Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is Corruption? The Currency of Sentiment: An Essay on Informal Accumulation in Colonial India

The Currency of Sentiment: An Essay on Informal Accumulation in Colonial India

NB: This is a seminar paper I delivered in 1999, the full text of which may be read here: 
http://www.sacw.net/article2236.html

Every native of India, I verily believe, is corrupt — Lord Cornwallis, Governor General for the East India Company 1786-1795. cited by Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj
The New Cambridge History of India, (1995)


Yet in a world of unrelieved gloom there remains an essential difference between the scoundreldom of the top dogs and that of Ah Q, the difference which separates the executioner from the victim. Grotesque, odious and contemptible though he may be, Ah Q is finally redeemed in our eyes by a kind of fundamental innocence: his deprivation is total, he possesses nothing of his own - not even his vices, which in fact are merely a pathetic caricature of the vices of his oppressors - Simon Leys, in Is Ah Q Alive and Well?, from Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, (1979)

Introduction: The most striking thing about the term `corruption’ is the combination of its ubiquity as a diagnostic category in the sociology of administration, with its rhetorical, pejorative meaning in civil and political life. One the one hand it is treated as an analytical term in state discourse and in an ideological spectrum ranging from proponents of the status-quo to its radical critics. Development experts, World Bank economists and politicians cite corruption as a barrier to `growth’, free investment and social justice. Sociological processes, institutional flaws, cultural norms and errors of judgement by policy makers may be cited as its causes. It may be attributed to insufficient modernisation, looked upon as an inevitable reaction to cumbersome bureaucracies, or treated as a fact of life. It has also been treated as an inevitable symptom of transition from backward (and more recently, ex-Communist) economies to modernity. In this case its pejorative aspect gets diminished - it has been suggested that “the taking of bribes by government officials in these countries can be viewed with equanimity to the extent that it at least indicates an understanding of how market forces operate in a liberal economic environment”. 

‘Corruption’ is equally useful as a rhetorical device in criticisms of the establishment. Politicians of different persuasions regularly accuse their opponents of corruption, although these accusations are often references to personal characteristics and idiosyncrasies rather than part of a systemic critique. Its normative tint makes corruption a suitable idiom for a range of populisms, not to speak of imperial concerns. And by describing as fortuitous elements of degeneration which signify fundamental shortcomings in the polity, the discourse of corruption serves to detract from broader issues.

The phenomenon denoted by the term `corruption’ is steeped in ambivalence. However its rhetorical use permits of no ambivalence - to aver that such and such person (or institution) is corrupt is an unambiguous statement about the character of the said agent. It is this perpetual oscillation between a crystalline ethical judgement when used in any Present and a phenomenological translucence when these judgements are scrutinized, either in the same Present or historiographically, that has given `corruption’ its unique stamina in public discourse. It satisfies the need for monochromatic explanations of malfunctioning systems, even as it promises to quench our thirst for a moral statement about those systems. In our period, when the globalised world economy envisioned by Marx has come into its own, `corruption’ flourishes in the vocabulary of modern capitalist society, its usage fraught with the tension I have pointed to above.

This liminality of meaning is not accidental, but derives from its special function as the acceptable, assimilable malaise of the capitalist order. We are all against corruption. It is supposed to occur everywhere (alas, human nature is such, etc); and at the same time it is the one flaw that the discourse of Capital allows us to find in capitalist society. Its usage suggests that corruption is a mere epiphenomenon which will fade away with the advent of honest politicians, or be controlled within tolerable limits, depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Either way, criticisms of corruption as well as promises to eradicate it may always be made, since like Capital (if Fukuyama is to be believed), it will be with us for quite some time...  http://www.sacw.net/article2236.html

see also
The truth about labour laws in India - From Baghdad to Bolangir, by Saba Sharma