The corruption of democracy

The ‘Bettencourt Case’, which is rattling France with its storm of arrests, family  feuds, suspicious checks, secret recordings, fiscal misdemeanours, and illegal donations to the party of French premier Nicolas Sarkozy, is plunging the country into a profound crisis.
Lilliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women on the planet, owner of the L’Oreal perfume and cosmetics empire, with a personal fortune of 17 billion euros, finds herself at the epicentre of a hallucinatory soap opera that has become a government matter.

A few of the conversations recorded in her house reveal that Eric Woerth, then budget minister in change of tax collection and now labour minister, used his influence to arrange for his wife Florence to be hired by Bettencourt to manage her fortune for a yearly salary of 2,00,000 euros. Subsequently Woerth, who was also the treasurer of Sarkozy’s party, received what were presumably donations of tens of thousands of euros to finance Sarkozy’s election campaign. Then the suspicion arose that the minister had turned a blind eye to a part of Bettencourt’s hidden fortune, including a number of million-euro accounts in Switzerland and an island in the Seychelles valued at around 500 million euros.

History repeats

This matter, shameful enough in itself, becomes more alarming when one considers that it was Eric Woerth who was chosen to carry out the tough pension reform that will punish millions of retirees of modest means. In an environment of intense social tension and unrest in the ghettos of France’s cities, the ‘Bettencourt case’ is reigniting the old battle between the elites and the common people. According to philosopher Marcel Gauchet, “The atmosphere of society today is growing saturated with latent revolt and a feeling of radical distance from the rulers.”

France is not the only country sullied by the corruption of a handful of politicians who permanently confuse the duties public office with private benefits. People still clearly remember the UK’s parliament expenses scandal that brought down the Labour Party in the May 6 elections. Or the scandal in the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi where, almost 20 years after the ‘clean hands’ corruption crackdown wiped out major components of the political class, endemic corruption is spreading with massive force as the left looks on, paralysed and without ideas. In its most recent report, Italy’s Corte dei Conti found that corruption by public officials jumped 150 per cent in the last year. Spain has been exhausted by multiple cases of corruption of public officials connected with the construction barons who have made vast sums from the delirious urban planning policies. And then there is the grotesque ‘Gurtel case’ which continues to unfold.

Internationally, in the era of neoliberal globalisation, corruption has become structural. Its practice has become commonplace along with other forms of corrupting criminality: embezzlement, manipulation of public contracts, abuse of social goods, the creation of fictional jobs, tax fraud, and money laundering, among others.

Central pillar of capitalism

All of the above confirms that corruption is a central pillar of capitalism. Essayist Moises Naim argues that in the next few decades “the activities of the illicit networks of global trafficking and their partners in the ‘legitimate’ world, whether state or private, will have a far greater impact on international relations, strategies for economic development, promotion of democracy, business, finance, migration, global security, and war and peace than could be imagined up until now.”

According to the World Bank, the annual flow of money from corruption, criminal activities, and tax evasion to tax shelters has reached a staggering 1.6 trillion euros. Of this figure, roughly 250 billion are from tax evasion in the European Union alone. Redirected back into the legal economy, this amount would make it possible to avoid the current austerity plans and adjustments that are wreaking havoc on society.

No leader should ever forget that democracy is above all an ethical project grounded in virtue and a system of social values and morals that give meaning to the exercise of power. In his posthumous and indispensable book, Jose Vidal-Beneyto argues that when “the principal political forces, in complete mafia-style harmony, coordinate among themselves to swindle the citizens”, the result is a discrediting of democracy, a rejection of politics, a rise in abstention, and, more dangerous, growth of the far right. He concludes: “Government grows corrupted by corruption, and when there is corruption in democracy, democracy becomes corrupt.”


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