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May 4, 2017

Corruption and rhetoric


May 4, 2017

While Pakistan is resonating with anti-corruption chants, Nigeria is chanting “bring back corruption”. Muhammadu Buhari was elected by the people of Nigeria to get rid of corruption, which they thought was the primary reason for their economic woes.

Like Imran Khan, he was considered an upright individual who was capable of economic management. But the anti-corruption measures of the new government have resulted in hyper anxiety within the economy, which was already in distress.

Nowhere in the world has the anti-corruption rhetoric or the measures introduced under its name delivered any good to the public. Instead of dissecting the rhetoric on its historical, ideological and economic grounds, intellectuals, analysts and the media are only concerned about whether the prime minister is corrupt or not.

The conviction or acquittal of Nawaz Sharif will have zero impact on the lives of the majority who face acute economic challenges in this country. Corruption is not something which can be associated with an individual. The prerequisite for any individual to succeed in bringing about such mischief is that the system must be corrupt enough to help him.

The first thing we can easily establish is that the system and not a particular individual – no matter how powerful he or she may be – is responsible for corruption. In such situations, where corruption is embedded in the system – as is the case in Nigeria and Pakistan – an effort to suddenly eliminate corruption results in an economic shutdown as the economy is powered more by the informal sector, which operates through loopholes within the system. This is precisely what happened in Nigeria and is also likely to happen in Pakistan if such measures are taken.

This rather pessimistic conclusion is not an attempt to justify corruption but to understand that this is a pathology, not a disease. For over a century, the ruling elite are using this tool to rob the people. They are also to exploiting it to make the changes necessary to maximise their profits or safeguard their interests. It is interesting to note that anti-corruption rhetoric has been used both ways – to bring businesses under government regulation and vice versa.

The depression after the First World War shattered the dreams of the free economy. As per Keynes’ advice, it brought the businesses under the government’s directive to eliminate the corruption that they were producing. But in the 1980s, when the profit of the big guns halted, the neoliberal agenda of deregulation and privatisation was put forward under the pretext that placing such controls in the hand of the government causes corruption.

Since then, corruption, accountability, probity and transparency became the buzzwords for the whole world. Along with these words, a new debate opened with a pretext that social justice and individual liberty cannot move hand-in-hand. The media and educational institutions became the primary tools to propagate the neoliberal culture and, in essence, prepared the minds for the neoliberal economic reforms.

The extent of the propaganda could be gauged by the fact that since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto no leader has emerged on the slogan of equality in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif, who is currently facing allegations himself, vowed to bring back the loot of the PPP, while Imran Khan is also popular among the urban youth for making the same kind of promises. The urban youth, not only in Pakistan but all over the world, halted to act as a radical force in class politics by the mid-1980s.

The catchword of individual liberty, along with the explanation in terms of corruption and government control for the current evils of the society, helped the neoliberal agenda to convert the former enemy into a reliable ally. The same is happening in Pakistan. Students in particular are buying into Imran Khan’s pomposity without realising that if he is elected that the PTI will only be able to use deregulation and further privatisation as tools to fulfil their promises. And the incumbent government, like its predecessors, is also pro-elite and pro-privatisation. But this fact only makes one wonder why the conflict exists.

Dissecting the politics of these parties, one would come to know that the PPP represents the traditional classes while the PML-N draws its support from the new business class that took birth in the Ayub era and was established under the martial law of Ziaul Haq. Both these sections of the ruling elite have deep penetrations in the system and are able to use it to their benefits.

On the other hand, Imran Khan, like Margaret Thatcher, has come up with a new brand of bourgeoisie. It was the need of a new political party for aggressive CEOs and entrepreneurs – like Asad Umar – to safeguard their interests that brought the PTI to political limelight. After the economic crises of 2008, there is no longer an abundance of money and not everyone could experience growth. In such circumstances, deregulation and market openness is necessary for these individuals to compete with those money makers who are well-entrenched in the system.

But these new players are neither strong enough to hold the economy together if the old players drown nor is the global market currently feasible for hawkish businesses. Therefore, the result is bound to be similar to that of Nigeria, where the public will be forced to chant slogans to “bring back corruption”. Even if the global situation changed and helped them succeed, the only difference for the public would be that the market will directly rob them instead via the government.

It is this contradiction within the ruling elite which is brewing beneath the anti-corruption rhetoric. To fix a disease you need to identify the root cause first. And for corruption, it is the class structure.


The writer is an educationist and
former central organiser of the
National Students Federation (NSF).

Email: [email protected]