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.)