Reexamining Corruption

It’s hard to make a pro-corruption argument. This might seem like a banal point to make, but it goes a long way to explaining its role as a rhetorical tool to delegitimise incumbent elites. Any system increases the power of a subset of the population – thus creating an aristocracy, which might be either in line with natural aristocratic tendencies, or an artificial creation made by fiat. Therefore a common tactic to be aware of; particularly in this new world of information warfare and astro-turfed revolutions, is the use of the term “corruption” to do most of the work necessary to convince people that the corrupt oligarchs (read: current aristocrats), need to be removed, and replaced with their champions of the people, experts, civil servants, meritocratic representatives or whatever else they might be sold as (read: their aristocrats).

If a prominent firm or aristocrat is given sole rights to import a particular commodity, or given a monopoly over trade with a particular region of the world – is that corrupt? Most would probably say yes, but it is a frequent feature of trade historically, and usually discussed without this moral dimension. In discussions on the history of these topics it has been seen in the cold light of either political or economic necessity. When pursued by the various national East India Companies, as well as the West Africa companies, and others; a monopoly may have been necessary to reduce risk and thus make the enterprise sufficiently profitable and attractive to generate capital. The risk of total asset loss was so severe that even despite the significant resource availability and autonomy of these East India Companies, they were unable to secure total dominance – as they still competed with each other East India Company. Had the Dutch East India Company had to face even just two or three English East India Companies with either outright force or predatory business practices; they would be unlikely to help one another, and thus leave one another to fall one by one. It’s even worse than that on the domestic side, because they would undercut one-another in prices, and thus diminish the profitability of the goods overall. Between these two pressures, they would have to eventually simply buy from the Dutch East India Company instead. Based on the effects that economic dependence on Chinese trade had on British foreign policy (sparking the Opium Wars), and the actual historical examples of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, we would be faced with a series of wars wherein England occupies a much more disadvantageous position thanks to less access to ships and a shipbuilding industry (after all, if there is little peacetime need for it, what would sustain it outside of wartime?). All the while, access to foreign commodities such as tea and spices would be sporadic, and pricier when available. Was the granting of these monopolies to certain aristocrats a matter of corruption then, or prudent policy in the national interest? If one were to ask domestic producers and aristocrats with little investment in the new companies, it would most certainly be still considered a matter of corruption.

A more contemporary examples then: was the privilege that seems to have been given to Russian or Russian-affiliated aristocrats in Armenia corrupt? Many seem to have thought so, based on polls, street demonstrations, and the like around the time of the 2018 revolution (if we trust such metrics). It should be said immediately that there are more facets to the corruption accusations than that single point (and this caveat is necessary because it is more contemporary), however this is one of the points which was seized upon most diligently by the revolutionary government. Russian influence was purged rather ruthlessly, but fast-forward two years and Armenia finds itself in the midst of a war which was entirely predictable, but one which they were woefully underprepared for, and their only ally – Russia, sits on the sidelines. Perhaps all that ‘corruption’ served a purpose after all…
More than that even, much of the ‘corrupt’ government’s claim to legitimacy in prior years had been the preservation of their perilous position. In the west this has been portrayed as a flimsy excuse to preserve their power and position. Recent events seem to show that they were entirely correct, and we were entirely wrong. Who is the corrupt party in this formulation then?

Only after laying out these examples does it seem appropriate to define corruption, because many of us have an inherent sense of what corruption is – which I wanted to prick at before discussing it in detail. According to a quick google, the following two definitions are most appropriate here: 

  1. dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.
  2. the action or effect of making someone or something morally depraved.

Transparency International gives a slightly different definition:

We define corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.

Between these three definitions, we get the sense that corruption is the profaning of sacred power by using it for private gain. This is not a terrible definition, we can, I’m sure, all agree that Dick Cheney personally profiting from the Iraq War was indeed corrupt, as would be supported by the definition. But what about the repeal of the Corn Laws? The anti-corn law league was immeasurably better funded than it’s pro-corn law counterpart, and it was rather transparently funded so that the factory owners could lower the wages of their workers; hardly an altruistic aim, despite all the high-minded rhetoric. Was the eventual success which they achieved, corrupt? By this definition, yes insofar as the better funded party won out (despite the theoretically pro-corn law party being in government at the time – indeed the issue split the party), but we tend not to see it that way. Perhaps it is simply too far in the past. What about the overruling of a referendum result through legal challenge? It’s not quite buying a politician, but it’s often the next best way of buying policy. Desegregation, and same-sex marriage were both pushed through this way, but these two points are often considered some of the most significant achievements of Liberal Democracy – to call them products of corruption would be contentious to say the least. But these weren’t for personal gain, right? Not financially, certainly, but in terms of non-financial profit, perhaps. 

Let us emphasise the private versus public gain side of the equation then, dropping the moralist implications, and the financial element. Already we run into problems defining what this public good might be, and how to deduce it – as it is one of the core questions and divisions of the Enlightenment. Instead, let me sidestep that consideration for a moment, to instead talk about what is definitively not part of the public good:

  1. The good of an individual at the expense of the rest
  2. The good of an organisation or small cadre at the expense of the rest
  3. The good of a faction or segment of the population at the expense of the rest
  4. The good of the present populace at the expense of the future populace

Obtaining one of these conditions tends to be the goal of enterprises which encourage corruption. Points 3. and 4. however, are tricky because they bring a lot more to mind than stuffed brown envelopes and undue favours. Our general Pluralist view of modern Liberal Democracies usually says that this is a good thing; to have many disparate pressure and interest groups vying for influence. And despite the fact that they often come armed with either cash or near-cash assets for politicians to enjoy (that is to say, if a politician planned to use funds for adverts or exposure to voters, then being given those services is just as good as the cash), we tend not to view them as corrupt or corrupting entities. Unless of course it’s the other political wing’s interest groups. And again we run into the spectre of corruption as a rhetorical device. 

The full implications of the above statements are much deeper however, as they imply that even an idealised version of modern Liberal Democracy is corrupt. Mostly only the naive and the rhetoricians maintain that their program would be better for all, rather than merely their own chosen groups. At this point the criticism may be rightly raised that we have moved on from corruption, and are instead onto the topic of determining what is within the national interest, but this concept is, I would suggest, deeply tied to that of corruption – as it is to act against this national interest for the sake of private interests.

If then, we are to insist on continuing to use corruption as a meaningful concept, it must be to distinguish between particular benefits, or general benefit: those policies that empower only a fraction at the expense of the rest, versus those that – perhaps even disproportionately benefiting some, nonetheless grant general benefits either overall, or in the long term. If we also accept the findings of the Elitist School, and in particular, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, then this also means that accepting the privileged positions of aristocrats is necessary, but must be aligned with the national interest (rather than parasitic). This is clearly not an obvious picture to parse however, as demonstrated by the aforementioned examples of the Armenian Revolution in 2018, or the merchants and investors of the East India Company, because in both cases, the privileges served vital strategic interests which either would have, or did impoverish the nation at large by their disempowerment. Most other cases are more murky however. Did the abolishment of the Corn Laws and thus the disempowerment of the landed aristocracy in favour of the burgeoning merchant, financial, and industrial aristocracy – help or hurt Britain’s interests? It’s a mixed picture, and while I would personally say that it did more damage than good in the long term, I will readily admit that this is a difficult case to make. In the present it is even more difficult; particularly when factionalism is rife which encourages a mindset of wanting to raise our own and tear down those of the political opposition. But under such conditions, perhaps even the basest claims of awarding top jobs to loyalists alone to ensure loyalty and governmental coherence is valid, in which case all talk of corruption would be moot.

Only when we have solved this problem of ensuring that intentions are rightly guided – can we begin to interpret and weigh the conflicting needs of the nation. Before a national need can be established, there needs to be an unbiased or correctly biased (as in biased towards the good of the nation) entity which can produce these judgements reliably, rather than coincidentally. Athens stumbled into the fleet they used to win the existentially vital battle of Salamis. We probably shouldn’t, as a matter of course, rely on such unlikely fortune to obtain good policy.

The New Spoils

If one had been looking at some of the less publicised parts of the 2019 UK general election manifestos of the various parties, one cannot help but notice a rather odd dislike of Ofsted – the education system monitoring and regulatory body. This is especially peculiar considering most parties desiring to abolish it, wished to replace it with another body tasked with the same job. Why?

Well there may well be many issues at play, but one strong contender is the continuation of a trend stretching back to at least the late 90s under Tony Blair’s Labour government – which was itself a reformulation of a much older idea: The Spoils System.

Originally, in the US, the spoils system was a process of rewarding political or personal allies with positions in government and the civil service. Eventually this was seen to be diminishing the effectiveness of the government by disregarding merit in favour of political considerations, and the practice somewhat disappeared, though not entirely.

The comparison between the US Spoils System, and the UK’s dealings with patronage and political nepotism is not a perfect one, but in light of more recent political history, it becomes more relevant.

Following in a long history of English policy chasing business interests, the story of the modern civil service (much abridged) begins with the emulation of the East India Company’s college, and standardised testing for administrative roles. Even in these early days it was divided into a technocratic advisory body, ostensibly to advise on the realistic policy possibilities available, along with their consequences, and a more purely mechanical body which simply carries out the dirty work of implementation. In keeping with the traditions of the time, many of these civil servants were of a generalist character, rather than what we might think of as a technocrat today with extreme clout in more specific technical areas. Ergo, as the perceived need for particularly scientific, but more generally technical knowledge increased, so too did the pressure to reform the civil service in order to meet such perceived needs. This, no doubt in combination with other more ideological and base political inclinations of the Labour party between 1945 and 1968 led to a review of the system, with numerous suggestions for change. In order to carry out such a change however, political pressure and will is needed, and thus a political head in the form of a new cabinet department within Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968. So with the civil service now brought into the realm of a political instruments, it became a recurring political project – to overhaul the civil service, under various pretexts, and with varying degrees of success at trimming around the edges of the institution. The most successful were the Thatcherites, who were able to install a form of performance remuneration, and later the ability of the public to issue claims against the civil service in the case of unsatisfactory service. Even this latter reform is dubious, however, as it could be considered less of a reform of the existing structure, as much as it was the creation of a new body to attempt to scrutinise the civil service (The Office of Public Service and Science). In this light therefore, Boris Johnson’s (at time of writing, announced) intention of reforming the civil service appears to have bleak prospects – as the fundamental form of the civil service has stayed true to its original formulation, and in this way, represents an active legacy policy of the 1850s Liberal party, couched in terms of neutrality and impartiality, and therein lies the crux.

Seemingly, it has been recognised that these ostensibly independent organisations (additional examples of such being the Bank of England, and the United Kingdom Supreme Court), are given certain political characteristics by the nature of their founding, and perhaps more importantly, the source of their founding – politically speaking. Briefly, in the first instance, the creation of the Bank of England did much to allow for the obfuscation of power relationships, distanced power from sovereignty, and enriched the base of the Whig faction who had founded it. More contemporarily, the creation added to this institution; the Independent Monetary Policy Committee achieved the same in terms of obfuscating power relations, but also creating the possibility for political influence to outlive the government which appointed them (as they enjoy longer terms than the government). As such, Mervyn King, who had earlier been a critic of the Conservative economic policy under Thatcher, was appointed by the Blair Labour government – as the first governor to serve a whole term which would enjoy the increased responsibility and independence. Initially he followed the expected course, and, following the 2008 financial crisis, attacked many of the politically acceptable targets, and catered to Labour’s political concerns; even going as far as to rather unusually give a speech to the Trades Union Congress. However, in the lead up to the 2010 general election, King became implicitly and sometimes explicitly more critical of Labour (albeit a Labour party slightly changed from the one that appointed him). King then went on the praise the Conservative policy plans, especially after they had been more thoroughly enshrined in the Coalition agreement which put them in power. This could be viewed in one of a number of ways therefore: either he was seeking to ingratiate himself to power to make his suggested candidate more appealing – thus preserving his own legacy and some amount of his power and prestige. Perhaps, as has happened with US supreme court judges, he changed his perspective since his appointment, and thus began to exercise his own power. Or it could be as simple as to say that his positions all along were more complicated than might be suggested by his past. In any case, he was succeeded by a governor who followed a similar trajectory: began supportive of the political interests of his appointer, and maintained many of those positions while the political situation has shifted around him, but now, as Mark Carney nears the end of his term, he has begun to soften on the issue of Brexit in particular seemingly, which is a de facto appeal to the power situation on the ground. Perhaps we will see in around a decade if this trend will unfold a third time, but for the meantime, I would invite you to draw your own conclusions on the matter.

The UK Supreme Court could be said to be a more obvious example, particularly in the recent high profile cases which had the effect of tying the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. In this way, observing the time line of the creation of the UK Supreme Court, it would seem to be one of the most effective of the avenues for the Labour government of Blair (and later Brown) to maintain influence, even after they’ve been politically displaced. This of course coming from a body which was only formally created in the final year of that government, investing the justices for life (albeit with a mandatory retirement clause).

It is little wonder then that at time of writing, the Johnson Conservative government is looking into curtailing the Supreme Court’s power. However this generates the predictable responses of tyranny and overreach. This is what sets it apart from the original spoils system, as it generates the self justification of merit based selection and action, along with independence. These are bodies which are relatively easy to create and empower, but difficult to roll back: a near perfect vector for ensuring long term political influence. For now, at least. The original spoils system was justified through appeals to efficiency generated by improvements in loyalty and cooperation. It’s difficult to know how accepted this was in the earlier stages of the process, but considering the fact that the Southern Secessions took place during this time, it might not be unreasonable to think that the view was prevelent that an anti-slavery political victory would enable such policies to be pushed through easily, regardless of the pragmatic considerations under the spoils system.

So, government is being hampered by Labour created and influenced institutions which cannot easily be outright removed or reversed, despite their being routed from power. What can be done about this? Better still, could this be turned into an advantage?

There appear to be two options primarily available: the long term preferable option would be to reverse the changes, through pushing them into politically unfavourable positions which undermine their popularity or credibility. This has been the situation for the Supreme Court recently which, although technically was not so, was seen as being a blocking action against brexit – doing much to render support of the Supreme Court a partisan issue. This means that Johnson’s attempt to diminish the body may stand better chances than others of their kind, but that remains to be seen.

The other, perhaps more cynical option is to play the same game, but better. If the creation of new bodies is a means to ensure long term influence, and such bodies, along with their independence is seen as an inherent good (though admittedly this may be changing), then independent (ostensibly at least) appointments to such positions must also be good, right?

A body would be created, nesting subtly partisan features and aims into its mission, but maintaining formal separation from the state, though not necessarily total separation from all matters of political life (if such a thing is even possible). It merely needs to be seen that a roughly neutral or meritocratic organisation by a reasonable and defensible standard, with a mission aiming at the public good, is tasked with ensuring that ‘politics is kept out of such important matters’. An example of this may be a group of legal practitioners aiming to ‘preserve legal stability and the common law tradition’. Inherently this pushes us towards Conservative, if not Reactionary members and ethics, which will translate into likewise Supreme Court justices, should this group hold a monopoly on appointments. Should protest be voiced to this, it can be easily countered with accusations of politicising the legal system, or attempts at a power grab.

In this scenario, however, it must be considered that this will still, despite the slightly changed political inclinations of the incumbents, we will still be set upon the path of ever more technocratic government. The hope would be that with an increase in the influence of sympathetic members of this technocracy; a greater number of options would be available to change the situation down the line. To draw a crude comparison: although the secular Western Roman institutions may have crumbled, we as analogous to the early church may still be able to control, or at least influence the political situation going forward, even if governing positions are held by otherwise opposing forces, as they were during the 6th and 7th centuries particularly, under the rule of the germanic kingdoms.

Mencius Moldbug remarked in his Open Letter, that direct action against the state from the right is folly, absent the kind of judicial sympathy which made it possible in the 20th century. While I would contend that the situation is a touch more complicated, perhaps the methods just described can be an avenue for attempting to re-establish something resembling the past wherein we were able to do more than merely chase the leftward push.