Corruption Makes Neo-Liberalism Go
These are the days for corruption.
India never had so much lucre going around, so big a class of people with lolling tongues and copious pockets, and so little prohibition to illicit money-making on behalf of the neo-liberal State and its institutions.
Thus, why not? Especially when humongous acquisition and conspicuous consumption have come to be conflated with the promise of salvation not just here but in the hereafter.
But let me backtrack, and indulge some esoteric speculations on what corruption has variously been seen to comprise through the times. As I see it, all of the variants invite considerations with respect to the human subject and how he/she constructs collective human endeavours and defines his/her equation with supra-human stipulations. Or, how such constructions are handed down to him/her by authorized agents of social and spiritual power.
In the good old classical Catholic construction of these matters, it was to be understood that corruption was born of what Milton was to call “man’s first disobedience,” namely his defiance of god’s injunction not to eat of “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
In a pre-Copernican world of ideas, then, the homo sapien was not sent to the earth to have a good time, but to constantly mull his sin, and in his exile from heaven to expiate and self-flagellate inorder that his repentance could be rewarded with a re-entrance to the Garden made blissful by god’s forgiveness and reinstated love.
In that view of corruption, self-evidently, no one, but no one was free either of sin or corruption, including those who took upon themselves to do god’s work in the church and to minister to sinners who came to them for guidance. Or those laggards whom they sought out and not infrequently punished severely for their own everlasting good.
Such a universe of ideas made it a matter of little importance as to who ruled over whom, or how, until of course times changed and such matters acquired enormous and embarrassing importance, often indeed to fatal consequences to individuals, institutions, and nations.
Within “mainstream” Hindu thought, of course, corruption, corruptibility, and nearness to or distance from the deities were and insidiously still remain related to hierarchies of birth across Varnas. Thus the Brahminical castes could never ever be corrupt, or indeed guilty of other forms of trespass. The political class of ruling Kshatriya kings, if anything, had an obligation to pursue Vaibhav (opulence), obligation which the Brahmins were duty-bound to help further through various Yagnyas (oblations etc.,) made to the chanting of hymns to the gods. It must be an interesting and unique feature of Hinduism that its pantheon includes a goddess of wealth, Laxmi, who is to this day worshipped for the bestowal of prosperity on the best known festival-day on the Indian sacral calendar, namely, Diwali, when homesteads are lighted to welcome the goddess into the favour of the worshipper.
The old Christian ways began to change with the advent of what we call the Exchange economy. Slowly but surely, the possibilities of Capital accumilation, of surplus productivity, and of the leap from what one should produce and consume to what one could produce and consume—all of that incrementally at higher and higher levels as rates of profit increased-- seemed to resurrect if not the human soul then the self-esteem of the species, as flesh began to feel not as despicable as the old church had taught. (A matter in which Hindu thought had remained miles ahead in time, until historical circumstances of diverse conquests came to breed squeamishness and denial.)
For groups of men at the helm of affairs, living was now too seductive to be dashed by the teachings of the decrepit old church. Time then to readjust doctrine to suit new aspirations and possibilities. Suddenly the light of a new truth dawned upon the thinking elites of Europe: it was neither the claim of a humble life-style nor of the nature of work done upon the earth in god’s name that would justify the human subject to god on Judgement day. Rather, what would count would be the quality of ones’ Faith—a category deliciously unquantifiable and unamenable to collective policing.
Much as man’s sinful nature remained a constant of Christian teaching, a caveat was now introduced: it was discovered that human subjectivity could be neatly cognized in a duality: that whereas man’s Will was fallen, his Wit, or some part of it, remained “erect.” (Some metaphor there.)
It can then be seen that corruption now began to acquire a moral meaning. It was entirely upto individuals to examine their own ethical lives. Ergo, some may be corrupt, others not, An argument that thus refuted the twin notions that either all mankind was corrupt ontologically, or that corruption ensued necessarily from new and evolved systems of money-making.
Indeed, a Christian theologian based in Geneva was to extend the argument as he struck the last fatal blow even to the possibility or desirability of ethical behaviour. He taught that nothing we did or believed in here on earth mattered a fig to god, since he in his infinite wisdom had predetermined what numbers of us were to be saved at the final account. Such ones were the god’s “elect” (the earliest and perhaps most telling definition of the concept of election, except that democracies only elect the lucky ones to ephemeral glory for short periods of time here on earth, whereas god’s election was to be forever.)
So, in that scheme of things, how might you know whether god did or did not have kind thoughts towards you? But of course by the quality of life he granted you in the here-and-now. If you proved to be a “loser” here, it was most likely that you were meant to be out of god’s favour; but if you proved to be a “winner,” acquiring property, wealth, and the powers that came with all of that, why he obviously meant well by you. Thus no more sure indicator of salvation than wealth. And each episode of well-being then began to be followed by an episode of thanksgiving and prayer (just read Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and you might find that when his goat gives milk, or when he grows the first grains of wheat, he quickly falls to pray—a paradigm of behaviour which suffused the early strivings of those that came to colonise America, much as Crusoe came to colonise the island upon which he was ship-wrecked., including the black man, Friday. By that reckoning, incidentally, the beggars of the world entirely have a good argument against praying, since they have no thanks to give for anything.)
This American paradigm of the inseparability of acquisition and consumption from prayer has, as I have written in columns before now, come visibly to inform the political and spiritual economy of India’s post neo-liberal upwardly-mobile classes, a fact that illuminates the marriage of extreme lucre-lust and flaunted religiosity among the Hindutva-espousing Hindus across metropolitan India, extending rapidly even to the hinterlands. (Within the Muslim world decreed by the Koran, inequalities of endowment are entirely willed by God; corruption enters into the question only if those that have fail in the duty that is ordained on them to part with a certain percentage of their wealth to the needy by way of Zakat.)
And, interestingly, in the zeitgeist of these classes, corruption is always what the other fellow is doing to outstrip competition. This heinous betrayal elicits much moralizing on TV channels, even as, like the proverbial cat in the adage, the moralizer at heart wishes nothing more than to exchange places with those that are thus vilified.
Or corruption comes to be simply disregarded under guise of a superior cynicism which knows that such has always been the case and will remain so. Clearly, a theoretical option that only the haves may proffer, since corruption makes little difference to their well-being anyway. Unless indeed a campaign against the other man’s, corporates’, political party’s real or perceived corruption bears the prospect of one’s own further advancement among the Who is Who list of worthies. Until recently in India it was normal and routine to ask of a match for one’s daughter as to how much he earned on the wrong side of the table, salaries being looked upon as an incidental endowment.
Not surprisingly, thus, the object of obtrusively aggressive prayer mechanisms of these classes is not to ask the gods for a peace that passeth understanding, but for the next acquisition that is crucial to self-esteem and social advancement. And to show to the world how much in sync the worshipper is with the latest fineries that the business world makes available to embellish the act of worship.
Berating corrupt practices, these new elites simultaneously will be heard to endorse all and every institutional arrangement conducive to corruption, such as, for example, to address the current moment, corporate lobbying. What is wrong with it they ask the yokels who proffer analyses suspiciously derisive of greed and the philosophy of best-foot-forward.
In a disconcerting book titled Civilization and its Discontents the father of the science (pseudo-science if you like) of psychology, Sigmund Freud, was to offer a painful formulation: that the human psyche is driven by two antagonistic drives, the “pleasure principle” and the “reality principle,” the first seeking the fulfillment of desire and the latter reminding the subject of obligations to collective social life with its inbuilt constraints. Conclusion: unhappiness is the human lot whether desire is fulfilled or dutifully suppressed. The one may lead to corruption, the other to subtle forms of disease. All that without regard to what the gods will or what arrangements of production and distribution obtain in a given social order. Externalities of equity or inequity bear not at all on the Freudian paradigm.
Among the religious archives, it is perhaps in Buddhist teaching that corruption is shown to be the necessary corollary of excess and inequality.
Speaking of which, a final construct suggests to us that, whether or not corruption is a defining characteristic of human imperfectability, its actual operation and ambit relate intimately to what sort of social order we give to ourselves. The less rational and egalitarian a State and its institutional mechanisms, the less fair-minded its systems of accountability and control, the less humane its distributive justice, the less transparent its order of productive life, the less caring and non-discriminatory its thought for the least, the more corrupt it will be.
It is to be learnt that because the American Constitutionalists, as good Christians, did not have the faith that any human being could be trusted with the absolutes of reason and benevolence, they opted not for a government by men but government by laws, binding thereby, as it were, all subjects in a common contract of how to deal with fallibility. And who will say that the American system of government has not, give or take, lived upto that originary perception. The presumption here is not that men and women must strive to be morally perfect, or ever can be, but that the law must oblige them not to override the contract with other citizens whose failings and rights must be seen to make them equal in the stipulations of the Constitutional contract. And that, if and when transgressions happen, all must ready themselves to take their medicine without regard to status. Thus while a Bernie Madoff is sentenced to 150 years within six months of his infraction, our own Ramlingam Raju of the Satyam scandal detected about the same time as Madoff carries on through the courts merrily from one procrastination to the next. All of which should not be read to mean that equality before the law within the American scheme of things has absolute value on the ground. But the value that it does have may not be as easily or as blatantly violated as it may be in that largest democracy, India.
Here, whereas all the good laws exist on the statute books, the force of cuturally accreted and imbibed notions of inequality among citizens, the most gross to be found anywhere—the persistent subtext that democracy may have decreed non-discriminatory governance, but some must always remain more equal than others, and thus more above the law than others, be it for reasons of birth or access to hereditary forms of power, all reinforced by other acquired forms of clout—continues to bend the formal features of Constitutionalism either to atavistic or newly constructed structures of privilege.
Infuse that construct with the neo-liberal free-for-all of the last two decades or more, and it is no wonder that corruption today has swallowed every segment of the power –elite, not excluding that fourth estate watchdog. To wit, even within a Capitalist social order, depending on how laws pertaining to asset-creation, ownership, transactions at home and abroad, forms of State regulation are either loosened or made stringent, and depending on how investigative agencies are either allowed non-discriminatory operation or enslaved to the clout of the transgressor who holds the State in thrall, corruption and corruptibility must rise or fall. Put another way, even class states may define a spectrum of allegiance as between the people at large and those whose bidding the State is meant to do. What we have been seeing in India has been a gross infringement of that balance. The result: the last two decades have seen a burgeoning of numbers at both ends—more dollar billionares, and more absolute numbers of people who crawl through forgettable lives.
The question: will the systems correct themselves at whatever cost to the interests of the haves, or will the current crisis of faith lead to other forms of challenge. Not to say that forms are not already with us.
There are those like the present writer who would like Capitalism, and not just crony Capitalism, to go before corruption may. And there are others more canny who know that corruption must go if Capitalism is to survive.
Either way, there is a job to be done.
Watch this space.