The necessity of corruption


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MY idea of corruption challenges the post-Weberian idea of modernity. In the western idea of modernity, both the modern and pre-modern are seen as exclusive; in our society, the pre-modern and modern telescope into each other and corruption is the expression of that hybridity. The French sociologist Bruno Latour pointed out that the West itself was never fully modern. This becomes most true in the moment of corruption. Corruption resets rather than resists the logos of modernity. Corruption is a form of cognitive competence, a bilingualism, an ability to translate, mediate and hyphenate between modernity and the pre-modern or between a power regime and its consumers.

Corruption demands a new ontology of modernity. The Weberian distinction between family and public or state does not work. Corruption extends the family into the state turning it into a giant milch cow. Watch the dictators from Marcos and Mubarak to politicians like Pratap Singh Kairon or Rajiv Gandhi or a Yedurayappa. They all know corruption is the juice, the extract that a family squeezes from its private commons, the state.

Modernity has targeted corruption as deviant and pathological. A corrupt society in a Weberian sense emphasizes ascription over achievement. It carries seeds of a patrimonial authority where the zamindar sees corruption as the tax, the excess he attracts on his own initiative.

Corruption reveals its paradigmatic self at the moment of reform. The western modern idiom treats corruption as a virus, a pathology, an epidemic to be eradicated cognitively. This is based on a transfer of metaphors from the Christian idea of corruption of the flesh to a corruption of the body politic. The war against corruption echoes the war against cancer, with the World Bank and Transparency International beating the war drums.

I want to argue that corruption colonizes the body politic in India in a different way. Corruption performs three services. Cognitively, it is a knowledge economy, in fact the first of the great modern knowledge economies. It provides life-giving or life-denying knowledge about access or entry. Second, it is a ritual service, where the tout and the clerk provide a priest-like knowledge of the system which is formidable in its intimacy. Third, the tout familiarizes one about the system, domesticates power in a paternalistic patron-centred language, creating a pastoralism of a parallel kind. For example, it redefines access as ascription, rather as an achievement or legal rationality. It embodies power, especially the power of intermediaries so the system acquires concreteness. Who you know determines how you enter. The Punjabi English question ‘koi approach hai, koi contact hai?’ sums up the rules and techniques of entry. Power rather than becoming abstract and remote becomes approachable.

One also realizes the power of secondary figures controlling the corridors of power. The PA (personal assistant), a formidable creature in Indian folklore, summarizes the logic of the system. The philosophy is simple. Why approach a doctor when a compounder will do? The sense of the system changes if one accepts this ‘network of knowledge’ as a fait accompli.

It is what Indians would dub as ‘general knowledge’. Corruption bowdlerizes the bureaucracy, wires issues so that decisions can be simplified when formal procedures are Byzantine or complex, providing to many a lived, a living and an embedded understanding of the system. It raises the subaltern question: why revolutionize a system when one can subvert it? A parasite celebrates a system in a way no revolutionary or reformist can. Here improved plumbing is preferred to eradication.


Corruption, therefore, performs a service, a critical, sometimes life giving function. Eradicating it makes the service more difficult to obtain. Reform only works when we realize corruption as a network, a system that functions as a double. One has to mimic or internally absorb the services it performs to make it redundant. It is the redundancy of corruption that reforms must seek. This requires a move beyond the current imagination.

Every system carries its own corruption with it. It is normal to the system and, in its epicycles, corruption functions as a double drawn to mimic the system so as to create surplus from it. Our attempts at reform show us why reform only becomes one more epicycle that corruption must subvert. One of the ironies of corruption is that reform adds to corruption. Every new license adds to the general licentiousness. It is one more world to domesticate, corrupt and colonize. This demands over time, a bit of additional tinkering before a parallel world is grafted.


Let us examine closely the dynamics of corruption. It is a knowledge system based on classificatory categories and rules and the power to short-circuit rules. It is like the power to play God in a corridor or within a paragraph of a rule book. Think first of classification. Classification performs a dual function. It includes and it excludes. But what looks hermetic and sealed can be made porous. The magic of corruption lies in temporarily blurring categories. The dispensation can be made momentary and renewed again through recharging the system.

Classification is enforced by rules. Between rules and classification, categories and procedures, governance comes into play. It is only the clerk who realizes that the roots of corruption lie in the structure of classification. Once you differentiate formal from informal, a banal Orwellian world of ‘some are more equal than others’ is born; all corruption requires is the gradient.

A migrant entering an informal economy as a hawker or a scavenger has four options. He can fight for his rights and seek a formal justice which does not even recognize the legitimacy of his existence. He can be upwardly mobile by eking out a living. He can starve to death as many do, or he can live in the interstices of the system, sustaining the system even as it lives off him. The rule game for him is temporary citizenship which can be withdrawn at any moment. A slum demolition or a police crackdown on hawkers in a street is a sign that the God of clerks and administrators is hungry. The observation ‘municipality wala aa gaya’ sums up the system. The bribe he pays is the arbitrary charge which makes him temporarily a legitimate part of the rule. The clerks and cops in every little town and mohalla realized literally that there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid long before certain enlightened experts did.


Corruption is not reformist. In fact, it delays reform by providing a solution to the faults of the system without reform. It works and it works the system, and many feel it is the only thing that works for them. There is a political economy to corruption. In the modern system, economists and anthropologists differentiate between subsistence and surplus. The power of corruption lies in extracting surplus out of subsistence. The hawker, the migrant, the beggar, the scavenger and the domestic servant living in a slum or on the pavement pays to live, pays to access the system. The assembly line of extraction from cop to goon, to political worker, to tout to social worker represents the rites of passage into the city. We antiseptically call it migration.

Corruption while mediating the formal and informal economy also mediates between the oral and textual worlds. The tribal or agricultural labourer entering the system cannot write. As a group without a script, he is deemed as illiterate and the price of illiteracy in a subsistence economy is high. The novelist Mahasweta Devi’s reports on bonded labour reveal this. For a tribal, his word is his bond. But as he enters a city or even an agricultural system, he borrows money, a few rupees for which he signs a paper, which enslaves him for generations. He signs away his life working naively for a master, repaying the meagre loan a few thousand times over.


Corruption has to be seen as a dialect, or rather, many dialects. Modernity and modern bureaucracy is an official language. Corruption is an idiom, a way of life which many understand. They sense its exorbitant rents, but feel more at home in its negotiations than in the language of bureaucracy which is standardized and impersonal. Corruption becomes an accepted form and entrenches itself. Sociologists have been sensitive to this but usually read it as a temporary or retarded phase of modernization. Anton Blok constructs the rise of the mafia as middlemen who aided modernity and acquired a stranglehold over it. Robert Merton’s classic essay on the political boss describes a similar humanizing role in a welfare state where the demand for records and certification makes a migrant feel helpless. Both authors talk of such creativity as a temporary solution. I want to suggest that the search for hybridity makes corruption in India and Africa or Latin America an ethno-knowledge which challenges the science of management based on Weberian rationality.

Once we see corruption as one of the first great knowledge economies, we must realize that reform that seeks to eradicate it might suffer from a cultural illiteracy that drives corruption underground. To reform a corrupt system demands that you respond to its idiom, its mentality, the form of its rituals and the substance of its services. It is like unravelling a code, not merely tinkering with a machine. Also, corruption in its very resilience can re-colonize reform by making it one more epicycle in its labyrinth of structures. Reform thus becomes the compost heap for the next generation of corruption.

Corruption not only implies a style of survival but corresponds to the logic of certain forms of innovation. Indians adapt, bowdlerize, scavenge, forage, modify, co-opt, add-on, subvert. Corruption suits the style of a foraging economy which seeks to improvise, modify to create a new possibility where there was none. Indians love to tinker with the social, hybridize and connect in unexpected ways. Corruption adapts to that style, to that distinctive approach to problem solving where a square can also be a circle. The modern and the pre-modern do not engage in a zero-sum encounter, but engage in a playful recolonization where grammars combine or work in parallel. In that sense the logic of corruption mirrors the logic of jugaad. Both treat the environment as a resource and repackage it for instrumental but limited ends.


Corruption connects many, implicates virtually all. It operates as a chain of being, a network of connectivity which like a kinship or caste network spreads far and wide. While investigating the fodder scam in Bihar in Laloo Yadav’s time, the CBI team felt a whole section of society was involved. It is as if a collectivity is involved in the act of corruption. There is no one person that one can point to as guilty. It is like accusing a termite’s nest. The fodder scam, like many other scandals, involved a chain of being. It is almost as if corruption summons an elaborate division of labour which creates spirals of complicity where it is difficult to identify and label one individual as corrupt.


Corruption banalizes. One understands this particularly when we watch how it operates in situations of disaster or terror. The terrorist brimming with the ideology of violence eventually becomes a tax collector, an everyday extortionist, where terror becomes a new form of inventory making as groups operating in the North East or the LTTE in Sri Lanka proved. Disasters like Bhopal or the Orissa cyclone open new markets for aid and relief. Disasters create acts of conspicuous consumption of new commodities from medicine to plastic sheets which are domesticated into new markets. If rent has to be extracted, then the survivor is as open to extraction as any subsistence economy. Information flow, availability and access are crucial in a disaster economy. In fact, disasters could become new avenues for extraction where aid and goods travel to create new economies of surplus in which the survivor’s role is minimal. The excess of humanitarianism and its inefficiency changes disaster into a giant potlatch which the corruption economy domesticates and ritualizes.

A sociologist of the power of Erving Goffman would easily understand the performative networks of corruption. What might rule the presentation of corruption in everyday life? On a everyday bureaucratic level, the four dramatis personae are the tout, the clerk, the cop on the beat and the personal assistant (the PA). All of them look like subaltern, lowly functionaries but have power of life and death in an economy of corruption. Look at the policeman, comic in his uniform, obese in figure. He treats the world as a commons, helps himself like a spoilt child to anything around. He treats the world as his backyard. Yet his stick is literal. It is a Hobbesian world where lack of compliance makes the world nasty, short and brutish. Each cop is lord of the beat. He permits, he ignores, he condones, he commands and each dramatic act has its own going rate. He is the lord of whim. He is terror incarnate that needs to be placated. A blind eye from him can create or deny a million possibilities.


The tout is the access provider. He knows those who know. He sets the first table of market rates. He is the connector. He is the ancestor of the PRO and the lobbyist. He can be matter of fact, go out of the way to please. His pidgin Hinglish hints at the nature of service. The clerk is a more anonymous but imperious figure as the high priest of rules and their subversion. He owns the codebook. He sets the limits of possibility. He decodes the system so that a remote entitlement suddenly becomes available.

The clerks are the trustees of the Byzantine bureaucracy. The clerk controls time, the time of meetings, the time of promises, the futility of waiting, the time of delay, the time where the impossible becomes probable at a cost. By controlling the logic of time, the clerk reveals the varieties of time present in the tacit structures of a bureaucracy. The clerk understands time is money and converts time to an inflationary set of convertible currencies.

Finally, there is a PA who sits in front of power, and wields power by promising access to power without formally being power itself. The PA is the man in the safari suit. He is a front himself. If the first transformation of corruption was when the goon became the politician rather than his accessory, the second structural change was when the PA, obsequious and senile to those in power, became the power broker himself. The PA assists, provides entry to the boss. Soon he makes decisions by influencing the boss and creating a network of trust and service where without threatening the boss he becomes the boss’ other, the politicians’ double, the trusted aide who knows the mind and needs of the boss better than the boss himself. He creates the boss’ timetable. He is a living mnemonic, the maker of lists of meetings and appointments, thereby determining exits and entrances. He rations the boss like a rare resource. And he plays the boss while the boss plays with power.

This quartet of minions actually runs power, turns it into a resource, strip-mines each opportunity and creates the rules of the game.


Corruption is an economic phenomenon, but cannot be seen as mere rent or within market economics. As a transaction, it is better conceptualized as a mix, a strategic mix between idioms of hospitality, gift, service and the rituals of extortion. It can or could be seen as a negative gift. The bribe is a negative gift. We are entitled (more often than not) to the services we claim, but feel obliged to have received them. It is the irony of paying for what we are entitled to and yet constructing it in the idiom of reciprocity and obligation. Between entitlement and desire and the problem of access, corruption becomes the negative gift. We are compelled to pay to receive what is generally ours anyway. It is this combination of parasitism, patronage and the gift woven into the language of service that makes corruption such a complex phenomenon – an ideology of service, a system of delivery, an idiom of hospitality and a structure of extortion. Unless we disentangle these diverse elements, corruption will always be a part of governmentality as we know it. In doing so, one has to understand the protean and procrustean elements of a corruption system.


A theorist of corruption must take a look at reform. Reform is the language of a bureaucracy seeking to engineer change. Reform is a language that we must understand. Reform can be anchored on four vectors. First, the personal. Corruption is seen as a personal malaise of character. Character building is offered as a solution and has roughly the same status as personality development. It reduces reform to a set of tactics or makes claims which no longer have the eloquence and power they had.

There are two points we must note here. First, goodness by itself is not a competence. Goodness has little sense of the logic or grammar of evil which masquerades as a service or a genuine function. Goodness for all its rhetoric becomes sociologically futile against corruption because corruption as a system better understands the logic of need and desire. Second, creating a demonology of corruption helps little. To equate corruption synecdochically to black money equates the part to a very complex whole. Black money is a symptom. It represents a network of forces and it also reveals deep flaws in the bureaucratic system. When people feel a tax system works unfairly or bureaucratically against them, they resort to black money. Black money is also necessary for numerous transactions. Visualize buying or selling a house without black money. Honest people might seek an aesthetic proportion between white and black, but eventually the transaction is colour coded. For Baba Ramdev, black money like Black Label is taboo. Those who refuse black might be bled white at a later stage. Oddly black money is also a facile label, a stereotype you create for the rich and successful. The idea of goodness or even the demonology of goodness fighting evil is facile in the way it describes corruption.


Bollywood understands and plays with the black money model. The smuggler and the politician were the fountains of black money. The hero can erase the smuggler blatantly dubbed ‘Robert’ or some other minority figure, but he cannot destroy the system. The idea of black money refers to a Manichean evil, but lacks the sense of mix that we have to deal with in sociology. Baba Ramdev’s campaign lacks the subtlety of Bollywood. For him black money is Indian wealth stored abroad. It represents conspicuous consumption, but Ramdev’s swadeshi movement grasps little about the logic of corruption. It just becomes an anti-colonial fragment. It harnesses the disgust against corruption, but shows little institutional understanding of it. It creates the rhetoric of a civilization battle, but has little sense of the banality or everydayness of corruption. Ramdev creates a demonology of corruption and a spectacle of reform, but cannot sustain a legislative battle or a religious movement that could minimize corruption.

Anna Hazare provides another variant of this protest. Hazare personifies honesty. He is Gandhian and swadeshi. He has fought the little battles of development around his village or region. He is one of the proverbial fighters against alcoholism. Yet the scale of his battles has been geographically small. This man of goodness then jumps scale by becoming a national hero battling corruption on a national scale. He is surrounded by three sets of figures – Agnivesh, Bedi and Kejriwal.

Agnivesh is the archetypal social reformer who fought the bonded labour system and has been a continuous presence in various struggles for human rights. Kiran Bedi is the honest cop, the first woman to be a police officer, and at one time a tennis player of some potential. She has made her reputation fighting crime. Expectedly, Bedi sees corruption as crime and it may not always be so. There is a shade of difference and equating the two would land most of India in jail because India has become a republic of bribe givers and bribe takers. Kejriwal, a former tax official, represents the honest official asking for greater accountability.


The reformist, the crime fighter and the good bureaucrat form the first circle around Hazare. Sri Sri Ravi Shanker’s ‘The Art of Learning’ group provides the spiritual management approach to corruption. A new generation, the ‘youngistan’ of idealism form the third, reliving the authenticity of the swadeshi movement. Unfortunately, while Hazare and group tapped into the moral disgust of the middle class, their claims of legislating a Lokpal were not equally impressive. They should have sought to create a social ethic. Instead, they advocated a legislative situation which brought them back to the bazaar of politics, where bargaining became the order of the day. They will be completely outplayed by Congress sharks pretending to be practical and realistic. The latter will turn the innocence of Hazare into a law and order problem.

The third approach to corruption is represented by the crusading zeal of the media. A part of the media believes that exposure leads to reform. There is a misplaced enthusiasm here. What the media does is to remove a particular person. It then naively believes it has created reform, an institutional change which removes the malaise in question. Sadly the media often conflates scandal and crisis. Scandals, at their height, might create regime change, but more often remain mere spectacle. A cycle of scandals creates consternation, but soon ends in indifference. The media has to realize that the life of scandal may raise few issues of crisis in a country like ours. Crisis response needs structural or organizational change while all that the drama of scandal may provide is a minor catharsis.

The fourth approach centres around groups like the World Bank and Transparency International who are children of the Enlightenment discourse. These agencies emphasize the visuality of reform. They argue for transparency and believe that corruption can be weighed, measured and subjected to audit. What we confront here is a theory of method, the idea of audit as a solution to corruption. Audit does provide a measure of accountability, but audits are like temperature readings. They become indicators of the climate of corruption without being able to do anything about it.


The Right to Information movement shares some of these assumptions. It challenges the secrecy of political acts, seeks to highlight how much was spent and by whom. By turning the searchlight onto corruption, it seeks to combat such deals in the open. It seeks to give the poor and marginal groups a sense of participation, but its ability to challenge power is limited to certain forms of litigation like the PIL. Such efforts allow for limited optimism as long as the regime is tolerant of them.

All the above five approaches treat corruption as a deviant or pathological act, reducing it to power or greed. Its logic is, however, more complex. They fail to realize the fact that corruption is endemic, even normal to the logic of the system. As a problem solving mechanism tied to the culture of a certain idiom, corruption is actually normal. None of the five reformist perspectives ask how the service is to be delivered. The pragmatic and the moral do not converse with each other. At another level there is an ironic reciprocity between corruption and the above modes of reform. Such campaigns make the corrupt system even more Byzantine by forcing customers to pay more and more for less and less.

The question before us is: If corruption is systemic, how does the economy look? Think of the fact that 70 per cent of India is an informal economy. Add to it the grey or parallel economy of terror, smuggling, trafficking and prostitution. Coat it with the defence economy. Add crime and terror as separate sectors. Provide a huge chunk of the cake to development projects and disaster and then ask what portion of the Indian economy is susceptible to boyscout theories of corruption. The only answer we then have is that corruption of this structural kind cannot be reformed through character building or transparency or methods of audit.


Think of it visually. One immediately realizes corruption stems from the logic of a development model. Our moves to modernity, to development, to creating certain institutional structures either excludes many of our citizens or corrupts the society. It is our categories of classification, of exclusion that make us corrupt. Corruption provides the osmotic systems that let the excluded and the marginal and the greedy survive at an awesome cost. Ramdev, Hazare or Aruna Roy are not wrong. Each catches one aspect of the problem and labels it as a question of morality, modernity, civilization, participation. Each offers a solution that faces the cancer of a problem. Development and modernity in encountering the non-modern have created the enzymatic nature of a process which corrodes like acid even as it keeps alive the possibilities of the system. It is this that we cannot face.


A few decades age the émigré sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that modernity as a classificatory structure functioned around ambivalence. Modernity sought to create the certainty of citizenship and consequently faced the threat of the stranger as exile, migrant, nomad and refugee. Bauman spoke at the level of persona and identity. Modernity’s ambivalence to the stranger created the other as monster which it panopticonized, disciplined, displaced or eradicated. But there is a second ambivalence which Bauman failed to talk about – the ambivalence of structures as modern rationality encounters parallel civilizations. This encounter in Africa, Latin America and Asia has produced a crisis of categories which has led to war, violence, distorted development and the pathology we call corruption. The formal economy that we generalize into an overall gestalt is tiny but critical. While catering to its cancerous power and in hybridizing competing structures, we create corruption. It is a disease of structures and their dynamics that we falsely attribute to persons. In this lies the eventual tragedy of corruption.

The adulteration of categories inaugurates the modernity of our time. We adulterate in order to live in between. The migrant or villager entering the city has to pay to survive. Do we blame the cop, the land sharks or do we challenge a classificatory system that creates exclusion? Think again. The nomad passing through a sedentary system pays a bribe to survive. An ordinary student entering a university where things are taught in English corrupts the system by bowdlerizing it. Now Shakespeare is read as Charles Lamb. Now imagine being a PhD student in a regional college. Where does copying end and ‘originality’ begin?

For the Third World, disasters and development projects are forms of corruption where we access aid without changing our categories. Think of development as a continuation of war by other means. You need a birth certificate or a clearance urgently. Would you wait or go to a relative or tout or a contact? Think for a minute. If you had to save a life, would you bribe a person? If you had to save a few days, would you still bribe an official?

The social science of corruption is for the elite of the system. What of the defeated, the marginal, the unemployed, the excluded, the uneducated? Where do they go in a system where victory is almost impossible and survival equally difficult? Corruption creates the nether land where life is difficult but not impossible. Reform and the cry for reform is an epicycle around a pathological system which talks democracy but treats people as disposable waste.


Corruption is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper malaise which writers have pointed out for decades. Corruption is the entropy created by a tiny modern system as it corrodes the rest of the world. One cannot reform an adulterated system till one goes back to examining the corruption of categories as its creation myth. Till then reform and protest become spectacles which provide catharsis but hardly any transformation at the institutional level. Corruption eventually corrupts or destroys the idealism of reform. This much is sociologically evident. Protest and reform provides the slapstick of change without touching the core of the system. We need a structural theory to combat such phenomenon.


The French philosopher and political scientist Cornelius Castoriadis made a critical distinction between imagination and the imaginary. The imagination refers to the current framework of possibilities, the known transformations a system can produce. The imaginary represents the unthought, the still to come. It demands leaps of faith beyond the currently conventional. All I am arguing is that the ideas of corruption and the nature of reform while articulating a moral disgust offer little in terms of institutional hope. For this one has to go beyond the current registers of governance and governmentality articulated by a Hazare, a Roy, the World Bank or the current logic of social science.

This brings me to the last section of the essay. Corruption is more than an expression of greed and power. It is the classificatory logic of a hybrid system at work. Corruption celebrates the middleman, the dalal who hyphenates worlds and mediates passages between them. The dalal facilitates a transition between formal-informal, official and illegal, oral and written and in facilitating these transitions, performs a service. To understand corruption one has to understand organizational illiteracy. Most citizens do not understand the rules and rituals of the system. They seek entry, speedy access, and space from harassment. They need modes of negotiation which enables them to live in and with these systems.

The middlemen perform a crucial function. They provide organizational literacy, create innovations. They seek to translate the formal generalized idioms of the bureaucracy and for these services one must be grateful. There is something about bureaucracies which have an endemic sense of delay, which reduce citizenship to helplessness. It is these rituals of service, their idioms that we must replicate. We need to mimic the heuristics of corruption, absorb it as a metanarrative and reproduce it organizationally. Only then can reform begin. Consider an informal economy. Once we mimic it as a form of livelihood, look at innovative possibilities in terms of support for women, the creation of pavement as temporary commons, we begin to understand the logic of survival. Reform makes sense in this context. This reform stems from a listeners view and it is not based on the visuality of control.

Second, reform has to be panarchic. Corruption is a multilevel system where reform at one level may not be relevant to the other. A panarchic system creates an ecology of reform where different solutions apply at different levels without centralized reform. Reform at the panchayat level has to speak a different language than reform at a national policy level.

Third, corruption is a symptom of the classificatory malaise of a system which excludes a huge part of the population. To break corruption we need to go to the roots of classification and its organizational implications. Without this reform is only a middle range palliative.


My essay might sound skeptical about the great stalwarts of Indian reform. My skepticism is, however, a skepticism of intellect, as Gramsci would dub it. Theories of corruption are theories of societal change and need to be examined more ruthlessly. Otherwise all we have are the pollyannas of change rendering corruption more and more Kafkaesque. It is this fear and the need to create a clear-headed sociology that drives this essay.