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Social Text 21.4 (2003) 9-33

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The Construction of Corruption, or
Rules of Separation and Illusions of Purity in Bourgeois Societies

Peter Bratsis

What's breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?
—Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas. Hence any piecemeal interpretation of pollution rules of another culture is bound to fail. For the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure of thought whose key-stone, boundaries, margins and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation.
—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

Did Somebody Say Corruption?

George W. Bush and his "coalition of the willing" wage war on the corrupt regime of Saddam Hussein. Islamic fundamentalists deride their national governments as corrupt and, accordingly, have little love for the United States, a patron of many of these regimes. The World Bank has declared that corruption is the single greatest obstacle to global development. The Michigan Militia and similar right-wing populist groups claim that federal institutions, such as the FBI and IRS, are a corruption. Leftleaning critics and reformers, such as Michael Moore and Ralph Nader, attack the corruption that presumably plagues American political and economic life.

The list could go on and on; it seems that there is hardly any contemporary political tendency that does not contain some form of anticorruption agenda. It is striking that so many disparate and competing political discourses all agree that corruption is a problem, oftentimes the problem. Regardless of the interpretive frame (right, left, populist, technocratic, religious, secular, etc.), the specter of corruption is a constant, and is both unavoidable and unquestioned; unquestioned in the sense that the undesirability of corruption is taken as a given, no substantive argument is needed—who is, after all, in favor of corruption?—and unavoidable in that corruption seems to refer to underlying tensions, antagonisms, and traumas that, regardless of one's conceptual toolbox and political tendencies, cannot be ignored or passed over. [End Page 9]

These cursory observations highlight the main hurdle in, as well as the need for, the understanding of corruption. The idea of corruption has become so universal, so unquestioned, so much a part of various common senses, that its determinations, historical specificities, and social functions tend to remain hidden. If this is true anywhere, it is true in regard to the ever growing popularity of the term corporate corruption. Insider trading and bribery may likely be placed under the category of "corporate corruption." But what about embezzlement or union busting or transfer pricing or planned obsolescence? What makes something a corruption? Furthermore, what's so bad about corruption?

This essay is an examination of the foundations and function of the concept of corruption. Discussion focuses on the most developed and seminal version of the concept in modern society, political corruption. Beginning with a discussion of definitions of political corruption, the essay argues that there is a significant and much neglected difference between modern and premodern understandings of corruption. The modern understanding of corruption, it is argued, is directly tied to the rise of the organization of social life and interests by way of the categories of the public and private. The main function of the idea of corruption and the rules and rituals that arise from it has been to keep the categories of the public and private pure and believable. The homology between the rules regarding clean and unclean foods in Leviticus and the rules regarding clean and unclean politics in congressional ethics regulations is demonstrated. Based on this reading of congressional regulations, the key components behind the modern concept of corruption are identified and exposed. The essay concludes with a discussion of the implications of this argument for the question of corporate corruption, the apparent proliferation of anticorruption discourses, and politics overall.

What Is Corruption?

Nearly all definitions of political corruption emphasize the subversion of the public good by private interest. Among the more famous...