In praise of corruption

WE VIEW CORRUPTION IN public office as, generally, a bad thing. When a politician or official takes [what looks like] a bribe, we expect them to be punished. On its face, corruption of public processes breaks our norms against fairness, because we expect the State to evaluate things—policies, projects, people—on the basis of equality, and natural justice, not whose brown paper bag was heaviest. But I want to praise corruption, not bury it.

There are two points of view in this recent article in the ABC on labour hire staffing of the commonwealth public service. The first is institutional:

A former senior Defence Department executive, Paddy Gourley, has warned against this trend for years, saying it allows corruption to flourish. "The basic point is it opens up scope for nepotism and corruption in public service staffing," he said.

The second is more prosaic, from a self-identifying APS prole:

Mr Wilson, 25, said the outsourcing of government work had another effect: it had left young people like himself with far less hope of ever becoming a public servant. "It's kind of disappointing to realise that there really is no way in, aside from a tiny number of spots in the graduate program," he said.

These two evaluations of how the APS runs its affairs are completely correct. The staffing cap requires managers to buy labour on the sly if they want to carry out the functions demanded of them, and everyone knows the public service career route is basically closed to outsiders. But this state of affairs is also perfectly acceptable to a meritocratic view of the world, which, as I've become more and more convinced, is opposed to any sense of egalitarianism and human dignity.

Public service cultures in Australia have always been tinged with crookedness, and some—like local Councils—veer between moderate integrity and hopeless, endemic corruption. The City of Sydney Council (as Hilary Golder's book shows) has been constantly, repeatedly, sacked for its cultures of graft, starting in the mid-19thC, long before democracy. It's worth asking why cultures of corruption endure, when meritocratic ones are so fleeting, and I don't think the fatalism of 'there's always corruption it's human nature' is sufficient. If corruption is natural, why is it so bad?

A meritocratic system rewards the ability to pass tests. The virtues it selects for are aptitude, skill, confidence, education, and experience of systems, as well as hard work. These things aren't to be sneezed at. They're not quite enough, either. In the context of growing inequality—when there aren't enough 'winning' spots—a meritocratic system creates more and more losers, and raises the stakes. The result of accelerating qualificationism is people being told they aren't worthy, and with more and more tests, they're told that more and more often. It links the dignity of having a job and career with winning it against a field of other people.

Relationships of patronage and support, which are other names for corruption and nepotism, reward other virtues and talents than the ones our society values. Older, crookeder systems reward qualities like loyalty, attention to the needs of the institution, a strong sense of collective identity and goals, staunch support within groups and teams, talent-spotting and career development by superiors and bosses, protecting one's mates, and task orientation (just 'getting things done') as opposed to process orientation (making sure things are accountable). Those things aren't to be sneezed at either. Indeed, there's a long anarchist tradition that describes exactly those attitudes and practices as 'mutual aid'.

It's true that such systems benefited a narrow elite, consolidated power in the hands of people who did not value the public interest, and protected bullies, abusers, plain criminals, and worse. They elevated people who were incompetent, and locked out genuinely talented people. But look at the results of 'meritocratic' systems. Look at the mates-games that are key to Australian political economy. Are they very different?

One of the aspects of the City of Sydney Council's older culture of rorting was that it was partly about redistribution: it was a corrupt early 20thC Labor Party's way of giving jobs to the boys, and shoring up the support of inner city working class communities in suburbs like Paddington, Surry Hills, Redfern, and Glebe. Corruption was a client relationship, where bosses who didn't provide for their communities were replaced with others, who could. More jobs were provided than were really needed. Obviously, those communities no longer exist, nor do the prosaic ordinary jobs that were their basis of support. Joe Flood's 'The Fires', about a similar period in New York City, when corrupt municipal cultures were being rooted out and replaced with 'fair', algorithmic, testing practices for running things, noted that the loss of these older ethnic Tammany Hall systems also mean the loss of real expertise for making things happen, with tragic results. A corrupt boss is still a boss, and still has to perform tasks.

Corrupt systems make no pretence of being arbitrary. They're unfair, but don't pretend to be anything but what they are. When young people correctly identify that they're being locked out of systems that claim to be 'fair', though, and identify the choke point—'merit selection'—is it any wonder they take the next logical step, and realise that 'merit' is just another ideology of protecting privilege?



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