Powerful people act as middlemen between Washington and foreign capitals, selling off the riches of an empire in decline.
“Comprador capitalist” is not a compliment. The term denotes a merchant in a poor country who brokers deals with foreigners, parleying his knowledge of local conditions and his contacts with overseas traders into enormous profits for himself.
Even—especially—as the foreigners settle down into trading posts and then begin manipulating and controlling the government of the region or even the whole country, the comprador capitalist continues to play both sides. He offers himself as the eternal middleman, the entrepôt to the strange world the foreigners want to dominate and the point-person for negotiations between the put-upon local authorities and the invading imperialists.
Whatever the foreigners want to sell, even society-wrecking poison like opium, the comprador capitalists will find a buyer for it. Whatever the foreigners want to buy, even slaves for their ship galleys or for their fields back home, even women for their bedchambers, the comprador capitalists will find a seller.
The history of comprador capitalism came to mind as I was reading through a stack of books recently on corruption in American government. There are many such books, no doubt because the subject matter is virtually inexhaustible. One standout of late is Peter Schweizer’s 2018 volume Secret Empires, describing a phenomenon Schweizer investigated in close-up in his 2015 book, Clinton Cash.
The way the American federal government operates at the highest levels is, now, essentially compradorian. Powerful people—the Clintons, of course, but also players with last names like Bush, McConnell, Kerry, Biden, and Trump—act as middlemen between the “political economy,” a euphemism for “cesspool,” of Washington and the political economies of foreign capitals.
A double layer of compradorism makes this all somehow legal. The Clinton Foundation, Hunter Biden, Elaine Chao, Christopher Heinz: It isn’t the bigwig him- or herself who takes the bribe directly; it’s the “charitable organization,” the spouse, the son, the stepson who collects the “donation” or the “speaking fee” or the investment in the “strategic partnership.”
But just like the cohong merchants in Qing-era Canton, the main thing is to be the hinge between two opposing planes. The point where strength and strength connect is highly lucrative, and comprador capitalists know exactly how to maximize lucre while navigating the realities of power.
But as I reflected on this a bit more, the term “comprador capitalism” started to seem off. For what is being bought and sold in 21st-century America is not really crates of tea and porcelain, but power itself. Take the case of Sant and Vikram Chatwal and Amar Singh. In chapter four of Clinton Cash Schweizer lays out how these very well-connected and very ambitious insiders in Indian politics finagled proximity to the Clintons—literally, as in a seat of honor for Singh near the Clintons at a 2005 Clinton Global Initiative soiree—to obtain clearance for the nuclear weapons deal that the Indian government coveted. Chapter eight, “Warlord Economics,” focuses on the Clintons’ cozy relationships with transparently, almost comically corrupt strongmen in Africa. The Clintons themselves have no special abilities besides a genius for grift. What they do have in spades is the charism of federal power. They exude the aroma of peacock-blue carpet, mahogany furniture, and presidential drapery. This is the currency of the late-imperial realm: the nostalgic trappings of the tottering empire that still, like the Qing circa 1890, has the chops to impress petitioners with the weight of the dead past.
Yes, there are physical and financial rewards to be gained from all this, and those are what underlings who sidle up to the Clintons are after. But what the Clintons themselves are selling is not the gold, diamonds, oil, uranium, or whatever else their hangers-on want. The Clintons are selling the aura of American might. They are selling the afterglow of power. The Clinton cohongs are trafficking in the American empire itself, trading access to the empire’s unraveling power structures in exchange for money and fame and glory and all the rest.
This is different from comprador capitalism. This is comprador imperialism. It has become the default, perhaps the only, way to do business at the upper echelons of the federal power pyramid.
Comprador imperialism is Burisma, and Hunter Biden’s fingerpaintings, and Rudy Giuliani’s weird Ukrainian rolodex, and even the rush among party cadres in Beijing to get their princeling offspring into Harvard and NYU. The American empire is a fading image, but while it lasts there are many in the world who want to bask in its dying light. People on every inhabited continent scramble to appropriate for themselves the iconography of a thing that no longer exists, the Star Spangled Banner waving high on a building, while down below the streets are covered with needles and feces, and, inside, the shell corporations trading derivatives can’t afford to keep the lights on.
This photo-op-ism, this magical force that comes from propinquity to a flabby power couple or from weaselly words out of the mealy mouth of a senator from Kentucky, is what comprador imperialists are offering. And people are buying. Big time. Hunter Biden and his associates received billions of dollars from Chinese firms with deep ties to the central government in Beijing.
Photos with the American flag are not what the Chinese really want, though, of course. The Chinese have seen the feces-smeared and needle-littered streets and have rejected the runaway liberalism that gives the world such gifts. The Chinese don’t care about the future of American power, only its steady desuetude. They want to whittle the American empire down so they can take its place as world hegemon. They are already doing this, but it works much more efficiently if someone inside the shop runs the fire sale.
Indian politicians, Ukrainian mafiosi, African warlords, Canadian billionaires—they want in on the scraps, too. “Managed decline” is not what we thought it was. Someone is managing it, and it isn’t the government. It’s comprador imperialists, the ones in very expensive suits cutting deals with very unsavory characters in parts of the world that not even Instagrammers care to visit. Did you think I meant Kinshasa? No, I meant San Francisco.
But there you go. San Francisco was where the United Nations Charter was signed. It is now basically a city-sized opium den. Cohongs, indeed. This hollowing-out of the empire is Samir Amin’s dependency theory in reverse. The periphery was once dependent on the imperial metropole. Now, the filthy metropole is dependent on the periphery. Because the periphery will soon be king. And the “comprador bourgeoisie,” as Marx called them, are selling, again in reverse of the original theory, their big country out to the “nationalist bourgeoisie” of the third world.
The empire is devouring itself, and the comprador imperialists are the ones apportioning out the helpings.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.