Political Corruption: In and beyond the Nation State

By Robert Harris | Go to book overview

1

The idea of political corruption (I): conceptual and definitional issues

Meno: But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is?…

Socrates: …Do you realize that what you are bringing up is the trick argument that a man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does not know? He would not seek what he knows, for since he knows it there is no need of the inquiry, nor what he does not know, for in that case he does not even know what he is to look for.

Meno: Well, do you think it is a good argument?

Socrates: No.

(Plato, Meno, 80D-E)

Political corruption is a multifaceted and mutable concept, defiant of precise or comprehensive definition. Although in an interconnected world almost all areas of social and political science present definitional or conceptual problems at the margins, in political corruption these margins are especially wide. Domestically, because political corruption is often so intimately interconnected with business enterprises, legitimate as well as shady, the term is sometimes used in situations better understood as simple fraud or embezzlement. Globally the fractures in the international system arising from national sovereignty, jurisdictional disputes and lack of coordination among international organizations give political corruption many forms to take and many cracks in which to hide. Hence we shall argue that political corruption can no longer be plausibly analysed only within a nation state framework.

In addition, the line between what is and is not corrupt can be so fine as to be indiscernible even to those involved. Where this is not so and corruption is manifest it is often impossible to disentangle political from other forms of corruption. A kleptocracy 1 like Mobutu’s Zaïre, for example, could not have functioned without corrupting the civil servants, judiciary and generals who together constituted an interdependent and secretive power elite; the same applies in high-corruption countries from the Philippines and Indonesia to Moldova and Georgia.

-1-

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