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April 1999 (Volume 50, Number 11)

Notes from the Editors

What a fuss people made about the recent Olympics scandal. You would think the existence of bribery and corruption in the sporting world came as a great revelation, and that people had reason to expect the Olympic games to be immune to practices that are widespread not only in sports but in other commercial enterprises on this global scale.

But there’s still something interesting to talk about here—not so much about the specific case of the Olympics scandal but about the whole idea of corruption. There is something interesting about the moral indignation we’ve been hearing. For that matter, the very notion of corruption is a curious one, really. What does it actually mean?

Officials taking “back-handers” or rake-offs for facilitating business transactions is a practice no doubt as old as human history, or at least, as old as trade and commerce. You could even say that practices we now call corrupt have throughout much of human history been the normal and legitimate way of doing business, even the normal and legitimate way of conducting the affairs of state. Even functions we now regard as the exclusive public business of the state—in particular, the collection of tax revenues—were typically a kind of private enterprise. In early modern Europe, for instance, the job of collecting taxes was often “firmed” out to individuals whose payment for the job came not from official state salaries but from raking off a share of the revenues. People could, and regularly did, even buy state offices, openly and unashamedly. The state apparatus of European absolutism couldn’t have functioned without practices which, in hindsight, we might call corrupt.

Now the odd thing is that the decline of such practices—at least as openly acknowledged and legitimate—seems to coincide with the rise of capitalism. It seems to correspond to the particular division between economic and political spheres specific to capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, it was harder to distinguish the public functions of the state from private appropriation. A feudal lord or a state official would, and was expected to, use his political, judicial, and military powers not only to perform necessary “public” functions—whether the conduct of war or the adjudication of legal disputes—but also to line his own pockets. That was a normal way of appropriating surpluses from direct producers, especially from peasants.

The idea of corruption as we now understand it presupposes a clearer distinction between the “political” and the “economic,” the “public” and the “private.” These distinctions have become more sharply defined (at least in some respects) with the development of capitalism end its purely “economic” mode of appropriation. Capitalists, unlike feudal lords or absolutist officials, don’t appropriate surpluses by directly exercising some kind of official or public power. They accumulate profits through the mechanisms of the market, and they exploit workers who are forced to sell their labor-power for a wage not because of political or military coercion but because of their own propertylessness. The other side of the coin is that the conduct of public business is supposed to be separate from the process of private appropriation.

So in a sense, the concept of corruption as we know it is a product of capitalism. It’s capitalism that has effectively outlawed practices which have in other eras been treated as normal and legitimate. Does this mean that capitalism has refined our moral sensibilities?

The history that delegitimized and even criminalized certain kinds of traditional practices, labeling them as corrupt,” was the very same history that legitimated other practices which in other times have been violations of strongly held moral principles. Practices that today are considered the normal and legitimate way of doing business have, in other value systems, been treated as deeply immoral.

In fact, the history of capitalist development has been punctuated by conflicts between old moralities and the new ethics of the capitalist market. For instance, in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, capitalists, urban and rural, in an increasingly competitive environment, resorted to various practices that would augment their profits, such as “lease-mongering,” that is, buying up leases from poor tenants, then subletting to them at higher rents, and evicting them for non-payment; “forestalling” and “regrating,” buying up specific commodities in order to corner the market and sell at higher prices; and so on. These practices were much resisted, and struggles against exploitation could take the form of contesting the principles on which they were based, principles that were still regarded as alien and morally wrong. (Readers interested in pursuing this history can read E.P. Thompson’s wonderful book, Customs in Common, where he develops his much debated concept of the “moral economy of the crowd.”)

But today, analogous principles and practices are the lawful and legitimate stuff of everyday capitalist life. There are, in fact, few normal transactions of capitalism, whether in the class relations between capital and labor or in the daily competitive relations among capitalists (not to mention the often hair-raising but perfectly legal operations of financial speculators or, for that matter, banks), that aren’t a violation of some historic moral principle, or even a principle that may still linger on in some parts of the world.

Capitalism may have made us aware of “corruption,” but it has rendered practically invisible a much wider range of repugnant behavior, practices far more harmful to living human beings and the natural environment than crossing the palms of Olympics officials. It’s not that we should condone “corruption” like that of the Olympics scandal, but neither should we be much impressed by all the moral outrage. When moral indignation at the normal practices of capitalism becomes widespread, that’s the day we’ll have something to cheer about.

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