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Home > Reviews > Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world

Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world

Author Tom Burgis

ISBN No 9780 008308346

Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 336

Publisher Harper Collins

Publisher URL

Year of publication 08/12/2020


Our Review


£ 20, hardback

Things are getting much worse fast, but we are in a stage of discovery, the author and Financial Times investigative journalist Tom Burgis told a webinar by the think-tank RUSI this afternoon. Kleptopia burrows into the same ground as McMafia by Misha Glenny, about how 'kleptocracies' from Zimbabwe to Kazakhstan to Angola are run on corruption and the flow of dirty money into the western financial system, to be safe under western rule of law, typically in real estate.

Tom Burgis ended the session by seeing 'real cause for optimism', likening the subject to climate change, in that the political will and sense of urgency about a need to change might arise out of awareness and outrage.

Back now on the staff of the FT - having taken time off, as with his earlier book about the corrupting effect of oil extraction in Africa, The Looting Machine - he wondered aloud about a possible next book subject - what happens when corruption meets the 'information age'. "It seems to me no coincidence that our information eco-system is collapsing at the same time as dirty money is conquering the world [the sub-title of Kleptopia]; I think the two things are linked." He said that he was fascinated by the propaganda arms of kleptocracies, and the 'private propaganda industry in the west', in pursuit of kleptocracic goals, including 'bringing down the temple of truth, if you like'.

He began by defining the word kleptocracy - a state that most of the world's citizens live in, he said. Corruption in a kleptocracy is everywhere - and while there has always been corruption and always will be, in a kleptocracy the abuse of public office and trust for personal gain is not an aberration but the system through which power works, for the purpose of enriching those who hold power. Kleptopia he defined as the emerging transnational alliances, of countries and networks. He made an important distinction: "Sometimes we fall into a trap of thinking there are Kleptocrats who live in hot and cold countries where we can't pronounce people's names; and rich countries are somehow occasionally polluted by these Kleptocrats ..." when the truth is that the kleptocratic rulers are desperate to swathe themselves in the legitimacy, that democracies generate.

The kleptocracies' networks, 'truly global', don't have any regard for borders; they capture state institutions - a London court, or the Russian treasury, or Nigerian military - and use them; privatise them.

He went into more detail of some of the four stories in the book - to quote from the blurb, 'A body in a burned-out Audi. Workers riddled with bullets in the Kazakh desert. A rigged [2008] election in Zimbabwe. A British banker silenced and humiliated for trying to expose the truth about the City of London.'

As he told the webinar, and as he tried to put across by his style of writing, like a non-fiction thriller, besides the financial machinery of laundering money, and of political dictators' images, there is also the human cost - the torture of those who try to challenge the Kleptocrats, by men in plain clothes, the falsifying of truth by compliant and sweating judges in courts. Outside their home countries, they are also hiring spies, public relations agencies and lawyers, as they seek to present a plausible face so that they are embraced by democracies - literally embraced by the rulers of democracies; or as Tom Burgis put it, to make the dictator plausible enough so that a western leader can meet them and 'keep a straight face'. He called this 'image laundering', 'the political parallel to money laundering'. He said this had an 'Alice in Wonderland' quality, a process that was happening every day.

He went on to what are the qualifications to be part of the Kleptocracies' 'club'. He defined two sorts of alliances. First, the literal and direct conspiracies of hidden alliances connecting business interests, and the money flows between countries. Here he outlined the 2008 and 2013 elections in Zimbabwe, a 'deeply repressive and violent, kleptocratic regime' and deals through the western financial system. Then there are such leaders as Maduro (Venezuela's president), Duterte (president of the Philippines), Bolsinaro (president of Brazil) and Donald Trump. "Ideology is a mask, really, nationalism is a decoy," albeit a possibly dangerous one. Relationships develop into personal alliances, and friendships; but there is also a 'broader alignment of interest'. Just as there is a community of democracies - different countries sharing the same values, and interests - so there is with Kleptocracies, Tom Burgis said. Those values are the privatisation of power for personal gain, and use of power to bolster corrupt power - 'and a circle goes on'. However much they may look like enemies, they have more in common than divides them.