The future of corruption studies

Klaus Buchenau (Professor of Southeast and East European History at the University of Regensburg)

Photo by Michal Matlon - Unsplash

The fight against corruption ‘adorns’, as we know, the project of European integration. But in the current context of multiple crises, it may lose some of its urgency, especially when corruption helps to ‘save the day’ in terms of providing unconventional solutions to burning issues. Also, global authoritarian tendencies have strengthened a state-led (top-down) approach to corruption, to the detriment of vernacular (bottom-up) perspectives. In this case, there is the danger of selective anti-corruption measures directed only against opponents of the government, instead of the impartial application of the law according to the ‘old’ liberalist principles. Therefore, the Regensburg Corruption Cluster will focus on these perspectives from below: only if the fight against corruption takes the local views of justice into account, will it have a chance to take root permanently.

Borba protiv korupcije 'krasi', kao što znamo, doba evrointegracija. Ali u novim okolnostima mnogodimenzionalnih katastrofa ona gubi na značaju, posebno ako korupcija doprinosi 'spasenju' od katastrofe. Globalne autoritarne tendencije mogu osnažiti državnu (top-down) perspektivu na korupciju, na uštrb društvenih (bottom-up) perspektiva odozdo. U takvom slučaju, postoji pretnja selektivne antikorupcije koja je usmerena samo protiv onih koji se smatraju državnim neprijateljima, umesto nepristrasne primene zakona po idealu 'starog' liberalizma. Zbog toga će nastavak Regensburškog klastera o istraživanju korupcije biti posvećen perspektivama odozdo, jer samo ona antikorupcija koja ima dodir sa lokalnim viđenjima pravde ima šansu da se trajno ukoreni.

From 28 September to 2 October 2022, the Regensburg Corruption Cluster held a creative retreat on the still warm and sunny island of Cres (Croatia) to discuss its immediate future. With the project nearing completion (five doctoral students and one postdoc finalising their research on informality, corruption, and anti-corruption in south-eastern Europe) it was time to take stock and develop fresh ideas for a follow-up project to be submitted to the German Research Foundation (DFG) by autumn 2023. We also invited partners from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Germany to take part in the discussions. Here, I will not try to summarise these but rather focus on what the current difficult times mean for corruption research.

Around 2017, the project was conceived during a period of moderate liberal optimism, starting (albeit in a critical fashion) from ideas dominant at the time, for instance, that good governance has its historical origins in north-western Europe. For south-eastern Europe, we set out to detect, among others, the obstacles to successful formalization during the last two centuries. The situation has now changed fundamentally, with multiple crises surfacing such as the Covid pandemic, climate change and a large war on our doorstep. The mood has turned rather pessimistic, which has implications for corruption research. The key task of our workshop was to reflect on these changes and what they mean for the research design of a follow-up project.

To start with, we see increased evidence that, in times of crisis, corruption might start to be seen, surprisingly, as a problem solver rather than a problem, since (perceived) catastrophe pushes us to think that ‘necessity knows no law’, and that hitherto ‘sacred’ rules need to be broken, rewritten, or radically reinterpreted to ‘rescue’ the common good or our common future. Corruption being semantically charged with notions of impurity, at least in ‘normal times’, this negative take may nevertheless be pushed to the margins of political discourse, as rule-breaking comes to be considered almost as inevitable and positive.

See, for example, the Covid-related grand corruption (or suspicion of such), which some people rightfully deplored and felt ‘scandalized’ by but which found little resonance: all question marks that could have been raised in relation to vaccine admission procedures, vaccine purchases by states, lucrative masks deals and the like – they played almost no role in the public debate and led to a loss of office only in rare cases since raising these issues ran counter to the leading crisis narrative that ascribed both masks and vaccines the role of our ‘saviours’. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the same became true for the weapon industry, which prior to the war was under constant public observation for its lobbyism with governments. Now, in a discourse focusing only on the necessity of quick weapon deliveries to Ukraine, this perspective has disappeared almost completely from the mainstream media, which may lead to dubious ‘deals’ going undetected since the risk of being caught and sanctioned is lower than in normal times.

While politicians may embrace corruption as an instrument to solve their issues in an ‘unconventional’ manner, so may ordinary people – for them, petty corruption or everyday bribery may provide effective solutions for individual problems and crisis-induced dangers. For example, a bribe may be a way for a Russian or Ukrainian soldier to escape mobilisation into the military; for a doctor or a nurse, to circumvent compulsory corona vaccinations; for a woman living in a state led by religious conservatives, to open doors to get an abortion.

While all these examples suggest that soon, corruption may disappear from the centre of discourse since some legal transgressions are no longer perceived as attacks against the common good, we also may anticipate the complete loss of a globally shared idea of what corruption is and how it should be curbed. This problem is not new for corruption studies, but it will very likely become more salient in the very near future.

Creative retreat on the island of Cres. (from left to right: Prof Dr Dubravka Stojanović - University of Belgrad, Prof Dr Klaus Buchenau - University of Regensburg and Damjan Matković - University of Regensburg). Photo by Klaus Buchenau

On a global scale, we can observe two parallel phenomena: on the one hand, the increasingly stark contrast between the proponents of liberal anti-corruption measures (which are rule-based, NGO-monitored, and endowed with a certain bias in favour of the interests of multinational corporations, which use anti-corruption measures as market openers worldwide) and their opponents, whom we can subdivide into an authoritarian and a postcolonial camp. In the years before the current crises, there was a widely shared anticipation in corruption research that liberal anti-corruption measures would be victorious in the end. Many researchers, including this author, believed that liberal anti-corruption was the only real anti-corruption, with its impartial application of rules in a system of checks and balances, leading to generalized trust in formal rules and mechanisms. Only in such a society, many of us thought, state and society could arrive at a generally accepted social contract, against which it would be easy to identify and punish a few remaining greedy individuals who continued to break the law.

Yet this paradigm fundamentally accepted western hegemony on a global scale. According to its postcolonial critics, the real problem is not so much the bribe given to some state official in Africa or Latin America, but the global disparities of power and wealth, leading to welfare and participation in one part of the world, and poverty and extreme inequality in another. The mainstream of the anticorruption industry ascribed these imbalances to intra-state corruption in the global South and East, implying that in the end “it is their problem, not ours”. Non-western authoritarian leaders have often made use of these post-colonial critiques, introducing their own ways of fighting corruption, employed selectively as an instrument to neutralize opponents. Considering that post-1989 global western hegemony has ended, the postcolonial and/or authoritarian forms of anti-corruption might succeed in establishing themselves as ‘respected’ alternatives, which also may find their ways into academia.

On the other hand, we do not only observe a growing global divide affecting the ‘unity’ of corruption research, but also an overarching and worldwide trend towards authoritarian politics, strengthening top-down state perspectives at the expense of all other perspectives. While most readers will think about Russia or China here, the tendency is also clearly discernible in the West, where collective notions of ‘freedom’ are gaining ground over individual ones. We have seen this during the Covid pandemic, and this tendency will likely be strengthened through the ongoing struggle against climate change. In such a framework, with civil society opposition increasingly being labelled as ‘populist’ and democracy being directed ‘from above’ through state-financed NGOs, the state’s capacity to shape public opinion and orchestrate public indignation about ‘scandals’ is on the rise. The unknown variable here is the reaction of society, which is unpredictable and may turn against these pro-state rearrangements in western societies.

On Cres, we tried to find answers to these challenges. It would be an exaggeration to say that we reached consensus, but in a world of authoritarian tendencies and top-down state engineering, we should strengthen corruption studies as a counterweight, primarily as an exploration of bottom-up responses based on local and vernacular notions of justice. This will not only be a corrective to the imbalances of crisis politics, but also a remedy for the mechanical, top-down, and context-blind approaches to corruption studies of the past thirty years that have shown rather disappointing results worldwide.

Further literature:

Bratsis, Peter. “Political corruption in the age of transnational capitalism: from the relative autonomy of the state to the White Man’s Burden.” Historical Materialism 22, 1 (2014): 105-128.

Conze, Peter: Korruptionsgefahren in der deutschen Verteidigungspolitik. Scheinwerfer 96 (2022): 4-5.

Rothstein, Bo. Controlling corruption: The social contract approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Wolf, Sebastian; Graeff, Petter (eds.): Cororna und Korruption. Gesellschaftswissenschaftliche Analysen. Wiesband, Heidelberg: Springer, 2022.

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