Paul Wolfowitz and the politics of corruption

A co-editor of the German magazine Novo says our obsession with scandal is corrupting political debate.

Matthias Heitmann

Topics Politics

Read all about it: around the world, scandals, favouritism, bribery and nepotism keep making the headlines. Accusations of corruption have hit the headlines in America this week: Paul Wolfowitz, the president of the World Bank, has been accused of having secured his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, a new post within the US government at a salary thought to exceed even that of the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. The case is seen as even more scandalous because Wolfowitz was a leading exponent of the World Bank’s anti-corruption drive.

We frequently hear about corrupt politicians and officials these days. The phrases ‘they’re all liars’ and ‘they’re all cheats’ are frequently deployed in order to write off the leadership layer of society. But is it really the case that much of the world is corrupt and untrustworthy? Or is it our obsession with ‘corruption’ itself that only makes the world seem like a swamp of distrust and allegations?

According to Transparency International (TI) – a non-partisan organisation devoted to combating corruption worldwide – those cases of corruption that we know of are just the tip of the iceberg. It argues that 95 per cent of all corruption cases – thought to have cost over €350billion globally – have not been subject to criminal investigation. For TI, combating corruption is of the utmost importance. It cites corruption as responsible for our growing disenchantment with politics.

Whether these grim figures are trustworthy or not, we should bear one thing in mind: corruption is anything but a new phenomenon. Throughout history, scandals of this kind have come along like waves on a beach – even in the ancient world, corruption scandals were widespread and generated much angst-ridden debate.

However, there is no doubting that public interest in the issue of corruption has increased over the past decade, and the character of the debate has changed.

Perceived corruption

The concept of corruption has expanded in recent years. ‘Corrupt’ has become a pejorative term applied to a very wide range of situations. Any demagogue can be sure of applause when he states that politicians are corruptible. The use of the word has expanded to such an extent that it no longer describes a specific form of misconduct; rather it serves as a synonym for public disdain with decision makers in general. Broken election pledges, an incapacity to solve problems, the might of big business, ministers competing for high office, corporate mergers and excessive salaries, party-political bickering: corruption has become the catch-all term for everything that seems amiss these days.

Public obsession with corruption dominates the political landscape of our time. However, the elites are not simply victims of this trend. On the contrary, they continuously reinforce the popular idea that we are all being ruled by the corrupt; they are in many ways responsible for the cynical view that politics is all about hiding the real interests and goals of policy.

This results from the fact that politics is less political than ever before. One of the main justifications that politicians give for taking unpopular decisions is the notion that there is no alternative. This is a deeply anti-political line. It communicates the idea that politics is not about choice or conflict or debate between one vision and another – rather it is only about managing, in the best way possible, the apparently fixed and unchangeable world we live in. Moreover, the apparent lack of an alternative seems rooted in the idea that things are beyond our control: rampant globalisation, the interests of big business and the legacies of history are all invoked to suggest that man is meek and he must simply manage big dark forces as best he can. Decision-making – whether in parliament or in business – has been reduced to the administration of the unchangeable.

Rarely these days do we see politicians or managers fighting to promote their own ideas as a positive alternative to what already exists. Instead they continually offer us explanations for why there is no alternative. Our elites seem to lack vision, and any real confidence in their own ideas or programmes. Corruption has its origins in this elite disarray. As the German political scientist Paul Noack points out, classical theories of corruption explain it as a form of social decay that begins with the loss of common values on the part of the elites, and then ends up with the loss of loyalty in the middle and working classes (1).

As visions and political objectives fall away, decision makers are more likely to be judged by their own personal characteristics. This trend towards personalisation reduces decision-making to the level of interpersonal and selfish rivalry and leads to the further degradation of debate. Across Europe, today’s ‘political’ talk shows illustrate such decay: they rarely meet even the most basic standards of meaningful discussion. As viable arguments are rarely voiced in these roundtable shows, and elsewhere, the spectator trying to judge the opposing participants is left with nothing but personality traits and individual characteristics to form an opinion. He can only decide whether someone appears honest, trustworthy or likeable.

The elevation of a politician’s personal attributes into the only means of judging politics is paralleled by the disintegration of the elites, who have lost any common vision, or sense of common interest, that could bind them together. What we are left with are uprooted, detached and disoriented individual players in the political arena, unable to put forward any persuasive argument or idea that might inspire others. That these politicians are more likely to be corruptible than politicians who follow clear-cut visions and goals should not come as a surprise.

In other words: the general suspicion of politicians and managers results directly from the crisis of legitimacy of our elites. In public perception, the barriers between political, economic and corrupt behaviour are blurring. And politics and business come to be viewed as an embodiment of corruption. At the same time, elites actively spread the idea that corruption is rife. In America and Europe, making accusations of corruption or uncovering corruption cases has actually become a mode of politics, a way of ousting one’s opponents and taking power (see This is no way to bring down Bush and Blunkett, by Brendan O’Neill). Corruption today springs from the demise of political substance and debate, and a corruption-obsession has moved in to fill the gap left by that demise of political substance and debate.

What the Wolfowitz case also reveals is that criticising politics on a political level seems to have become less and less important. As soon as Wolfowitz took office as president of the World Bank, critics voiced their concerns about his prominent role as US deputy secretary of defence during the invasion of Iraq. But it was only after allegations of corruption against Wolfowitz became public that his critics have found a way of chasing him out of office. They have leapt upon the scandal story, demanding that Wolfowitz steps down – not because of his political actions or views, but because of his assumed nepotism. There are many good reasons to get rid of Wolfowitz, but the fact that he allegedly gave someone a leg up into a glittering career is the worst of them. The obsession with corruption helps to undermine constructive political debate.

‘Democratising’ corruption

The damage caused by ‘perceived’ corruption is not limited to politics and business. The widening of the concept of corruption has led to a situation where corruptibility is interpreted as a general ‘human’ problem, triggered by everyday characteristics such as ambition or greed. Very often we are told that we are all corruptible; the suggestion is that just about everyone is engaged in corrupt behaviour. Housewives employing illegal immigrants as cleaners, employees pinching biros or leaving the office early, tax consultants or lawyers trying to get the best for their clients, referees taking bribes and players taking dives: everyone, it seems, is corrupt.

This perception of generalised corruption is so deeply rooted that even scientists feel obliged to research the issue. In January, German forensic psychologists announced that corruptibility can be measured and that psychological tests would soon be available for employers to test job applicants and managers (2).

The implication is that humans can never eliminate corruption, never mind tackle any bigger social problems. And that can only lead to a culture of mistrust, further individuation and the extension of surveillance into even more spheres of public life.

If we are prepared to believe that anyone would sell his grandmother to achieve his personal goal, then the idea of social life becomes pretty much meaningless, or at least difficult to sustain. In this scenario, trusting people would be risky and naive. Proposing new ideas and being ambitious would be considered egocentric and antisocial. And taking on responsibility would be a symptom of megalomania. If we were to buy into that kind of thinking, we would not only mistrust others, but ourselves, too.

Of course, no one would sign up to this crudely formulated worldview. However, society is constantly moving in this direction. Limitations on liberty have become apparent in every sphere of life. The extension of public and private surveillance in the name of public safety is just one of the most obvious examples of today’s culture of mistrust. Be it in discussions about education, parenting, bans on certain political parties, tobacco, hate speech or video games, everything seems based on the idea that humans are not trustworthy and therefore need to be strictly controlled; that we are corruptible if not already corrupted.

It is now routinely suggested that scientists or journalists who do not buy into the popular apocalyptic consensus about the ‘horrors’ of genetic engineering or the ‘threat’ of global warming either must be corrupt or else they are part of a hidden conspiracy and lobby group. Dissenting arguments and actions are taken less and less seriously – the only thing that counts today, it seems, is the presumption of egocentric and anti-social motives on the part of those who go against the mainstream view.

Combating corruption: combating humanity?

It is striking that anti-corruption activists, and those accused of corruption, agree in their attitude to corruption on one crucial point. Neither the prosecutors nor the accused are interested in using the concept of corruption in its original sense – as an exception from the rule.

Whereas politicians and managers hope that the interpretation of corruption as a general human problem will help them regain authority and legitimacy, anti-corruption activists expect their campaigns to improve their own public standing.

As the most powerful and influential anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International does not focus its activities on the exposure of specific cases of corruption. Instead, it wants to ‘bring together relevant players from government, civil society, business and the media to promote transparency in elections, in public administration, in procurement and in business’ (3).

At first sight, this may sound reasonable. However, it will not solve the problem. TI, founded in 1993, is now a global network with more than 90 national chapters. It is not just a beneficiary of the cynical trend of sensationalising scandal – it reinforces this trend at the same time. While being ‘politically non-partisan’, the organisation aims to ‘raise awareness for the damaging impact of corruption’ (4), ignoring the fact that the extent to which corruption is ‘perceived’ barely needs further promotion.

Its aim of building ‘national integrity systems’ (5) sounds strange, bearing in mind the general trend to implement more and more control and regulation systems, all around the world. On the one hand, TI buys into the notion of corruptibility being a fundamental human phenomenon, and therefore not a social or systemic problem. On the other hand, TI claims to have ‘the skills, tools, experience, expertise and broad participation to fight corruption on the ground, as well as through global and regional initiatives’ (6), and to build local and national systems that help overcome the problem.

Following on from this mindset, the nature of these ‘systems’ becomes obvious: they are driven by a strong therapeutic impulse. They are driven by the desire to integrate those in danger of becoming corrupt (that is, everyone) in order to control the natural corruptibility of humans. Additionally, TI member organisations have to fulfil a long list of requirements. These include implementing codes of conduct and training programmes for employees to provide ‘the necessary knowledge and ability to act ethically and to resist corruption’. What at first sight looks like a set of measures against corruption turns out to be control mechanisms for individual employees who, according to the logic of TI, can only behave ‘well’ after being ‘trained’.

A Civil Surveillance Society?

The idea that all cases of corrupt behaviour must be made public and subject to criminal investigation is central to TI’s concept of fighting corruption. TI rejects the idea that problems of possibly unethical behaviour could be solved informally.

It publishes regular reports like the Annual Corruption Perceptions Index, the Bribe Payers Index, the Global Corruption Barometer and the Global Corruption Report to make corruption a public issue. It also develops programmes to support individual whistleblowers and encourages people to speak up against what they perceive as unethical behaviour.

Speaking up and acting against criminal behaviour seems sensible. However, there is a problem in promoting it in the way TI and other groups do: when there is a broad consensus that nearly everyone is inclined towards corrupt behaviour, then the call for constant alertness leads to generalised suspicion. In the end, this approach intensifies the culture of mistrust to such an extent that it should really be called a ‘spying culture in the name of ethics’. How does such a notion of generalised suspicion and mistrust fit the values and principles of today’s much-praised ‘civil society’?

The concept of civil society is based on the ultimate principle of trust. It means that there is – and has to be – a sphere of private and social life in which people can come together to discuss and organise matters, free from state regulation and free from political control. This is seen as crucial for the cohesion of society as a whole. In the past, this sphere free of state intervention included not just private life, but also the arts, sports and activities such as volunteering. The term ‘non-governmental organisation’ itself represented the idea that there were areas in which people could organise themselves informally and spontaneously and act collectively and directly.

Dismissing any notion of responsible, informal and non-systemic problem-solving – like TI does – is the opposite of what used to be called civilised behaviour and moral courage. TI’s vision of an all-transparent societal system, which turns us all into better people, contradicts the humanist idea of freedom and civil society. Instead, we are told to be constantly alert and ready to call on the authorities every time something seems to be wrong. In this world, every personal relationship, friendship or friendly working relationship is seen as the starting point for favouritism and a good reason for entertaining suspicion. TI turns civil society thinking upside down: suspecting, monitoring and spying are presented as the core values of modern civil life, which are perversions of what was formerly regarded as civil.

The ideal of this anti-corrupt world is the transparent society. This society is populated by the transparent citizen, who has internalised the culture of mistrust to such an extent that he stops interacting with others. In Germany, we used to have a word for this type of person – a neighbour, for instance, who always checks on what the other people on the block are doing or saying. We called them ‘blockwarts’. Today, a ‘blockwart’ would appear to be the role model of the new civil surveillance society promoted by anti-corruption activists.

Any person with a sense of self-respect and trust in their own capacities should reject the idea that surveillance, codes of conduct and repression are necessary to prevent unethical conduct. Fraud and corruption are by no means typical characteristics of human behaviour. The fact that our political and business elites are all too prepared to give into that notion just reveals the depth of the intellectual malaise that grips them. It demonstrates their profound mistrust in the capacities of mankind.

The best way to avoid corruption is to develop strong opinions, convictions and principles that go beyond individual, purely material and short-term interests. If we did that as a society, we would still have to deal with corrupt individuals, but it would not lead us to believe that corruption is a general human trait. It would also help us to distinguish political critique from allegations of corruption and nepotism, and to distinguish individual failure from social problems.

Social values and visions lay the basis for social interaction and action. They emphasise the positive characteristics and capacities of people to move society forward. Paul Noack says that corruption in the Third World is caused by the lack of functioning democratic control mechanisms. The same goes for our societies, too. Combating corruption – which means real cases of corruption, but also our obsession with corruption and the ‘corruption mindset’ – should be a political task, not an empty ethical therapy programme.

Matthias Heitmann is co-editor of the German magazine Novo, where an edited version of this article was first published.

Previously on spiked

Daniel Ben-Ami said it’s cynicism that’s corrupting politics. Sean Collins looked at the prejudices that underpinned the Enron corruption trial. Jennie Bristow said anti-corruption only breeds suspicion of corruption. Mick Hume was bored by sleaze and Brendan O’Neill presented a level-headed guide to the ‘peerages for loans’ scandal. Or read more at spiked issue politics.

(1) Korruption und Demokratie – eine perverse Beziehung by Paul Noack in Internationale Politik

(2) Neigung zu Korruption ist messbar, Welt Online, 30 January 2007

(3) See the Transparency International website

(4) See the description of Transparency International’s approach

(5) ibid

(6) ibid

Topics Politics