Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Elites, Legality and Inequalities of Power: State Capture in Comparative Perspective

Monday, 23 November 2015

On 7 October the Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society at Brookes staged a one-day comparative workshop on state capture across the developing world, with papers on Latin America (Bolivia and Peru), the Balkans (Montenegro), the Central Asian Republics, India and South Africa. The conference sought to provide a definition for what is meant by ‘state capture’ and to provide links between a range of different sorts of regimes which, in one way or another, have been characterised in this way. Those giving papers included researchers at Oxford Brookes as well as other invited participants. The keynote address was given by Professor Neil Robinson from the University of Limerick, and the concluding remarks were provided by Laurence Whitehead, Official Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Robinson sought to go beyond the definition of state capture provided in 1998 by Joel Hellman from the World Bank with relation to elite corruption in the countries of the former Soviet Union which he considered limited in its use. Indeed, he sought to go beyond simple institutional explanations (such as presidentialism as opposed to parliamentarism) in fostering state capture. Institutions, on their own, he maintained, failed to promote the liberal virtuous circle so desired by proponents of the Washington Consensus. Taking Russia as an example, he argued that state capture is not a permanent feature of a political system, since under President Putin it was more a case of the state recapturing business after the oligarchic capture witnessed under President Yeltsin. Robinson saw the need therefore to distinguish different types of state capture and different stages of market reform, and for these to be placed in their historical context. He also pointed to the need to highlight degrees of state autonomy and the extent to which elites can appropriate rents through their influence over state decisions. In Eastern Europe, liberalisation had been essentially technocratic, focusing on how to get the state out of the way, though this was less evident in some countries than others. A paper by Alex Finnen (Ministry of Defence/Oxford Brookes) on Montenegro highlighted a society in which clans and smuggling mafias (often foreign) had effectively seized power. Two papers – one by Chris Hesketh (Oxford Brookes) and one by Jeffrey Webber (Queen Mary University) stressed class domination of contemporary states and the limited autonomy of state action. Both highlighted the contribution of Gramscian thought to understanding the processes of state capture. Looking at the case of Peru, Francisco Durand (Catholic University, Lima) concentrated more on mechanisms of state capture, both at national as well as local levels, and going beyond analysis of the executive to reflect on other nuclei of power. Both Alex Beresford (Leeds) and Rico Isaacs (Oxford Brookes) stressed neopatrimonialism as their preferred analytical framework for looking at elite control in South Africa and the Central Asian Republics respectively. Prittam Singh (Oxford Brookes) looked at India since Independence, stressing the role of nationalism in limiting the remit of business elites, at least until recent times. Summing up the proceedings, Laurence Whitehead came back to the need to historicise experiences of state capture, recognise limitations and to focus attention on those parts of the state most readily captured by modern business elites. In reviewing the Bolivian experience, he showed that state capture is an unstable and unpredictable process. Successful state capture tends to happen when an economic model combines with a connected political project and an effective discourse combining the two. However, similarities between case studies make it possible to make meaningful comparison across geographies and over time. Depending on levels of abstraction, what we need to focus on is (i) what parts of the state? (ii) capture by whom? (iii) for what purpose? and (iv) to what degree?