Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in a world where the gap between the powerful and powerless grows wider each day, corruption in political and economic institutions spreads much faster than shame.
Political power is abused wherever it exists -- with scandals ranging from political graft in India to white collar crime on Wall Street to bribery of government regulators in China. Nonetheless, some communities seem especially vulnerable to the cycle of corruption, repression and impunity. And lately, we've seen many of them getting fed up with living under regimes that have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Corruption has been one of the major issues driving the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, and it has catalyzed a Gandhi-esque movement in the streets of New Delhi.
Indian activist Anna Hazare has inspired huge demonstrations in support of his hunger strike to promote a strict, controversial anti-corruption measure known as the Jan Lokpal bill. The government's recent crackdown on Hazare only steeled protesters' resolve under the slogan "India is Anna, Anna is India."
Yet not all have been swept up in Hazare fever. Author and activist Arundhati Roy boldly challenged the public framing of the corruption issue, arguing it has been whitewashed by a bourgeois, nationalistic political class. In a commentary in the Hindu, she describes the obsession with the Lokpal bill, which would institute a "draconian" bureaucracy to monitor officials, as a well-managed charade, designed to absorb popular grievances into a more palatable but no less hierarchical concept of "accountability":
Is corruption just a matter of legality, of financial irregularity and bribery, or is it the currency of a social transaction in an egregiously unequal society, in which power continues to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority? Imagine, for example, a city of shopping malls, on whose streets hawking has been banned. A hawker pays the local beat cop and the man from the municipality a small bribe to break the law and sell her wares to those who cannot afford the prices in the malls. Is that such a terrible thing? In future will she have to pay the Lokpal representative too? Does the solution to the problems faced by ordinary people lie in addressing the structural inequality, or in creating yet another power structure that people will have to defer to?
Rukshana Nanayakkara, senior programme coordinator for South Asia with the watchdog group Transparency International, told Colorlines that although the Indian and Arab uprisings may voice the outrage of citizens who feel "helpless and hopeless" about their rulers, their protests won't necessarily articulate a solution:
While it is an important task to highlight corruption issues or to drive a grassroots movement based on this to overcome barriers to bring change, the real impact would lie within systemic changes and sustained ethical environments.
We can agree that corruption is bad, but can't agree on what corruption really is. And when those who already have power are allowed to define and regulate corrupt practices, they're empowered to permit the most dangerous form of impunity -- the kind that is ingrained in the very edifice of the state.
Corruption Near and Far
Corruption may be a universal scourge, but media portrayals and civil society surveys suggest that the problem is especially acute in the Global South, which in turn invites facile "cultural" explanations for greed and graft (pointing to, say, gift-giving traditions or inborn backwardness and tribalism of sub-Saharan Africa).
Yet North and South are both plagued by breakdowns of institutional integrity. The banking collapse and everyday machinations of government reveal that the malaise reaches up to the highest offices in Washington. Indeed, much of the dirty money that floods into the Global South trickles down from above, according to a Transparency International paper:
The North also carries part of the responsibility for the situation in the South due to its role as the bribe-payer. After all, it is largely Northern corporate interests that supply the bribe payments. Until recently, governments of the North not only tolerated these corrupt practices, but they even rewarded them with tax deductibility.
The public's mental map of official immorality around the world reflects political blindspots: we tend to indict obvious crimes without interrogating structures and historical inequities.
"Corruption in the Global South is much talked about as it is part of day-to-day lives of people, as opposed to grand level corruption, which is normally opaque and harder to uncover," Nanayakkara noted. At the same time, Transparency International says public perceptions of corruption are rising in affluent countries, in part due to the financial crisis.
But official transgressions do cut especially deep in impoverished communities, where rules are slackened to attract private investment or "development aid." In the Haiti earthquake, for example, Transparency International observed that the extreme death toll could be traced in part to "alleged corruption in the construction of public buildings, including schools and hospitals." And in the aftermath, suspicions of profiteering continue to swirl around the reconstruction process, now being directed by a shaky national government and the corporate-friendly coffers of the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission.
Environmental disasters can aggravate government malfeasance. Activists warn that policy responses to climate change may create unprecedented opportunities for exploitation and profiteering, particularly in much-hyped development projects for green energy and forest preservation.
The idea of corruption as culturally endemic offers convenient justification for outside intervention in poor countries. In an analysis of public myths about corruption, development scholars Ed Brown, Jon Cloke and Mohammad Sohail argued, "rather than seeing corruption as a complex socio-political phenomenon linked to global processes and specific national cultural and political economies, the issue is often reduced to a kind of political backwardness which needs 'treatment.' "
The potential side effects of this medicine have manifested in neoliberal financial interventions like the IMF restructuring plans that pauperized Haiti and stoked chaos in Greece. The authors point out that so-called "anti-corruption programmes" imposed by free-market experts sometimes aggravate economic damage and ironically end up reaffirming stereotypes of poor countries as innately incompetent.
Symptoms and Causes
Sometimes the popular fixation on officials' ethical transgressions distracts from the political malaise of which they are a symptom. And political elites are wise to this. In the U.S., the right evokes the canard of "waste, fraud and abuse" to militate against any form of income redistribution by blaming the economic hardship that "deserving" citizens face on imaginary "welfare queens," patients who use too much Medicaid, civil servants collecting extra disability pay, and other social parasites.
Is corruption just the cost of doing business in a society that traffics in injustice? A recent public opinion study suggests people's lack of trust in government institutions isn't just tied to perceptions of official malfeasance, but the degree of social inequality they experience, along with the perceived failure of policymakers to address it.
The rebellions unfolding in North Africa, the Middle East and India reflect righteous resentment at rulers who have made careers out of betraying public trust. Of course, ultimately, Indian officials may fail again to police themselves, and the Arab Spring uprisings may be hijacked by new political orders that just rebrand old patterns of tyranny and kleptocracy. Whatever emerges from the unrest, fundamental inequalities will still reign, as long as entrenched hierarchies remain intact and governance hinges on tiers of privilege.
Our disgust with rotten politicians and Wall Street kingpins is in part anger at their impunity, but maybe there's a streak of latent jealousy, a dog-eat-doggedness that pervades any competitive capitalist society. Still, even if humans are hard wired to exploit, we're also hard wired to keep trying to harness power, however naïvely we deploy legislation and revolutionary rhetoric. In the debate over fixing crooked leaders, the definition of corruption often leaves out the root: not the people who misuse authority, but an excess of power itself.