October 26, 2006

The Politics of Kleptocracy

I've been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New Edition and have really been enjoying it so far. I'm a little more than halfway through with it. Even though religion is not the main topic of the book, I ran across something worth sharing.

After defining kleptocracy, author Jared Diamond says that the issue with a kleptocracy is always how to maintain it. After all, this system of government involves a small but powerful elite exploiting a large population. (Sadly, I am growing convinced that America abandoned democracy for corporate kleptocracy some time ago.) Diamond says there are four solutions to the problem of how a kleptocracy can maintain itself. Of likely interest to you, here is #4:
"The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy" (p. 277).
Religious impulses almost certainly predate civilization. However, it appears that most kleptocracies, starting with small chiefdoms and extending through modern national governments, have recognized the utility of religion. Superstitious beliefs may have originated as methods for explaining confusing natural phenomena, but it seems that they may persist today largely because of their role in justifying kleptocracy. Without state sponsorship through the ages, the type of organized religion we have today would not have been possible.

Diamond does not explicitly apply this to modern politics (at least not in what I have read so far), but I can't resist doing so. When I examine contemporary American politics, I see the Republican party talking the loudest about their religiosity. Why? Because their policies are the most kleptocratic (i.e., they favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor). In fact, they have few qualms about exploiting the poor and even blame them for being poor! The need to publicly announce their religion has been less necessary for Democrats because their policies provide a more significant benefit to the masses. Remember I said that Diamond gives four solutions to the problem of maintaining a kleptocracy? #2 involves the redistribution of wealth through popular public programs, and this describes the Democrats.

The points I'm making here are not new. They have been made repeatedly throughout the historical and political literature. And yet, they are not brought up often enough in modern political discourse. While we continue to criticize Republican efforts to merge church and state, let us also expose why they need religion so much.

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