Corrupt Politicians and the Culture that Enables Them

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. Continue reading “Corrupt Politicians and the Culture that Enables Them”

Shirky's Third Way

Here’s Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus, discussing differing views on human behaviour and how that affects political ideology:

Assumptions that people are selfish can become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating systems that provide lots of individual freedom to act but not a lot of public value or management of collective resources for the greater public good. Systems designed around assumptions of selfishness can also crowd out solutions that could arise when people communicate with one another and enter into agreements that they jointly monitor and enforce. Conversely, systems that assume people will act in ways that create public goods, and that give them opportunities and rewards for doing so, often let them work together better than neoclassical economics would predict.

I think this is as good a description as any as to why some people end up as small-c conservatives and others as small-s socialists. The latter is the view that I tend to, one that seems inherently more optimistic about human nature than conservatives or indeed libertarians would have us believe.

Shirky goes on to describe how neoclassical economics, which prizes the firm and enterprise as the most efficient form of collaboration, prevailed (in the 20th Century) over the socialist, state-led alternative. However, the rest of Cognitive Surplus goes on to describe models of co-ordination that are neither market-driven or state-sponsored. OpenSource projects like Linux and Apache and user-generated websites like Wikipedia are obvious examples. The Third Way is often used to describe a centrism, that combines elements of capitalism and socialism. Private companies as the best way to improve public services, and all the other ideas that defines the approach (and inspired the name ) of my alma mater, the Social Market Foundation. However, a not-for-profit, “commons” approach seems a much better definition of a Third Way – a genuinely different method of co-ordination, not just a split-the-difference compromise.

Moreover, this idea of community project building on a not-for-profit basis seems very close to David Cameron’s Big Society! I am still reading Cognitive Surplus so cannot comment on Shirky’s overall conclusions, but I suspect that Big Society-type alternatives to capitalism and command-and-control will be presented. The question is – Can we use our cognitive surplus to deliver essential services? OpenSource media? Definitely. Maybe even banking and transport. But hospitals?

New Year Honours

Happy New Year everyone. Time to announce some additions to the blogroll.

I am delighted that a few high profile sites I read regularly have added this site to their list of recommendations, and I am more than happy to return the favour. Chicken Yoghurt, and fellow Edin-bugger Devil’s Kitchen are pretty prolific hubs, of the type that have to post messages of apology if they do not post anything for more than 24 hours! I am not sure I will find a political soul mate at The Kitchen, but as one of his other endorsements declares: “I disagree with him quite a lot of the time but I actually have to use my brain to articulate why.”.

Stef at Famous for Fifteen Megapixels probably leans more my way. He presents articles that are thoughtful, amusing, or both.

The rise and development of the Internet is a subject that fascinates me. We are still at the beginning of the communication revolution, and those who campaign for good practice and good design deserve particular praise. A List Apart is a “website for people who make websites.” As well as carrying a fantastic design, it is impeccably coded and offers advice on how designers can mirror those traits on their own sites. Website design should be so much more than simply visual design for the screen, and these folk are the best advocates. Elsewhere, the simple site by Clay Shirky carries some concise and perceptive essays on the Internet and the digital revolution.

It is an oversight that two organisations I have collaborated with on a few projects are not present in my associates list. Radio Magnetic are a Glasgow based radio station, perennial nominees for online station of the year awards. Digital technology opens up whole new ways to communicate, for those with the confidence to try.

Radio Magnetic have commissioned a series of podcasts from Scottish artists, giving an insight into the process of creating new music. The FOUND Collective bring us the first podcast in the series. its quite funny.