Our Corruption, Our Selves: Arjun Appadurai
This is a guest post by ARJUN APPADURAI
Partha Chatterjee and Shuddhabrata Sengupta rightly argue that “corruption” is indeed a new Indian label for “the lives of others”. The East German Stasi also surely saw their vigilance as directed against the politics of “the enemies of the people”, except that in their case the state and the party were seen to contain all the good people, with the bad people choosing to remain in the unmobilized parts of civil society. Hence the pro-Hazare gatherings certainly have some of the disturbing echoes of mass rallies under Hitler and Stalin with the working and middle-classes adoring a mediocre and Chaplinesque figure who promises a new wave of moral cleansing.
It is worth thinking about the very category of corruption, especially since the middle of the twentieth century, when much of the Third World, including India, achieved Independence. This was the heyday of modernization theory, the great beast of American social science (never much favored in Europe) which saw the rest of the world as needing big doses of rationality, punctuality, impersonality, statisticality and other assorted virtues in order to become modern in the Western manner. This was accompanied by a huge investment in education, technology, science, engineering, fertilizers, dams, factories and other temples of the Nehru period in India. During this period, corruption by many other names, such as nepotism, clientelism, patronage, familism etc. was always the background diagnosis of what was wrong with the unmodernized classes and masses of the developing world. The original Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) contains a marvelously revealing entry under the title of “Office, Misuse of” by the late Shri B. Venkatappiah, one time Deputy Governor of the State Bank, Chairman of the State Bank, Member of the Planning Commission, Head of Rural Electrification etc, one of the intellectual giants of the ex-ICS technocracy of independent India. I believe he was asked to write this essay by my one time nemesis at The University of Chicago, the late Prof. Edward Shils, one of the scourges of the left in Europe and the U.S.A., a disciple and evangelist of the wrong side of the Max Weber heritage, and an early visitor to independent India who wrote two influential articles on “Indian Intellectuals” which marked the highbrow end of modernization theory in the 1960’s.
I knew Shri Venkatappiah as the father of my closest childhood friend, and he was a polymath. His essay on “Office, Misuse Of…” is a classic of concise prose, moral clarity and planning optimism. It is the best single expression of the idea that corruption is about the capture of public office for private means. It offers a straightforward analysis to the effect that corruption is nothing more or less than the capture of government by all those interests which define the core values of social life in India (and in most of the world), which include our family, friends, communities, tribes and other personal ties as appropriate beneficiaries of anyone who holds public office in a modern, democratic society. Thus, in the heyday of modernization theory, was it considered feasible to construct a major political life, entirely cleansed of those ties that defined (and still define) human life for much of our history as a species.
In a largely forgotten 1969 essay the redoubtable political scientist, James Scott, argued that what was labeled corruption was in fact the main way in which those numerous groups who had no access to the legislative process had to resort to exercising influence on polity and economy by acting in the executive sphere, through techniques of direct payment and purchase which were officially seen as “corrupt”. This lovely analysis could well be applied to all the Anna supporters who flocked to the Ramlila Maidan and elsewhere to embody his message.
But Scott’s analysis did not go far enough. The reality, as Partha Chatterjee rightly points out, is that everyone living in India, and many of us who live outside, have friends, family and kinsmen on whom we depend to “get things done”, especially when we have a crisis, and therefore justify our actions in the name of our personal states of exception. Agamben should take note: exceptions are for me, rules are for everyone else. Thus does the middle class exert its bizarre sovereignty in India today.
In fact, no one is outside the web of personalistic means and occasions to assert one’s personal interests. The low-minded do so openly in respect to public interests. The high-minded among us do this only “for ourselves” when a child is sick, a son needs a job or we ourselves need a job transfer.
It is of course absurd to expect a society of a billion people to construct a politics cleansed of the ties that bind them. This was the blindness of modernization theory. But if the theory was blind, abstract and unrealistic, why has it not been toppled? The answer is that modernity has produced two selves for most middle-class Indians (here I mean not just the wealthy middle classes but everyone from managers to bus-conductors). One of these selves is still built on the fantasy of a Western self, instilled through decades of propaganda and schooling, which imagines itself as impersonal, apolitical and civic-minded to a fault. The other is a living, local, biographic self embedded entirely in friends, family and ties of blood, marriage and caste. These two selves are at war to some extent throughout the world but especially in places like India where the middle-classes, fed on the apparent successes of democratic politics, think they can have their cake (and be modern, abstract and impersonal) and eat it too (be self-interested, family-oriented and totally localistic).
This war is what has erupted in the Anna Hazare movement. Yes, it is to some extent an effort to take politics out of the polity, a classic mass fascist fantasy, in which our parades, wars and speeches are moral, and the enemy’s similar efforts are political and demonic. But there is another twist in contemporary India. This is a battle against “politics” indeed, but it is waged in the name of the people not just against politics but also against bureaucracy. This Weberian distinction is of the utmost importance in India where only a few people have friends and family in “politics” but everybody has friends and family in bureaucracies, or is a (small or large) bureaucrat themselves.
But in that case we have a bigger puzzle. If we are all bureaucrats or related to bureaucrats by blood, what is the rage behind Anna’s movement all about? I propose that it is about a massive effort to displace the “bureaucrats” within us all in today’s India onto the “politicians” outside all of us, a smaller and more easily identifiable group. Thus as it has been in all convulsive mass movements with a hysterical edge, the “intimate enemy” (to use Ashis Nandy’s term from another context) has to be exorcised and localized outside “us the people”, and the “netas”, small and large, are now the Jews of India, responsible for all that is greedy, corrupt and evil within us.
And this is why many of us on the liberal left are confused by the Anna movement. We know the enemy inside us but we are uncomfortable with its social projection. We see that this is a war within “us” which is being re-staged as a war against “them”. We are right to hesitate. This is not about “lives of others”. This is about the war between the babu and the neta in every middle-class Indian heart, including my own.
(Arjun Appadurai is Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University.)