Cultures of Corruption

From Lawrence Lessig, a video slideshow about what he calls “institutional corruption.” He defines this term as a systemic issue endemic to public institutions in which influence, within an “economy of influence,” is brought to bear on certain policy decisions in such a way as to erode both the ability of the institution to effectively conduct its affairs and the public’s confidence in the institution itself.

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I’ve been thinking a lot in the past 3 or 4 years about the notion of corruption, stemming in part from my reading of the film Syriana and the Robert Baer book, See No Evil upon which the film is based; Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day; other films and novels; and the state of American culture in the early 21st century and since the 1980s. My last post, on the opening credits to Watchmen, is part of this thinking, even though I do not mention “corruption” anywhere in it.

Any reader of Aristotle knows that “corruption” is associated with change, as it is in On generation and corruption. However, my own thinking, which has far more to do with corruption in political and cultural contexts than it does with what happens to milk when you add lemon juice to it, leads me to understand corruption as a force, or better a mentality (in the mold of Foucault’s governmentality), committed to resisting change. As Lessig discusses in the video, the three parties to the institutional corruption affecting Congress (members, lobbyists, and interests) require that the system remains in place so they may continue to benefit from it.

There is a scene in Syriana in which Christopher Plummer’s character (the oh-so-appropriately named Dean Whiting) meets with a Middle Eastern prince from the fictional country “Syriana” (“Syriana” is a sort of mashup of Arabic sounding words and is a fictional country the US wishes to establish in the Middle East; it will be completely receptive to US interests and give up its oil for pennies on the dollar, so long as those in power get their’s). Whiting asks the prince if he would like the Emirship (kingship), which would come presumably at the expense of his older, better-educated, liberal brother. The younger prince does get to be Emir; his brother is assassinated. Recalling the earlier scene, in which the two men (and a third, unidentified international middleman) sit around and smoke expensive cigars and drink expensive cognac on a very expensive yacht after a lavish birthday party for the prince (he complains he did not get enough), the conclusion seems obvious: these dealings, this corruption, is solely for the present. That is, what these men do is for the benefit of the here and now.

Of course, that seems obvious, as Lessig makes clear that people go into politics now to be come rich rather than to save the world. Thus politics (and the corruption that comes with it) are about the present at the expense of the future. But I think this presentism is more radical than it at first appears. Consider the title of Thomas Frank’s book: The Wrecking Crew. It reminds me of what I once heard Manuel DeLanda say during a lecture: that the job of any present administration is to fuck up the country so badly that the future administrations will not be able to fix it.

The goal is assure sameness. That is the point of corruption. This sameness, however, is not about simultaneity, nor is about simple ubiquity. Rather it is about extending the present into the future, making sure that there is no future proper in the sense of a “to come”, in the sense of something new that threatens the status quo. This sameness, which is born of corruption, is something far more worrisome.


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