Corruption and Greed

Corruption has its roots in greed, of course, but is enabled by lack of discipline. In many cases that discipline is self-imposed. People who have the opportunity to be corrupt nonetheless aren’t, because of an inner moral decency, or because of social pressures on them, or simply because they simply can’t see the point of it. ‘I really cannot understand greed’, said Henning Mankell in a filmed interview a couple of years ago. (I think it’s on one of the ‘extra features’ on the DVD set of the Kenneth Branagh version of his Wallander stories.) He looked as though he meant it.

I have to say, though it may make me seem like a self-righteous prick, that I share Mankell’s puzzlement. I can’t see the point of wanting more and more ‘stuff’, either. This doesn’t indicate any moral superiority on the part of people like me and Mankell, only a happy lack of that particular human drive. I suppose it’s a bit like being asexual. Eunuchs should be grateful. Normal human urges can get you into trouble. And they don’t know what they’re missing – like me vis-à-vis greed. I believe – and certainly hope – that there are many others like us. Otherwise corruption would be even rifer than it is.

The problem is, however, that there is clearly also a pretty large number of people who genuinely cannot understand non-greed; really can’t credit that everybody else is not, underneath it all, just as avaricious as they are, but – perhaps – not able to satisfy their avarice due to some defects in themselves. These of course are the ‘low achievers’ upon whom Sir Alan Duncan poured such scorn in that Commons debate a few weeks ago (see below, April 12), suffering from what he called the ‘politics of envy’, which was what explained the Labour Party’s objections to tax havens and the like. They would be greedy if they could. Greed is a natural, human, even universal trait. It’s also – zealous free marketists would claim – a virtue, seen in the context of the competitive capitalist system it is supposed to fuel. (See Gordon Gecko’s great ‘Greed is good’ speech in the film Wall Street.) People like Mankell who claim not to be greedy are either self-deluded, or else hypocrites, and in any case are a brake on ‘progress’. (How much better the Wallander books might have been if Mankell had been motivated by avarice.)

It’s obviously greed of this kind that lies behind most of the corruption that world leaders are supposed to be discussing in London just now; which might be encouraging if many of those leaders were not among the greediest of the lot. Cameron was right when he unguardedly accused Nigeria and Afghanistan recently of being ‘fantastically corrupt’, in what was supposed to be a private conversation with the Queen, although in his case the ‘mote and beam’ image must inevitably come to mind.

Not that Britain harbours quite as much corruption as those two countries, I’m sure. But it’s pretty rife here too; and, I would say, nearly ubiquitous if one includes more than bribery and tax evasion in the definition. (Though there’s plenty of that here too.) I’m thinking of corruptions of the truth, in the current political debate over Europe, and in – for example – much of the advertising industry; the corruption of the public press by rich newspaper owners; ‘jobs for the boys’, and unpaid ‘internships’ for rich boys and girls, in high-status occupations; police collusion to protect themselves; all those muddy goings-on in the banks; secret service conspiracies; ‘cover-ups’ of – for example – paedophilia and other sexual illegalities in high places; paying for huge advantages in education (the Public Schools) and health treatment (BUPA); privatisation for personal profit of essential and sensitive public utilities like prisons and children’s homes; ‘diving’ in football; gambling frauds in cricket and drug-taking in other sports; the parliamentary expenses scandal; election fraud, and the systemic corruption that is involved in both our and the Americans’ political systems (below, February 29); fiddling ‘Teaching Quality Assessment’ returns in order to get more money for your university department – a minor example, perhaps, but one I’m personally acquainted with; and many more. I think it’s got worse since Thatcher, and the birth of the ‘me’ generation, with competitive capitalism being one of the most fertile soils – though not the only one – for chicanery to grow in. All this, in my book, counts as ‘corruption’. And there’s an awful lot of it in Britain just now.

Of course it has always gone on. There were notable corruption scandals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – I won’t bore you with details just now. Always there have been people – many of them – whose highest ethical bound was what they could get away with, rather than what was right; and who have regarded that as normal and natural. Men and women who don’t act by this simple rule are foolish, naive, ‘low achievers’, or possibly – and you have to look out for this – using their boasted ‘morality’ as a cynical tool for gaining an advantage in some other cunning way. Which is why you need tough rules, imposed from the outside (but sanctioned by the democracy), to tackle corruption.

In the nineteenth century the British managed it, in the sphere of public life, through inculcating the principle of non-greed in their Public Schools; though it pains me, as a strong opponent of the present Public School system, to have to admit this. Public servants, in Whitehall, local government and in the colonies, were taught that their main function was to serve society, and certainly not to profit financially from their positions. It was sometimes called ‘noblesse oblige’. Colonial officers were forbidden to have any pecuniary interest in the colonies they ruled. Civil servants were supposed to give advice and carry out their instructions without prejudice. Retired politicians were expected not to profit from the offices they had held while in power. (In nineteenth century terms, Tony Blair is almost the personification of corruption.) They might be rewarded with ‘gongs’ – knighthoods and the like – but no more. All this was drummed into them in their schools, with the Latin and Greek classics used to illustrate the benefits of pure and the evils of corrupt rule.

And, quite frankly – though it pains me to say this too – Britain’s imperial subjects, in those colonies that were ruled directly by her (they weren’t all), benefitted from it. Any corruption there is in countries like Nigeria and Kenya and India today can’t be said to have been inherited from their colonial rulers, but is more likely to be the result of indigenous ‘greed’, and the withdrawal of the ‘discipline’ that British imperialism provided. Which is why you need some kind of external sanction, though preferably not colonial, to rein in corruption. That’s even when such a sanction might seem to be stifling the capitalist ‘freedom’ to act in your own interests, which may be an engine of progress; but can also be destructive of that progress, through corruption, in the longer term.

So, good luck with that to chairman Cameron and his assortment of dodgy ‘world leaders’. (Personally I don’t hold out much hope.)

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Corruption and Greed

  1. Tony Judge says:

    Agree with all this. I think also a decline in the notion of the benign state which has accompanied increased marketization and individualism, is significant. There has indeed always been corruption at a fairly low level in Britain (the sale of honours and local government contracting) but people used to look to the state to as a general provider of social goods and guarantor of high civic standards (1945-80). With the newer emphasis on individualism and competition and decline in cooperation (‘no such thing as Society’!), and belief in the notion of the benign state, more people feel freer (both in fact and in conscience) to pursue their own self-interests, and those of their family and friends which includes both tax evasion and avoidance.


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