Corrupt Politicians and the Culture that Enables Them

A corrupt political system is only sustained by a corrupt and complicit culture.

Dominique Strauss-Khan

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.

Update

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.

 

11 thoughts on “Corrupt Politicians and the Culture that Enables Them”

  1. Robert, I think you're jumping the gun. As I've written elsewhere, there is no conviction in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He is not guilty. He is not "enabled in his corruption" by anything, in any way, because he has not been proven to be corrupt. He must be presumed innocent until both sides of the case have been heard and adjudicated, and the squandering of that notion in his treatment by the press, the commentosphere, and the US legal system is the issue that people like you and I should be condemning.

  2. Robert, I think you’re jumping the gun. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is no conviction in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He is not guilty. He is not “enabled in his corruption” by anything, in any way, because he has not been proven to be corrupt. He must be presumed innocent until both sides of the case have been heard and adjudicated, and the squandering of that notion in his treatment by the press, the commentosphere,​ and the US legal system is the issue that people like you and I should be condemning.

  3. Robert, I think you’re jumping the gun. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is no conviction in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He is not guilty. He is not “enabled in his corruption” by anything, in any way, because he has not been proven to be corrupt. He must be presumed innocent until both sides of the case have been heard and adjudicated, and the squandering of that notion in his treatment by the press, the commentosphere,​ and the US legal system is the issue that people like you and I should be condemning.

  4. Robert, I think you’re jumping the gun. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is no conviction in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He is not guilty. He is not “enabled in his corruption” by anything, in any way, because he has not been proven to be corrupt. He must be presumed innocent until both sides of the case have been heard and adjudicated, and the squandering of that notion in his treatment by the press, the commentosphere,​ and the US legal system is the issue that people like you and I should be condemning.

  5. Robert, I think you’re jumping the gun. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is no conviction in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He is not guilty. He is not “enabled in his corruption” by anything, in any way, because he has not been proven to be corrupt. He must be presumed innocent until both sides of the case have been heard and adjudicated, and the squandering of that notion in his treatment by the press, the commentosphere,​ and the US legal system is the issue that people like you and I should be condemning.

  6. Many important points in this blog post:
    – power corrupts
    – Corrupt politicians are sustained by a culture, subordinates and/or peers who look away
    – a so-called developed society has the means and the education to check on their leaders
    – tabloids are annoying but they rouse public opinion if any VIP does wrong and so help sometimes to bring them to justice
    I agree with all four points.

    But what makes me think more and more is the question why power does that and does it necessarily have to be that way?
    It is possibly a very philosophical question but we all know people who have a natural authority and power but do not abuse that power. So what is it that makes some go that way and some the other? Maybe these are the questions we should start asking and thinking about if we want change?

  7. Bee, I think we can all look to Anakin Skywalker for the answer to that one.

    Rob, I think it’s interesting that you haven’t picked up too much on the possibility that the accusations are false. If so, then surely their timings suggest at least a possibility that the accusations themselves are corrupt. Which would perhaps put a slightly different spin on the role of the unelected newspaper people.

    In any case, the presumption of innocence renders this post as somewhat speculative – though nonetheless interesting for all that.

    The speeding-ticket-foo-fah seems terribly overblown. On the one hand, speeding does kill people, so perhaps it’s not so minor as you might think. On the other hand, it’s definitely not the same thing as trying to cover up a murder, rape, or massive embezzlement. Let the cover-up fit the crime, I say, and since it was so long ago that records are no longer kept, it seems rather pathetic that so much fuss is being made over it. If that’s all they can get him on, he’s probably rather less corrupt than most. And let’s not forget the role of his wife in all this. Looks like malice and political back-stabbing to me and nothing more. If you don’t like Chris Huhne, fair enough, but in a non-corrupt world, that shouldn’t be a reason to feed the trollish and malicious behaviour of the political press.

  8. One of the things that worries me about the DSK case is the unsavoury glee with which the media are following this story. OK if he has been found guilty but until then I think they should keep quiet.

  9. Um, yeah you did, Rob, but then you went on to construct a whole post premised on the hypothesis of guilt. #dodgy #naughty #noexcuse

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