The American foreign policy expert Sarah Chayes had her epiphany in Afghanistan. Settling in Kandahar in 2002 to help rebuild the war-torn nation, it was soon clear that the Taliban’s enduring influence over the country took the form not of religious or political extremism, but of simple graft: “I very quickly discovered that corruption was central to what was going on,” she told the New Statesman’s World Review podcast in August.
The observation would recur in her subsequent role as special adviser to the US joint chiefs of staff from 2010: “there were patterns and practices that were common to systemically corrupt countries around the world”.
Corruption poisons everything. It curdles the public realm. It shackles governments to the interests of the few and it frays the public services used by the many. It often exists in symbiosis with autocratic illiberalism; in Hungary, allies of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, such as his friend and the eighth richest man in the country, Lorinc Mészáros, have conspicuously benefited from the government’s allocation of EU funds.
Corruption saps the productive powers of the market and makes countries poorer even as a minority within them get rich. It funds terrorism, environmental degradation, weapons and drugs smuggling, and further forms of corruption: ill-begotten wins finance political shifts that benefit yet larger corrupt circles. It is viral, spreading through the body politic by consuming the trust and norms that constitute its immune system.
On 27 September the New York Times published two decades of Donald Trump’s tax information. The detail that attracted the most attention was that he had paid only $750 in federal tax in both 2016 and 2017 and none in ten of the 15 preceding years.
The tax avoidance was consistent with a presidential record proving that Trump sees public life as something to tap for personal gain, right up to charging taxpayers millions for presidential events held at his own properties. He is a man who asks only: what can my country do for me?
Yet most alarming were the wider details of his finances and the questions they posed. To whom does Trump owe his $421m of debts? What leverage does that give his creditors over him? What happened with the Azerbaijani hotel deal in 2012 that the newspaper describes as “plagued by suspicions of corruption”? What were the vast “consulting fees” written off year after year as business expenses?
The term “corruption” can be hard to define. Sometimes it applies to specifically illegal abuses conveying inappropriate advantage. But it also often encompasses legal acts, including influence- and access-peddling, the bending of tax and conflict-of-interest rules, corporate cronyism and other moral offences against the common good.
Peter Beinart, a US columnist and professor of journalism at City University of New York notes that: “etymologically, [corruption] is also linked to contamination, debasement, and impurity”.
In Britain this broader definition encompasses everything from the giant City of London financial laundry for dodgy money, the big money funding pro-Brexit campaign groups and the spectacle of wealthy Brexiteers evacuating their own money to offshore jurisdictions to protect it from the mess they have created.
Matters are little better on the Continent. “In Europe, too, the kleptocratic alarm bells should be ringing,” wrote Martin Sandbu in the Financial Times on 22 September, pointing to disclosures to US authorities that suggest EU banks had a major role in laundering hot money.
The anti-corruption cause – punishing its facilitators, going after tax dodgers and hot money, advancing transparency at every chance – is thus imperative. But it also invites us to imagine the recasting of progressive politics.
For years now, as nativist authoritarianism has advanced and consolidated its gains across Europe and the US, parties of the centre and left have struggled to tell a rival story of belonging and identity. Brexiteers, Trumpites, and populists and autocrats of many stripes elsewhere, have at times asserted a monopoly over tradition and love of country.
Their progressive opponents have often struggled to bridge the divide between those voters who see politics in such terms and those who take pride in more cosmopolitan values.
The fight against corruption – or to put it in more positive terms, the fight for integrity – can and should be that bridge. Corruption is a unifying enemy. It harms almost all groups. To confront it benefits almost everyone. It speaks to people’s innate sense of justice and decency. It makes the market work for ordinary workers. It is an international phenomenon and the fight against it will have to cross borders.
But it also offers the basis for a new patriotism of the common weal. In an age of globalisation and identity wars, progressives have lacked a confident argument about the ties that bind people and communities together. The struggle against corruption, and for integrity, can be that argument. Its mantra should be that to love one’s country is not to hold a certain view on, say, the song “Rule Britannia” or the legacy of Winston Churchill, or to approve of this or that historical statue, but to uphold the integrity of its institutions, to make its politics and government clean and open, and to ensure all contribute their share to the social fabric.
It is a struggle that does not demonise benefit claimants or migrants and instead takes aim at those who seek to buy influence, twist the rules to suit their ends, duck their responsibilities to society, divide it, and otherwise poison public life. It is a different sort of patriotism. One that is measured not in reverence for the past but in the condition of the norms and institutions passed on to future generations.
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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union