Sarah Chayes on Kleptocracy in America

In 2015, Sarah Chayes came out with her book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.

She has since moved to West Virginia, where she’s writing a book about corruption in the United States. It’s a take off on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Working title? Kleptocracy in America.

Kleptocracy  – as in – government by thieves.

“I was loading a lot into Thieves of State,” Chayes told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “I was saying that violent religious extremism is actually related to governmental corruption, not religious ideology. That was a big thing to try and say. I didn’t want to load this book down with too much controversial analysis.”

“But I did have a chapter at the end that looked at Iceland, Ireland and the United States in the lead up to the 2008 financial disaster. Many of the factors I was identifying in developing countries were visible in the West. And if we weren’t careful to try and put some constraints on systemic corruption in the West, we were going to suffer the same kind of extremist uprising that could take who knows what form. And that we were susceptible to some kind of extremist uprising.”

“Now that book came out in 2015. I thought there was a little more time. I didn’t expect a version of an extreme reaction so quickly. But that’s what we got in this country in 2016. Much of the vote for Bernie Sanders and the vote for Donald Trump was one of these wrecking ball, smash the system, anti-corruption votes.”

“Paradoxically, what we came out with in my view is not just more of the same, but a doubling down on the type of corrupt practices that made a lot of people indignant.”

“But believe me. Go to Nigeria and talk to people who supported Boko Haram. They woke up with smashed heads too. They are saying – Boko Haram was telling the truth about the problem, but their solution wasn’t the right solution. So they are regretting supporting Boko Haram.”

“I feel the same thing is happening here. People made an extreme vote. I don’t know that they will regret it. But in my view, the person who gained the presidency is producing almost a distillation of precisely the corruption system that people were voting against.”

“While in the United States we don’t have doctors saying – pay up or I won’t examine your wounds. But there are overlapping private networks. We have the Secretary of the Treasury under this administration and the last administration – they came directly from the financial services industry. You have that kind of overlap between the private sector and the public sector. And you get deregulation, which doesn’t serve the public interest, but rather helps the banking industry.”

“You have someone who believes in privatizing education running the education department. You have the former head of the largest fossil fuels corporations heading our State Department. You have someone deeply embedded in the transportation of our fossil fuels heading our Commerce Department.”

“In other words, you have a confusion of roles between people whose primary role is to enrich their corporation, their board members and their friends, are now playing roles in government where ostensibly they ought to be protecting ordinary American citizens from the excesses of those types of corporations.”

“Instead, they are bending their agencies, bending the laws to favor the amassing of more money by people who already have a lot of money and make it more difficult for ordinary people to bring their numbers to bear. That’s what ordinary people have to put in the balance. The point one percent has their money to put in the balance. We have a large number of people to put in the balance. But that is becoming harder and harder to do.”

What is the working title of your new book?

“Kleptocracy in America. I don’t know whether it will stay that. But shortly after the American revolution, de Tocqueville came and went on a tour of America. He was struck by the egalitarianism of our system and by this revolutionary self-government, as flawed as it was.”

“And there were poison pills embedded in it – like slavery, like women don’t count as people, like people without property don’t get to vote. Nevertheless, at the time it was a revolutionary form of government.”

“He wrote this book called Democracy in America. I feel like we are now living in an age of kleptocracy in America.”

You moved to the poorest state in the country, West Virginia. Why did you move to West Virginia?

“I moved here because I love the Potomac River. I moved into the Potomac watershed. That was the primary reason. I moved onto the Cacapon River, which flows into the Potomac. I feel extremely comfortable in West Virginia. The level of poverty in West Virginia is something I have experienced most of my professional life. I resonate with the rugged self-reliance. The combination of independence and interdependence. An independence bolstered by an amazing instinct to help your neighbors.”

“What distresses me so much is our polarized politics – the fault is on both sides. Why is it that we can’t get left leaning environmentalists and right leaning hunters together? They both adore our West Virginia wilderness, our landscape. We have been driven apart from each other by the top of the kleptocratic system. They are activating our cultural divides as much as possible to make sure that overeducated liberal environmentalists are unable to speak with and sit in the same room with undereducated, impoverished West Virginia hunters.”

“In my research on anti-corruption movements worldwide, what I discovered was that the best tactic kleptocratic networks use to stay in power and defeat legitimate uprisings against them is to deliberately activate identity divides.”

“They do this very cynically: usually they don’t care much about the Sunni-Shi’a divide, or about guns or gay rights themselves. But they lean hard on these issues because they know these issues rile people up, and keep them divided in angry opposing camps, incapacitated to rise up against the kleptocratic network that is abusing all of them.”

West Virginia went overwhelmingly for Trump – in some areas 80 to 20 for Trump. He talked about the financial crisis, the bailouts of the big banks, Hillary’s ties to Wall Street. He was running against corruption.

“It doesn’t matter the color of the regime. It can be just as corrupt as the one it’s replacing. I have seen kleptocratic governments that are socialist, uber free market capitalist, military dictatorship. West Virginia was a Democratic single party state for a long time. Same for Illinois. They were incredibly corrupt Democratic regimes. People are only offered two choices.”

“Someone comes in and says I’m Republican. People say – the Democrats are this corrupt, let me vote for someone else. That’s part of it. It was also a clearly, expressively anti-establishment campaign that President Trump ran. And it was against obvious manifestations of corruption in the Democratic Party, which the Democratic Party did not pay enough attention to and still does not.”

“I just was canvassing in Ritchie County with a candidate for local office. And we knocked on every single door we came across. And seventy percent of the people we came across don’t vote, don’t want to vote, aren’t voting.”

“Let’s map West Virginia in terms of who voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Donald Trump and who voted for nobody – people who didn’t vote or didn’t even register to vote. People who voted for nobody defeated Clinton and Trump hands down. And that to me is a strong indication of people’s disgust with the rigged system. Clinton didn’t address the rigged system problem. Trump did.”

Will you be voting for Senator Joe Manchin in November?

“I will not vote for Senator Manchin. I intend to write in. And I’m not going to write in a specific candidate. I want to resonate with that huge body of Mr. Nobody West Virginians. I want to write in – No More Manchins – and everything he represents – which somebody who puts a D label on their shirts, takes people’s votes for granted, and behaves as the lackey of the private sector members of the kleptocratic network that is running this state and running this nation. That means Big Pharma and Big Fossil Fuels.”

“His votes are always to benefit those guys. I would love to see his calendar and see how much time he spends schmoozing, talking, hearing the perspectives of, eating dinner with, hunting with, hanging out with, drinking booze with, either lobbyists or executives of Big Pharma, and fossil fuel interests.”

The upcoming election on November 6 might decide whether the Senate goes Republican or Democrat. Why would you be willing to risk a Senate controlled by Republicans, a Senate that could push through maybe another Trump appointee to the Supreme Court?

“Here’s why. I want substance, not letters. We tend to judge everything by numbers these days. We say – Manchin, D after his name. Let’s get enough Ds and then we can worry about getting good Ds. And I’m like – a D who doesn’t represent the people of the state of West Virginia – I don’t care if he’s a D.”

“West Virginia has a powerful and glorious populist past – and I mean populist past – and I mean populist in the best sense – where ordinary people banded together to fight the abuse of the people who concentrated the wealth.”

“By standing there as a D, Manchin is preventing West Virginians from coming together to re-imagine what a populist party that really cares for the people ought to look like. He’s doing a greater favor to the Republicans by preventing the development of a real people oriented party.”

“We got where we are in this country because a bunch of the kleptocrats starting thinking about how to do it back in 1973. They started going into overdrive in the early to mid-1980s. This has been a thirty year project to get us where we are today. We are not going to flip it back in a year. I don’t believe the world has as much lead time as it used to. I don’t think we have thirty years to fix this.”

“Having more Ds who are essentially also in servitude to the very same corporate interests as the Rs are isn’t going to make a difference.”

“I would love to see West Virginia lead the world in having genuine reformers seize the anti-corruption indignation that is crackling throughout this country. I don’t know if that means a third party. Or a serious citizen oversight over the two traditional parties. They would say – no, you don’t get our votes as a Democrat or as a Republican unless you take a stance against corruption.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Sarah Chayes, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 41(11), Monday October 22, 2018, print edition only.]

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Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

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