'Fantastically corrupt': Guess who decides?

Roslyn Fuller
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at fullerr@tcd.ie.
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister, David Cameron © Ben Gurr
The recent anti-corruption summit hosted by David Cameron in London has sparked a debate about just what corruption is, but hasn’t come up with any viable solutions.

Law is like a spider’s web…

It all started with this awkward bit of small-talk captured on video in which an elected official (that would be Mr. Cameron) - who turned out to be involved in some dodgy offshore investments himself - appeared to promise his appointed-by-birth Head of State (that would be Queen Elizabeth II) that the "fantastically corrupt" countries of Nigeria and Afghanistan would be served up at the conference, while the Archbishop of Canterbury looked on.

It was an odd scenario on many levels. There was a hint that Cameron deserved a pat on the head for procuring the attendance of seriously corrupt countries, as opposed to merely moderately corrupt ones, mingled with the depressing insight that no matter how high you rise in the British hierarchy, you apparently never get past the point where have to stand around clutching your drink, trying to shoot the breeze.

But certainly the most infuriating aspect of the video was the disturbingly colonial image of very rich Brits having a little chuckle about what ‘the natives’ get up to while the hors d’oeuvres are served beneath their tinkling chandeliers. Slap on a sepia-filter, alter the cut of the clothes, and you could believe them Victorian-era gentlefolk just about to sit down and carve up a map of Africa.

In fairness, the Archbishop tried to put a good word in for Nigeria, assuring his fellow elites that current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is "not corrupt". Which is quite the resurrection for Buhari, who was once, not to put too fine a point upon things here, dictator of Nigeria.

But generally the overall impression was that Cameron et al tend to perceive corruption as something only other people do. The truly civilized would never be caught doing something as gauche as handing over money in a brown envelope, and not just because you’d never find a big enough envelope.

Mercifully, this hypocritical stance has not escaped comment, with excellent opinion pieces on the Panama Papers, and the failure of Western governments to act on information provided by financial whistle-blowers, and the proliferation of American and European tax havens being penned by some of the Britain’s finest remaining journalists.

They, however, failed to comment on the perfectly legal bribery that goes on between nations, which, considering the context, is definitely worth a mention. Wealthier countries routinely shell out foreign aid, military aid and debt forgiveness to anyone not particularly well off until they ‘achieve consensus’ on whatever the topic of the day is. To give but one minor example: When Australia suddenly decided that it wanted a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-2014 so that it could influence decisions on East Timor, Afghanistan and Indonesia, it simply restructured its aid program to give more to African nations in order to get their votes. A seat was duly delivered. Well-off nations from the USA to Japan have a habit of cracking open their wallets when they need developing countries to do something for them.

In the case of Japan, this often involves joining the International Whaling Commission, while the US has a predilection for bombing places. Incidents where particularly tough negotiators from developing countries have been personally harassed into compliance with developed country wishes are not unknown. This means that while calling on people like President Buhari to stop corruption in their own countries, leaders of developed nations simultaneously reserve the right to buy off the entire country on international issues if it seems expedient to do so. Now that’s hypocrisy. The strong break through, but the weak are caught.

So, we have outright vote buying on an international level and we have often quite flagrant and surface-level corruption in certain countries like Nigeria, where, I am reliably informed, culpability for traffic accidents rests solely on the wad of cash you can produce on short notice.

What do these two systems have in common? Severe economic disparities.

There are a few very rich nations and a lot of very poor ones, just as in Nigeria, there are a few very rich people and many very poor people. For more than half a century, Western nations have experienced significantly less disparity in terms of wealth within their own borders, thanks to well-developed social systems and progressive taxation which enabled the existence of a robust middle class. However, the dismantling of the social system coupled with rapid deregulation of finance and trade have meant increased inequality – and increased corruption, whether its civil forfeiture abuse in the USA or buying an election in the UK, forking over for planning permission in Spain or helping your cronies get a political leg up in Ireland. ‘It’s who you know, not what you know,’ as a class of students once informed me, in the apparent belief that this counted as some kind of definitive answer as to why they couldn’t be bothered with homework.

This is why the ‘rules’ approach to corruption cannot work. It’s great that journalists aren’t letting Western leaders get away with defining corruption as an African problem; it’s good to see NGOs questioning whether the summit’s proposal to have tax havens communicate information about ownership to other governments is really a sufficient way to combat corruption. But the expectation that stronger rules and greater punishments will really work is a myth.

Consider this: China has been lining up those convicted of corruption in front of firing squads for years, and they don’t seem to ever run short on targets. As long as the economic incentive is there, people will always chance their arm (or, as the case may be, head).

And in their short gaffe-ridden appearance, Cameron et al. didn’t just seem to embody the values of last century’s elite in their views on the ‘subject peoples’; they also symbolized a Victorian view of wealth and privilege that tends to make corruption the only viable life choice for anyone bent on getting to the top or staying there.

It underscored the remarks made by Cameron a few weeks ago as he defended himself (in Parliament, not in court) against the Panama Papers’ revelation that he had profited through his father’s offshore trust. In his comments, the British Prime Minister stressed that many people and companies were engaged in similar deals, which speaks to the aforementioned journalists’ points on the definition of corruption: if you want to keep doing what you’re doing simply deny that it is in fact corrupt.

What followed was, however, even more enlightening.

Cameron spoke of the need to differentiate between "schemes designed to artificially reduce tax and those that are encouraging investment," heavily insinuating that he and his father had been involved in ‘wealth creation’. He further stressed that people should not be "embarrassed" about passing inheritance to their children, because "many parents want to help their children when they buy their first car, get a deposit for their first home or face the costs of starting a family." He then wound up by emphasizing his commitment to "low tax rates", potentially, one is forced to presume, even as low as the low tax rate his government gave to Google when they agreed that it could pay 3 percent of its taxes owed.

In other words, the economic system that produces aggravated economic inequality and therefore makes cheating oh-so-hard to resist will remain in place. Many people may want to help their children with a home deposit or subsidize their grandchildren, but few have the means to do so. For many millennials their inheritance will become the most important factor of life – just as it was before WWI in Europe and just as it has continued to be in many parts of the developing world.

Patronage opportunities will be the second most important, because in such an unequal economic landscape those not born rich are literally unable to fend for themselves or work their way up honestly. They know to their bones that it’s who you know, not what you know; that in a world of reduced social services and purely imaginary pensions, you have to look out for yourself first; and that how you get to the top pales to insignificance when the only other alternative is a life at the bottom.

Cameron turning a blind eye to the kind of ‘corruption’ he and his posh mates indulge in while scapegoating others is but a symptom of the problem, the true cause is their economic policy.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.