Corrupted corruption

Stories of kickbacks revealed abound. One so-called civil society organisation has even made a business of it: poor countries mostly fare badly in its yearly Index of perceived corruption. The powerful and well-connected love it, for good reasons. No wonder. They are the untouchables, the corruption game rule out their wicked ways. It's simply been kicked out of the vocabulary.

Corruption tends to catch the headlines, cluttering the chatty streams yakking on our screens too. These days, the World Economic Forum used its Twitter account (three times in a row) to herald the world's ten least corrupt countries. There was also a campaigner for the Green EU Group, thrilled by calls to adress corruption "seriously" and hoping for a revival of the "annual corruption report". Then there's a construction scandal in Mexico that "experts and activists" link to corrupt city officials. Then again we have a "media trainer" explaining to a rapt white-collar crowd why Golden Visa cards pose a corruption risk right across many EU countries. Ah! and there's a "Deputy CEO", too, working at the Open Government Partnership (yes, it exists): he'd very much like that "corruption-focused summits" make their promises come true.

You type the hashtag corruption and you get truckloads of it. Same thing if you give it a try on any search engine.

Trans, anybody?

The somewhat intriguing thing with the tiny news items quoted above is that four out of five have the same source, an outfit by name of Transparency International (dot "org", if you please), headquartered in Berlin with many outlets elsewhere, for instance right at the heart of the EU machine. It has made corruption issues one of its core businesses.

Lately, on February 21st, 2018, it published its "Corruption perception index 2017" ranking 180 countries on a scale ranging from very bad to very clean. There's a map for the illiterate. You get the drift at a glance. Most of South America is bad, so is most of Africa, and of course Russia, and almost all of Asia. The US and France are the very good guys, and so are Canada and Scandinavia. The old havens of capitalism, in other words, get a clean bill of health.

Obviously, something is amiss.

For one, the ranking is construed on perceived corruption and, tellingly, perceived by "business people" and, whatever that is, "country experts", that kind of crowd. Data gathered by means of these qualitative (read: subjective) sources are then "aggregated" and accordingly crunched into single digit results. That way, the UK gets a score of 82 (very clean) and ranks number 8 on a scale where, for instance, Venezuela almost tops the worst-scoring countries, its 18 tag flirting with the 0 of utmost corrupt: there are only eleven countries, out of 180, that do worse.

Narrow escape

The question is of course what "business people" perceive and thereby define as corruptive practices. Not sleaze, certainly. Not the "chumocracy" of which the British weekly Private Eye relentlessly documents the whereabouts and whodunits.

So, in the February 9th issue, for instance. There's the right honourable conservative George Osborne, briefly Chancellor of the Exchequer (among quite a few other prestigious and well-paid appointements): he made a speech at Davos on behalf of the banking conglomerate HSBC for which he got - er, earned? - almost 59.000 euros, plus accomodation and travel. Peanuts, of course, compared to 735.300 euros he gets annually for working one day a week for the world number one assets managing firm BlackRock. Then there's Kevin Davies, small-time Tory leader, netting 51.000 euros from estate developer CNM in order to help him participate in "the annual four-day property boozefest Mipim" in Cannes. Or, juicy indeed, the sell-out of the UK ports to a "medley of foreign governments, billionaires and tax-avoiding conglomerates". Or, also formerly publicly owned, the water company Southern Waters: that's zero in corporation tax while slushing millions to an offshore subsidiary in the Cayman Islands. With the blessings of the - shall we say corrupted? - honourable politicos entrusted to safeguard public interest.

More of the same in the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. In its March 14th issue: the juicy job-laundering of some former socialist big wheels (former Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkcem, former MP Sandrine Mazetier and former Parliament Chair Claude Bartolone, all into the startup business of consultancy agencies), the royal expenses in restaurants paid for by the discreet outfit overseeing the sewers of Paris, the deal made by the Mayor of Paris with a parking ticket company setting enormous fraudulent control quotas (some 74.900, daily) for their staff. Anyway you look at it, there's that heavy smell of corruption.

Not by Transparency's standards though. No wonder, really. As a fine paper by Chafik Allal made clear a few years ago (see below), its corruption index relies on a mix of datas culled through different methods from one country to the other, furthermore leaving the core concept of corruption undefined. When you learn, then, that the outfit was founded by one Peter Eigen, former employee of the World Bank and the Ford Foundation, and that its Advisory Council is embodied by people such as Pascal Lamy (former boss of the WTO & EU Trade commissioner), Jimmy Carter (former US president), Jessica Tuchman-Mathews (Carnegie Endowment), Olegun Obasanjo (former president of Nigeria & its privatization programme), Dieter Frisch (former head of EU directorate), it will not come as a surprise if the poor (aka "rogue") states of the Third World bear the brunt of Transparency's shaming index. Good ol' propaganda. Bullshitters have always been around. Correct them is at best a loss of time.

Beyond propaganda

Bribes, revolving doors, chumocracy twixt the well-fed and the like are all the sorry offshots of late capitalism. But it's gone a lot further than that, robbing the word corruption of its very meaning, now hidden by a veil of ignorance to most people.

Take Goethe, for instance, who wrote in his Wilhelm Meister (1775-86) the following: "May God stop me from offering the public reasons to corrupt itself."

Or Pablo Neruda in of his poems of 1973: "I've been corrupted deeply enough to surrender my superior ear (innocently destined for birds and music) to daily prostitution."

Or Montesquieu, in 1758, stating that "The corruption of all governments almost always begin with the corruption of principles."

It has very little to do with bribes. It rather relates to the definition given by most dictionnaries in which a corrupt person is "dishonest, without integrity", that is "debased in character; depraved; perverted; wicked; evil". Applied to a written text, the act of corrupting it has the significance of altering it "for the worse" (The Modern Library dictionary of the English language, 1947).

The corruption of minds, of public affairs, of common decency, of cultural and artistic sensitivity, of language, of historical theory, and so on, are far more damaging to political and social awareness than any sordid case of greedy grab of payoffs. It's the latter, though, that get the headlines. A case, if you will, of corruption getting corrupted.

Chafik Allal's paper (in French), December 2009: