There are two items in the news today that demonstrate the way in which power corrupts. The first is that of Dominique Strauss-Khan, chair of the IMF, charged with attempting to rape a chamber-maid. It is one of those stories which, if true, show how those at the zenith of power come to believe that the normal rules of behaviour no longer apply to them.
The other story is of course the emerging scandal of UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, alleged to have persuaded someone to take his speeding penalty points. A pathetic affair that, I think, falls into the category of The Cover Up Is Worse Than The Cock-up. A six month driving ban for speeding (not drink-driving or dangerous driving) would not harm a person’s electoral chances in the way that perverting the course of justice surely must.
Both cases are as yet unresolved, but if and when the accusations prove accurate, then the two men must of course shoulder the blame and take their punishment as appropriate. However, we should also pause to consider how such men are enabled in their corruption by those around them. In the case of Huhne, it looks like some star-struck aides agreed to go along with something they knew was wrong, in order to curry favour with a politician on the rise. In the much more serious case of DSK, it appears that the entire French political establishment chose to ignore this man’s appalling behaviour over many years.
This enabling is exactly what Dr Ricardo Blaug has been writing about in a pamphlet How Does Power Corrupt?, published last week by if:book and The Roundhouse Journal. Discussing elites and the citizens that they rule over, Blaug says:
Elites act with impunity; we work in hierarchic organisations and mostly do what we are told. If leaders are corrupted into tyrants, citizens are corrupted into blind obediance. It is therefore woth remembering – when we are ‘just doing our job’ or ignoring what elected leaders do in our name – that the most serious wrongs most of us ever commit are seemingly minor ‘crimes of obediance’. It is in this sense that we are all, and regularly, corrupted by power, either as power-holders or as subordinates, often as both, switch effortlessly between them as we turn from one person to another.
This reminds me of something that Lydia Cacho, the Mexican investigative journalist, said at the PEN Literary Cafe a couple of years ago:
A corrupt political system is only sustained by a corrupt and complicit culture.
Blaug, in his pamplet, discusses the need for citizens who are active in watching their leaders and calling them to account. “Once you have citizens, you have all you need” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said. I see NGOs and single-issue pressure groups, such as one one I work for, as fulfilling this role on behalf of citizens. Its our remit to watch the politicians closely and stir-up a fuss whenever there is any hint that our elites might be straying from societies ideals (although that also leads to arguments over what those ideals actually are, but I think in the UK there is broad consensus, even if we differ in the details). In this sense we are a sort of professional ‘awkward squad’ that keeps politicians as honest as they can be. The more usual term for this is ‘civil society’.
However, civil society only flourishes when the citizens have time and money to devote to it. The same NGOs only survive because of donations from individuals. This can be sustained in the UK, because we are an affluent society compared to the rest of the world. We have a cognitive surplus, as Clay Shirky calls it, available to allocate to this civic task. Corruption is quicker and more egregious in societies with little material wealth, because they cannot finance the civil society institutions required to scrutinise their elites, and ensure that any corruption is caught early and often.
Writing on the same issue in the Independent, Matthew Norman gives thanks for our feral tabloid press:
Our tabloids are unlovely beasts, but by God the terror of them tends to keep the basest instincts in check. If our papers are too easily roused – and the anguish about DSK’s possible, if unlikely, IMF successor Gordon Brown lightly shoving an aide does seem a bit silly today – far better to err on the side of hysteria than that of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, rulers-will-be-rulers indulgence.
The downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn may knock the likely end of Chris Huhne’s career into a cocked hat when it comes to grandeur, melodrama and tragic epicity. But in the clash of newspaper cultures, the victory is ours and just as clear-cut. We must keep it that way.
H/T to India Knight on Twitter.