Overweening Generalist

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Political Corruption: Three Takes, Possibly Illuminating?

I can't count how often I read some Citizen complain how the Democrats are so corrupt, always have been, always will. They're incurably rotten, those Democrats. Another Voter opines in three steady shades of black that the Republicans have ruined the country, because, why...dontcha see how "corrupt" they are?

I think I remember sorta buying this in my early twenties. I thought the Republicans were more corrupt than the Democrats. And of course this...needed to end? How could I have ever been so naive?

Since then I've changed my mind quite a lot. The charges of "corruption" on the part of one or both parties leave me a tad embarrassed for the naivete of the speaker. It's called "projection" in Freudian terms: I'm projecting myself onto the speaker who's agonizing over a world that, gosh dernit, would be so much better if not for all that corruption.

The unpleasant corollary for me in this is that I now realize how many times I've looked back and remembered that I actually sorta believed certain political ideas, and I blanche; this seems to strongly imply that whatever I think now might embarrass me a few years hence. It's a tough one to swallow, but I gotta live with it.

Perhaps it's a small price to pay if I'm trying to be intellectually "honest."

I said "trying." Gimme some slack? Some slack from the Slacktivists?
I remember reading a lot of history in my late twenties and just being overwhelmed to the point of amusement over how utterly normal political corruption is. And after awhile, maybe you start to develop your own scale of how much true damage corruption can do to the Average Joe, Mrs Calabash down the street, poor kids, someone's dad who's trying to eek out a living for his family, etc.

There's a sort of corruption that seems partisan. I guess it hurts almost everyone a little, but if almost everyone, then hardly anyone, right?

(Is there a sort of corruption that does hurt almost everyone? Say 1% hurt the other 99%? What sort of corruption would that be? What do you call it? I know it sounds far-fetched. Forget I ever brought it up.)

Then there's the kind of corruption that various factions of the Ruling Class deem too damaging to the official narratives. I think that's a big reason Nixon went down. (There are many more historical examples.)

I guess a Reader starts to develop some vague, inchoate and heterogeneous taxonomy of corruption. But the thing is, you do expect it. It's not cynicism, it's realpolitick, or maybe just "living in the real world." Hence, my visceral reaction when a fellow citizen complains about corruption. I often feel a mixture of contempt, embarrassment, and admiration of a naive yet noble worldview.
1.) Noam Chomsky
When I started reading Noam Chomsky I quickly came across numerous variations of his views on corrupt politicians. Basically, the Chomsky view is this: He's glad when politicians are corrupt, because that's normal. One corrupt one undermines another, then the undermined one's allies return the favor. It cancels power out. If some dipshit politician is in it for the money and himself and his pals, the local machine: at least they'll eventually get busted by some other competing corrupt group of opposition. On and on, welt sans kaput.

For Chomsky, the problem is the True Believer with charisma, who really wants power in order to change Everything and make it right. Like Hitler. And Chomsky has been saying for at least 30 years that American fascism, just below the surface, harbors these creeps, and we're subject to one sooner of later. And that's scary. He's perfectly happy to see yet the same old narrative of some jackoff preacher-politician, railing about "morality" and then getting caught with 15 Rolls Royces and a homosexual boy in a motel room. On tape. On the Six O'Clock News. That's no threat.

Here's a typical Chomsky bit on corruption, among many variations:

"If Hitler had been a crook...We're very fortunate in the United States, we've never had a charismatic leader who weren't a gangster. Every one of them was a thug, or a robber, or something. Which is fine, they don't cause a lot of trouble. If you get one who's honest, like Hitler, then you're in trouble - they just want power." - interview with Matthew Rothschild, 1997.

                                                      Boss Tweed, synonymous with "political corruption" in 
                                                                 Unistatian history

2.) Robert Anton Wilson 
The middle period writings of RAW (which I consider as 1975-1985, with 1959-1974 the first period and 1986-2005 the third and last, not that anyone had asked) contains an abundance of non-Euclidean political writing, by which he meant that he saw value in left-libertarian and traditionally anarchist thought, and individualist-"right" libertarian ideas. Thinking beyond the stale left/right metaphor of political ideology. And other ideas too. (For a particularly brilliant elaboration of breaking out of right-left political thinking, see this Wilson essay here.) He rarely had much use for the Democratic or Republican parties. Which is an understatement. He seemed to pretty much loathe the Republicans always. And when I interviewed him we took a break on his balcony so he could smoke and I distinctly remember him talking about the Democratic party (in 2003) and ending his funny little diatribe with a big audible raspberry.

He used various sorts of libertarian ideas in a whole host of ironic moods, and I think he not only liked to play with any idea that was about individual freedom, but he thought there should be far more Ideas about politics in the public mind, period. And in his 1980 book The Illuminati Papers he used his pirate-libertarian free market anarchist-individualist character from his novels, Hagbard Celine, as a persona in articulating a set of "Celine's Laws."(see pp. 118-125) I consider each "Law" a gem of ingenious political satire, and yet each one holds a profound "truth," also. The First Law is National security is the chief cause of national insecurity. The Second Law states Accurate communication is only possible in a nonpunishing situation. It's the Third Law that applies to our subject of corruption.

Celine's Third Law states, An honest politician is a national calamity. Wilson explains that do-gooders, politicians who truly "mean well" tend to pass more and more laws, which creates more and more criminals. Why didn't I realize this before I read RAW? The more laws, the more restrictions on individual freedoms. "The chief cause of the rising crime rate is the rising number of laws being enacted. An honest politician, who keeps his nose to the grindstone and enacts several hundred laws in the course of his career, thereby produces as many as several million new criminals."

The thing about RAW here: this is hilarious and sorta mostly "true." The man had a gift for being wise and cosmically comedic at the same time. An interviewer once told Wilson that when he read his books he was never sure when he was serious or when he was joking. And RAW replied:

"I'm most serious when I am joking."

Back to RAW's Hagbard and our topic of corruption, and that an honest politician is a national calamity.

"At first glance, this seems preposterous. People of all shades of opinion agree at least on the axiom that we need more honest politicians, not more crooked ones. Please remember, however, that people of all shades of opinion once agreed that the Earth is flat."

Which then follows RAW's take on corruption, and compare and contrast this to Chomsky's:

"Your typical dishonest politician (bocca grande normalis) is interested only in enriching himself at the public expense, a goal he shares with most of his fellow citizens, especially doctors and lawyers. This is normal behavior for our primate species, and society has always been able to endure and survive it." (p.124, The Illuminati Papers)

3.) Gustav Papanek
Who he? Here's some background on Papanek. I encountered him a year or so ago when reading desultorily in economics. I was reading a bunch of sociology of religion stuff and was interested in emerging economies (like China and especially Indonesia and the Far East, but also Latin America) and how religions linked to development of markets, modernities (I'm convinced there are many variations of "modernity"), and just generally the weird mix of belief systems and economics. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss and Al Franken: O! The Things I Don't Know!

I took a load of notes, and I have some good ones from Papanek in a book with the boring title of Business and Democracy.

But more recently I read the semi-autobiography of one of my favorite intellectuals, Peter Berger,  who I tend to not harmonize with on politics, as he's too conservative for me, but I love his thought, his writing, and he's funny. His 2011 book is titled Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.

Berger's talking about his collaborations with Papanek near the end of the book, about certain ideas that contribute to emerging economies - such as "the state pursues intelligent economic and social policies - that is, it favors economic growth and has a concern for the welfare of its population." Another item that caught my eye and which pertains to our subject: "Corruption should be kept within reasonable limits."

Berger wonders why economists can't seem to tell the difference between "bad" and "good" corruption, and Papanek tells Berger he can elucidate the difference, calling it "the Papanek principle of corruption." Very briefly, "the corruption may not exceed the corruption itself." Wha?

It gets unpacked this way by Berger, after talking with Papanek:

"It is acceptable corruption if the head of government appoints his wife's uncle to a position in which he has nothing whatsoever to do (indeed he may have an office without a telephone that he ritually visits once a month to collect his salary check). But, as a result of the position, he draws a huge salary, lives in a government-supplied villa, and drives a government-supplied Mercedes. However, the corruption becomes unacceptable if the position entails real power over a sector of the economy - such as the power to wreck the state-controlled electricity company." (p.219)
There may or may not be a "lesson" to be learned by combining Chomsky, Wilson, and Papanek in these ideas about political corruption. I don't wanna get all didactic on my Dear Readers, if any. And besides I'm stoned and want to go play my guitar now, but before I send this blogspew into the Ethernet, I'm reminded of a zen anecdote I gleaned from the aforementioned Dr. Robert Anton Wilson.

I remember it thus:

A zen student asks the zen master, "What is world peace?"

And the zen master replies, "Two drunks fighting in an alley."

Thanks for reading, grasshoppers!


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Re: Going beyond left and right: Many people who self identify as libertarians feel that way. There are left-libertarians and right-tilting libertarians, but many just identify as "libertarians" and consider themselves as having no real home in American politics. Thus the phenomena where conservatives don't like us because we are "liberals" and the left doesn't like us because we are "right-wingers."

michael said...

Most of the time I'd rather not think of the implications of this: that, it seems, most people have accepted the taken-for-granted world of Left-Right, Dems-Repubs. The Euclidean metaphor seems to mirror the symmetry of the human body and is probably embedded deeply in consciousness...so deep that most of it's unconscious. But we have frontal cortices, and I'm thinkin' we ought to use them more often.

In popular dumb-politics I'm constantly reminded of cultural anthropologists who spent a year living among some far-flung indigenous tribe deep in the heart of the rain forests of the Amazon or the Ituri, and have noted that, quite often THREE is about as useful as their number system gets. Above "three" and you have words for "a lot."

Well, if we're supposedly so sophisticated with our technology and educations, why can't we think above TWO in what we so laffingly refer to as the First World?

Anthropologists, up to the early 1970s, called this simple-mindedness The Savage Mind (a famous study by Claude Levi-Strauss). For some ways of life, in some environments, accounting practices need not be complex; in our world, it seems required.

You do good work in pointing this out.

It seems there are quite complex structural reasons why a much more inclusive and realistic view of popular political thought is not allowed articulation in the corporate media, but that seems no excuse for the rampant inarticulate political thought we see among our brethren.

Very rarely have I ever felt/seen a reflection of my thinking in corporate electronic media; I suspect this is "no accident."