The relationship between the public and private has never been unambiguous. And in today’s globalized world, evidently, this relationship is in continual need of reconsideration, characterized as it is by processes of globalization cutting across economic, political, social, legal, and cultural spheres. One hallmark of this process is, on a national and international level, the profound shift of norm-setting legitimacy and authority from governmental to non-state actors, which raises fundamental questions about meanings and definitions of such terms as ‘abuse’, ‘public roles’ or indeed ‘private benefit’. The politicization of corruption in business politics across continents, the intrinsic correlation between corruption and poverty reduction articulated continually by international development agencies, the powerful statements, and actions by national and international non-governmental organizations condemning the disempowering effects of corruption all point to significant shifts of the values and practices shaping these discourses, or perhaps more precisely: the power relations underlying the business politics of such discursive operations. These thoughts are at the outset of my exploration of corruption. We base our study on the premise that the “differing outlooks over the meaning of corruption are not just ‘noise’, or a problem to be resolved by definition, but rather valuable clues to continuing business development” (Johnston 1996), or rather: to continuing political struggles. It is precisely these struggles that I put on the center stage of my inquiry. What we are interested in is not what constitutes corruption, which means I will be spending very little time discussing definitions of corruption. Our interest is the ways in which ‘corruption’ is used to shape and structure social reality. We mean by these two related sets of theoretical issues. The first set encompasses discourses of corruption which (re)produce meanings and understandings of corruption, the contours, and mechanisms of which need to be understood more clearly to render their effects on the ordering of social and economic realities in visible. The second, and by no means unrelated set, relates to the ways in means that particular social agents seek to structure and organize the public realm. These include the ways in which social actors appropriate meanings of corruption to articulate their demands and interests and needs, and the processes through which such articulatory operations are transformed into social realities.
These terms gained sociological currency in the nineties, seeking to capture processes of globalization in terms of the disembedding and re-embedding of social and other relations over time and space.
Perhaps due to its evocative, boundary-crossing nature, a striking feature of corruption is the way it is enunciated in a great variety of discourses. This holds particularly true for discourses on development. On a very practical level, the statements quoted above by social organizations indicate the weight that corruption is given with regard to national development, regional stability, and social equity. Still today, corruption and control are omnipresent in development cooperation. There is hardly a national or international policy statement in the world that does not implicitly or explicitly refer to corruption. It seems that corruption and governance have become a panacea for solving development problems of all sorts. In more belligerent rhetoric, the ‘fight against corruption is also the fight against poverty, the fight against inequity, the fight against inefficiency.’
This clear-cut, on the surface completely smooth and unambiguous correlation that dominates much of contemporary development discourse, strikes the eye.
Striking here are several aspects: firstly, the fact that corruption is in the spotlight of development discourse at all, especially against the backdrop of a void, a silence with regard to linkages between corruption and development up to the late eighties. Secondly, the importance it is currently endowed with regarding all facets of development. Be it to denounce kleptocratic regimes, be it to design more effective and efficient public institutions, be it to empower civil society, corruption is routinely and mostly emphatically invoked. And thirdly, on a material level, the swell of foreign aid allocated to governance and anti-corruption interventions shore up this semantic force with technical and financial resources.
As striking as the regularities and patterns of this discourse are, however, equally striking are its disjunctions: the negative correlation between development and corruption is not only enunciated within the field of development but also within the private sector and civil society. Although the referent, corruption, is the same, the domains of its production are wildly dissimilar. Most prominently, in the (multi-national) private sector rationales of investment and reputation frame changing articulations and practices of corruption; in civil society, rationales of participation and democratization underlie the statements. And yet these different discourses feed into each other, producing a clearly discernible and distinctive discursive formation signifying governance and ‘anti-corruption. The developmental discourse on governance and corruption has materialized as a new development paradigm, a paradigm that has taken on a highly significant role in all facets of contemporary development cooperation. For the past two decades, it has been structuring ways of thinking and acting and planning and administering in developing countries. Indeed, the production of knowledge and policies on governance and corruption has become a whole industry.