Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Hustling then and now

Oscar season, now past but still fresh in memory, reminds me of non-winner American Hustle from last year because that tawdry tale has just replayed itself in British politics. Hustle was based on the notorious 1970s ABSCAM FBI sting operation that netted several politicians and the Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner, en bouffant. It was based on an elaborate and quite incredible scheme cooked up by the FBI to entrap dirty politicians with suitcases of cash.

The difference is that the ABSCAM defendants of yesteryear faced indictments and charges and even jail and certainly public opprobrium whereas the British pols snared—one foreign minister each from the two main UK parties, Straw (Labour) and Rifkind (Tory)—proudly assert that they did nothing wrong and have “a clear conscience.” On the latter point, I do not doubt their word for one minute. Politicians for Hire, the documentary produced by the Daily Telegraph reporters on their escapades as deep-pocketed businessmen from Honk Kong shopping for influence, will be aired later today on British TV. Yum yum.

In the 50 years that have elapsed between the US version of mock-political bribery and the recent one staged by the British reporters, profound shifts in our beliefs about governance have evolved in both countries. Whereas once it would be shameful to accept payoffs and peddle influence for one’s corporate contacts, it is now considered not only normal but almost virtuous. We have stopped believing in public goods or public well-being and now see only clan- and network-based interests, to which one mans up and hitches one’s wagon or gets left in the dust, i.e., is a loser and a nobody.

In short, we have developed the mentality of a mafia state. As there are many stages in this process of gradual rot, we can still compare our situation favorably with that of, say, Mexico or Nigeria. But the momentum and the direction of the decline are clear enough.

In a non-mafia state there are rules and standards of fairness that, while never fully honored, exercise a certain degree of social control over the natural biped tendency to cash in for self and friends. Thus the congressman who was taped stuffing his pockets with cash from the FBI agents pretending to be Mideast sheiks—and whom I personally questioned about his belief system during a Capitol Hill news conference—was the object of scorn. Today, he would be criticized for crudity and sloppiness, but not ostracized. Similarly, Straw and Rifkind can rebut the charge that they and their influence are for sale by saying, So what? A guy’s gotta earn his living somehow, and who can get by on a lousy hundred thou a year? They will neither go to jail nor be dropped from party invitation lists.

I recognize this growing trend toward mafiosism having lived in South America for two decades. There, no one really believes or even pretends to believe that merit is the standard for advancement though it may be taken into account (or not). Instead, one has to have connections (cuña in Chilean slang, or “wedge”) and mobilize them; the relevant skills and competence may or may not also be required, but cuña is essential. This process will include all sorts of cajoling, ass-kissing, gift-giving, stroking, relative-schmoozing, and relentless buttering up until the goal is achieved. Sexual favors, of course, are often welcome.

The ideal form of this system is the political party, which is why the anti-Pinochet coalition that replaced the military regime in Chile in 1990 quickly degraded itself into a corrupt network of hustlers amassing and passing out favors. While there were people in the coalition trying to represent the interests of the entire population in the new government, they never constituted its core. Parallels with the Democratic Party, USA, are so obvious they barely need mentioning. (The GOP, now a whorehouse without even a beaded curtain to hide behind, even less.)

How much of this is inevitable? After all, government officials will always be biased toward their favorites, and economics inevitably drives decision-making. Democracy cannot pretend to operate at a remove from the overwhelming influence of profit. But when a society no longer believes in the nation, the collective polity as the repository of an ideal of fairness and equity and not just a jumble of jockeying clans blindly intent solely on their own exclusive advancements, the seeds of collapse are sown. No wonder we keep hearing so much about how Obama or some other enemy “doesn’t love America.” In psychology, it’s called projection.

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