Justifying Corruption



What have in common an Indian mole in Pakistan, an international arms agent and an alcohol mogul in North India?

This rhetoric is clumsy but the point is even more evident: many, many would be all those who have corruption as their common denominator. A classical target of the utopian dreams of the Enlightenment Century, corruption is, four hundred years later, ubiquitous, present in multiple and complex forms all around the globe. Clearly, the best attempts to demonize and accuse corruption have proven sterile. We cannot control corruption, but perhaps before that, we do not know corruption, we do not know what it really is, we ignore the depth of its reach, we ignore all the roles it plays. And if, at this age of democratizations of knowledge, one of the most fundamental phenomena of our societies seems so conspicuously absent, it is precisely because corruption is the anti-discourse par excellence. In his famous anthropological theory, French academician René Girard argues that a society can sustain its scapegoats at long as their nature as scapegoat is ignored, that is, if they are believed to be legitimate targets. The situation is analogous here: corruption can survive and even strive as long as there is no discourse on it. A successful instance of corruption is one that resists being called by its own name.

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A successful instance of corruption is one that resists being called by its own name.

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Can we build a discourse on corruption? The question is not as easy as it seems. A sociologist may generally have to be patient while collecting data from her field, but she is not faced, in most cases, with social practices that reject any external observer by their very definition. If corruption is that which cannot be seen, the transparent pervasive, the ether of exchanges, how could one simply hope to construct a discourse, that is, a reflexive and logical model accounting for such observations… when such observations are by definition necessarily missing? These methodological hurdles did not refrain a series of discourses on corruption to emerge. In fact, the awareness of corruption, that is, the existence of historical accounts parallel to its practice, existed from the early ages of human exchanges, for instance in Egypt, Greece or Rome. While their presentation as corrupt, that is, illegal practices, could be questioned, one may confidently assume that in all times, populations knew that individuals in positions of power were making use of their technical knowledge and social connections to satisfy their own interests. This awareness has survived through the ages. In the ‘developed west’, corruption is not a derelict word but the sophistication of the bureaucratic and judiciary systems, the low populations as well as the financial progress permitted by the colonizing past, have made corruption a process virtually forgotten in the eyes of the commoner. Regularly, the media brings up affairs of corrupt practices in the spheres of high politics, the industry or diplomacy, and the fluctuation of judicial punishments proves that the practices survive and have a promising future ahead. But the state of corruption is not as endemic there as it is in other regions of the world. A country like India is placed only in the median section of the world’s list of nations with the most corruption 1 but throughout life in India, for the anonymous citizen as much as for the powerful societal actor, corruption is certainly more central, more ‘democratized’ and even more ‘creative’ than one would expect. It is ‘creative’ inasmuch it takes numerous, unexpected forms – it is a creative process – but it is also ‘creating,’ enhancing the realization of many processes necessary for the growth of society. In such a context, discourses on corruption are not lacking. In 2012, social activist Anna Hazare led a crusade against corruption, first gaining wide congratulations in and outside of India, before becoming a source embarrassment for the authorities in place and even parts of the population. Obviously, when discourses on corruption are limited to three specific statements – corruption is everywhere, corruption is bad and we must stop corruption – the results are unsurprisingly disappointing. Anna Hazare, anyway deserted by his initial supports, has spend months in jail for sedition, and a new cosy day has opened for more corrupt practices. The accusatory discourses on corruption have failed on two accounts: they could not properly describe, name, define and even less explain the object of their quest, and they could even less aim towards satisfying the old Enlightened principles of justice and equality through an eradication of corruption – this ether that, in any case, they never could get a hold of.

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Because corruption plays a role in the larger life of a society, and a central one, it has its legitimacy. Condemnable or not, corruption can not so easily be erased from the map. If it has survived through so many centuries, in so many forms and in all societies, corruption must represent a necessity, it must answer to a set of needs that human societies have developed.

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The task of philosophy is not to finger-point a culprit. Unlike Hazare and so many before him, philosophy does not expect to abolish instantaneously a millennium-old practice. In fact, philosophy would not even announce the task of elimination as one of its goals: corruption, first, would have to be inspected. Philosophy is, therefore, an odd player in the discussion of corruption. Philosophy understands reality through concepts, concepts amenable to account for concrete situations, historical contexts, societal dynamics and institutional complexities. Philosophy would, then, try to understand corruption, that is, to understand its right to be. Everyone would accept that Vegetation on earth has its right to be; its existence is necessary and legitimate, for instance, because it is required for biological life to be sustained. Similarly, because corruption plays a role in the larger life of a society, and a central one, it has its legitimacy. Condemnable or not, corruption can not so easily be erased from the map. If it has survived through so many centuries, in so many forms and in all societies, corruption must represent a necessity, it must answer to a set of needs that human societies have developed. Instead of echoing always the same condemning stances, it is time for philosophy to look at corruption. It is time that it faces this practice so central in human societies, to try, at least for a start, to discuss its name and its nature, and, perhaps to finally suggest a model to explain why it is so necessary, and why all other alternatives never truly succeeded.

This discourse is urgently needed today, precisely because nothing has gotten close to it. The literature on corruption is not inexistent, but it is addressed through very limited frames, such as the listing of its features in institutional organizations 2. The closest we would get to sophisticated discourses on corruption would thus be in the form of analytic definitions pin-pointing the positive aspects to include within the definition, and those to reject. It is a much more ambitious enterprise that must be undertaken. In the present essay, we shall try to initiate this process. However, since corruption is such a practical phenomenon, such a this-worldly event, its discourse must also resist the temptation of overarching conceptual hypotheses. What is corruption in one place may not be corruption in another. It should, instead, focus on reflexive, creative and connective speculations in the forms of commentaries to actual cases of corruption. Moreover, to permit a coherence of the discourse, these cases must be related; they must ‘speak’ for a common terrain of corruption. In this essay, we shall attempt this reflexive, commentarial discourse on corruption via the study of three recent cases of corruption in India: the aforementioned trio of the arms consultant, the industrialist-politician of Uttar Pradesh, and the realpolitik of diplomatic practices. Methodologically, this study will be based primarily on three long articles dedicated to each of these subjects in the last years in the investigative magazine The Caravan. These articles, faithful to the well-known quality of the magazine, are particularly insightful for the depth of research on the facts, for the clear presentation of the vast networks of individuals present, and, most important, for their capacity to portray complex societal processes rather than guilty individuals. With the help of some of the few existing conceptual and theoretical accounts of corruption, we shall try, here, to present a few hypotheses of this much-awaited philosophical discourse on corruption.


Jeelani, Mehboob. “Under the Influence.” The Caravan, November 2013.

Deshpande, Toral Varia. “Boomtown.” The Caravan, September 2013.

Kaushik, Krishn. “Team of Rivals.” The Caravan, August 2012.

Miller, Seumas. “Corruption.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). Accessed September 19, 2013. www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/corruption.

Visvanathan, Shiv. “The Necessity of Corruption.” Paper presented at the 35th ITA Seminar-cum-Meeting, Jalandhar, October 19-23, 2012. Accessed October 24, 2013. www.academia.edu/4022863/The_Necessity_of_Corruption.

Image courtesy: Cashart Blog



  1. See the official survey of Transparency International at www.transparency.org/cpi2012.
  2. Seumas Miller, “Corruption,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011), accessed September 19, 2013. www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/corruption.