Three of corruption’s metastatic mechanisms

This post is adapted from part of my recent paper, ‘Political parties as corruption hazards. The republican case for sortition’, in the Croatian Journal of Philosophy (vol. XX, issue 59). I don’t know why they put a full stop in place of a colon in the title, but in any case it’s my first published paper and I am quite excited about it.

In my previous post (rather longer ago than I’d like!) I talked about corruption as a kind of investment of power that yields a return. Today I’m going to shift the metaphor a little bit. The key point I want to emphasise is that corruption grows – like a cancer, it metastasises through the body politic, the economy, and society as a whole.

In particular, there are three kinds of mechanism it uses to do so that I want to highlight. That’s not to pretend this is an exhaustive description of how corruption spreads, but it works as a general sketch. These mechanisms are as follows:

  1. Corruption tends to perpetuate itself, not only because it builds power for the corrupt actor, but because it gives them a pressing reason to avoid losing that power – namely, to avoid suffering the consequences of their abuse of power.
  2. Corruption tends to form networks: since most corrupt actors aren’t wizards or superheroes, they mainly accumulate their power by forming connections that allow them to reliably make use of others’ power – connections that often compromise the recipient in some way, inducing them to engage in corruption themselves.
  3. Corruption propagates itself from one actor to another, not only through the networks it forms, but through the normalisation or even ideological legitimisation of corrupt activities, both of which are important strategies corrupt actors can use to protect themselves.

Examples of these dynamics are probably very familiar to you, both from works of fiction and historical and current events. The American Trump Administration provides abundant demonstrations of them every day – from the man himself desperately trying to avoid leaving office for fear of facing criminal charges (mechanism 1), to the cronies he installs in the offices of state in order to advance that agenda, most notably in recent days Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General (mechanism 2), to the enthusiastic effort by Fox News and the congressional Republican party to paint these moves as normal and legal (mechanism 3).

The reason I highlight these dynamics in the abstract, rather than simply decrying the examples, is that they are very general patterns that can recur in all manner of circumstances. They can therefore be used as integrity tests for systems of government and structures of power, both actual and proposed. To what extent, we may ask, does the system allow these dynamics to occur? What opportunities are there for wrongdoers to protect themselves within the system? How easy is it for them to form lasting networks of collaborators? And how does the structure perpetuate or disrupt cultures of integrity or wrongdoing?

One of the most significant aspects of these three mechanisms is their relation to time. All of them rely on enduring relationships and power structures to function. It is not enough for the corrupt agents to avoid arrest today – they must avoid it tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. A network of corrupt agents takes time to form, and is useful only as long as its members retain their access to power and mutual relations of (limited) trust. And an organisational culture that normalises corruption, like any other culture, must propagate itself to survive, both by bringing its existing members to maintain it and by inducing new entrants to its social space to join in.

What this means is that, when we look for points of corruption vulnerability in an institution or social order, we should look first at the places where power endures, or can be expected to endure. Over the coming posts, we shall turn our attention to a variety of such places – beginning with political parties.

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