BUENOS AIRES — Kleptocracy, derived from Greek, is government by thieves. While it may sound Aristotelian, it is a word coined in the early 19th century and its usage has recently spread in political parlance.
U.S. President George W. Bush famously called for international action against kleptocrats in 2006.
The category has gradually spread out from dictators to include rulers democratically elected to office. It is a word used in Spain now by anti-system protesters, the indignados, and applicable in Latin America to cases in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Venezuela and even Cuba.
And there’s Argentina, and a sharp eye on the governments run by the late President Nestor and his wife and successor Cristina Kirchner.
The term, however, has yet to replace the concept of “populism,” generally a much broader term. It is used both to praise and to denigrate. For some, it connotes people power, of people united in fighting the powerful. They would recall its prestigious origins, British Chartism in the 1840s, Russian populism at the time of Tolstoy or even the first phase of Peronism — the populism associated with General Juan Perón and his wife Evita — which oversaw a vigorous process of social democratization.
Even in its present, less virtuous versions, a basic, epic element persists, though its critics denounce it as intolerant and contemptuous of pluralism.
For their defenders, populist governments redistribute wealth to benefit the poor. Critics say their expenditures are irresponsible and indifferent to generating new wealth. Bread today, hunger tomorrow — probably when someone else is in office.
Both accept that wealth distribution comes with a dose of corruption, but defenders like to see it as a lesser evil, or that the ends justify the means.
Is the Kirchner party’s style of Peronism a kind of populism? If its intention was to redistribute wealth, things haven’t turned out so well.
Beyond the wasted prosperity of its early years, the outcome has been greater wealth concentrations and more social polarization, helped by subsidy policies.
Its economic policies, which have led to Argentina’s present predicament, can be qualified simply as the worst management of prosperity among all other so-called populist governments.
The solid core of this populism is its self-concocted “story.”
It’s reminiscent of those early Christian apologists, able to show God’s triumph over the devil, be it amid flooding or drought, through prosperity and poverty, health or infirmity. Its principal victims are political opponents, time and again trapped by the discourse that knows how to manipulate their beliefs and traditions. Its supporters include a core of believers, visible and active, and others, mere opportunists repeating their political catechism to stay in the game.
How many of these are there? It‘s difficult to tell for sure, but their numbers are likely overestimated and it’s necessary to look elsewhere for the reasons for Kirchnerism’s electoral victories.
On the whole, I don't think populism helps us much understand the governments led by the Kirchners. Indeed it confuses, and ultimately weakens, its critics. Now kleptocracy — that goes straight to the core of a regime built on two foundations: concentration of power and accumulation of wealth.
Nestor Kirchner said in 1975 — as his widow Cristina recalls — that the first step was to gather funds needed to win power, and then make more money. The couple accumulated its first lot of power and money in the 1990s — as Governor and First Lady of Santa Cruz — without a need for any political discourse.
The next challenge was to go from remote province to the national capital. To activate a new, amplified cycle of power and money generation, they had to find partners, amplify their circle of support and above all, come up with a “story.”
Much has been said about Nestor’s political finesse and skills, but really, he just needed money, and lots of it. We are beginning to understand now the mechanisms used to amass wealth, which has reached a scale yet to be calculated. We have fragments of it, but no complete picture yet.
In that sense kleptocracy is a clear and direct concept that goes to the heart of the matter. It refers to rulers who use state resources to organize a systematic ransacking operation, to fill private and political coffers one can barely differentiate.
The kleptocratic analysis clarifies and explains so many government actions, even as they are distorted by the official “story.” Paving streets, building more universities, more homes, subsidizing gas, electricity and transport — yes, there was populism in all of this, and a lot of mismanagement, but more to the point, there was cash flow. Every public works project, every piece of nationalization and every concession is a commission earned, another piece of the cake.
All together they form a system. We know its nucleus and main agents, and less about its ramifications and roots, which will likely permeate the next government.