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Progressivism, Trump-Russia, and Transnational Kleptocracy

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By Bin im Garten (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
It’s commonplace to remark on the irony that right-wing nationalism has gone increasingly transnational. But it’s not without historical precedent. What’s more unusual is the degree that the left—whether left-liberal, progressive, or social-democratic—remains national in orientation. I’ve argued before that this is dangerous.  It place us at a disadvantage in terms of ideas and activism. Moreover, progressive goals—from mitigating climate change to tackling inequality—cannot be met solely within the borders of national-states.

This myopia is nowhere more on display than among those on the left who fail to see the connections among globalized kleptocracy, inequality, and oligarchy. In a guest post some weeks back, Yakov Feygin and Alex Hazanov argued that combatting these forces should be a bedrock principle of progressive internationalism. And it has implications for how the left processes Trump-Russia.

It’s now blindingly obvious that Trump and his cronies are deeply intertwined with oligarchs and kleptocrats in the former Soviet Union. These are the networks that Mueller is seeking to unravel, and that Trump has rhetorically redlined as grounds for removing Mueller. As Seva Gunitsky has been saying for quite some time, “To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money.”

Charles Tilly once compared the state to organized crime, but if you want to see what this looks like when this moves from analogy to literal truth, Russia isn’t a bad place to start. This is what Trumpism really represents for the United States: rampant extraction of rents by corporations, oligarchic rule, and normalized corruption—propped up through symbolic and practical policy concessions to religious conservatives and ethnonationalists.

Enter David Klion’s important essay on why the hardcore anti-Clinton left should care a lot about the Russia investigation. Those who think that Russia is merely a distraction from the evils of neoliberalism, or that the wrong done by the United States justifies supporting imperialists and mass murderers just because they oppose American foreign policy, are profoundly misguided. As Klion argues:

The release this month of millions of leaked documents known as the Paradise Papers establishes what leftists have argued for years: The United States-led push for free trade and a globalized economy has resulted in vast, unaccountable flows of untaxed offshore wealth. The policies of the post-Cold War Washington consensus have enriched the 1 percent and offered new ways to shelter and launder money across borders. A transnational oligarchy has arisen, with secretive business partnerships tying, for instance, Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump’s commerce secretary, to the family of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Far from undermining left-wing arguments, discussing these arrangements perfectly demonstrates the failings of contemporary capitalism.

Mr. Manafort’s indictment is a case study in international corruption. For years, the indictment says, he operated as an unregistered lobbyist for authoritarian governments, a popular racket in Washington. To avoid taxes, according to the indictment, he set up offshore bank accounts and laundered money through real estate and luxury goods — a common practice that enriches plutocrats while exacerbating housing crises in cities like New York and London by pumping billions of dollars of looted wealth into a tight real estate market.

He continues:

Left-wing critics of American foreign policy correctly point out that Russia is a convenient punching bag for hawkish pundits and politicians. But the most powerful counterweights to these hawks aren’t exactly progressive champions either: American corporations have lobbied against recognizing Mr. Putin’s human rights abuses and have sought to exploit Russia’s natural resources. Energy companies like Exxon Mobil, whose former chief executive, Rex Tillerson, now serves as secretary of state, have partnered with Russia and have sought waivers from international sanctions to drill for oil in Russia. A new Cold War would be dangerous, but so would a warmer United States-Russia relationship that enriches oil company executives in both countries.

As a rising generation of leftists increasingly asserts itself within the Democratic Party — and may, eventually, have the opportunity to shape foreign policy — it must articulate a new approach to Russia consistent with its core values. This approach should be driven neither by the interests of the national security state nor by the energy sector. Instead, it should aim to block Russia’s kleptocratic elite from safeguarding its assets in the United States, to clean up the influence of foreign lobbying on Washington and to shut down tax havens for billionaires everywhere. The investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties provides an opportunity to focus on these issues.

“Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable,” Mr. Sanders said in a recent address. “Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.” For Americans who broadly share Mr. Sanders’s views, this should be the real lesson of the Russia scandal.

It’s time for the left to update its understanding of international political economy in light of contemporary realities. Indeed, as I hope to eventually write about, popular leftwing discourse on, say, class lacks the kind of rigor necessary to build an effective political program. Many segments of the left still have a lot of priors to update.

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