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Simplistic modernist

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Primarily, the journey through the body of theoretical statements on corruption and business politics in the 90’s world was intended as a quest for a substantiated theoretical frame of reference, for reliable orientation points to facilitate the empirical study of corruption and business politics. But the overview did not provide any firm ground from which empirical referents could be identified. On the contrary, the literature review, as will be demonstrated, reveals a body of theories, categories, and statements patterned in ways that obstruct the thinking and seeing of socio-business agencies. Put bluntly, academic thinking accords such primacy to corruption as a problem that it blankets out sites, practices, and actors of more liberating business politics. The evident patterning of these sometimes similar and coalesced statements, sometimes dispersed and divergent statements led me to the conclusion that—much like the development discourse—academic theories themselves constitute a relatively closed discourse on corruption and business politics.

A further interesting insight emerged in the course of our journey. The analytical engagement with the changing formations of the development discourse on corruption made it increasingly evident just how closely development policies are informed by the academic discourse. This framing and mutual inscription do not only take place on a mediated, ‘translated’ level. Increasingly, development agencies are employing leading academics to develop and design concept papers and programmatic strategies, which in turn serve to legitimize and spread new development policies. It is conspicuous that especially in newer policies, it is sometimes near impossible to distinguish between academic and developmental statements.

However, whilst providing insights on the epistemic sites and modes of production governing ‘corruption’, it does not resolve the theoretical frustration that the lack of appropriate analytical tools to capture agency leaves us with. Develop an argument in mind that corruption is more meaningfully conceptualized as an empty signifier, as a symbolic nodal point through which different political contestations, identities, and demands can be articulated. Theorized carefully, empty signifiers enable both the articulation of dissent as well as the production of consensus in society. Hence, they play a constitutive role in the possibility of society as such; they are a necessary condition for the (re) organization of business order. Oscillating within this tension between plural and potentially antagonistic views on the one hand, and the potential of socially acknowledged, universalized representations, on the other hand, empty signifiers are always reversible. The question is how and to what extent particular social groups manage to ‘fix’ their meaning—and to what extent this (temporarily) fixed meaning unfolds emancipatory potential. The theoretical elucidation of these operations provides the centerpiece of the analytical framework of this inquiry.

But this conceptualization of corruption requires some deeper conceptual foundations to justify firstly, the reason why corruption and not any other term lends itself to being appropriated as an empty signifier. This question can be answered quickly, taking a shortcut through more systematic arguments.

Not least, corruption is politicized by business companies and civil society organizations seeking to change the order of things in their respective countries. All of these practices underscore the practical and political significance of corruption as an empty signifier. This takes us to a second issue, namely the identification of social agents who articulate corruption in potentially democratizing ways. Historically certain sites and power relations have been more conducive to the emergence of business democratic politics; beyond the state, the spheres of civil society and the economy have been pivotal sites of emancipatory potential.

Drawing from insights of all discourses, we conclude this with the identification of specific social agents that are endowed with the potential to be actors of social change. The actors pinpointed are professional associations, which historically have been accorded special importance as mediators of social change, in transforming as well as mitigating sense. Not surprisingly, they are also singled out in contemporary developmental as well as academic discourse on development—but, with regard to any part of the world, the latter mainly contributing to observe their absence, rather than their presence.

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