Kleptocracy: debt as a method of legalized robbery

  • July 26, 2012

Capitalism & Crisis

Debt is the mechanism that makes legalized robbery possible. This is why stopping the payment of our debt is an imperative in the defense of a decent life.

Originally published on Diagonal, nº 179, p. 33. Translation by Richard McAleavey (here).

‘Cutbacks announced by Rajoy will deepen recession until 2013’. Thus read the El País headline on the package of austerity measures kicking off the imperial economic protectorate of the EU and the markets. The headline, however, could have been another one, no less consistent or resounding: “It’s not a crisis! It’s a scam!” After all, what we are witnessing is surely the worst extortion we have ever seen.

Extortion, let’s recall, is an ‘offence that consists of forcing — through violence or intimidation — the commission or omission of an act or commercially motivated legal transaction with a view to making money and with the intention of causing material loss to the victim or a third party’. In this case, the intimidation is that exercized by the markets, and the act or commercially motivated legal transaction is the package of measures approved in Las Cortes with the goal of ruining the lives of the 99% to the benefit of the 1%.

But is there really a crisis?

The explicit awareness that the measures not only do not remedy, but prolong and deepen the crisis, reveals something far more insidious, if this were even possible, than the obvious irresponsibility of misrule. Namely, that 1) the nation state is no longer the center of modern sovereign power; 2) liberal democracy and representative government have failed institutionally to reconcile capital and labour; 3) the authority that rules us today operates somewhere midway between supranational institutions like the EU and financial institutions like the rating agencies (to cite two obvious examples of a far more complex network).

With things this way, what kind of (mis)government is it that is based on continuing to deliberately aggravate the suffering of its citizens? An illegitimate government, no doubt. It is also, as we have pointed out, a government that is nothing of the sort, but instead the transmission belt of decision-making bodies no less illegitimate, given that they evade all democratic control. But above all, it is a (mis)government that responds to a logic that must be diagnozed in its functioning, denounced in its effects and fought with an effective strategy.


The neoliberal logic of (mis)government can be identified with a type of regime that is established with each measure that gets approved: kleptocracy. From the Greek kleptēs or theft and kratos or rule, it can be defined as “government of those who steal”. Given that we are speaking of an illegitimate robbery, one can say, straight out, that we are facing a “government of thieves”. This is a matter of a kind of regime that consists not of government of, by and for the demos (as in democracy), but of government in the service of the logic of the priva(tiza)tion of resources that were once public.

A simple example: if university fees go up and only a minority can pay them, but we all fund public universities with our taxes equally, where is the redistribution of wealth? Where is the equality of opportunities? Where are the principles of the welfare state? Where is the Constitution? This, however, is how kleptocracy works: it subtracts from the 99% to give to the 1%.

Debt is the mechanism that makes legalized robbery possible: the private debt which through illegitimate means is converted into public debt; the debt which, like a deus ex machina condemns us to poverty. Debt today consumes the future and, equally, reduces people’s existence to its merely vegetative dimension. This is why stopping the payments is an imperative in the defense of a decent life. Faced with a rule that appears before us as a financial automatism, it is today urgent to move forward along the route of disobedience, in autonomous empowerment, towards the political regime of the commons.

Raimundo Viejo

Raimundo Viejo is a political theorist and activist living in Barcelona. He is an editor at Artifakte, professor at the Universitat de Girona and a member of the Barcelona city council for Barcelona en Comú.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/raimundo-viejo-kleptocracy-debt-crisis/

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