Following George Pitcher’s article last week, four other Jericho partners share their reflections on the theme of corruption…
I lived in India for two years. Corruption there is pretty endemic. It’s obvious in how the roads are paved after the monsoon season (potholes reappear almost instantly), the rubbish is collected (it’s dumped on the roadside), and how officials process your documents (they often don’t).
Yet it’s not hard to see why bribing has become so common-place in a country like India: people are poorly paid, in part because nobody likes to pay taxes. If you’re a police officer and paid less than a common labourer, and want a better life for your family, your only choice might be to extract extra ‘fees’ if you can. It’s practically considered an imperative. I have an architect friend who budgets projects to include the necessary ‘facilitation’ fee for city officials if he wants a building to be approved.
The problem is that we find it easy to condemn people in places like India, but not as easy to look at ourselves in the mirror. Are we really so different? Cases of corruption, in almost every sector from finance to food to transport, seem to crop up in the media more frequently than Nigel Farage on Question Time.
Even putting aside the obvious scandals in recent times: HBOS, Volkswagen, Horsegate….corruption is pretty endemic here too. It’s estimated that tax evasion – the gap between what should be paid vs. what is paid – costs the UK anywhere between £73 billion and £119 billion a year, a staggering amount. The larger of these figures would cover more than the entire NHS budget alone.
Corruption isn’t always illegal nor is it obvious. Incentives in the corporate sector reward cutting corners, keeping costs down and passing on risk. This forces lower-paid employees or suppliers to bear the burden, from risking health and safety to enforcing zero hours contracts. Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed because big western brands don’t pay their fair share of the costs of production, arguing they abided by the laws in that country – ‘not me, Guv.’ But is it corruption if that country’s laws wouldn’t pass muster here? Yes, I think it is. Corruption is as much about ethics as it is about laws. And squeezing people dry, putting their lives and livelihoods at risk, either here or abroad is morally corrupt if not legally so.
An Indian friend waited several months for approval to dig a bore hole (for a well) on his farm. For lack of rain one year, he lost a whole season of mangos. I asked why it was taking so long, as every other farm around his seemed to have one. He said simply “because I won’t pay the bribe.” Why not, I asked? “Because where does it stop?” he said.
In India, people are starting to reject corruption. But here, we seem oblivious to the fact that corruption exists. It does. But it shouldn’t.
“Casablanca” corruption: play it again and again and again
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”: a familiar refrain. Lord Acton’s words are a century old – resuscitated by Hailsham in the 1980s to neatly expose Thatcherism.
The Reverend George Pitcher tells us the world has suffered corruption of biblical dimensions across millennia. If St Paul or the Romans endured rolling news channels and the constant interruptions of the Twittersphere, corrupt indiscretions may have been faster exposed but it would have changed little. Today’s “always on” society places ills in immediate sight: from the corruption (plain abuse) of the law in Guantanamo Bay, to the corruption of authority with Saville and the BBC and the pseudo-scientific corruption of Volkswagen.
Abuses flow from similar, sadly human, roots – fallibility, angry ambition and greed, arrogance and hubris. Corrupters may start only with little white lies – a falsified emissions measurement or a headline-grabbing interview with “Nick” – but soon spiral into epic misdeeds. Fissures lead to earthquakes. But many still walk on by.
Individual and collective memories are short. We now paint asylum seekers’ doors red in Middlesborough and ask them to wear coloured wristbands in Cardiff. Such is the corruption of memory.
Language is likewise corrupted and becomes a nonsensical irrelevance. Let’s not dwell too long on the matter of trust – I have amply documented elsewhere the t-word’s exhaustion. Where trust is spoken, so transparency probably lurks close behind. A leader’s call for transparency is a default knee-jerk to the latest breakdown in trust.
Romantic notions of truth, trust and transparency exist within a very British fallacy – a wistful return to Walmington-on-Sea and Mainwaring’s Dad’s Army Bank Manager: another corrupted memory. Others yearn for Edwardiana – a time when women didn’t have the vote; millions languished in urban and rural poverty; and ten year olds were allowed to sweep chimneys.
Meanwhile, the language and potentially good power of networks have been hijacked by the evils of Al Qaeda and ISIS, though the latter does terrifyingly well to explain the reality of new, loose affiliations and theories of asymmetrical power. Now, some worry that the internet is not the answer.
The world is not a very nice place. “Great men are often very bad men”, Acton pointed out. (And, yes, they are inevitably men).
As inequality gaps widen still further, the truly wealthy ameliorate themselves through grandiose philanthropy, while many corporations smother themselves in the inglorious bullshit of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
CSR is the ugly, late twentieth century spawn of PR, itself the child of post-war propaganda – a means of controlling the democratic wisdom of the masses, whose judgement (PR’s founding fathers) did not trust: another patriarchy suppressing citizen truths and corrupting citizen democracy. And then there is monarchy – the ultimate PR construct – an illegitimate corruption of power supposedly blessed by a corrupt theistic pretence. Vested interests are the alpha and the omega.
Re-birth may need death but we have to be able to gracefully accept death in the first place and we are not very good at doing that. We now assume “we’re going to live forever” and thus corrupt the reality of what it is to be human.
Maybe because the 100-year human life is now real, so we more easily accept the 100-year corporation. This is a corruption of expectation. Just as human life is fragile, so the lives of corporations should be made more fragile still. Both should be judged not by what they say, but by what they do (a favourite Jericho refrain).
The sad bottom line is that we corrupt everything and always have. Nonetheless, we rail constantly against corruption. Sub-consciously, we channel Casablanca’s Captain Renault who, while pocketing his casino winnings, ironically remarked: “I am shocked, shocked to find gambling has been going on in this establishment.” And then we metaphorically round up the usual suspects.
In truth, we have nothing to be shocked about, except perhaps our own wilful blindness.
Hacks know all about corruption. We see it; we write about it; we do it.
At a newspaper where I was employed ‘expenses’ were handled with gentlemanly aplomb. A manager told me the unwritten rule: expenses should be submitted “little but often”. The sneaked squalid ‘extras’ – the cooked expenses – of the average journalist are a stroll across the heath compared to the Everest scale of FIFA (or the pernicious pelf of professional ‘sport’ generally) – but both are on a spectrum of dishonesty, whether inspired by assumed need or simple greed.
“Corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many of the problems we face around the world today”, said David Cameron when he announced a “major” anti-corruption summit in London this year. Corruption of language is another social debauchery; what might a ‘minor’ anti-corruption summit be like?
So that’s all right then: all the great and good will turn up, pass resolutions, and jet out: job done. Except all the top-down commands won’t extirpate the culture of corruption. Fish rot from the head; what kind of heads does our culture daily display? From a “culture of deference” at the BBC (which enabled the odious Jimmy Savile to get away with his crimes for so long) to the perpetuation of ludicrous bonus rates at banks (rewarding bankers for doing their jobs, supposedly to prevent a drain of ‘talent’), corruption has entered the national bloodstream. Maybe ‘twas ever thus, but there is a widening attention paid to corruption (three cheers) combined with an equally widening sensation that the great-and-good who turn out to be corrupt may have their reputations destroyed – but their ill-gotten gains are compensation.
We are alternately too scared, too browbeaten, too wearied by yet another example of abuse of power going unpunished, too inter-connected with people above or below us in the pecking order, to act. “I have a saying that a lot of leaders are anxiety-driven little shits.” So said Lord Stevenson a couple of years ago, confessing to the BBC about his on-off bouts of depression. Probably not surprising that the former Chairman of HBOS feels a bit down sometimes; the collapse of his bank, where the culture was completely rotten, caused heartache for hundreds of thousands of hapless individuals. Read Crash Bank Wallop, by Paul Moore, former Head of Group Regulatory Risk at HBOS, for his account of the disaster. It’s both a terrible and wonderful book: terrible because so badly written and edited, wonderful because it details how greed, personal corruption, and political indifference can produce chaos – from which the main culprits simply walk off into the sunset with whacking pensions.
Who to blame? Ourselves. We connive at the bad smells that waft up from the sewers of late capitalism. Jamie Dimon – chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase bank – has just landed himself a total pay package of $27 million for 2015, more than a third above 2014. This is a bank that agreed in 2013 to pay $13 billion to settle, said Reuters, “many of the US investigations into mortgage bonds that JPMorgan – and the banks it bought during the financial crisis – sold to investors.” Are JP Morgan’s shareholders ditching their investments?
What’s to be done? Companies need to treasure their whistle-blowers, their dissenters, the agitators standing on the side-lines who call on them to have a conscience. Until we reach the Spinoza tipping-point, when “every man [and woman – Spinoza lived in a different era] should think what he likes and say what he thinks”, then we are condemned to repeat this cycle of rapacious individualism, a crash, an enquiry, and the worst corruption of all – “lessons have been learned”.
In Robert Penn Warren’s magisterial political classic All The Kings Men, a thinly-veiled account of 1930s Louisiana governor Huey Long, the narrative character, his spin doctor and fixer-in-chief, ponders the question: “Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to power to do good”.
It’s a more haunting way of asking the question ‘can the ends justify the means’? As someone who has cut the odd corner and never managed to lead a blameless life, I’ve struggled with personal, business and political conflicts. Of course it depends on – corruption of what? A lie can be told for a greater good. But fundamentally I don’t believe that a good society can be built by doing bad things. That if you live by the sword you tend to die by it – and that corruption in the name of the righteous just leads to corruption in a new form.
We didn’t need Animal Farm to tell us that as we sow, so shall we reap. Rosa Luxemberg, the Polish Marxist sent to her death in an icy cold Berlin Canal in 1919, famously accused her Bolshevik comrades of ‘making a virtue of a necessity’. The tricky circumstances of the Soviet revolution two years before – itself maybe an attempt to force or corrupt history – did not justify the authoritarianism and then terror used to keep the new ruling class in place. Means always shape ends. This time the Gulag.
Progress is based on one simple but profound belief – that we are good, or at least that we can become so. To quote one more powerful female politician: ‘the economy is the means, the goal is to change the soul’. We are not made good or bad, but essentially conditioned to be what society makes us. Change the economy and you can change our nature. Make it private and we become self-obsessed. Make it social and then the common good has a chance to flourish. We have the capacity to be honest or corrupt, selfish or generous, individualistic or solidaristic. Mrs Thatcher, for of course it was she, also famously said ‘socialism never dies’. She knew it was in us, waiting to be let out. Hence her obsession with destroying the unions, social housing and the national public treasures in which the social could thrive gave testament to this eternal insight. To be truly social means never turning towards corruption.
Despite almost four decades in which free markets and a possessive individualism have been encouraged by law-makers of every main political party, most people don’t lie or cheat. Most people do the right thing (h/t Spike Lee). The best hope we have is, and always will be, each other. Go on, trust me.