Crony Capitalism in Western Democracies: Twenty-First Century Power Brokers and the New Corruption

Prof. Janine Wedel 

The notion of “crony capitalism” rests on the idea of interpenetration of politics and business. Tellingly, the term more often has been applied to non-Western or post-Soviet societies than to Western ones. This paper charts the new, systemic corruption—difficult to detect, but insidious—that has been documented in the United States, parts of Europe, and beyond.

The new corruption is practiced by elite power brokers, some of them big names, some of them virtual unknowns, who assume a tangle of roles in government, business, nonprofits, and media organizations, fusing official and private interests. These players are the embodiment of crony capitalism; they test the rules of democratic states (accountability) and the free market (competition). Operating in fields from finance to foreign and social policy, the actions of these players often compromise public pocketbooks, health, and security and lead to deep and lasting inequalities.

The essence of this new (legal) corruption—the violation of public trust—harks back to ancient notions of corruption. Yet its practitioners follow a 21st-century playbook, written over the past few decades as privatization, deregulation, the end of the Cold War, and the advent of the digital age have transformed the world. These developments have broken down barriers and created openings for power brokers to exercise influence in a system that is more complex and opaque than ever, enabling them to use the levers of power to their own advantage while, at the same time, denying responsibility. And because their behavior is typically legal, it is next to impossible to hold them to account.