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The Moral Economy of Corruption

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The roots of such a conceptualization can be found in classic social economy that puts the relationship between moral order, economic practices, and the social good on center stage.

In the last century, the embeddedness of economic relations in a socio-moral matrix was famously profiled by Karl Polanyi, who in his opus magnum “The Great Transformation” (1957, 1944) traced the ways in which capitalist economies are no longer embedded in social and moral order; the ways that such economies no longer rely on social modes of regulation to control modes and norms of economic conduct, but on the contrary, have produced a society which operates merely “as an adjunct to the market”, as he puts it (Polyani 1957). Still, the concept of a moral economy, i.e. a socially embedded economy, where social norms and values are not just internal to economic practices (in the sense that these are historical and cultural products) but provide the prime frame of economic relations, plays a key reference point in his analysis of the commodification of society and the self-regulation of markets.

In development studies, the concept of a ‘moral economy’ is closely associated with Scott’s seminal study on modes of production in rural South-East Asia (Scott 1976). Scott’s theoretical innovation was to capture the powerful social principles of reciprocity and obligations as economically rational logics of subsistence. The ‘ethics of subsistence’ he describes is placed in a context of high insecurity, minimal resources, and little room to maneuver for individual peasants and peasant families (Scott 1976); the objective and premise of his study is “that we may learn more about the politics of the peasants by asking not merely how poor they are but also how precarious their livelihood is” (Scott 1976). The novelty of Scott’s approach was the empirical recognition and analytical inclusion of non-economic factors to explain economic behavior; not by reducing his theory to cultural determinants, but by embedding it in a social context. Not long after, Hyden (1980) coined the term ‘economy of affection’, exploring the particular logics of peasant production in the rural East that are based on effective ties and solidarity. Here, analogous to Scott’s study, the investment in social relations is more important to the generation of status and security than the investment in means of production. It is this blind spot comprising the socio-moral framing of certain practices that Olivier de Sardan (1999) attempts to illuminate by conceptualizing corruption in terms of a moral economy. The emphasis is on ‘moral’, focusing on the morality framing corrupt practices that are rarely found in other approaches. In his words, the social mechanisms of corruption are scarcely explored, nor are its processes of legitimation seen from the actors’ point of view. This is why this article uses the term: moral economy, which may appear surprising when attached to a term as unanimously stigmatized as amoral or immoral. The intention here is to insist on as subtle as possible a restitution of the value systems and cultural codes, which permit a justification of corruption by those who practice it (Olivier de Sardan 1999).

Olivier de Sardan’s central question revolves around the generalization, normalization, and banalisation of corruption in contemporary states. With a set of discerning hypotheses and facilitating ‘logics of corruption’, he shows how social and cultural norms frame the arena in which actors can and do operate in contemporary states. He lays bare the routine practice of corruption, or what he—similar to Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the social exchange of corruption—terms the ‘corruption complex’, i.e. the broad practice of illicit deeds in sweeping contradiction to the official ethics of ‘public property’ or ‘public service’ (Olivier de Sardan 1999). Although these practices are only in part legally corrupt, their illicit character is still pivotal for a meaningful understanding of the problem of corruption in contemporary societies. Interestingly, Olivier de Sardan takes the discrepancy between ‘formal’ and ‘practical’ norms as a frame of reference—in his view, “the core of the sociological problem of corruption is to be situated in the distance between juridical condemnation of certain practices and their frequency, their banalisation or indeed their cultural legitimacy” (Olivier de Sardan 1999). From his perspective, the explanandum must include the social reality of everyday behavior, “in order to consider what these various practices have in common, what affinities link them together, and to what extent they enter the same fabric of customary social norms and attitudes” (Olivier de Sardan 1999). Based on the analysis of this socio-moral fabric, he diagnoses a “schizophrenic situation” (Olivier de Sardan 1999), where the professional and administrative legitimacy of civil servants is derived from a more or less completely contradictory set of values than their social legitimacy. What is new about this diagnosis is the light it sheds on the complex cultural embeddedness of corruption. Olivier de Sardan distinguishes between general theses on the institutional framework of corruption in Africa, such as the general discourse on corruption and patterns of its stigmatization and routinization, on the one hand, and identifying, on the other hand, its socio-cultural logics, such as solidarity and networks of the people, the predatory authority of the elites or continual negotiation.

These logics are compounded by transcending and ‘facilitating’ multipliers particular to societies. Firstly, a sense of shame: on the one hand, shame to fail to deliver the spoils of the office to those who socially feel entitled to a part; on the other hand, shame to ‘betray’ the practices of corrupt colleagues. Secondly, the ‘over-monetarization of social relations’, with money playing a permanent and central role even in the most private of social relations. Within this densely woven fabric, corruption becomes a cultural imperative framed by socio-economic determinants.

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