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Personalising the impersonal

August 11, 2012

THE constant, virulent condemnations of corruption are getting tiring. Too often, the accusers themselves stand accused, all the way from those steering this chaotic (yet still afloat) ship to the masses aboard.

What are we to make of it all? That ours is a society in which people have mastered the art of double-speak and double-think so well that we’ve forgotten what hypocrisy means? That everyone is a liar?

Corruption — no matter how defined — broadly refers to an infringement of justice. And justice in the contemporary political order is conceived of as the materialisation of rights. No matter what we think of the state of democracy in Pakistan today, it is true that amongst a large and growing segment of the population, these rights are now considered entitlements rather than a privilege. They may not be upheld in practice but they are now embedded in people’s consciousness and form part of the cognitive framework through which people interpret the social world.

There are also however, other sets of values firmly enshrined in our consciousness. Our ideas of what it means to be a good person are intricately bound up with notions of responsibility to those around us, including those in our family, biraderi, personal networks, and so on. There is the expectation that we will look out for the interests of those close to us, in part because this is how things work, and in part because great moral value is still attached to it.

In practice, these two ways of interpreting and shaping the world come into severe conflict: the impersonalisation of social conduct implied by the first contradicts the personalisation demanded by the second. When an MPA gives his cousin a contract for road-construction or bestows favours of various kinds on his loyalists, that constitutes an infringement of justice as popularly conceived. At the same time, these acts are also the materialisation of popular morality vis-à-vis loyalty, friendship, and family. To not act in accordance with this morality is not only politically suicidal but also a negation of the ‘thickness’ of social bonds.

By no means can all corruption be ascribed to this contradiction. The recently-universalised urge to amass power and wealth has a long and sordid history which is the history of capitalism. But what is it then? Is it ‘institutional lag’ as many liberals would have it? Anatol Lieven, in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country, puts corruption down to the continued operation of ‘ancient’ tribal and kinship systems that he thinks characterise Pakistani society today.

This is not too different from what other social scientists of the liberal and neo-liberal persuasion think, i.e. that modernity in the non-Western world is an exercise in catching up with the West. Corruption and other social malaise are often interpreted as a result of incomplete modernisation, fixable via heavy doses of market-friendly policies such as privatisation, reduced state regulation, etc. Islands of ‘successful’ modernity (such as the motorway) stand in sharp contrast to the rest where modernity is disfigured by tradition and backwardness and ceases to function in recognisable (i.e. Western European) ways.

I would not venture such an ahistorical interpretation of the problem. Our illness is not fixable by more shots to the arm of the same medicine. Yes, the modern state and certain of its attendant logics are very much here thanks to the Raj, but social evolution is embarrassingly similar to desi cooking: it matters when you put the onions in. Put them in at the end and put them in at the beginning and you have a completely different dish. The modernisers can put the state and market and all the other attendant institutions of modernity into Pakistan, but they won’t get what evolved in England. Sequence matters, as do starting conditions. Pakistani society is fully modern i.e. characterised by rapid change and social processes such as commodification and urbanisation, but it does not, will not, could not ever mirror Western modernity.

Rampant corruption then needs to be seen as a modern practice that both articulates and produces extreme cognitive dissonance or duality. On the one hand we have the discourse of citizenship and the concept of ‘merit’ as is so often propounded by the middle classes. On the other, we have the logics of family, birderi and other social institutions exerting strong redistributive pressures.

Entitlement to political, cultural, and economic freedom forms the basis of wide-ranging nationalism within Pakistan — yet, ours is a society in which extreme structural violence and injustice are in part able to exist precisely because of the mitigating effects of personalised patronage relations.

Can we eliminate corruption without the impersonalisation of the social order? Is it possible to somehow prevent the private from bleeding into the public without destroying the ‘thickness’ of the former? And what effect does inhabiting this duality, this contradiction, have on our individual and collective psychology?

While this dissonance is not unique to Pakistani society, it has deleterious effects that vary by degree. When contradictions become so heavily institutionalised, they produce the cynicism that we are all too familiar with. Acknowledging, even subconsciously, the gap between theory and practice in our own person makes it more difficult to believe that others will want to or be able to transcend it.

So let us foster a more nuanced public discourse around practices such as corruption. We cannot wish away duality, for it will only increase as we — modern as we are — become more reflexive with time. How to live with it is the question.

The writer is a student of political sociology.