Argument

The 1 Percent Keep Their Friends Close

When politicians dance at billionaires' weddings, they're sending all the wrong messages.

Hillary Clinton arrives to attend the wedding of Mukesh Ambani's daughter Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal at their residence in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 12. (Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton arrives to attend the wedding of Mukesh Ambani's daughter Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal at their residence in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 12. (Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Last week, the daughter of India’s wealthiest man married the son of India’s 22nd-wealthiest man. The $100 million wedding of Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal became a national media obsession in India and drew guests from around the world, including Bollywood stars, Beyoncé, Priyanka Chopra, Nick Jonas, Arianna Huffington, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. Clinton, fresh off the first leg of her North American buckraking tour with her husband, enjoyed a week of dancing and partying in Udaipur in the company of Mukesh Ambani (estimated net worth: at least $43 billion), the energy tycoon who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton Foundation. 

This might seem unimportant. Rich people like to socialize with one another, and they love expensive weddings. Nothing about this is revelatory. There’s no crime here, no scandal, nothing to see besides some wealthy and famous private citizens having a nice time together.

But that’s exactly the problem. The public has become too inured to the mutual coziness of the ultrarich, and too blasé about the corrupting effects it has on the political life of just about every country on earth. Events like these should be a catalyst to reflect on a global economic system, in which the richest 1 percent of every country have become a country unto themselves. The world is shaped by, and for, these elites, yet their social lives are presented as light entertainment. The easy friendships of the post-national elite are a reminder that they’re all on the same team.

Clinton is no stranger to expensive weddings, of course. In 2005, four years after she and Bill left the White House and three years before their first failed attempt to return to it, both Clintons attended the wedding of Donald and Melania Trump, where they posed smiling with the happy newlyweds.

Clinton retroactively cast this appearance as a “fun, gaudy, over-the-top spectacle” of no larger significance in her campaign memoir What Happened. But the social ties between the Clintons and the Trumps go far beyond one ceremony. Before running for president, Trump had donated at least $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Up until the 2016 election, Chelsea Clinton was good friends with Ivanka Trump. Donald Trump and Bill Clinton were photographed golfing together along with Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani in 2008. The 42nd and 45th presidents also share the distinction of having spent extensive private time with Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire pedophile who, despite allegedly molesting or abusing at least 80 women and girls, received a slap on the wrist from then U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, who is now Trump’s labor secretary.

Such friendships aren’t illegal. And in the case of some stars, the appeal is obvious. Who wouldn’t like to be friends with Beyoncé or a Jonas brother? But by the same token, why would anyone voluntarily spend time with Jeffrey Epstein? If you could hang out with anyone you wanted, would you choose to hang out with Donald Trump? What about with energy company executives in India?

Most likely you wouldn’t. But the very rich are different from you and me, and these aren’t friendships as you or I might normally employ the term. They are better understood as business relationships, thinly disguised as sociability in order to preserve their legality. This is roughly what the Chinese call guanxi and the Russians call blat, the forms of social reciprocity and trust building that enable rule-bending relationships. By appearing at these ceremonies, the Clintons and other VIPs are signaling their openness to business just as surely as an official who attends a mob wedding.

The Clintons are estimated to have earned $240 million between 2001 and 2016, through a combination of book deals, speeches for corporate clients, and consulting gigs. Generously, some of this might be credited to the skills, experience, and insight they have to offer. But realistically, most of their vast fortune can be attributed to the value that a past, and a long-anticipated future, presidency commands on the open market. Part of that is simple glamour. But another part of it is favors, delivered or expected, but almost never spoken aloud. The prospect of Hillary’s return to the White House, to say nothing of her roles as senator and secretary of state, almost certainly bolstered the value of the Clinton brand; adjusted for inflation, the going rate for speeches given by Bill in his first year out of office was anywhere from four to seven times the rate for each of the four previous presidents, and more than either of his successors were paid. In a very direct sense, the Clintons have profited off public office, which is the literal definition of corruption.

Corruption of this sort is totally legal, but that doesn’t make it any less corrosive to the public interest. The social relationships between the biggest beneficiaries of this wildly unequal system are a form of class solidarity. Something as seemingly trivial as the Ambani-Piramal wedding sends a message both among its attendees and to the wider public.

That message is this: the ultrarich have each others’ backs. In this case, both of Barack Obama’s secretaries of state, Clinton and Kerry, are completely at ease with Reliance Industries, the $110 billion Indian energy and telecommunications conglomerate presided over by Mukesh Ambani. Ambani’s empire has been tied to pilferage, insider trading, illegal imports, corporate espionage, and other scandals. While his modest donations to the Clinton Foundation were intended to support green energy initiatives, Reliance is nonetheless among the 100 businesses in the world with the highest carbon emissions, and is the only privately owned Indian company to make the list.

What the presence of Clinton and Kerry at Ambani’s daughter’s wedding says is that all of this is fine. True, unlike their successors Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, both Clinton and Kerry acknowledge anthropogenic climate change and the need to do something about it. But they aren’t going to let it get in the way of a good time with one of the world’s biggest profiteers off carbon emissions, someone with an enormous personal stake in preventing decisive climate action.

The public receives this message loud and clear, at least in the United States, where trust in politicians has been declining for years. Sure, one party professes to believe in climate change and one doesn’t, but if the leaders of both parties are happily cavorting with energy company executives from India to the Persian Gulf, does it really make a difference? Similarly, one party stands on the side of women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy and one does not, but if leaders in both parties are taking rides on a serial pedophile’s private jet, what is the public supposed to conclude?

The solution to all this isn’t that complicated. If voters worldwide want a political system that doesn’t shield elites from accountability and that prioritizes the needs of the vast majority of the electorate, they will have to start supporting political leaders who are not and have no desire to become unaccountable elites. Socializing with the heads of predatory and destructive industries ought to be seen as disqualifying, or at the very least, as a clear sign of where a politician’s real loyalties lie. Populist rhetoric from liberals is meaningless when everyone can see that the speaker doesn’t actually believe it, and this in turn creates an opening for the more flamboyantly dishonest populist rhetoric of the right.

The Trump administration’s innumerable global conflicts of interest, from Russiagate to Jared Kushner’s budding friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have had the salutary effect of putting anti-corruption measures on the progressive agenda in a serious way. The threat posed by oligarchs and kleptocrats, both foreign and domestic, is now a mainstay among Democratic presidential aspirants. But that message will only work if it’s coming from a credible source. The public doesn’t even need to look at a would-be president’s tax returns to determine whether they’re trustworthy; it’s enough to know whose weddings they attend.

David Klion is a writer and editor in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in The NationThe New York TimesThe GuardianJewish Currents, and other publications.

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