy, so it is not in their interests. Their choice is based on emotional identity, not on rational self interest.

There is also an asymmetry in their level of realism. While the former stand some slight chance of getting the liberal democratic modernity they hope for, the latter stand very little chance of getting the idealised past for which they yearn. This is not only because reconstituting the past is even more difficult than building the future, but because the past they yearn for is illusory. It is a myth, made up by the kleptocrats who have always ruled them. It conflates their emotions with their interests, to their objective disadvantage.

This much is clear from observing the propaganda with which Russian official media report the crisis in Ukraine. Far from objective, accurate accounts of events, they offer a diet of misinformation and disinformation worthy of their Soviet mentors.[xix] Since the Russian people are relatively credulous, this has led to a massive surge in Putin’s popularity. His annexation of Crimea, in particular, is very popular, as is his confrontation with the West.

Here, emotion conflicts with reason, misconstrued identity with economic and strategic interests. Ethnically, linguistically and culturally, most Russians are European. Alliance with the West, both against anti-modern theological insurgencies to their south, and maybe against non-European powers rising to Russia’s east, plus an equitable and mutually profitable economic relationship with Europe, and eventual espousal of liberal democracy, would be more in the Russian people’s interest, and would better suit their basic European identity.

But this is precisely the option that Putin is determined not to let them contemplate. All his effort is directed towards shifting the debate from rational discussion of enlightened self-interest to rehearsal of emotionally charged routines of nationalistic confrontation. So, Putin, the world’s greatest kleptocrat, has boxed himself into a trap: he must feed that confrontation to maintain his popularity, but do so in the face of Western economic sanctions that will eventually lead to deterioration of the Russian economy, and so to a fall in his popularity. True to his KGB past, he is rehearsing routines of the first Cold War, ignoring its outcome.

This leads one to realise that the  current crisis in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine, but about Russia under Putin. Indeed, looking further, it is about the long term relationship of Russia with the West. So insofar as it is about Russia and the West, it is that much more important. The outcome of the crisis in Ukraine will affect Russia’s development, and most likely determine if and when Putin joins the list of former kleptocrats. If Ukraine succeeds in its European choice, Putin is doomed. The example of a liberal, modern, prosperous Ukraine will undo him. It will prove, yet again, that a Slavic nation can choose liberal modernity and survive, even thrive. So  he will do everything in his power to make Ukraine’s choice fail.

With that in view, let me expand this discussion from a focus on the Ukrainian crisis, seen from a Ukrainian or Russian point of view, to its wider geopolitical implications. The diverse choices of Ukrainians have led to a civil war, whose outcome is still uncertain, between adherents of Russia and the West. Thus Ukraine is a battlefield in an ongoing geopolitical and ideological struggle between Russia and the West. I have said before, and reaffirm, that this is but a further stage in a longer struggle, of which the first Cold War was but an episode.

III: Understanding the Geopolitical Struggle between Russia and the West

A geopolitical struggle may be defined in terms of which nation has power over which others. Power can take many forms, including military, political, economic, ideological and cultural. So a geopolitical struggle may also be defined in terms of which culture, ideology, economy or polity has power inside a given state. Language is a form of culture, indeed its most basic and determinative form. So a geopolitical struggle may take the form of deciding which language is official in a given state or region. That is the particular form that this struggle has taken in Ukraine, but there are many others, including politics, economics and culture.

Historically, a geopolitical struggle has been going on, not only for decades, in the form of the first Cold War and its sequel, but for centuries, between Russia and the West. A parallel, closely related internal power struggle has been going on simultaneously inside Russia, between opposing cultures, ideologies, economies and polities. The internal struggle has been cast in terms of Slavophiles versus Europhiles, the former looking inward, the latter outward. The external struggle has taken military form, involving territorial invasion, occupation, and annexation or subjugation of neighbours, eastern, southern and western. The internal struggle has also taken military form, as coup d’état and civil war. Both struggles remain unresolved.   Both struggles are structural and existential, and may therefore be permanent, so long as Russia continues to exist in its present structural form: that of a vast territorial multi-ethnic empire, whose economy is largely based on exploitation of natural resources, rather than on industry or commerce, and which is held together more by inertia or force than by consent.

Russia has long been such an empire. It has also long been a kleptocracy, whether under Czars, Commissars, Oligarchs or Putin. These two facts are closely interdependent. The conquest of that empire was itself an exercise in kleptocracy, led by autocrats. The empire’s power structure is that of an authoritarian autocracy, leading almost inevitably to kleptocracy: ‘Kleptocracies are generally associated with corrupt forms of authoritarian governments, particularly dictatorships, oligarchies, military juntas, or some other forms of autocratic and nepotist [sic] government in which no outside oversight is possible.’[xx]

While the same was once true of other European empires, Western Europe and its imperial offshoots have evolved from authoritarianism to various forms of liberalism. Russia has not. According to one prominent Russian intellectual, Russia has a ‘mediaeval mentality’.[xxi] With regard to its economic model, Russia’s is precisely of a form that leads to kleptocracy: ‘Kleptocracy is most common in developing countries whose economies are based on the export of natural resources. Such export incomes constitute a form of economic rent and are therefore easier to siphon off without causing the income itself to decrease (for example, due to capital flight as investors pull out to escape the high taxes levied by the kleptocrats).’ [xxii]

With regard to how Russia is held together, because it cannot appeal to real economic or political achievements, giving its people a shared stake in relatively wide-spread prosperity and liberty, it must have recourse to a normative utopian ideology, as under communism, or to a sense of ethno-linguistic identity, reinforced by populist, nationalistic emotions, as now. Therefore state control of the media, using massive propaganda and mis-or-disinformation to manipulate the peoples’ emotions, is essential to the management of Russian kleptocracy.

This necessarily sets it at odds with someone or other, since populist nationalism is by definition confrontational. In order to distract the people from its poor economic and political record, and keep them from realising that they are living in kleptocracy, the Kremlin needs enemies, external or internal, on whom to focus popular emotion. It has, of course, the option of finding them on more than one side. Russia’s most obvious potential enemy is China. China differs ethnically, linguistically, demographically and in terms of interests. Sooner or later, China’s growing population may come to covet Russia’s shrinking population’s vast resource-rich land. When that happens, Russia will have to reconsider its alliances and enmities. But for now, the fact that both Russia and China are authoritarian kleptocracies, both threatened by liberal modernity spreading from the West, keeps them tactically allied.

Geopolitically, therefore, Russia’s struggle with the West is strategic and permanent, so long as Russia remains an authoritarian kleptocracy. This is likely to remain so for a very long time to come. The forms that struggle takes are tactical and interchangeable. Thus, while no longer opposed over communism versus capitalism (for both Russia and China have abandoned communism, the former avowedly, the latter in all but name), Russia and the West remain opposed nevertheless. If it is not over one thing, it will be over another. There is no shortage of differences to be exploited by the Kremlin, to stir up the emotions on which Putin bases his current appeal. Meanwhile, unable to compete with the West in real cultural, ideological, economic and political terms, Russia depends, ultimately, on its military might.

In the first Cold War, the military option was limited by Mutual Assured Destruction. While able then to continue to dominate the territories it had gained in Eastern Europe before the atomic age, Russia was unable to expand its empire westward into Europe, let alone globally. The form of its struggle with the West was perforce ideological, in the context of political economy: communism versus capitalism. Having lost that argument, the Russian successor state to the Soviet Union, having also lost most of its European empire, but still constrained by MAD, has attempted, unconvincingly, to offer a cultural alternative to that of the West. It has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church, and attempted to reverse the sexual revolution. It is now avowedly involved in attempting to reconstitute its territorial empire outside Russia.

While such tactics may appeal to older Russians and some of their south-eastern neighbours, nostalgic for the Soviet Union or for the Czarist autocracy, and fearful of liberal modernity, they are less likely to succeed with many younger Russians and their western neighbours. Their western neighbours, the countries of the old Warsaw Pact, are firmly pro-European and  anti-Russian, as are the Baltic States, once part of the Soviet Union, along with Ukraine. Putin’s fate, and Russia’s, will depend on what younger Russians come to think, and how they act. This must become the focus of the West’s political, diplomatic, and cultural thrust.

Culture is the sphere where the struggle between Russia and the West will be decided. This is because all power, military, economic or political, is ultimately cultural. Power only exists to the degree to which it is widely enough accepted as a social reality by those enforcing it and those over whom it is enforced.[xxiii] What exactly constitutes ‘widely enough accepted’ varies in different contexts, but wherever the tipping point may be, that point is culturally determined.

The Soviet Union collapsed when its own people, including enforcers, stopped believing in it. Similar dynamics have recently toppled other kleptocracies. The way to topple Putin’s is to spread understanding among Russians, especially younger ones, of the facts about his rule. Yet toppling Putin may have no effect on Russia, if its ‘mediaeval mentality’ persists. He is more a symptom than a cause. If he goes, Russian culture may spawn another just like him.

So what exactly are we fighting for, and what against? (I say ‘we’, because I write not from a purely academic viewpoint, but from that of one engaged in the struggle, on the West’s side.) In my view the struggle is a culture war, one which requires clear understanding on the part of its wagers, not only of strategy and tactics, but of long-term cultural goals. What follows aims to make as clear as possible what cultural goals we are fighting for, and what against.

IV: A Theory of Modernity

The foregoing analysis of the situation in Ukraine and Russia, and of its geopolitical implications, is based on a certain theory of modernity. That theory of modernity is part of a broader theory of culture. It has been briefly alluded to above, and is set out more fully in various articles online.[xxiv] Here I shall briefly summarise that theory’s main points:

Culture is the human way of life. It involves intentional interaction with habitat, altering it, and regulating human behaviour to achieve goals set by collective or individual human will. Those goals are survival, growth and pleasure. Culture is a tool-kit for achieving them. Culture’s tools are material, natural and notional. A culture is a given way of human life. A culture is defined by its material apparatus, natural constituents, and notions. These include theories of reality, describing its habitat, and ideologies, regulating its people’s behaviour.

The basis of all cultures in the past has been natural: their peoples, genetically defined. A people thus defined develops a culture, with a theory of reality and an ideology. Modernity is a culture with a theory of reality and ideology, but its people is not genetically defined. Anyone of any ethnicity can join the culture of modernity, and increasing numbers of people do. Modernity differs from all previous cultures in that it is not based on a people genetically defined, but on people making an ideological choice. It is not naturally, but notionally based. It is based on its own theory of reality and ideology, not on a predetermined ethnic identity.

Its theory of reality is scientific. Its ideology comes in two forms: authoritarian and liberal. Modernity, both authoritarian and liberal, differs from pre- and anti-modernity, in its preference for reason over emotion, knowledge over belief, and achievement over tradition.

Authoritarianism prefers the rule of will over law; liberalism the rule of law over will. Authoritarianism favours state-controlled economies; liberalism free markets. Authoritarianism tends to impose totalitarianism. Liberalism allows for individual diversity. Free-market diversity leads to greater, more diversified prosperity. As a consequence, liberal modernity is the dominant culture in the most diversely prosperous parts of the world today.

This theory of modernity, distinguishing authoritarianism and liberalism, can illuminate our discussion of kleptocracy versus democracy, as follows:

Authoritarianism is the unrestrained rule of will. Liberalism submits to the rule of law. Authoritarianism espouses state capitalism. Liberalism prefers free-market capitalism. Authoritarianism takes the form of autocracy or oligarchy; liberalism that of democracy. Authoritarianism uses a subservient bureaucracy; liberalism an independent bureaucracy. Authoritarianism leads to kleptocracy; Liberalism to diversified prosperity.

This argument may be set out in tabular form as a series of binary oppositions:

authoritarianism                         liberalism

the rule of will                         the rule of law

state capitalism                         free-market capitalism

autocracy or oligarchy                        democracy

subservient bureaucracy            independent bureaucracy

kleptocracy                                    diversified prosperity

From this table it is easy to see the asymmetries previously detected in the choices made in Ukraine. To choose democracy versus autocracy or oligarchy, or diversified prosperity versus kleptocracy would be symmetrical. To choose kleptocracy versus democracy is asymmetrical.

It is a real choice nevertheless, in terms of results based on causal relations between different sets of binary oppositions. If one chooses autocracy over democracy, one risks getting kleptocracy. If one chooses democracy over autocracy, one may get diversified prosperity. It is harder to build prosperity from democracy than to let kleptocracy follow from autocracy.

Some kleptocrats, such as Putin, remain in power by preventing their people from performing and adopting the foregoing analysis, ensuring that their minds are besotted and their emotions intoxicated with theories of reality and ideologies based on ethnicity, religion, and other pre-modern forms of thought, rather than on enlightened self-interest. Though this works, it is an evasion. They do not make modern arguments against this analysis, which I shall, and rebut.

V: Rebuttal of the Anarchist Equation of Democracy with Kleptocracy

One modern theory denying the distinction between kleptocracy and democracy is that of anarchism. In the words of its founder, Proudhon: ‘Property is theft!’ [xxv] Another, advanced by Diamond, [xxvi] holds that all forms of governance above the level of hunter-gatherer bands or subsistence agriculture tribes, thus all civilisations, including democracies, are kleptocracies.

Let me rebut these theories one by one, beginning with the older, that promoting anarchy.

For some, such as Proudhon, property itself is theft. For others, like Locke, ‘Life, Liberty and Estate’ are man’s natural property.[xxvii] Whichever way, law upholds property. For Proudhon, since property itself is theft, law, upholding property, is unjust. He therefore ‘justly’ promotes anarchy: lawlessness. For Locke, however, law, upholding property, serves natural justice.

Proudhon is easily rebutted on logical grounds. His contention that property itself is theft presupposes a criterion whereby theft may be defined. That criterion is property. Thus his contention is self-contradictory. More interesting here, because relating to kleptocracy, is refuting him in terms of the practical consequences of his theory’s promotion of anarchy.

Although anarchists contend that anarchy is freedom, in practice, anarchy invites theft and hubris, making even anarchists call for the rule of law. Just try pinching an anarchist’s wallet, or her bottom, and see. The only restraint on theft and hubris is the rule of law. Autocracy, the rule of will, is a form of hubris. Kleptocracy, the rule of thieves, is a form of autocracy. Democracy implies the rule of law. Theft challenges law. Challenging law promotes anarchy. So, kleptocracy, a form of autocracy challenging law, promotes anarchy. Kleptocracy and autocracy are forms of theft and hubris. The only restraint on them is thus the rule of law.

The rule of law is therefore crucial for the difference between democracy and kleptocracy.  Just what is meant by the rule of law? One must distinguish positive from natural law. Positive law is that of a given polity. It is contingent and temporal, and not necessarily just. Formalists study positive law. Distinguishing law from justice, they refrain from discussing the justice of law. They prefer to define what structures and procedures constitute law. For formalists, any law, just or unjust, is equally legal. Its legality is independent of its justice.

Substantivists, however, hold law to be inseparable from justice, and seek to show how they relate. This may involve identifying, defining and justifying ‘natural law’, based on ‘natural justice’. Natural law involves the belief that justice is inborn in man, implicit in nature, absolute and universal, and therefore the basis of natural law and rights.

The debate between substantivists and formalists pits acceptance by the former of natural law, based on natural justice, against its rejection by the latter. Of these, Bentham, while in favour of extending positive individual legal rights, dismisses the notion that they are based on natural rights, based on natural law, based on natural justice, as ‘nonsense on stilts’.[xxviii] Such rejection does not, however, necessarily lead to anarchy. One may promulgate and enforce positive law without appeal to natural law or justice. Such promulgation and enforcement may be based merely on the rule, by force, of will – which is a form of anarchy – or involve a social contract. There are also other options, such as game theory: law as rules.

A social contract is the notion that a given collectivity willingly submits to the rule of law.

Social contract theory comes in two main forms: mythological and historical. Mythological social contract theory relates to natural, historical to positive law. Mythological theory holds that in some distant past humanity discovered or was given a certain natural law, and that such natural law is absolute, binding on all present and future generations. Historical social contract theory holds that no such mythical event ever occurred, but that positive legal agreements, binding only on contracting parties, may well have done so, or may do so yet.

Positive agreement binding only on contracting parties needs no further justification. It is its own, if any be required. Law may also be seen in terms of game theory, so not requiring justification. Such an agreement, or game, may, but need not, take the form of democracy.

Mythological contracts include Plato’s Noble Lie,[xxix] Hobbes’s Covenant with Leviathan,[xxx] and Rousseau’s Contrat Social;[xxxi] historical, the American Constitution, the United Nations Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Plato and Hobbes seek to justify aristocracy and autocracy respectively; Rousseau has been used to justify authoritarianism and liberalism both. The Constitution, Charter and Declaration are posited on various forms of consensus: national, international or universal. Consensus is the basis of democracy.

Let us now develop definitions. Democracy implies the rule of law; autocracy that of will. Kleptocracy is the rule of thieves. So why does democracy, but neither autocracy nor kleptocracy, imply the rule of law? Democracy, by definition, is the rule of many individuals. Since individuals may conflict, there must be a consensual criterion for resolving their differences, if they are to rule. Autocracy, because the rule of a single individual’s will, needs no such criterion. Kleptocracy, because a form of autocracy, likewise needs no such criterion. Such a criterion is the rule of law. The questions of whether such law is natural or positive, absolute or contingent, universally or only particularly binding, still remain open.

VI: Summary of the Philosophical Debate So Far

Let me sum up the philosophical debate so far, arising from contrasting democracy with autocracy and kleptocracy. All refutations notwithstanding, some will continue to maintain that property is theft; others, that property, together with life and liberty, is a natural right. Natural rights, based on natural law, may be absolute and universal, or ‘nonsense on stilts’. Positive law may be based on autocracy, the rule of will by force, which may be a form of anarchy, or on some sort of social contract, mythological or historical, or on game theory.

Like all philosophical debates, this one is irresolvable. It is in the nature of philosophy that its debates are never universally acknowledged to have been resolved. Proponents and detractors on both sides will continue opining on these matters, and differing, probably forever. But the distinction between mythological and historical social contract theory brings a new element into the discussion. That element is history. History focuses on fact, as well as on opinion.

Historically, one may argue for or against the proposition that voluntary collective contingent agreement, perhaps involving voting, to submit to the rule of law, has actually taken place, at various times in the past, distant and recent. Some such agreements may have taken the form of democracy, whether in Athenian or Philadelphian form. Others may be claimed to involve willing submission to autocracy, whether that of Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin or Mao.

Submission to autocracy is not, however, necessarily the same as consent to kleptocracy. Free societies may occasionally and temporarily submit, with varying degrees of willingness, to dictatorial, autocratic rule, in the face of existential danger, demanding rapid, decisive action, rather than the dithering of a liberal democracy, or the reticence of a Roman republic. War, or natural disaster, may provide such an occasion for autocracy. For this very reason, since war is easier to manage than natural disaster, war is often linked with autocracy. One may observe, for example, how Putin, having more or less won an inherited war in Chechnya, has engineered new wars in Georgia and Ukraine, to justify and amplify his own autocracy.

The transition, from temporary autocracy, consensually adopted to cope with war or disaster, into permanent kleptocracy, occurs when Lord Acton’s dictum is fulfilled: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”[xxxii] Leaving aside assignation of the adjectives ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to ‘great’ men (which depends on point of view; for from their own, they are all, presumably, good) it is a fact of history that autocrats tend to become kleptocrats. Few follow the example of the Roman republican dictator, Cincinnatus, and return home to plough their field, after saving Rome.[xxxiii] Caesar did not, nor did his heirs to the Roman principate, one of the world’s ‘greatest’ kleptocracies.

More common, however, than the Roman republic’s transition from temporary, consensual dictatorship to permanent kleptocracy under the principate, is non-consensual seizure of power for its own sake, or that of its opportunities for theft. This is so for most kleptocracies. Most do not originate with a consensual, temporary, occasional dictator, like Caesar, who succumbs to the corruption of absolute power, but with individuals who either overthrow some form of consensual polity, democratic or not, and institute autocracy; or with those who succeed legitimately to an existing autocracy, and realise its potential for kleptocracy.

The difference between benevolent dictators like Cincinnatus and kleptocratic autocrats like Putin, lies not only in how they come to power, whether consensually, or by non-consensual seizure or appointment, nor yet in their differing behaviour in power, nor even in their leaving it willingly or not, but also in their respective power systems’ diverse beneficiaries. The beneficiary of benevolent dictatorship is theoretically the state that is saved, however defined. If that definition includes the senate, then the senate benefits; if also the people, then they too are beneficiaries. But the beneficiary of kleptocratic autocracy is only the kleptocrat, plus a circle, narrower or wider, of cronies, who enable and enforce his or her kleptocracy.

Enabling and enforcement may take various forms. The crudest, most expensive, and least effective, in terms of results, is use of force. This is usually counterproductive, in at least two ways. By adding resources to repression, it subtracts them from production, thus generating less to steal. And by requiring the kleptocrat’s constant attention, it distracts him or her from plunder. Moreover, dependence on force exposes the kleptocrat to the risk of coup d’état by his or her own security forces. This is the most common form of succession in kleptocracies.

For all these reasons, therefore, kleptocrats tend to try to base their rule on something other than force, which nonetheless allows them to keep force in reserve for an emergency. That alternative may be popular perception of an existential threat that justifies dictatorship, or an ideology, religious or political, requiring submission, or some combination of both. It is far easier, and much more effective, to control peoples’ minds, than to rule by physical force.

Instruments of mental control such as religion and ideology are closely related to philosophy. Thus one might expect kleptocrats to justify, enable and enforce their rule with philosophy. That would be unwise, leading to overthrow. Philosophy, because inconclusive, is unreliable for mental control. Rather, it encourages mental autonomy. Therefore wise kleptocrats usually prefer more stable instruments of mental control, such as religion and ethnicity.

VII: Rebuttal of Diamond’s Equation of Civilisation with Kleptocracy

Just as philosophers differ on whether property is theft, or, together with life and liberty, a natural right; or whether natural rights based on natural law are absolute and universal, or nonsense on stilts, so do historians, on assignation of the term ‘kleptocracy’ to given polities.

The widest assignation I know of is that of Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel. Just as Proudhon classifies property itself as theft, Diamond classifies all polities above the level of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, or subsistence-level agricultural tribes, as kleptocracies.[xxxiv]

By his account, chiefdoms, first elective, then hereditary, make a transition from bands and tribes to centrally governed, non-egalitarian societies. Doing so, they introduce kleptocracy. They provide ‘expensive services, impossible to contract for on an individual basis’ such as infrastructure, public order, and protection from foreign enemies. In payment, they ‘function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes’.

For Diamond, ‘the difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put’.

Diamond asks the question, which must be asked of all political systems, and especially of any ranked society, whether chiefdom or state: How, apart from by force, does the ruler obtain the compliance of the ruled? For (though Diamond does not say so) as Gandhi, among others, clearly saw, no state, however powerful, can survive without its people’s consent.

Diamond enumerates four ways in which kleptocracies gain popular support:

  1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite, thus creating a monopoly of force.
  2. Content the masses by redistributing some of the tribute received in popular ways.
  3. Use the monopoly of force to maintain public order.
  4. Construct an ideology or religion to justify kleptocracy.

Ideology and religion also help to solve two basic problems of human society: preventing genetically distant people from killing each other simply on account of that distance; and providing a motive, other than close genetic relationship, for marshalling natural altruism. This promotes self-sacrifice for the society, leading to victory in war, and so to empire.

By Diamond’s account, all modern states, liberal or authoritarian, autocracies or democracies, are kleptocracies. All collect tribute or taxes, or own the means of production outright. All attempt to create a monopoly of force, but do not always succeed. Likewise, all try to use it to maintain their own form of public order, but again, not all succeed. All, except the most overtly rapacious, redistribute some of their income to placate the populace. All construct an ideology, even if only a cult of personality, or use a religion, to justify their own kleptocracy.

Like Proudhon, Diamond may be rebutted on logical grounds. His definition of kleptocracy is so broad as to be indeterminate. It also fails to take into account structural regress: what is true of kleptocrats is so of those on each rung in the economic ladder down towards the next.

Diamond  may also be refuted on anthropological grounds. His characterisation of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers as ‘egalitarian’, and all other societies as kleptocracies, is false with respect to the former: they are no more ‘egalitarian’ than the rest, and just as prey to the vicissitudes of human nature, which, among other things, is unequal.

But more relevant, in the present context, is to consider whether his account is useful. The reader may judge to what extent Diamond’s account applies to any given state. Certainly, a philosophical argument can, and doubtless will, be made for its application to any and all. But is such application useful, any more than Proudhon’s definition of property as theft?

One may agree, historically, with Proudhon’s precursor, Sade: “Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation. However, theft is only punished because it violates the right of property; but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft.”[xxxv]

Yet what is the alternative? Communism? It has been tried, and has not worked. Anarchy? One’s thought experiment with a wallet and a bottom should make one think again.

Likewise, one may concede, or even eagerly agree, that one’s own state, by Diamond’s definition, is a kleptocracy. Yet does that concession or agreement make one not only wish to overthrow it, but actually do so? In some cases yes, in others no. It has not recently done so in most countries of North America and Western Europe, all kleptocracies by his account. But it has, arguably, done so in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, South Africa, Indonesia, North Africa, and, most recently, Ukraine. What is the difference? Clearly, Diamond’s definition does not account for it, so another, better definition is needed.

Let us agree with Diamond that the difference between kleptocracy and democracy, a difference that moves people to overthrow their polities, may be a matter of degree, though not necessarily always everywhere the same. Then where to set that degree becomes crucial. Diamond sets the tipping point from egalitarianism into kleptocracy at the transition between, on the one hand, hunter-gatherer bands or subsistence-agriculture tribes, and, on the other, all centrally governed, non-egalitarian, societies, including, by definition, all civilisations.

Diamond’s account of bands and tribes as ‘egalitarian’ is not anthropologically correct. But we do at least know that there have long been, are, and may always be, some, within civilisation, hankering to ‘return’ to the mythical egalitarianism of the ‘noble savage’. This is a recurring fantasy, but not a viable alternative for most of the world’s population.

Most people hanker, instead, after the material, natural and notional products of civilisation. They are usually prepared to pay a price. They put up with some preconditions, including the division of labour, and resulting inequality. The question is how much, and of what kind.

So, while Diamond’s definition of all civilisation as kleptocracy, like Proudhon’s of property as theft, may be philosophically, or even historically defensible, it is not geopolitically useful.

That being the case, we must look elsewhere for the tipping point that makes some people overthrow their polities, perceived as kleptocracies, in favour of democracy, and others not.

VIII: Searching For the Tipping Point Between Acquiescence to Kleptocracy and Revolt Against It

What degree of economic inequality are people willing to put up with in order to enjoy the products of civilisation? Conversely, what degree of inequality, plus what other factors, makes them overthrow their polities, deeming them kleptocracies, in favour of what they perceive as democracy? The answers will differ for different people in different cases. It is therefore necessary to distinguish what factors are the same for all, and what factors differ.

The fact of inequality is universal. Only its degree differs. Yet some societies with great inequality remain relatively stable, while others with far less undergo political upheaval. Moreover, the degree of inequality is differently perceived in different societies. What is tolerable in one is not so in another. So it does not seem to be inequality, in and of itself, or even its degree, that makes the difference between societies that overthrow their polity, deeming it kleptocracy, in favour of what they perceive as democracy, and those that do not.

The difference seems to be, rather, in societies that have actually done so, the existence of a relevant standard of comparison, together with both need and opportunity for change.

Let us return to the example of Ukraine. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was ruled by oligarchs who stepped in to fill the shoes of the Soviet nomenklatura. The Orange Revolution was a power struggle between members of that oligarchy. They continued ruling, making crony deals with their counterparts in Russia, flirting with the West, until a combination of need and opportunity presented itself. The need was Ukraine’s imminent bankruptcy, caused by decades of kleptocracy, as has been revealed since its fall. The opportunity was the prospect that flirtation with the West would turn into a real affair, indeed a formal engagement, in the form of an association treaty with the European Union. This, over time, would oblige the oligarchs to do business in a completely new way, in accordance with international accounting standards and best practice, as defined by the EU. The EU thus provided a standard of comparison to one side, with Russia to the other. So this need and opportunity were simultaneously a threat to those oligarchs who wanted more of the same, and who were tactically allied with their counterparts in Russia, who were also their rivals.

Unexpectedly, in the midst of this evolving situation, a popular uprising arose, sweeping the kleptocracy from power, and setting off the chain of reprisals and reactions cited above. Unnoticed by the oligarchs, a critical mass had been forming. Exactly how this mix of need and opportunity for change, in the presence of a standard of comparison, among allies and rivals, complicated by an unexpected popular uprising, is still working out, is a subject for the daily news, more than for an article like this.

At this writing, the short term outcome is still unpredictable. Much depends on just how far Putin is ready to go to subjugate Ukraine to Russia. Without Ukraine, his Eurasian Union looks incomplete. So maybe he is ready to go very far indeed. But the long term outcome is more predictable: it is now highly unlikely that Putin can subjugate Ukraine without destroying its usefulness to him. He has already succeeded in alienating much of the Ukrainian population from Russia forever, or at least for a generation, by the way he has handled this crisis. As previously stated, there is no real power without some degree of consent, and Putin has totally lost most Ukrainians’ consent. Whether, for how long, he can keep that of Russians is a question for another occasion.

There are lessons to be drawn from the foregoing analysis, not only for Putin, but for all of us. One is that attributed to Lincoln: ‘you can’t fool all of the people all of the time’.[xxxvi] Sooner or later even the Russian people, like others elsewhere, will see through the lies that they are fed by the state-controlled media. Sooner or later, they will realise who pays the bills for the emperor’s new clothes. What they will do with that realisation is unpredictable. They are so long-suffering that they may be inured to kleptocracy, or even have come to enjoy it. But the same could have been said of the Ukrainians, until the spell was broken.

Another lesson is that what distinguishes democracy from kleptocracy is the rule of law, enforced by an independent, incorruptible bureaucracy. If in a democracy the rule of law lapses through corruption, and it slides into lawlessness, it soon ceases to be a democracy. That is why it is harder to build democracy than to let autocracy rule by default. It requires constant vigilance to maintain the rule of law, since, contrary to the myth of the noble savage, human nature, unchecked by constant cultural restraint, tends to theft, hubris and oppression of the weaker by the stronger.

This can be observed on any children’s playground, as well as in newly liberal modern states such as Spain, where the fight against political and bureaucratic corruption is an ongoing concern, filling the daily news. Even long established liberal democracies such as Britain have recently undergone episodes of exposing corruption by parliamentarians, civil servants and the police. No democracy can relax its vigilance, for once it has taken root, a culture of corruption is hard to eradicate. Of course the difference between democracies and kleptocracies is that, in the former, corruption is, eventually, exposed and extirpated, whereas in the latter it is concealed or denied, and fondly cultivated.

Separatist movements must also be examined in this light. In Ukraine the separatists, knowingly or not, in seeking to eliminate the rule of Kiev, are objectively fighting for kleptocracy. In Catalonia and Scotland separatists have sought to eliminate the rule of Madrid and London. What, objectively, are they fighting for?

At least in Catalonia one can see, in the light of recent revelations concerning that separatist movement’s leaders, that a major incentive for their separatism is the wish to rule their own kleptocracy unhindered. I am not competent to comment on the Scottish case, but such a risk must surely have been considered. However that may be, the Scottish people in their wisdom seem to have chosen, for now, to acknowledge a higher, collective authority: that of the United Kingdom.

This is not to say that all higher authorities are necessarily free from corruption, and lower ones corrupt. But while the opposite might theoretically occur, it is less likely in practice. Given how corruption works, if it is found at any level, it is likely also to be found below, but not necessarily above. The higher the level, the bigger the stakes, the more people involved, the harder it is to keep corruption secret, at least where there is any semblance of a free press. Even where there isn’t, the Internet and other forms of word of mouth expose corruption.

There are many more lessons to be drawn from comparing democracy with kleptocracy. I shall in due course explore more. For now, let me conclude not with yet another lesson, but with a series of questions, constituting a research agenda, arising from those so far learnt.

What I am seeking, but have not yet found, is the tipping point that marks, precisely, the difference between an imperfect, but tolerable society, and one that is intolerable, causing its people to rise up and change it. We need not waste time on defining a perfect society. No such definition will be universally acceptable, nor any such society achievable. We should consider the alternatives we have, and which are more tolerable, to whom, than which others.

A central issue is that of equality and opportunity, and their converse: inequality and lack of opportunity. How much of the former is possible? How much of the latter is tolerable? These are among the larger questions raised by comparing democracy with kleptocracy.


[iv] Nightingale, Florence (1974) [First published 1859]. “Introduction by Joan Quixley”. In …. Notes on Nursing: What it is and what it is not. Glasgow & London: Blackie & Son Ltd. ISBN 0-216-89974-5.

[v] From Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people” from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (kratos) “power, rule”.

[vi] From Greek: κλέπτης – kleptēs, “thief”and κράτος – kratos, “power, rule”.

kleptocracy (n.) “rule by a class of thieves,” 1819, originally in reference to Spain.  http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=kleptocracy&searchmode=none

[vii]The Guardian, Wednesday 1 December 2010, WikiLeaks cables condemn Russia as ‘mafia state’

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/01/wikileaks-cables-russia-mafia-kleptocracy

[viii] Spiegel Online International- March 13, 2013, What Human Rights Problems? European Politicians Shill for Kazakh Autocrat

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/european-social-democrats-lobby-for-kazakhstan-autocrat-a-888428.html

[xxi] Andrei Konchalovsky, interviewed on ‘HardTalk’, BBC, August 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02469y9

[xxiii] John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, 1995, Ch. 4: The General Theory of Institutional Facts, (Part 1), Some of the Issues at Stake in the Analysis.

[xxv]  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernement, 1840 : « La propriété, c’est le vol ! ».

[xxvi] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997, Chapter 14: ‘From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy’.

[xxvii] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1689, Sec. 87, 123, 209, 222.

[xxviii] Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies, 1843, Being an Examination of the Declarations of Rights Issued During the French Revolution: ‘That which has no existence cannot be destroyed — that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.’

[xxix] Plato, Republic, Book III, 414b – 414c.

[xxx] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Ch. II, Of Commonwealth

[xxxi] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique, 1762.

[xxxii] John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton: Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887 published in Historical Essays and Studies, edited by J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907)

[xxxiii] Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, iii. 26-29

[xxxiv] Diamond, ibid.

[xxxv] Marquis de Sade, Juliette, 1797