Knopf, 432 pp, $29.99
In Greek mythology, the concept of the hydra has proven to be one of the most enduring images. Its staying power doesn’t necessarily reside in the fact that the beast maintained eight heads, leering and lunging at passersby and foes alike, though that grotesque imagery surely provided its own longevity. Rather, the hydra’s true legacy lies in the fact that any attempt to defeat the creature was self-defeating: whenever one of the heads of the hydra is lopped off, two grow in its place, inflating the monster’s threat, and increasing the monster’s reach.
A hydra is a mythological invention. And yet, as Sarah Chayes details in her new book On Corruption in America, the myth bundles lessons that help illuminate the modern world in a way many of us have forgotten, or have willfully overlooked. Real hydras walk among us—real monsters that expand and evolve after every attempt to combat them, real beasts that, in their growth, strangle our “slowly dying globe,” as Chayes writes. And there is one monster among them, to which Chayes devotes her book: unmitigated greed.
Greed is rampant across the globe, affects all social classes, and brings ruin to nations. It goes by many other names in its many manifestations, with perhaps the most familiar—certainly one of the most popular, in this era of Trump and Putin and Xi—being “kleptocracy.” At its core, “kleptocracy” is a system whereby the flow of wealth looted by the governing classes in developing nations are laundered via a series of Western industries all too happy to look the other way about the source of the income, regardless of the cost piled along the way. “Kleptocratic networks hold sway in military dictatorships and in apparent democracies,” Chayes writes, “under leftist regimes and in countries whose leadership champions ultra-free-market capitalism.”
Yet this new book from Chayes—one of the U.S.’s leading anti-corruption voices, who made her name trying to steer anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan—isn’t just focused on this phenomenon. It steers clear of analyzing the more technical, detailed aspects of modern kleptocratic systems. Rather, the book sticks to a higher, more philosophical plane, and tries to situate the phenomenon of “kleptocracy” as the outgrowth of the human condition centuries in the making. Where egalitarianism reigned for prelapsarian humans, modern man knows nothing but unabated greed. And kleptocracy, naturally, follows. “Once the question was, ‘to be or not to be.’ Now it’s, ‘to have or not to have,’” said one senior loan manager at a bank quoted by Chayes.
Chayes’s book is broadly chronological, examining everything from the pre-modern development of money to the emergence of Gilded Age robber barons, to the rise of Reaganomics. She is a steady guide as we watch the center fail to hold, as we see society crumble into little more than a playground for the greedy, as we observe networks of enablers and profiteers form the seemy underbelly of the modern world. Tax policy and macroeconomics, social reform and democratic backsliding—all, Chayes argues, are in some way impacted and infected by this unceasing, reflexive greed. Kleptocracy, kleptocratic regimes, and kleptocratic figures, all unprecedented threats to the flourishing of liberal democracy, are the end result. “The threat to democracy does not denounce liberty and egalitarianism,” Chayes writes. “It claims to represent those values. For that reason, it may be the most dangerous menace they ever faced.”
While certain sections meander, as philosophical treatises sometimes do, Chayes stands at her strongest when she centers her targets. The modern culprits—the major Western institutions, Western figures, Western models that fueled the modern modes of kleptocracy—all come in for a drubbing. There’s Goldman Sachs, for instance, which Chayes says is “for all intents and purposes a criminal entity.” There’s the Clinton Foundation, which Chayes describes as “the U.S. [version] of the ‘charities’ run by corrupt ruling families from Honduras to Uzbekistan,” alongside the “lower-profile Trump Foundation.” There is the entire billionaire class, which Chayes identifies as “parasites and freeloaders.”
Yet On Corruption in America is hardly a warmed-over Occupy Wall Street tract. Not only are there unexpected targets (such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has become a private equity profiteer), but Chayes locates her targets—the heads of this particular hydra—in their historical contexts. She also notes that we have, in many ways, been here before—at least in the United States. This is not the first time that spiraling wealth inequality has been married to white ethnic revanchism, pummeling the poor and non-white alike, entrenching corrupt networks that prop themselves up on little more than grievance and lying. The closest historic parallel we have for the current American moment is not the fall of Rome or pre-1917 Russia; rather, it’s the Gilded Age and Redemption, in which unreconstructed Confederates resorted to brute force and bloody terrorism to regain power, all while exhausted liberals across the country simply rolled over so long as the economic engine kept roaring.
That arrangement, as Chayes points out, not only collapsed the post-Civil War momentum toward equal rights, but it helped launch a kind of unfettered capitalism that took its toll. “Two wars, which unleashed two genocides, mass starvation in Europe, and a pandemic of proportions unseen since the bubonic plague; two wars that debased humanity as no events before them ever had. And a global economic collapse,” she writes. “That’s what it took. That was the price the world paid to break the grip of the hydra.”
That’s what we’re up against once again, Chayes argues, as kleptocratic networks continue corroding the sinews of our global order, as a corrupt political class relies on ethnic and racial divisions to continue pilfering and profiting, and as deregulation and legalized bribery continue to flourish. A new hydra is rising.
“The phenomenon we confront is the worldwide equivalent of a forest fire, of the Blitz,” she notes. “We must react accordingly—with that same impulsive solidarity.” Chayes does offer practical solutions—limiting money in politics must be “citizens’ top priority,” she writes—but bills and technical fixes can only do so much. A wholesale reimagination is what’s needed. After all, that first hydra was a product of imagination, all those millennia ago. Can we imagine a world without one?