From economic to behavioural corruption

We would vote for candidates because we would trust them to use their power for our interests

Sarwar Bari/Paul Scott March 01, 2017
Paul Scott is Professor Emeritus in Japan and teaches in Europe

Most would argue that corruption and trust cannot be separated. We would vote for candidates because we would trust them to use their power for our interests. But what are those interests? Is it for the common good or is the trust corrupted from the very beginning? In a negative sense we empower individuals not for any objective good but to enrich us. This enrichment can take many forms but if one votes for settlements which are unjust and self-serving then a social and political contract is made which corrupts the whole system and society. This corruption has created a fundamental crisis in both governance and democracy as it is possible to elect the dishonest who perpetuate injustice and exacerbate conflict. This corruption shapes behaviour both at the individual and the group level. Therefore instead of just talking about corruption as a political and or economic event it expands to become psychological and behavioural.

Recently the European Union and the United States have settled into an uncomfortable age of anger. Political divisions have sharpened and dialogue between opposing camps has become almost impossible. Politics has become a winner take all blood sport. The mainstream media profits from this by highlighting the fights between political groups. Alternative media is atomised. Just go to the comment sections on social media and see how amazingly uncivil and profane the discourse is.

These divisions will not be healed soon but will sharpen and divide. The politics of traditional parties has been shaken by new actors who understand that facts and expertise can be dismissed in favour of a corrupted narrative of fake news and alternative facts. Social media has not created a cyber-utopia where a direct and democratised communication would open politics for the common good. Instead Twitter has helped create a host of abuse — a cyber-dystopia in which the truth is just another commodity to corrupt. Traditional politics has failed many so a corrupted space has opened up.

During the colonial period the imperialists were skillful in buying off resistance and creating complicity and collaboration. The use of rewards both monetary and in titles created a corrupt and poisoned environment. Outright resistance to the imposed order was met with brutality. Today, the rewards of winning outweigh any sense of a shared outcome with the rest of society.

The unbalanced economy has created all sorts of corruptions backed my lies and myths. The rich have created sets of advantages and privileges by both internalising and institutionalising corruption. Power, wealth, and advantage have interlocked and overlapped creating gaps of wealth in which the very thought of fairness or equity is rejected. If the top of society is corrupt then what is the lesson for those who wish to economically rise? If the rewards of winning are so great then cheating becomes part of the skill set. Aren’t we taught that to get ahead one must get along? In a rigged system one plays by rigged rules. Those at the top blame the poor for their poverty falsely reasoning that the poor did not work hard enough. This is akin to telling someone without footwear to pull themselves up their bootstraps. What makes this even more terrible is that the winners, in a Darwinian sense, view their positions as natural, ordained and even sacred. This is a corrupted narrative ages old.

Some policy experts would suggest a way towards fairness would be some form of social welfare or a minimum wage. This does not address the root causes of poverty or the built-in equality but instead can help create a permanent underclass. Instead of equalising opportunity and creating a culture of fairness a corrupted dependency is perpetuated. Welfare for the poor is viewed from a moral perspective, that is, the poor lack the correct attributes of hard work, thrift, diligence, and obedience. This whole structure is corrupted as the poor may even by judged as being ungrateful and therefore undeserving of the generosity of the state. Just recall — how patronage is used to win votes of the poor.

We all have read our Dickens. He wrote about poor houses and the mean streets of London. And who was able to enter a so called poor house? The deserving poor. Again, a moral judgment. I do not accept that there are undeserving poor.

If we are living in a dangerous age of anger then it is important to have a lens of awareness and perception which is not corrupted but clear and precise. Being aware of manipulation and the culture of blame and demonisation creates a spectacle which makes manipulation easy.

We clearly remember our meeting with community leaders in Faisalabad. It was the summer. It was over 45 degrees with no electricity. People were sick and dying. I (Paul) began the meeting by asking a simple question: “Why isn’t the fan working?” The answers I received were most based on amazing conspiracy theories. I listened politely. I wondered why people would give the real reasons? Were they too difficult? Perhaps after years of this problem not being solved, the answers I heard were not irrational but rather perfectly logical as they were spoken from within an environment where a logical answer would make no sense. Corruption breaks the spirit to think.

Lu Xun was a Chinese writer who wrote powerful and evocative essays about the plight of China. In 1918, he wrote a short piece entitled “Diary of a Madman”. There are many interpretations of the essay. The madman is the only person who can recognise the ugly truth of feudal society. Sane people are unable to see the truth even though they are convinced that they are the ones in touch with reality. Feudal society breaks people’s spirit. Feudal society creates anger and frustration. The author was calling people to stop deluding themselves about reality. Many people hated this essay because he was attacking the vaunted values of traditional Chinese culture. But at the time, especially in the Chinese countryside, poverty had destroyed the very fabric of society. Children were sold to labour brokers and famine was the norm. Doesn’t the Lu Xun’s Madman sound a bit like the “Yumla” who could ridicule everyone and everything and could get away with that too?

So the real core of corruption is one of perception (not seeing the reality) and also of self-delusion.

As someone born in the United States the current struggle is about identity and the politics of not only memory but also visions of the future. It is a struggle over myths. These are powerful forces with amazingly different narratives. Here in Pakistan, the tainted elites have contaminated everything including religion, political ideologies, ethics and behaviours. Resultantly, anybody who is straightforward and honest is now considered a madman and fools. Only such ‘fools’ could together change the world for the better.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 1st, 2017.

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