The Sublime Object of Anti-Corruption: Sumandro

 Guest post by SUMANDRO

Recent discussion around the issue of corruption in Kafila has generated several references to and logical possibilities of understanding anti-corruption as an ideology, however, without finally drawing that conclusion. In this post I argue that the specific ideological functioning of this idea of anti-corruption is central for understanding the nature of the movement.

Partha Chatterjee writes: “The word [‘corruption’] creates an illusion – a fundamentally false image – of equivalence between two very different practices.” But for Chatterjee, this illusory character of ‘corruption’ is not comparable to the kind of illusion involved in the ‘mystical character of commodities.’ He argues: “But it is this illusion of equivalence that has been achieved, for the moment at least, by the rhetorical and performative adroitness of the Anna campaign and the spectacular bungling of the Congress leadership.” The multivalent illusion of ‘corruption,’ for Chatterjee, is shaped by the skilful performance from the activists’ side and lack of the same from that of the government. I would later argue that on the contrary, the skilful performance by the activists and the lack of the same from not only the government’s side but also that of different left positions are actually made possible by the essentially multivalent nature of the ideology of anti-corruption.

Referring to Chatterjee, Arjun Appadurai discusses the framing of anti-corruption as anti-politics and anti-bureaucracy. He has dealt with the emerging paradox of the intimacy of corruption (all middle-class participants have some connection to the politicians and the bureaucrats who are to be ‘annihilated’ to eradicate corruption) by identifying the external projection of an internal contradiction that is inherent to the movement. Still he has not gone ahead with the argument to explain how this social projection functions and how it is related to the ‘fascist tendencies’ that he identifies early in his post. He even refers to the ‘netas’ as the ‘Jews of India’ without elaborating the ideological functioning of anti-semiticism and anti-corruption.

Suddhabrata Sengupta poses a central question about the framing of corruption in the recent anti-corruption movement: “Why must we believe that a society cleansed of corruption (as ‘India Against Corruption’ see it) will necessarily be a more just society?” Sengupta goes on to clarify: “I do not mean to ask this question in the – ‘there are other and more important problems, structural issues, that need to be tackled, and the discourse on corruption is just a smokescreen’ – sort of way. I am speaking of corruption as substantively, and as narrowly, as Anna Hazare and his colleagues do.” He expresses the intention to steer clear of the old Marxist formulation of ideology as false consciousness, an illusion (or a smokescreen) that obfuscates the contradictions in the mode of production. His re-formulation of Team Anna’s position on the matter, however, ‘basically’ organises the argument in terms of distribution of surplus under the rule of law: “My understanding of what ‘Team Anna’ upholds as its discourse on corruption is basically a dispute about the way in which socially generated surplus is distributed under the conditions of the rule of property and capital.” Having said that, he detects the fissure in the holistic-goodness-of-anti-corruption logic – bribe allows access for poorer and marginalised sections to various otherwise-inaccessible administrative-legal spaces. Contrary to Sengupta’s disclaimer he does follow the the structure of a symptomatic critique as is deployed in Marxist critiques of ideology. It attempts to find a ‘fissure’ within the universal claim of ‘anti-corruption.’ He follows the ‘anti-corruption’ argument to its logical end and fails to find there the company of Team Anna: “I do expect this very specific idea [of abuse of state-power] to be followed through. I am afraid that is not what I find happening in the big tent of Anna Hazare.”

Sengupta undertakes this rather typical symptomatic reading of ideology without once mentioning the word ‘ideology.’ Where I disagree with Sengupta is in his (also by Chatterjee through his notion of ‘illusion’) latent assertion that the ideology of anti-corruption functions in a symptomatic manner, that is by repressing the fissures (such as the cases of abuse of state power against forest dwellers etc.) to retain the consistency of the ideology (of anti-corruption).

Slavoj Zizek makes a distinction between the symptomatic (or predominant Marxist) understanding of ideology and the fetishistic (or Lacanian) understanding of the same. While the former sees ideology as a partial understanding obscuring access to the totality of social conditions, the latter considers ideology as constituting the totality of social experiences and thus ‘protecting’ (in a pragmatic and an ironic sense) against the irreconcilabilities of the Real. That is, in a Lacanian understanding, the ideology of anti-corruption can be seen as providing a total explanation of the contemporary miseries in Indian society through the demonisation of the central figure of ‘the corrupt.’ To be noted, a total explanation implies that it can neither be seen as complimenting other explanations, nor as an explanation that can be later imploded/expanded to reveal underlying structural causes (see Kavita Krishnan).

In the context of anti-semiticism, Zizek talks about how the figure of ‘the Jew’ was not a productive (in terms of actually resolving the antagonism) way of channelisation of social antagonism, but the very embodiment of the impossibility of solving the (then) existing contradictions. Further, he argues that various kinds of social antagonisms get condensed in to this all signification-absorbing central figure, which results in to its excessive or, sublime nature. The figure of ‘the corrupt’ exhibits the same sublime qualities – it stands for diverse experiences and formulations of corruption; its evocation leads to immediate and direct signification; it performs the role of the organising ideal only as long as one does not call for its explanation, that is its functioning is hindered by proximity.

The emergence of this ideology is neither a conspiratorial thing nor is independent of the political intentions and tactical decisions of the major actors (such as the Team Anna and the heterogeneities within, the mysterious India Against Corruption and its funders, the central government, the political parties, the media houses etc.). However, once emerged, the ideology becomes an autonomous, though over-determined, force. It is not that the ‘logic of equivalence,’ to refer to Gyan Prakash’s use of Ernesto Laclau’s theorisation of ‘populism,’ has expanded at the expense of the ‘logic of difference.’ It is the logic of equivalence, through the functioning of the master-signifier, which emerged early and thus facilitated a subservient play of difference within its fold, as long as the differences contribute to the sublime glory of the ideology. It is not that the ‘anti-corruption’ sentiment began as a ‘part’ and claimed to be the ‘whole’; it began as the ‘whole’ and thus accumulated its absorbed ‘parts’.

There is a partial truth in Bobby Kunhu’s assertion that “mere cricket was not enough. A more serious national diversion was required – a diversion that would also help in subverting the multiple simmering discourses on democracy.” The ideology of anti-corruption does emerge as a diversion – but not out of design and neither as a subversion of democracy in liberal-democratic sense. The ideology emerges from condensation of disparate frustrations; it is a location of displaced experiences of incomprehensibles or, irreconcilables. The successive cases of corrupt (in the sense of ‘misuse of office’) dealings by government personnel and politicians in recent past have not only created a distrust about the ability/intention of such officials to deliver a proper liberal-democratic governance, but also an irreconcilable feeling that corruption is perhaps intrinsic to liberal-democracy. And such ideologically disastrous yet in-articulable experiences are, as always, expressed in multiple jokes about the ‘chalta hai’ everydayness of corruption. The ideology of ‘anti-corruption’ does not divert one away from the failures of liberal-democracy but from its contradictions.

The ‘intimacy of corruption’ that Chatterjee and Appadurai refer to, and the ‘sin’ that Kunhu says get absolved by taking a bath at the Maha Kumbh Mela of anti-corruption movement, emanate not from an identification of the person as always already corrupt but from the (repressed) realisation of corruption as part of the ‘normal’ state of liberal-democracy. What the anti-corruption movement diverts attention from is not the incidents of ‘misuse of office,’ but the ‘normalcy’ of such mis-use. Instead of attacking liberal-democratic processes, as has been claimed by a diverse range of commentators, the anti-corruption movement has rather restored the faith in liberal-democracy. This has happened at an (perhaps significant) expense of democratic control over the super-vigilant, but clearly such an expansion of the machineries of ‘exception’ does not contradict the functioning of the state. Nivedita Menon describes the movement (or at least one aspect of it) as “a carnivalesque celebration of the pure ideals of democracy – of the idea that ‘we the people’ are sovereign, that politicians are the servants of the people, that laws must originate in the needs and demands of the people.” This is precisely the moment of restoration of liberal-democracy. This is precisely the function of the ideology of ‘anti-corruption’ – to restore faith in the sovereignty of the people and their power in shaping the state. One may or may not join the movement for its celebration of ‘the pure ideals of democracy,’ but one must be suspicious and critical of it for the very same reason.

The question to ask, to refer to Sengupta’s central question, is not whether eradication of corruption leads to just society, but why the figure of ‘the corrupt’ is necessary in formulating an explanation of present contradictions. The sublime object is vulnerable to close examinations and that is exactly what is required. The figure of ‘the corrupt’ is being brandished in rather uncritical ways as something that needs to be identified, archived and judiciously removes to end corruption. ‘The corrupt’ is as much a pure negative construct as is ‘the Jew’ under anti-semiticism. Understood in a Lacanian way, the ideology cannot be challenged through a symptomatic reading (of revealing internal contradictions). It will not help to argue that ‘the Jew’ or ‘the corrupt’ is logically not the reason for financialisation of capital which leads to nation-states taking land away from its own citizens to physically locate mobile capital (which in effect leads to corrupt dealing between industrialists and politicians). It is the same problem with the empirical debates regarding whether people present at the movement were passive participants or came with their own politics, whether they were sufficiently informed about the content of the debate etc. These questions will only revolve around empirical diversity of facts and will not give conclusive results. Such queries, symptomatic and empirical, assume the notion of corruption is not sufficient to explain the state of contradictions. Understood as an ideology in a Lacanian sense, however, one can argue that the ideology of anti-corruption is necessarily sufficient. But the question is whether it is necessary (to explain the present state of contradictions)?

The method and formulations apart, I completely agree with Sengupta as he succinctly points out that ‘the “independent left” has [no] business doing anything other than fighting capitalism, pure and simple.’ Of course he does not only talk about that eventual big battle (if any) but the continuous and juxtaposed ones against class and other forms of differences. From such a perspective, the (concrete?) question for independent left is whether the ideology of anti-corruption advances or hinders the fight against capitalism (and the liberal-democratic setup). The two types of middle paths offered by Sengupta (whispered coexistence of discussions around wages along with those of bribes) and Krishnan (changing the discourse from within), however, fail to accept the essentially reactionary (not as an abuse but as revealed by its programme of correcting the state) nature of the ideology of anti-corruption. Perhaps a more comprehensive understanding and stance is required from the left (being optimistic and removing the independent bit). And this would require nothing less than an alternative total understanding of the state of contradictions in contemporary Indian society.


A side note on public space

Suddhabrata Sengupta notes: “The Hazare phenomenon has made it possible for a lot of ordinary men and women to actualize their desires of being in public space, of articulating their discontent, of discovering solidarities. This is something for us to build on, not to dismiss. Especially, and even if we are not comfortable with a lot of the content of the things that get said when people meet under the tricolor.” I do not want to caricature Sengupta’s position but to genuinely recognise it (and in reference to the earlier posts by Gautam Bhan) and the political senses that inform it.

Even though there existed such ‘ordinary people’ who articulated their discontents within the public space created by the anti-corruption movement, such an articulation was determined by the figure of ‘the corrupt.’ In no way disregarding the diverse political interests present within the movement, including ones who told Gautam Bhan that Anna is just the sacrificial goat in the noble battle against corruption, all these interests were assimilated and mobilised by a (complex) singular cause of anti-corruption and this is of utmost importance. The figure of ‘the corrupt’ became necessary for all these political interests (including those of the ‘ordinary people’) to articulate themselves and to discover solidarity. And this is the sublime quality of that figure.

The emergence of vibrant (perhaps low on criticality, perhaps not) public space at the site of the movement and the excess of enjoyment of it all was made possible (required) by the need for surplus of signification to generate the sublime of anti-corruption. The excess of enjoyment in this space, or the multiplicity of articulations of ordinary people, actively contributed to the success of the movement. This apparent ‘inclusivity’ was not aimed at allowing these articulations but their condensation and channelisation into the sublime; neither did this precise function of the space was transformed through the presence of diverse groups.

Such a perspective (or at least a possibility) compels us to rethink the often uncritically celebratory response to the phrase ‘public space,’ which incidentally is quite commonly deployed only when the event occurs at places that are ‘public’ in a distinctly Western sense of the term.

A side note on political society

As Aditya Nigam suggests in his comment to Gyan Prakash’s post, the anti-corruption movement is not simply anti-institutional (institutions of governance). After all, its ultimate goal is articulated as creating a vigilance structure external to the democratic sphere of the government but very much within that of the government. Rather, the anti-corruption movement is against specific forms of governance – and these forms tend to converge in to the very same sphere of people-government negotiations as that of the political society.

In Nigam’s response to Partha Chatterjee’s post, he claims that Chatterjee undertakes a direct mapping between ‘the people’ / ‘the political’ and ‘civil society’ / ‘political society’ and hence he critiques the dilution of the notion of ‘political society’ into “just another version of ‘management of populations.’” Contrary to this reading, it seems to me that Chatterjee locates both the categories of ‘the people’ and ‘the political’ firmly within the domain of the ‘civil society.’ This also perhaps explains the complete absence of the words ‘civil society’ and ‘political society’ from Chatterjee’s post. What Chatterjee indicates by this bifurcation of the ‘civil society’ in to ‘the people’ and ‘the political’ has a crucial implication for the functional logic of the civil society activism we have experienced in the anti-corruption movement.

It is not only that corruption is being located in the domain of ‘the political,’ but also that the domain of ‘the political’ is being carved out of (but within) the domain of ‘civil society.’ Following from the argument above about anti-corruption not as anti-politics but as against particular forms of governance, one can assert that this domain of ‘the political’ contains those forms of governance that functions on the basis of negotiations driven by mobilisation, forming of associations and representation (not for lack of ability, but due the capacity to do so) – or forms of negotiations/governance identified as belonging to the domain of ‘political society.’

The anti-corruption movement is substantially an effort towards dis-enfranchising the ‘political society’. It indicates a significant moment in the history of ‘civil society’ in India as it articulates its rejection for ‘corrupt’ forms of governance (marked by negotiations based on ) and embraces external (to the democratic process) and exceptional vigilante/executive bodies for ensuring proper functioning of the state.

(Sumandro is interested in economic geography, theories of space and power, and digital media studies. Presently based in Bangalore, he is associated with research teams on urban change and visual representation of data.)

7 thoughts on “The Sublime Object of Anti-Corruption: Sumandro”

  1. I agree with a lot of this, though ‘negative construct’ misses the point about all serial ideas (those of racism, nationalism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.), which is that they are the ideas of the Other. ‘At this level, the Idea is a process; it derives its invincible strength from the fact that nobody thinks it’. (Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, p. 300, in a brilliant discussion of “public opinion”, where he also says that racism ‘is not a thought at all’, it is an ‘Idea of stone’, the Idea as Other and the Other as Idea.) All mass mobilisations which aren’t truly self-driven (self-determined and self-managed, e.g., a union that the workers themselves run; the fused groups that sustain a strike; campaigns like the NCPRI when this first emerged and was immersed in a grassroots struggle for village-level transparency; on a smaller scale, the struggle of DU teachers against semesterisation or the way it’s being rammed through by the Ministry) are shot through with alterity. This (viz. otherness) is the formula of the series and the mechanism through which organised groups (usually the most powerful ones like the media and business and political cliques) act on and condition the series (manipulate serialities). The series by itself can ‘do’ nothing, since it is inert and inertia or powerlessness is its defining characteristic. So my main query to the author of this stimulating piece is ‘Where do negative constructs come from?’ They are, as the ‘thinking’ of serialities, the inert ‘ideas’ that flow from the action of groups on series, and the only way they can be resisted/surpassed is to break the spell of seriality by encouraging people to think for themselves, as the individuals they are, and not as the Other. The NCPRI campaign for the Right to Information Act was also a campaign against corruption, but one conducted by ordinary people acting and thinking as individuals and as the fused and semi-organised groups they also became. No otherness there, especially not the hypocritical othering of the state where the middle class projects itself as ‘civil society’, as if this isn’t a morass of corruption anyway.

  2. Jairus,

    It is very inspiring to know that you found the post stimulating.

    I should note at the beginning that I have not read Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. So my response is shaped by my secondary knowledge of the idea of ‘seriality’ and the way you have deployed it in your comment.

    It seems to me that you are making two points: (1) serial ideas are not purely negative construct but (and since) they are ideas of the Other, and (2) what I identify as the ideology of anti-corruption is a serial idea (leading to non-self-determined mass mobilisation).

    I begin with the second point. I am unsure about seeing the anti-corruption movement as an incident of seriality. To my understanding, the notion of seriality fails to appreciate a form of active ideological submissiveness that was evident in the movement concerned. The people present at the Ramlila Ground and elsewhere were clearly more than inert series; neither their material conditions and social experiences with incidents of corruption (identified in their own terms) were similar. One can almost argue that at a later stage of the movement, the tactics of gherao of politicians emerged more from the pressure of these gathered groups and it exposed the movement to various (symptomatic) critique for its dilution of Gandhian principles. This sense of active groups, however, does not deny the subsumption of such articulations and excesses within the ideology of anti-corruption. This active nature of the groups (vis-a-vis inert seriality) gathered within the movement is also expressed in their often cynical responses while questioned about the movement. When quizzed regarding the content of the Jan Lokpal and Lokpal Bills, the easy indifference of the people gathered at the Ramlila Ground does not reveal an unknowing inertness but a knowing indifference — this illustrates the cynical ‘enlightened false consciousness’ (I-know-it-all-but-still-decide-to-act-as-if-I-do-not) that is the hallmark of the functioning of ideologies.

    I am not sure whether I should respond to the first point without reading Sartre. Alternatively, I can briefly note why I argued (following Zizek) that the figure of ‘the corrupt’ (not the ideology of anti-corruption) is a pure negative construct. The figure of ‘the corrupt’ refers to and embodies an irreconciliable contradiction within the liberal-democratic order — that of the ‘normalcy’ of corruption within the order concerned. Neither the figure of ‘the corrupt’ has any positive content (either in terms of resolving the contradiction within liberal-democratic order or by its revolutionary transformation), nor it has any inherently sublime quality (Zizek, Slavoj. (2008) The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, p.191-192). It is rather by chance (not co-incidence but contingencies) that ‘the corrupt’ becomes the sublime object that rehabilitates the faith in liberal-democracy (Ibid. p.221).

    And this takes us to your main query: “Where do negative constructs (of sublime objects of ideology) come from?” In Lacanian terms, they come from a lack in the symbolic order itself (from incomplete symbolisation of the Real). That is, they come from the irreconcilable antagonisms of our societies. But they lack the positive potentials that symptomatic fissures are supposed to reveal. The figure of ‘the corrupt’ does not add anything new to the prevailing description of antagonisms: rising food prices, lack of infrastructure, bad state of education, insufficient housing etc. It only posits the figure of ‘the corrupt’ as the root cause — a cause that effectively explains away things not due to its conceptual rigidity (‘idea of stone’) but elasticity.

    The negative construct of ‘the corrupt’ thus emerges from a series of contingent experiences of interlinked antagonisms and confers upon them a figure of necessary evil, (impossible) eradication of which is supposed to resolve these antagonisms. The pure negativity comes from the inherent impossibility of the project of eradication (due to the irreconciliability of the contradictions), and also is a functional requirement for such a (multi-valent) figure.

    To conclude, let me clarify one thing that I forgot to mention in the original post — not all anti-corruption campaigns and efforts are necessarily guided by the ideology of anti-corruption. The work of NCPRI exemplifies such efforts. These efforts interestingly operates on a more fixed (and often grounded in specificities of ongoing struggles) notions of ‘corruption’ and what exactly would be achieved by its eradication. While this rigidity is not necessarily a bad thing, it is neither an indicator of the analytical rigour (a general comment and not for the NCPRI case).

    1. interesting debate. Especially when jairus intervened. Especially when a selftaught upstart that I am, struggling with dialectical critique of Sartre through Fred jamesson’s valences of dialectics. Thankyou. It was like a practical exposition with examples on inert and seriality.To be frank , it really served the purpose of my intellectual exercise…

      1. According to Frederic Jamesson ideology derived from a problematic, as false consciousness(error) or as a necessary feature of social thinking or group praxis, pose problem for analytic mind. But the resultant ambiguity is good. Thus a dialectical use ideology mobilises competing meaning, to make the complexity of the issues less avoidable

  3. I have been wanting to read on something that the mainstream media has not discussed enough or touched at all – false cases of corruption. Any leads/sources for the info on same is welcome. Please help me look for info through this platform

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