Who Benefits from a “War on Corruption”?

Can anticorruption as a social movement or rhetorical strategy be a meaningful part of counterhegemonic resistance to such regimes?

Few terms in the English language possess as many contradictory and mystifying connotations—and carry as much both progressive and profoundly reactionary cachet—as the word “corruption.” Charges of corruption can fuel seismic political revelations, and they can also manifest as empty bravado. Efforts by policy makers and academics to distill a meaningful, actionable, and universal definition have also been a largely fraught endeavor.

Malini Ranganathan, David Pike, and Sapana Doshi’s Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics, and Publics of the Late Capitalist City moves past popular confusion and definitional paralysis by questioning the epistemic foundations of the modern conception of corruption. The authors show that in fact, there is no universally agreed-upon definition: the term serves vastly different purposes according to who is wielding it. Grounding their inquiry in ethnographic cases from urban India, in addition to cinematic and literary evidence from around the world, they ask: Who does “corruption talk” serve, and under what conditions?

This is not merely an academic question. It has profound implications for the geopolitical order and for the pursuit of social equality. Since World War II, the US has acted as a global hegemon and thus set the agenda for what does or does not count as corruption. Colonial plunder and native genocide, of course, are not registered. Rather, during the Cold War era, dictatorial regimes in the so-called Third World were “tolerated”—even if they were corrupt—so long as they collaborated with the West in stemming the tide of communism. Following the Cold War, the Washington Consensus adopted a new rhetoric of anticorruption. But this was simply a means to legitimate a larger war against the protectionist market policies of developing countries. This “War on Corruption” became a Trojan horse for Western firms to seize and exploit natural resources of formerly colonized nations.

Even today with the apparent waning of the unipolar world system, the US still largely decides which despot or authoritarian is accepted by the “international community” (e.g., Narendra Modi, Mohammed bin Salman) and which must be ruthlessly condemned and countered with military force or sanctions (e.g., Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin). This shows that corruption on its own has never been worthy of opprobrium by the nation’s political elite.

The authors of Corruption Plots advance a piercing critique of this double standard for what counts as corruption in the public imagination and who gets to define it as such. Moreover, they make a radical epistemological claim: Corruption is not in fact a predetermined or objective set of practices. It exists only insomuch as there is a process in place to identify it in order to condemn it. “Corruption comes to life,” explain Ranganathan, Pike, and Doshi, “when narrated in conversation, text, and image—when emotively represented as a series of causally related events.” It is an “ethical discourse wielded by different groups, in different places, and across uneven arrangements of power and privilege.”

The book’s emphasis on discourses of corruption—corruption “talk,” to use the authors’ phrase—is an apt methodological response to the phenomenon’s chameleon-like nature. In investigating corruption talk and the stories that people tell (“corruption plots”), the book shifts the focus away from elite, hegemonic discourses to what it terms publics and counter publics. Specifically, it homes in on corruption talk as employed by anticorruption activists and brokers in highly fragmented and socially differentiated urban spaces, mostly in the Indian megacities of Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Many of these corruption plots hold great potential to expose how corruption is, in fact, endemic to capitalist relations.

In each chapter, the authors present a different urban “topos”—a term they use to refer to the urban spaces where corruption is typically “plotted and narrated.” These include the slum, the multistory building, the urban periphery, the swampland, urban infrastructure, and the world-class city. These spaces are treated not as monolithic but rather as shaped by differential legacies of social inequality based on gender, class, caste, and religion. In each of these topoi the authors examine various anticorruption activists’ motives for leveraging corruption plots. They find that these activists are often opportunistic but also potentially liberatory in their ability to make—in the authors’ words—“ethical sense” of the late capitalist condition.

Combining their India-based ethnographic observations and interviews with cinematic and literary renderings of corruption from around the world brings corruption down to a level of analysis typically not captured by social science—the affective dimension—and allows for analysis across diverse geographies that may not be accessible through ethnography alone. The book illustrates the striking number of commonalities (and also some important differences) in the affective manifestations of corruption and the tropes produced and reproduced about corruption by mainstream media.

The urban slum is the first of the book’s case studies. Here are activists who struggle against slum evictions using tactics like highly theatrical and sometimes televised sting operations, in order to expose how the very forces who deem slum dwellers “encroachers” are themselves egregiously violating the law or illegally usurping public resources. The activists’ indictment of this hypocrisy assumes a language of social justice, asking, “Who are the real encroachers?” and charging the state and developers with “casteist cleansing” and land grabs.

Indeed, for a public that is often rendered invisible or disappeared from the modern city, “the art of producing a spectacle—the maneuver of sensationalizing corruption—may be one of the few strategies left to fight class injustice.” Such spectacles are required, argue the authors, because these spaces have already had their publics forcibly removed, leaving only a vestigial, “spectral” public “haunting” spaces previously full of shared urban life.

The literary and cinematic depictions of slum resistance at times literalize this figurative meaning of spectrality. In the novel Brown Girl in the Ring, in an act of resistance from below, the corrupt mayor of postapocalyptic Toronto is possessed by the ghost of the protagonist’s slum-dwelling grandmother. In the Indian action film Kaala, a corrupt developer-politician duo conspires to forcibly replace Mumbai’s Dharavi slum with luxury condos. As the evictions begin, Kaala, the popular leader of the slum believed to have earlier died in a fire started by the politician’s thugs, magically reappears “as if given a second life.”

If slums are fundamentally subaltern spaces where lower-caste activists battle the state over the rights to housing and livelihood, the multistory apartment complex is imagined as a distinctly “respectable” space.

A quintessential marker of the Indian middle class, the multistory apartment is inhabited by an upper-caste, middle-class public that imagines itself as law abiding and morally upright. This public sees itself as victimized by lower-caste people (“vote banks”: a code word for marginalized people who have, in the past half century, begun to demand a greater share of democratic rights and public resources) and by government agencies and developers (who deal in black money and bribery).

Here again are anticorruption activists, yet they and their targets are wholly different from those of the slums. In multistory apartments, such activists are individual actors (“lone wolves”) not connected or accountable to mass organizations. Their mode of activism is largely an atomized one: doling out advice to individual homeowners—who visit these activists in anticorruption “clinics”—on issues ranging from illegal transfer of property deeds to absconding contractors.

The authors identify a disjuncture between this public’s condemnation of corruption and its readiness to engage in dubious real estate deals and tax evasion when it serves their interests. For example, Uma, a middle-class Mumbai-based activist, attempts to halt a lucrative illegal land transfer happening within her cooperative housing society; rather than support her, her neighbors initiate a vicious attack on Uma’s character. With one of the usurpers a powerful leader in a local Hindu religious trust and the residents entirely upper-caste Hindus, this kind of venality is deemed permissible.

While the slum is a fundamentally subaltern space and the multistory building has a markedly middle-class/upper-caste character, the other topoi visited by the authors—the swampland, the urban periphery, infrastructure projects, and the world-class city—fall at different nodes along the status spectrum. One common thread uniting these spaces is that many of the characters encountered embody a “gray” (or ambiguous) ethics with respect to corruption plots. Not unlike the middle-class publics of the multistory building, these publics consist of contradictory characters: at times engaging in corruption and at other times railing against it. Again, the book reveals how corruption plots are not uniform but ever changing, depending on the class and caste position of the plotter.

In the periphery and in the world-class city, for example, the authors encounter people of both low- and high-caste social positions, being dispossessed by land grabs but also trying to profit from illegal real estate brokering in their localities (albeit on unequal footing). In the infrastructure topos, people in the water supply business exploit legal loopholes and lax environmental laws to commodify the city’s water. Ironically, these same actors also demand greater public transparency when it comes to the construction of roads.

The swampland is somewhat different in that the individuals who protest against swampland encroachment are for the most part urban environmentalists and bureaucrats—not usually those who are profiting from corruption themselves. Yet, like their counterparts in the other chapters, they occupy an ethically dubious position because their activism often comes at the expense of caste-oppressed people. The latter are forced to “encroach” on these peripheral swamplands for their survival, the authors explain, mostly because they have been pushed out of the more “desirable” parts of the city center.


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Uniting the chapters is the authors’ conviction that many of these corruption plots hold great potential to expose how corruption is, in fact, endemic to capitalist relations. This is in part because of the magnitude of financial misappropriation and the spectacular and inconspicuous nature of the projects under scrutiny, including bridges, public transit networks, and world-class office towers. Moreover, examples like the world-class city reveal that corruption is a global phenomenon that, contrary to Cold War dogma, is equally present in advanced capitalist countries and in developing nations. As in the case of the vast legal irregularities surrounding the Trump Tower projects, corruption is even “exported” on a large scale from places like New York City to Mumbai.

Yet the real-life individuals the authors encounter are not unequivocally advancing antisystemic analyses. Rather, more often than not, they are trying to game the system, have a market-oriented ethos, or even espouse a right-wing and ethnonationalist view of corruption.

At times this finding seems in tension with one of the book’s larger arguments about corruption plots as a starting point for liberatory anticapitalist politics. In this regard, I wanted the authors to say more explicitly whether there is a particular kind of public more likely to embrace a “counter-hegemonic” anticorruption politics than others. What are the hypothesized class, caste, and other characteristics of this resistance? What organizational shape might it take? Is there a difference between the activist-cadres—a central focus of the ethnographic work—and the wider nonactivist base in terms of the politics they espouse?

Another fascinating element of the book is that it is set in Narendra Modi’s India. Modi is the leader of the world’s largest ethnonationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power since 2014. Glimpses of this national context are present throughout; for example, in the introduction the authors describe the entryway of Vikhroli Parksite slum in Mumbai, including a towering poster commemorating the birthday of now-deceased Hindu nationalist icon Bal Thackeray. They also describe how in India the elite notion of being a “global citizen” is increasingly articulated to a Hindu nationalist identity. Although Hindu nationalism isn’t a primary focus, this book sheds some light on how corruption factors into the making of a so-called “new India” under BJP rule.

Moreover, India is a paradigmatic case of an ascendant hegemonic regime centering and expertly leveraging the language of anticorruption in a bid to universalize their morally conservative (read: Brahmanical and patriarchal) political worldview. At the same time, the ruling party has overseen a dramatic expansion of corporate cronyism and erosion of democratic freedoms.

A research agenda that builds on this study might ask: Is corruption talk in such contexts, where authoritarian ethnonationalism is rapidly consolidating, qualitatively different from (and more insidious than) corruption talk in democratic contexts where the far right is incipient? And, alternatively: Can anticorruption as a social movement or rhetorical strategy be a meaningful part of counterhegemonic resistance to such regimes? icon

This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonick.

Featured image: "Slum in Delhi, India" by Sistak / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)