In Praise of Corruption
28 min read

In Praise of Corruption

At the moment in Malaysia preparation is underway for the Bersih 4.0 street protests. Bersih in Malay translates as "clean" and is the shortened term for The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections which advocates for reforms to electoral law and for greater regulation of the political system to prevent what is seen as the increasing subversion of Malaysian democracy. Bersih emerged in the mid-2000's as a group advocating for the clean elections, this included demands to clean up the electoral role, the removal of ghost voters, restrictions on certain kinds of postal votes and greater media access to political campaigns. Bersih 2.0 was called in 2011 in the run up to the 2012 General Election garnering even more civil society support, with a longer list of demands and a call for a Royal Commission into electoral reform. Bersih 3.0 was called in response to the perceived whitewash of the pre-election reform suggested by this Royal Commission before 2013. By the 2008 election the opposition had finally defeated the ruling coalitions 2/3rd majority in the house, whilst by 2013 the opposition managed to attain the majority in the popular vote for the first time since Independence but nevertheless took only 89 out of 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat, in part due to the gerrymandered electoral boundaries which provide small rural communities with adverse electoral power.

In many ways given the vast electoral support for the opposition parties Bersih has now become the main tactic to confront the power of the ruling coalition, whilst the continued splits in the opposition has meant that the platform of electoral reform insofar as it is politically neutral and unlikely to inflame some of the more serious contradictions between the opposition parties, has been something that all could support. When a scandal emerged around the quasi-sovereign wealth fund 1MDB and the personal finances of the Prime Minister, it was then Bersih which  appeared best positions to respond with a call to action, the opposition tried parliamentary action and found itself locked out, the press found itself censored and Bersih appeared as the only movement which could mobilise a significant section of Malaysian society to act, even on an issue which isn't directly relevant to electoral politics.

The problem then of cleanliness moved from the sphere of electoral politics to confront the wider problems of corruption and illegality within Malaysian politics and society. Against this corruption Bersih's cleanliness offers up procedural fairness and the rule of law as ways to challenge the power of those intent upon turning the system to their own advantage. Here the idea is simple, if those who are corrupt use the governing apparatus in a way which is self-interested, extra-legal, clientelist and authoritarian, then what is required is a means of ensuring that the governing apparatus serves the people, can not be abused for personal ends and remains rule-governed and transparent. The tool that  is turned to here is the Law as a neutral arbiter of political conflicts and as something that can be above politics and the state in order to restrain and control state power

In many ways today progressive politics in Malaysia collectively accepts this opposition between Law and corruption  and wages much of its critique then on the need to enact legislative change and adequately enact existing laws in order to bring about progressive reform of Malaysian politics. Yet such a critique, whilst it has today taken on the title of self-evidence, is historically at odds with much left-thinking.

To take the most obvious example, when Marx talked of the dictatorship of the proletariat  he meant just that, the dictatorship of one class over another which seized the state apparatus and altered it and utilised it in the favour of one class and at the detriment of another. Marx's aim here was not one of authoritarianism but the assertion of the authority of the popular classes, who through popular assemblies, the seizure of the means of production and the creation of a popular force would begin to deconstruct the old order. If the old bourgois order espoused the values of neutrality, fairness and law then this was for Marx a fiction which masked the self-interested nature of their rule, against this is would have made no sense to Marx to demand a neutral arbiter or the transcendence of politics and the state for this would have implied a turn to moralization just at the moment that political action was most needed. And political could be neither fair, nor rule governed nor neutral, but took the precise form of a conflict. It is in the same vein that Engels would later talk of those who dreamt of revolution as the destruction of all authority and thus of all that is unequal and arbitrary, arguing that revolution can be neither fair, rule-governed or neutral.

A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?

The point of a revolution is in this sense not the abolition of authority, but the abolition of the authority of a certain class and its concentration in the hands of another class, or series of classes, to use it to their end. It it therefore a struggle for power and not merely a reign of justice.

Most of the parties, movements and organisations of the Left have traditionally seen themselves as the representatives of a particular class or group, and have in this sense privileged the needs of the particular over the demands of universality. (Even Marx in his earlier writing who argued for the universal nature of the Proletariats duty argued that it emerged only on the basis of its exclusion from society and its reduction to a pure particular with no connection to the Whole). Thus they haven't begun from the universal discourse of rights nor ethics but from the immediate needs of a particular group. Thus if you take the question of revolutionary violence from the discourse of rights and ethics it becomes almost impossible to justify violence, the responsibility always remains on the oppressed to use the non-violent means open to them to combat their oppression and it was in this sense that Kant  in his earlier writings vigorously opposed the right to resist, which appeared to him as the reign of self-preference over the universal. It is only when you uphold over the neutral universal the right of the particular that revolutionary violence can be justified. Such an opposition formed the point of distinction which separated social democracy from revolutionary communism within the 19th & 20th centuries.

Historically the preference for the rule of law emanated from the liberal preference for the universal and began with a rejection of the particularly of politics and decision in favour of the regularity of rules. Today much of the left has given up its preference for the rule of some in favour of the universality of the rule of law. A long history has colluded to bring this about, the anti-communist struggles both in pre-war Europe and the struggles over decolonization in the Third World, the co-optation of socialism into nationalism and the nation-state but of most importance was the crisis of the 1970s and the advent of neoliberalism, where in the economy we witnessed the assault on workers movements and the domination of the market over social life and in the political sphere the transition from the political state to the regulatory state in which the focus was no longer on the rule of one class but good governance and macro-economic stability.

The contemporary critique of corruption builds upon both of these neoliberal discourses. From the perspective of law corruption is an illegal or extra-legal activity which transgresses principles of transparency, publicity and equal rights,  from the perspective of the economy, corruption is a signifier of economic instability, an unfair advantage which produces an uneven playing field and which harms market confidence.Yet for all of its provenance this discourse is today accepted many sides of the political spectrum, from the neoliberals and institutions of global economic governance who seek to rationalise developing economies plagued by corruption, to anti-capitalists who rally against the greed and corruption of ruling elites and the excessive power of financial capitalism. Given then the very neutrality of these proposals it becomes more than ever important today to investigate the relationship between the anti-corruption movements and the possibility of radical political change.

In the context of Malaysia the concern is perhaps this, that the particularity of racial politics and the rule in favour of one particular group leads to a preference for a form of politics which is anything but particular and preferential, but not necessarily better.

Anna Hazare Critiqued

Away from Malaysia perhaps the largest anti-corruption movement of the last few years has been the Anna Hazare movement in India. The movement emerged in 2011 in relation to a series of political scandals in India but particularly the Adarsh Housing Society scam and the 2G Spectrum scam. What was important to these cases was not only the presence of corruption which is endemic in Indian life, but how organised this corruption was and the cynical role of politicians and government departments. Protest movements emerged in many Indian cities and demands emerged for the passage of a Jan Lokpal Bill (People's Ombudsman Bill) which sought to establish a high level government commission to prevent and prosecute corruption. Anna Hazare, a well known anti-corruption campaigner, soon emerged as the figurehead of the movement and his Ghandian style indefinite fast to have the Lokpal Bill passed became the cause around which the movement organised. Anna Hazare wasn't however so straight forward a figure, whilst he had spent much of his life campaigning against the ills of corruption he has also led a religious charge against poverty at the village level through a prohibition on alcohol, tobacco and Cable TV, enforced in some cases through beatings, and compulsory vegetarianism once again enforced by beatings  whilst in the villages he has developed democracy has been outlawed. He had also given public support to Narendra Modi's Gujarat development model and was accused by Arundhati Roy of supporting right wing Hindu xenophobia. He has also advocated the incorporation of Kashmir into India and has asserted that he is willing to go to war to this end. Like Mother Theresa before him Anna Hazare has proved able to combine charity and virtue with out and out relgious fundamentalism which often didn't liberate the poor but maintained their subservience.. As Orwell argued then in the case of Anna the principle that saints should be  "judged guilty until proved innocent" certainly rings true.

Yet Anna aside the Left in India was  presented with something peculiar, a popular movement which challenged the existing order and the greed of rules and politicians not on the basis of communalism but on the basis of a seemingly more noble cause, anti-corruption, and the question was therefore whether such a popular anti-establishment movement should be supported.

It was Arundhati Roy who first rained on Team Anna's parade. In an article in The Hindu entitled "I'd rather not be Anna" Roy drew attention not only to what Anna and his supporters were saying, but also what they weren't saying,

Who is he really, this new saint, this Voice of the People? Oddly enough we've heard him say nothing about things of urgent concern. Nothing about the farmer's suicides in his neighbourhood, or about Operation Green Hunt further away. Nothing about Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh, nothing about Posco, about farmer's agitations or the blight of SEZs. He doesn't seem to have a view about the Government's plans to deploy the Indian Army in the forests of Central India.

As she also argued for all the talk of Anna's fast against corruption nothing was said about the many other fasts or resistance movements which sought to struggle against forms of oppression. What was repeated endlessly by the media was the struggle of the "people" against corruption. But as Roy argued, what constitutes the people here? It isn't the poor who are locked in a series of struggles against the Indian state and Indian capital, but those who partake in a nationalistic and self-righteous spectacle, those who are endlessly multiplied by the media to represent India as such, and thus in the end an "army of largely urban, and certainly better off people" that is to say the Urban middle classes. And what then constitutes the "corruption" that this "people" rallies against? Is the types of corruption they highlight not the way that the poor navigate an unequal society in which power and wealth is held by others. Did not in the end the Jan Lokpal bill set up a further bureaucracy which would hit the poor, whilst leaving the corruption of big business unregulated. and as Roy argued was not what was needed to confront structural inequalities of wealth and power, and not simply to leave them in tact under a new legal framework?

Partha Chatterjee, also confronted by the spectacle of the Anna Hazare movement, noted its anti-political nature. Noting how within the Indian context corruption is something practiced by all and which in many ways benefits all he argued that the Anna Hazare movement rested on a form of scape-goating which ensures that "Corruption is always what someone else does". Thus he argues that for the middle class supporters of Anna corruption is that which occurs at the highest level of power, and in the lowest government office or in the urban slums but it is not something that they do. Fundamental here argues Chatterjee is the transformation of the middle class from identification with the public sector and government jobs to an identification with the ethics and world-view of the private sector. What was notable then in the anti-corruption movement was a criticism of politics in favour of the apolitical sphere of the economy. The political sphere, the sphere of politicians and power, was characterised as rotten and corrupt whilst the social and economic sphere in which the "ordinary people" dwell is defined by all that which isn't corrupt. The anti-politics of the movement came then to be defined by the emotional and moral nature of the movement which became more and more evident as the movement refused to engage in parliamentary politics in order to maintain its purity. This moralism lent in the end credence to a simplified notion of corruption which could hold the politician who abuses his position to accrue wealth to the squatter who breaks the law to have a place to sleep as equally guilty. What this passes over Chatterjee argued was the politics inherent in the concept of corruption itself.

In a similar vein Arjun Appadurai argued that corruption came to denote a split in the Indian middle class consciousness between the fantasy of a Western-self which in which individuals conceive themselves to be "impersonal, apolitical and civic-minded to a fault" and an Indian-self which is experienced as an "a living, local, biographic self embedded entirely in friends, family and ties of blood, marriage and caste". What occurs here is perhaps a distinction between the ego-ideal, the idealised notion of self that one desires to become, and the ideal-ego as the gaze at what one "really is" from the perspective of ideality. For Appadurai it is these two notions that were at war in the psyche of the Indian middle class at the height of the anti-corruption movement, they desired to cast off all that is local and corrupting which prevents them reaching their Western ideal whilst still benefitting from the local connections and privileges their status affords. That is to say that in the end what their notion of anti-corruption means is that rules should apply to others but not to them in a form of hypocrisy which entails that in the end the enemy of those who oppose corruption is a displaced enemy who is projected onto others to hide the struggle inside the Indian middle classes themselves.

Anti-Corruption as the Politics of the Middle Classes

One thing that emerges from the critiques of the Anna Hazare movement was its class-based character such that it was in the end a movement of the modernizing market orientated urban middle-classes against all that they perceived backwards. As Anne Applebaum notes, anti-corruption is increasingly the motivating factor of political movements in the world and particularly the developed world.

Riots across Tunisia, December 2010. Demonstrations in Moscow, December 2011. Fasts and street marches in New Delhi, March 2012 — plus street movements in Slovenia; Quebec; Iraq; Azerbaijan; and Wukan, southern China  among others, throughout the past two years. What do they all have in common? The answer is corruption, or, rather, the desire to end corruption, which is now the primary motivating factor in dozens of political movements around the world.

To this we could now add the 2013 protests in Brazil, the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the Maidan demonstrations in Ukraine of 2014 not to mention the entirety of the Arab Spring.

Anti-corruption is certainly one thread which unites all of these movements, but as Francis Fukuyama argues anti-corruption is part of a wider tendency of middle class politics in the developing world.Thus these anti-corruption movements all take place in developing or partially developed countries which are rapidly urbanising and developing independent middle-classes, they were all led usually by the educated young and urban middle classes. Thus what were often presented as "peoples revolutions"  for freedom, democracy and justice quickly appeared fractious such that in the example of Egypt the middle classes were able to mobilise the urban poor onto the streets to produce the critical mass neccessary to overthrow Mubarak, once elections were called it was the Muslim Brotherhood with its base in the rural and urban poor who formed the government exposing the limited appeal of demands for modernization and secularism.

The Russian experience is perhaps here also instructive, the anti-corruption movement which appeared after Putin's re-election certainly represented the aspirations of Western looking middle-class professionals who wished to live in a well governed modern state. Yet what they faced was a leader who polls extremely high in opinion polls, and inspite of the insistence on rigging elections, would likely be elected in spite of this with a popular mandate.

What these movements therefore face is an opposition between their own wish to live in a rule-governed, market orientated, secular and non-communalist state which connects them to a global market place of goods and services and those who are excluded from this notion of civil society, who exist outside of or precariously on the borders of the law and marketplace and who don't therefore share in the enthusiasm for the creation of a system which would potentially harm any concessions they have won. What occurs here is a clash between two contrasting models of politics, one which begins from the notion of civil society as the sphere of equal rights, independent institutions, freedom of association and the rule of law and another which begins from a notion of political society, as the difference between the formal sphere of the state and government and its institutions  and those who are excluded from such institutions and who communicate with forms of established power through extra-legal means.

What occurs then in the Anti-Corruption movements  referenced above is in the end a clash of world-views or cultures, on the one hand we have an idealisation of civil society as the liberation from unjust forms of power and on the other the refusal of a formal and constitutional notions of politics in favour of more direct forms of struggle. Perhaps then what explains the inability of such Anti-Corruption movements to become significant movements of reform is the inability of the major groups which constitute the 'People' to comprehend one another, for the practitioners of civil society one has to question the motives of those who wish to remain outside of its fair and just reach, whilst for those practitioners of political society they see the idealisation of civil society for what it is, a false promise of equality which serves only to mask the more fundamental inequalities which would continue to reproduce their exclusion such that when presented with the maintanence of the concessions they have won from government, or the entrance into a new system whose rules will change everything, they decide to remain put.

What this comes down to then for Middle-Class reform groups is an inability to fully understand relations of power inherent in political society. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Anti-corruption movement which has emanated out of the Liberal opposition in Russia who partake in a struggle between liberal governance and the supposed paradox of a  popular and spectacular autocracy. On what does this regime rest, certainly it rests in part on patronage relations but to call such relations merely patronage ignores their complexity. Certainly Putin's rule rests on his support for the decaying industries which provide employment in many of Russia's single industry towns, yet as Anna Artunyan argues such patronage relations have to be seen in the context of the break down of order and stability with the collapse of the Soviet Union which disrupted existing relations of patronage and subjected them to the upheaval of free market reforms. Putin rose to power as the representative of a Party of Order and yet this order hasn't been produced through a stable system of clientelist relations, but through the contingent interventions of a paternalist President on behalf of his subjects.

In this sense Artunyan describes Putin's bestowal of patronage in terms of a lottery in which chance plays the leading role. Thus she notes how Putin has established Presidential reception offices which allows individuals in Russias remotest regions to take local problems  directly to the President bypassing local structures of power and producing welfare from on high based on individuals pleadings. In the same way she notes how Putin's yearly phone-ins give citizens the opportunity to talk to the President in order to appeal for his intervention in personal and political matters.

“Uncle Volodya! New Year is coming soon. We live on Babushka’s pension, there is no work in our village. My sister and I dream of getting new dresses. I want to ask you for a dress like Cinderella’s.”

Putin, whose voice Dasha would later say she was so glad to hear, smiled. “Dashenka, I heard you. I want to invite you and your sister – and your grandmother too – to all come to Moscow for one of our New Year’s parties. We’ll sort out the business of the presents.”

After a frenzy of back and forth phone calls among frantic regional officials struggling to comply with the orders, Dasha came to Moscow with her family and visited Putin at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo.

The gift was just one of a countless number of gestures Putin made as president and prime minister, having begun in 2001 with the first of these phone-in shows. Once a year, in a live broadcast on all federal television channels, Putin would sit down behind a desk in a Moscow studio before a small audience of selected representatives from around the country, and field apparently random telephone calls from viewers. The requests varied from individual complaints about back wages, late pensions and poor housing to larger infrastructural issues such as dilapidated hospitals, lack of roads and transport in the remote regions, and allegations of corruption.

Each year, these marathon sessions grew longer and broke new records – and Putin continued the tradition as prime minister, with the show exceeding four hours by 2011. When he returned to the presidency in 2012, the tradition continued as a massive press conference with hundreds of journalists from around the country vying for his attention. While appearing spontaneous, it is widely believed that the shows are actually orchestrated, with many of the callers picked and primed in advance. But with no script and at least a veneer of spontaneity, Putin addressed minute local issues with a competence that no regional official could muster. From memory, he spouted numbers, names and towns, demonstrating a phenomenal knowledge of daily economic details from across his dominion, prompting comparisons with the “all-knowing” Stalin.

Yet aside from the stage managed nature of Putins spectacular patronage network Artunyan also notes how in times of crisis from natural disasters to the closure of factories & mines when the State apparatus fails Putin sweeps down from on high to mobilize resources on their behalf and to ensure that anger doesn't lead to a challenge to the existing order.

Yet as Artunyan notes this isn't a passive process in which communities remain dependent upon the goodwill of the sovereign. She also documents numerous ways in which communities force the action of the authorities and gain the attention of the sovereign from protests to roadblocks. Whilst as Artunyan also notes the high poll ratings accrued by Putin are not neccessarily an indication of a naive admiration for Putin but as some pollsters note merely a reflection of what respondents assume the system in which they are embedded expects them to say, moreover she notes the growth of a certain cognitive dissonance around Putin which ensures that individuals can at one moment show extreme gratitude for his rule, and at the next display extreme cynicism and scepticism about his presidential persona, displaying a clear knowledge of the machinations which go into the production of his Tsarist image.

If political society is therefore defined by relations of patronage they are certainly not simply relations of co-optation and dependence but a complex interplay between power and resistance, authority and subjection which house a series of complex practices and negotiations which appear to allude the practitioners of global civil society.

The Malaysian Situation

Could we argue then that in Malaysia today such a struggle is ongoing between a certain ideal of civil society and on the other hand political society which is fundamental to understanding the problems faced by opposition and reformist politics in recent years?

To begin with its worth noting that Malaysia today is neither India nor Russia, places in which corruption is part of the normal everyday functioning of the system. In fact most individuals in their dealings with government and businesses are rarely exposed to direct forms of extra-legal corruption which are more often than not the prerogative of elite groups. Certainly many have stories of bribing a traffic cop or other forms of behaviour that might be best classified as unethical but on the whole the vast majority of people find themselves in contact with generally rule governed institutions and subjected to laws and regulations. This isn't of course to say that there isn't a great deal of corruption spread through the system, it is rather to be found not outside of the law but in the many grey areas and loopholes within the law itself. Politics is one area in particular in which many of these grey areas begin to accumulate such that ample research has begun to expose the role of patronage networks in electoral politics.

This can range from small enticements such as branded food & drinks to free meals at rallies or forms of paternalist gift giving such at the provision of legal or medical advice centres for prospective voters, or more blatantly payments to voters to assist their travel to polling stations and political rallies. Yet it can also just as often take more serious forms such as the promise of development projects if a constituency votes for the ruling coalition, the fulfillment before election day of outstanding promises, often in the form of financial payments with 50%  often paid in advance of the election and the remaining 50% to be paid in the aftermath of the election once the ruling coalition is returned to power, the defunding of opposition controlled states and the funding of welfare projects initiated by the governing parties and the provision of welfare support for individuals if they are able to prove they voted the right way. More concretely the existence of FELDA constituencies displays a more enduring patron-client relationship. FELDA (short for the Federal Land Development Authority) historically managed rural development through providing the poor Malay rural peasantry with undeveloped land to be farmed. Today FELDA continues to manage these settlements and is the main purchaser of the cash-crops produced and thus the main source of finance for settlers. Most of these settlements house offices of the ruling coalition who often organise the social and communal life of the area, they are often able to keep out incursion from opposition parties and their monopoly on financing makes provision of extra financing or the withholding of funds a useful lever with which to manage the loyalty of these populations.

Outside of the electoral process however there is also the normalisation of preferential politics such that many argue that the state apparatus is mobilised in the interest of certain social groups. Thus the civil service is dominated by the Malays,  educational advantages are still accrued by the Malays, public higher education is dominated by the Malays with the Chinese and Indians finding access hard, whilst citizenship is handed out preferentially to foreign guest workers and individuals especially from Islamic countries such as Bangladesh & Indonesia, and welfare schemes such as BR1M are aimed at gaining the loyalty of the urban and rural poor.

Yet in the face of this how does the opposition and the Bersih movement respond? Its initially worth noting that the oppositions response to such forms of patronage and clientelism isn't simply to demand for the reign of the invisible hand of the market to replace such relations. Rather they are ostensibly a movement in favour of the poor who argue for a series of social welfare policies in order to benefit not only certain sections of the poor, but all those who deserve government aid. Their ideal is then in many ways something like the European welfare state model. Yet in their critique of corruption and preferential politics in Malaysia a certain contradiction is present. Whilst Bersih 4.0 has emerged in relation to an instance of elite corruption, when reflecting upon the nature of corruption in Malaysia the opposition equally bemoans the kinds of corruption which benefits the poor. When they describe the crisis nature of Malaysian politics they are likely to describe not only the corruption of political elites but also the crisis of foreign workers often termed "illegals", the "welfare dependency" of the urban poor, the subsidies for access to certain resources and so on.

In this way they end up (in structure at least) repeating the kind of paranoia proper to anti-semitism in which it was always possible to perceive the threat simultaneously from above and from below in which is held that Jewish communities were amassing great wealth and secretly controlling the national and global economy and that they were poor, dirty, filthy and useless to the nation. As Arjun Appadurai earlier notes in reference to the Anna Hazare movement in the end displays an obsession over a distinction between the pure and impure in which a certain group assigns to itself the properties of purity and virtue and can see only outside of itself decay and pollution. The presence of scapegoating, that is to say the unloading of all of ones internal struggles onto an amorphous other and paranoia, that is to say the perception of pollution as surrounding your vulnerable self, are clear in these worries. Yet this is no different from the European middle-classes paranoia about welfare which so we are told concerns both the scrounging poor and the oligarchic elite, which manages to combine both an uneasiness about work and their own personal struggles, and a jealousy of the wealth of others.

From a purely tactical perspective however this certainly hinders the ability of the middle classes to lead others along the road to political reform. For whilst they are ostensibly in favour of government support for all the poor their critiques of existing forms of governance leads them to calls for meritocracy, good governance, the rule of law, free and fair economic competition and transparency and openness. There's obvious reasons to feel sympathy for such positions, meritocracy for example would certainly resolve the injustice of individuals being promoted on the basis of race & connections, yet such prescriptions end up fetishising the kind of governance which has in the last 30 years earned the name neoliberalism. Thus whilst it might be possible at first glance to support the idea that honest hardworking and decent individuals should prosper within a society it is all too easy to slide from this notion into the idea that society should be based upon permanent competition, the survival of the fittest and the reign of those with means and ability. To many this ends up not offering some ideal image of a socially just society, but a life time of hard work, insecurity and struggle in which social relations become commodity relations and in which they are asked to navigate a system which offers them little advantage.

What has to be taken into account then is the ways in which far from being simply the subject of patronage relations these individuals actively shape these relations and rationally maintain an interest in their perpetuation  as a means through which they can gain benefits and concessions from those in power. Thus they are capable both of cynicism about the motives of the major ruling party, UMNO, whilst simultaneously willing to use this system to their advantage.

An Argument for Corruption

What then if what is required isn't the abolition of corruption but rather its radicalisation, that’s to say not less corruption and more law, but more of the right kind of corruption and thus a focus on the dynamics of politics society as against civil society.

From the perspective of anti-corruption politics only ever equates to the mechanics of civil society, they can see politics only through the free discourse of equals and everything outside of this as pre-political as coercion, necessity and need. Thus the farmer who organises and protests for government concessions and grants or the slum community who fights government for certain forms of recognition or resources might be altogether honourable but cannot be considered free. They express in the end forms of dependence such that however well meaning their actions they require liberating from such a notion of politics and an inclusion within the embrace of civil society so that they can move from the base struggles for material resources to the discourse of higher principles and rights.

This in the end attributes to the poor the status of ignorance, it tells them that they are being conned and totally dominated by a system that they do not fully understand and that they require others to educate them about. It supposes that if they really knew how the power over them functioned to oppress them they would rise up to overthrow it in the name of justice and right and it in the end characterises them as possessing a deficit of subjectivity which is need of correction.

The entirety of Sub-altern Studies began with the questioning of such an assertion firstly made by colonial authorities that the peasantry was concerned neither with politics nor capital accumulation but only with subsistence and then made by the anti-colonial nationalists who produced a distinction between a national conscious elite and the apolitical masses who required leading to independence. Thus Ranajit Guha's "Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India" aswell as Syed Hussein Alatas's "The Myth of the Lazy Native" both challenged the characterisation of the gaze which would characterise such people as primitive. Yet as Partha Chatterjee argues today that gaze is no longer the property of the coloniser nor the anti-colonial nationalist but the globalised capitalist who reproduces this division between the sphere of civil society and the sphere of the government of populations thus excluding from the domain of formal politics the demands by certain groups for social and economic goods from governmental organisations.

Such a discourse also occurred within the labour movement and particularly in reference to Althusserian structuralism. Thus E.P. Thompson would challenge what he saw as Althusser's privileging of the formal typology of structure and the turning of individuals into "trager" or mere bearers of relations against which Thompson would posit the intrusion of "real history" into structure and thus talk of the working class not only in terms of its realisation of self-conscious and institutionalised politics but also in the aims of the machine breaks, ... Jacques Ranciere similarly effectuated a break from Althusser first in his return to the archives of 19th century workers struggles and his uncovering of forms of worker resistance immanent to labour itself and later in the terrain of political theory in a theorization of the political which doesn't concern the opposition between knowledge and non-knowledge, politics and the pre-political or power and freedom but which takes place in the abolition of all such differences in those who assert rights in the absence of right or who educate in the absence of any ability.

What is at work in all such views is the deposition of the political from the status of a separate sphere which one can possess, enter into and which is separate from social and economic relations in favour of a notion of politics which is properly arbitrary in relation to its object and which can occur anywhere, by anyone and within any type of relations which is to say the subordination of politics to the principle of "whatever". Thus in an earlier work Ranciere will attempt to locate in the uneven bargaining between master and worker not only the binary and finite antagonism between different quantities of power but something like the emergence of an excess which is impenetrable to power. Thus the movement into work of the worker is produced neither by non-recognition nor complicity but:

The movement is that of a spiral that, in the very resemblance of the circles in which the same energy is consumed for the benefit of the enemy, achieves a  toward a different mode of social existence. Because a different society presupposes the production of a different humanity, not a destructive confrontation with the master or the bourgeois class, because the healing of the ill entails the singular asceticism of rebellion and its apostolic propagation, the illusion of emancipation is not a nonrecognition reproducing domination but the twisted path whose circle comes as close as possible to this reproduction, but with an already crucial swerve or digression. That the bell no longer makes itself heard or, above all, heeded, that the master is dispossessed of the sovereignty of his gaze and is no more than the accountant of social exploitation: these two little differences cannot be reduced to a trick permitting the productive investment of rebellious energy. The absence of the master from the time and space of productive work turns this exploited work into something more: not just a bargain promising the master a better return in exchange for the freedom of the worker’s movements but the formation of a type of worker belonging to a different history than that of mastery. So there is no paradox in the fact that the path of emancipation is first the path whereon one is liberated from that hatred of the master experienced by the rebel slave. Servility and hatred are two characteristics of the very same world, two manifestations of the very same malady. The fact that the freedman no longer deals with the master but with the “old society” defines not only a forward step in the awareness of exploitation but also an ascent in the hierarchy of beings and social forms. The rebel is still another worker; the emancipated worker cannot not be a rebel. The voluptuousness of emancipation is a fever from which one cannot be cured and which one cannot help but communicate.

Central to such an account is therefore how out of finite relations of power it becomes possible for individuals to transcend constituted forms of authority and hierarchy to enter into new conceptualisations of the world around them. Thereby escaping the binary division of civil society and economic life and encountering a world in which the two remain undivided.

I think today more than ever we need to see corruption through such a notion of politics and thus properly as a form of political action. If within modernity political action increasingly took the form of the political party, the trade union and the strike the demise of such forms of organisation has created new forms of political resistance by other means which have filled the void they left behind. In this sense we should read not only the movements of the poor for utilities, housing, land, welfare entitlements or concessions from government, but also the various forms of fraud (from benefits fraud to insurance fraud), piracy, debt refusal, urban rioting and extra-legal forms of accumulation not as the expressions of homo oeconomicus placed within a certain set of economic relations but as the existence of a different political logic which at its base refuses the contemporary dictates of global capitalism in favour of another logic.

In assuming such a position the risk is of course that anti-capitalist politics becomes reduced to a series of individuals contestations and confrontations with forms of power, whilst leaving untouched the overall system which remains overwhelmingly structured against their interests. Here it becomes neccessary to separate out notions of power and domination. Thus as within Foucault's schema, all relations are in the end relations of power insofar as they contain relations between unequal quantities and a dynamic of governance and freedom, but this doesn't make all relations relations of domination. If within the discourse of liberalism all relations of power equate in the end to relations of domination, and the need for rule governed, transparent and equal relations is to precisely rid them of forms of power and domination then is it not important to ask the other question, whether or not relations of power can be organised which depose overall forms of domination.

In the case of contemporary forms of corruption is the question then not how can we overcome corruption, but how through forms of corruption and illegality, from the illegal expropriation of resources to the creation of ghost economies, overall forms of domination can be challenged. For if in the end corruption entails the placing of obligations onto the powerful and the accrual of rights, benefits and resources for others it can form the basis of an antagonism that can be radicalised to challenge contemporary forms of oligarchy to enable more decentralised and diffuse forms of power and economic organisation which are built upon the self-preference and refusal of formal rule governed relations inherent in corruption, and a rejection of the rule of law and the generality of civil society.

This turn to the dynamics of political society is then to redress what is a severe misunderstanding, that if capitalism is associated with greed and self-interest, that the discourse of anti-corruption insofar as it advocates universality and neutrality is necessarily anti-capitalist and can act as a means of restraining capitalism from its worst excesses. Yet if we see today that capitalism is of course capable of coinciding today with high levels of elite corruption, either at the level of the worlds largest financial organisations, or in the crony capitalism of developing countries (in fact the two are almost always linked, most of the crony capitalism of the Third World is necessarily connected up with the major institutions and corporations which make up the global financial economy) it equally survives by playing such corruption off of the ideal self-image of the market economy which it claims for itself. Political society insofar as it founds politics not on ideal forms but on a struggle over power between opposing groups allows us to escape such a struggle between these two-faces which properly constitutes a double-bind, and establish a more fundamental antagonism between those who dominate social, political and economic life and those who wish to see this domination ended.