Comfortably corrupt

June 9, 2014

Corruption is politics by other means. This is what is meant by “political fairness” under neoliberalism.

The way your pain threshold adjusts to pain relief, so that the lower intensity of pain is not that much less objectionable once the worst is over, implies that Xeno’s paradox applies to the pursuit of creature comforts.


The power of creature comforts to make those who are both selfish and well-off feel self-satisfied and not dwell on a conflict of interest makes Nature seem perverse, as if shame were the sole manifestation of conscience in tangible experience. The politics of the belly silences gut feelings that resist injustice.

The prior and unprecedented traits
of governments are as abstract in form,
as artifactual; and they conform
to the same natural law of symmetry.
A judge may not remember perfectly
how he has erred about his work, but knows
how he has erred in apprehending those
aesthetic qualities life brings our way,
how he has waited years to finally say,
“I see the beauty in this face,” or learned
a poet loved in youth can yet be spurned.
I brought you to my office for a while
on that same impulse that drove Da Vinci
to follow an eye throughout the city,
or follow a head of hair, or a hand,
sometimes staring until the sun set and
forgetting his streets the while …
You did not mind. An education draws
schoolboys to teachers simply because
truth brings the beautiful to light.
A tutor can unfold the best, the right
and the expected, in intimacy.
If style has swagger, no one wants to see
humility in the eyes of a doctor, or
in the shoulders of a lawman before
the steady eye of the wits and papers.
Fate in a play favors handsome actors.

Your look is not effeminate – the Greek
Euripedes tells us Ulysses’ sleek
triremes beat oars to war no differently
than poets sing the epics, a stately
rhythm, unfailingly even, prows chased
by dolphins imitating art, their haste
pursuing Helen’s barge to Troy a rage
made dangerous by meter’s level gauge.

Comfort softens you and instills undue fear of deprivation and preposterous yardsticks for poverty and suffering if your initial position is advantageous, which makes helping professionals sardonic about self-reported needs and claims of having been victimized any time they’re working with someone other than the worst-off case they’ve ever been privileged to help.

In Culture Change and Everyday Life, David Chaney writes that social theorists generally agree that “everyday life” is “something that is consistently being renewed [.. not] an accomplishment” but “the very banality of the accomplishment of everyday life masks its significance.”

He recommends that a student begin by looking for “significance in uncertainties, hesitations and mistakes of practical actions.” Change in the forms or modes of order that “make sense appreciable” are a means of expression and medium for reinventing the everyday, but they themselves arise out of the competing interests they represent and articulate.

Conventional wisdom concerning what is important in everyday life includes the following priorities:

  • “being able to relax, not feel unduly constrained by either formal or informal conventions, have a laugh, be .. self indulgent and to be comfortable with one’s companions”
  • “to be as attractive as possible” and “avoid pollution from contaminating noise, ugly sights, disease” in a “search for stress-free environments” including “nature and the natural”
  • To see the world’s physical, cultural and historical resources as consumables that are “rewarding and life-enhancing” to partake in
  • “to invest a great deal of emotional and practical energies in family relationships” and take responsibility for the young, while grooming them to bring success to the family
  • “a responsibility to achieve some security” for oneself and significant others in areas of relationships, emotions, finances and various practical matters which would otherwise be “a source of great anxiety”

Corruption in politics is merely the overt use of power in office to meet these everyday needs on the part of a public servant, something that can feel quite natural, instinctive even; an entitlement to many, the only reason for pursuing office to some.

What logic constrains the public official from distraction with self-indulgence? Irony seems to be a dominant trait among bureaucrats. Historian Richard Walton describes life at the top of a military-industrial bureaucracy:

“It was up to Secretary of Defense McNamara to carry out the new military policy and, simultaneously, somehow to establish mastery over the conglomeration of feuding baronies and duchies that was the Defense Department. … The Pentagon [used technocracy to] provide the pseudo-precision – with charts and maps and lists of such tangibles as aircraft carriers, howitzers, helicopters, etc. – that appealed to the President, whereas [the State Department’s diplomats and political culture experts] could only talk subjectively of personalities and parties and possibilities, notably imprecise stuff.”

Hence the military-industial-complex affiliated factions within Washington could easily outmaneuver the diplomats to influence the President, if he was easily impressed with the rhetorical use of summary statistics and pleased with the conveniences of brevity. And Kennedy was: “like a juggler, already juggling too many eggs, who, often at the most anxious moments, is forever having more eggs tossed at him. No writer, no presidential adviser, perhaps not even the President himself can be fully aware of the size and complexity of the job.”

He particularly preferred brevity from his advisers, probably because it helped him maintain a sense of self-efficacy while struggling to keep up with the business he was expected to carry out while maintaining his composure. “This confusion of brevity with wisdom was nothing less than tragic, for the proposals of the ‘realists’ who operated on Kennedy’s wavelength – McNamara McGeorge Bundy, W.W. Rostow – led to the Bay of Pigs, to the brink of the missile crisis, to the involvement in Vietnam.”

Diplomats who didn’t mind which way the wind was blowing would eventually be crowded out by bureaucrats better at landing on the winning side with their recommendations and so looking clever in hindsight. “One can formulate an iron rule for American – perhaps for any nation’s – foreign policy: the more available military methods are, the more likely they are to be used. Peace through Strength becomes Intervention through Capability.”

Cruelty could dominate either extreme of the neoliberal to neoconservative spectrum of political regimes, followed out to their ideological conclusions. The hierarchical mode pursues extinction of empathy and unreflecting obedience out of fear; the exchange mode pursues extinction of social obligation, again a resilience against pity.

Because the codes of conduct are easier to maintain through principles of conventionality than as coherent sets of abstract morals, the appropriateness of these cruelties is not likely to be questioned as long as the target is unconventional enough to arouse suspicion, i.e., a scapegoat.

One of the most universally recognized defining functions of a state is the monopoly of violence; if Doris Lessing is right to argue that regardless of ideology, all states devolve into a functional oligarchy, the direction in which that oligarchy turns the state’s apparatus for violence is critical to defining its political culture and the character of its corruption problems.

Knowing better is no obstacle to scapegoating. Hypocrisy is a mode of micro-aggression that explains the “pleasure of irony” as a way of reframing the pleasures of cruelty discussed by Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.

Macduff’s wife’s speech in Macbeth, “made when the murderers, sent by Macbeth, arrive to kill her and her small children,”

Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world – where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly.

Self-deception, whether knowing better and sensing dissonance or not, can be a way of coping with the indignities of middle class consumerism where one is expected to compete for meaningless work and excel at exploiting others. Those humiliations can be seen as part of the pressure to fantasize about escaping into the lifestyle of the rich and famous, either by winning the rat race or invoking celebrities as dignified personas maintained in the form of social masks that cover the indignities of everyday life, through fashion choices and the like.

Infant development in mental processes that can distinguish self from other addresses and confronts the difference between a backdrop of inert but moveable objects and its mother early, but this is a simple and fundamental challenge to distinguish another person from the internal milieu of perceptions that are interpretive rather than autonomous.

“If the process of differentiation is experienced and a reintegration of mother as a single object occurs, the infant acquires the marvelous capacity to see mother as a ‘good-enough’ person. Then any sense of frustration or loss resulting from her behavior can be perceived as temporary, not hopeless.”

What can go wrong is an entrenched sense of embattlement within one’s identity-forming process of conceptual crystallization, if the mother’s ambition to treat the child as a belittled object is too prominent in childhood experience, or the memory of it. When one can hardly budge from the experience of merely resisting it.

And to artists, more warning is given: “one risks an unusual loneliness in controlling the animus or the anima. This is because a participation mystique is created by not controlling them; when one allows a piece of one’s self to wander about and be projected into other people, it gives one a feeling of being connected .. And that is, of course, something;” but it delays any separation that could make “a conscious relationship” possible. So far, Jung.


All electoral rituals are symbolic politics, and election cycle violence is a kind of flash flood of identity group micro-aggressions otherwise expressed at the ballot box, reviving crude scapegoating rituals of solidarity also channeled into homophobia and political sex crimes. Just as the bourgeoisie were the scapegoats of Marxists for everyday dissatisfactions in the public sphere, homophobic rhetoric in failed states posits an “outside influence” blame game for the mendacity of slavery and privilege in the patronage politics of rentier parasitism and institutional malaise.

Stubbornness in a habitual hypocrisy can be unbelievable because it’s so obvious the stakes are disproportionately low for the liar in a particular instance – here institutional violence explains the indifference of the service provider to the public interest. Acknowledged corruption extends to absenteeism, but when nonperformance is an established routine an entire sector of public work can become parasitic and unproductive.

Information asymmetry and bad hand-offs may very well account for the bulk of public sector non-performance, in education and police work. Withholding information to be polite or manage the timing of disclosures blurs into poorly feigned ignorance flaunting hypocrisy in turf wars between clients and service providers.

Information costs go beyond acquiring data – time to complete hand-offs within chain of command is also a real limitation on information-handling capabilities, hence information asymmetry doesn’t just protect secrets, it undermines the efficiency of a bureaucracy’s chain of command.

But boredom with routines and malaise about team work also contribute to weak hand-offs in critical professions like health care. These nonperformance issues are not unrelated to the political culture of everyday corruption. That’s why I bought Everyday Corruption and the State, a ground-breaking book on corruption theory that delves into the psychology and phenomenology of “grass eating” corruption. It has a lot to say about experiences I’ve had in public health.

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