Licensed Larceny
Infrastructure, Financial Extraction and the global South

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 30 June 2016

Inequality is not just a problem of poverty and the poor: it is as much a problem of wealth and the rich. Licensed larceny is a proxy for how effectively elites have constructed institutions that extract value from the rest of society.

The provision of public services is one area which is increasingly being reconfigured to extract wealth upward to the 1%, notably through so-called Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).

The push for PPPs is not about building infrastructure for the benefit of society but about constructing new subsidies that benefit the already wealthy. It is less about financing development than developing finance.

Understanding and exposing these processes is essential if inequality is to be challenged. But equally important is the need for critical reflection on how the wealthy are getting away with it. What does the wealth gap suggest about the need for new forms of organizing by those who would resist elite power?

Licensed Larceny contends that no struggle for social justice is ever likely to make more than a marginal dent in the status quo without a grounded understanding of how wealth is accumulated within society and by whom.

The book explores how roads, bridges, hospitals, ports and railways are being eyed up by finance and transformed into an asset class through which private investors are guaranteed income streams at the public’s expense.

Such legalised looting – “licensed larceny” – extracts considerable wealth from the global South and siphons it to the elite 1% of the global rich.

The trajectory is not only towards increased inequality: it is also profoundly undemocratic, elitist and unstable:

  • Undemocratic because a handful of fund managers determine what gets financed and what does not.
  • Elitist because the facilities that would most benefit poorer people do not get built.
  • Unstable because infrastructure-as-asset class is a bubble that is set to burst.

The challenge is not only to understand the mechanisms through which infrastructure is being reconfigured to extract wealth: equally important is to think through ways in which activists might best respond. What oppositional strategies genuinely unsettle elite power instead of making it stronger?

Copies available from Manchester University Press

See also two short articles drawn from the book:

Undemocratic, elitist and unstable

Extreme Infrastructure