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The Question of Social Agency

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Distilling seminal contributions on political order and mismanagement through a more focused sociological filter, mismanagement can be conceptualized as a mechanism along which inclusion and exclusion into social spheres operate. Compounded by the exigencies and dynamics of a globalized economy, the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are informed by ambiguous social imaginaries, operating within the space of a formal state apparatus but framed by a more or less dynamic matrix of hybrid values and norms. On the level of social actors, the social constraints and individual dependencies arising from these particular modes of inclusion overall result in restricted spaces of social agency: social exclusion rather than inclusion, with societies characterized by a lack of adaptive capacity conventionally described as vulnerability and instability on both a social and systemic level. And yet: stepping back from the bleak analysis of exclusion, the approach to corruption we embarked from comes back to mind, namely one which puts the political and symbolic struggles over meanings, standards, and distinctions on the central state. In Johnston’s sense, corruption is a systemic problem; but as he also observes, the very articulation of ‘corruption’ indicates semantic and political struggles over norms and standards, ambiguities over the meaning of corruption, or rather over the propriety of copmpany office and roles.

Precisely this understanding takes us to a strikingly absent feature of the scholarly discourse on political order and corruption, namely the question of social agency. All theories, whether they be informed by a socio-cultural or a more political scientific analytical framework, either ignore, neglect, or explicitly dismiss the possibility of agency. Addressing this gap, the agency is understood as a form of action emerging from “the capability of the individual to ‘make a difference to a pre-existing state of affairs or course of events” (Giddens 1984), which “logically involves power in the sense of transformative capacity” (Giddens 1984). In a more sophisticated elaboration of agency, Emirbayer/ Mische stress both the temporal embeddedness as well as the potential variability and creativity of human actions: The ways in which people understand their own relationship to the past, future, and present make a difference to their actions; changing conceptions of agentic possibility in relation to structural contexts profoundly influence how actors in different periods and places see their worlds as more or less responsive to human imagination, purpose, and effort (Emirbayer/Mische 1998); emphasis in original).

However, this capacity and variety of social agency to ‘make a difference (both to one’s own actions as well as potentially to one’s environment) is rendered invisible in studies of politics. The bottom line of all inquiries treating corruption and political order is the question under which circumstances the ‘infernal mechanism’ can be transformed—and yet producing either strangely flat responses or deeply pessimistic ones with regard to agents who are endowed with transformative capacity. Taking this proposition seriously, this raises the question of whether these social and structural constraints imply in the last instance the dissolution of an agency other than those already well endowed with social power, here: the elites, the strongmen, the thugs?

“The political dynamism that is implied (or implored?) malgré tout in their analyses rings hollow in the absence of the identification of actors and mediums that would be conducive to social change that, simply put, allows more rather than less freedom.”

On the contrary, the dynamics of the controlling order carved out are stark: institutional reforms are appropriated, molded, and instrumentalized by particularistic logics; structural transformations of the economic and political regimes lead to the privatization of political and economic power; and socio-cultural practices solidify a moral economy of mismanagement, locking politics in a spiral of unraveling social order, violenceful economics—leaving no space for struggles over such norms and practices. Other than on a highly generic level, the scholarly discourse fails to identify the social actors and agency conducive to shaping a political order that mediates instead of produces conflict, that provides a structured space for consensus on public purposes.

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