We begin in media res with the question of corruption, and the work of Lawrence Lessig. Lessig, for those unfamiliar, is a Harvard professor, lawyer, and discernible voice in our public conversations surrounding both intellectual property (co-founding Creative Commons) and corruption (leading campaign finance reform efforts such as Rootstrikers, the Mayday SuperPAC, and now his experimental run for the Democratic presidential nomination). He’s ideal for first forays into power because of how well he articulates the subtlety of its operations, in law, code, markets and elsewhere (leave it to the lawyer to actually read the fine print). Through these operations, and across the complexities of entire systems, arrangements that might seem fair, neutral, or “natural” upon first glance will often— in practice, in the details, or despite better intentions— lead to injustices, corruptions, and concentrations of power. Things will be ostensibly fair, but effectively rigged.
This will be a refrain for us as much as it is for Lessig, both in his book Republic Lost and his Berlin Family lectures on “institutional corruption.” To jump into the swim of Lessig’s argument requires a broader sense of the word “corruption.” Corruption is not just bribery or the flow of “honest graft” supplementing the income of the world’s civil servants. Corruption is not just a contractual quid pro quo (in legalese, corruption usually doesn’t meet the criteria of “consideration” that determines contractuality). No need for bad people, bad intentions, cronies, or smoky backroom dealing, corruption arises as much from the conditions and systems as from the dealings or dealers themselves. Specifically, he’s focused on “institutional corruption,” or “an influence, within an economy of influence, that weakens the effectiveness of an institution, especially by weakening public trust in that institution.” Institutional corruption is an “improper dependence” of one institution on another institution or power, a dependence that corrupts slowly, cumulatively, through minor operations and pricks of ambition. Rather than being deliberate, hidden, conspiratorial, and egregious, it’s more often complex, well-intentioned (or at least understandable), routine, and hidden only in plain view.
Lessig’s big example is Congress, and he writes and speaks most prolifically about its improper dependence on money flowing from lobbyists and heavy campaign contributors— again not as bribery but institutionally. He argues that most congresspeople aren’t running for office in order to fatten their wallets and that most begin committed to public ideals. But the pressures, both in office and on the campaign trail, eventually undo much of their political integrity and efficacy. The pressures build over time, through relationships that Lessig likens to a gift economy, as opposed to a more strictly transactional economy. Donors come to feel more like allies or even friends, deservingly accorded greater access or influence. Lobbyists not only make demands but offer invaluable services like supplying and “condensing” information, arranging earmarks, and developing and maintaining rapports with powerful constituents; politicians soon grow dependent on these two-way relationships.
Lessig elaborates on an electoral dynamic he dubs “Tweedism,” from Boss Tweed, who once quipped “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” This essentially refers to a two-step maneuever which maintains the appearance of democracy or reform, with a general election, while effectively filtering out candidates who might threaten entrenched or moneyed interests through an undemocratic and far-less scrutinized “nomination process.” Lessig mentions the “Tweedism” of the first democratic elections in Hong Kong, where a pro-business, overpowerful group of 1200 were to nominate candidates prior to a general election. While this outraged democracy advocates in Hong Kong, the American public has been slower to catch on to the Tweedisms in our own elections. They were used against blacks in America, who gained the right to vote only to effectively lose it again through a gauntlet of poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering, and whatever else. Today, nomination processes are predetermined by what has been called both the “Green” and the “Invisible” primary. Candidates are pre-sorted according to what can only be euphemized as “fund-raising abilities.” This isn’t necessarily the result of the iniquities of office-seekers; this invisible primary has simply become an inevitable condition of success in the political sphere. It’s the institution itself, as much as any member, that has been corrupted by the cashflows. Congress, or elections and legislation more generally, have been corrupted by institutions and powers that really should’ve stayed at the gate: business, finance, and disposable fortunes. Other examples spring to mind: debate corrupted by sensationalism, newspapers by war efforts, warfare by courageless technologies, technologies by courts and law enforcement, courts and law enforcement by favors and systemic prejudices — wherever outsized influence weakens the effectiveness of an institution and leads to debilitating public cynicism, there you have institutional corruption.
This makes me wonder, though, about corruption by rather than of an institution? What about forms or influences that are more internal to the institution that nevertheless fuck things up in the same slow, subtle, cumulative manner? We get that tycoons and heiresses shouldn’t be controlling our political leaders and conversations; that money mixes poorly. What about the effects of something like the political party? With only two viable parties in United States, no non-lobotomized citizen can really believe that our parties actually represent coherent political philosophies. Parties are political expediencies, coalitions for winning elections and maintaining incumbency; for optimizing the criteria for success. In a limited sense, they strengthen rather weaken the effectiveness of a congressperson— as some will fondly repeat: “you can’t legislate if you don’t win.” However, they inherently constrain as they enable, and after a point, may constrain far more than they enable, sacrificing the truer, grander, nobler purposes of an institution to the mere conditions and ambitions for “success”— to the wolfish thirst for winning alone. They demand loyalty and good behavior. They cement allegiances through negative bipartisanship and personal beefs. They frustrate reform and bar entry to reformers. They flatten discourse and political belief. They burn barrels of political energy on self-organization and self-perpetuation. So for all their presumptive usefulness, parties can add considerably to the noxiousness of our political atmosphere. Likewise in the business world. When some firm— some corporate tribe like Enron or Lehman Brothers— nearly drives our economy off a cliff, it’s not just a matter of greedy, evil, individual malefactors but equally the institutions that shaped them in an attempt to best the marketplace. Whether we want to call this— this subjugation of ends to the means, of whole to the part— “corruption” or maybe some other word, we can always decide later.
Whatever the case, I’ve been mulling over yet another, still subtler kind of undue influence that I’m tempted to also call “corruption.” I’ll try to explain what I mean. This time around, imagine a congressperson who’s a paragon of financial virtue, never taking a penny from lobbyists or large donors, flying coach, sleeping under their desk, whatever it takes. Let’s also pretend that they’re partyless, an independent refreshingly uncorralled by Capitol Hill. The only thing you can say about them is that they’re really good at their job. Too good in fact. So effective at politicking, at using and retaining their political powers, at pushing through and getting their way, at reducing it to sure mechanism, that our political life as a whole suffers. They succumb to a political “realism” that puts gains and winning before “idealist” aims like equity, justice, and human flourishing, and as a result, their individual effectiveness weakens the overall effectiveness of the institution. Though less pernicious maybe, it’s still a corruption. Same goes for the good businessman— a businessman who never weaponizes his fortunes, who withstands the clubhouse pressures of a toxic corporate culture, but who at the end of the day just loves a good bargain… Loves selling ice to eskimos, using every trick in the book, and being altogether “good at business” (usually the opposite of being “competitive” in the market sense). Tactically he’s a genius, but by constantly giving everyone the shit-end of the stick, in every single order and transaction, he’s hardly healthy for the larger productive and allocative purposes of the economy. He is to economics what pick-up artists are to love and courtship. In the words of Thorstein Veblen: a boon to “business” and a disaster for “industry.” Both the good politician and the good businessman are “effective” in a highly reductive, instrumentalized, cynical sense that compromises the truer, grander, nobler purposes of their respective institutions. For this reason, it seems better and less confusing to talk about corruption as the breakdown of autonomy rather than effectiveness, especially when it comes to institutions less frankly instrumental than politics and economics— like the various institutions of culture.
Because when we think about the corruption of culture, about the loss of its autonomy, we might typically think about its instrumentalization as either propaganda or advertising, politicized or merchandised by, respectively, shills or sell-outs. We think of North Korea and bad “engaged” art on the one hand; Iggy Azalea, product placement, and the “culture industry” on the other. We think of either economics or politics exerting an undue “influence, within an economy of influence, that weakens the effectiveness of an institution, especially by weakening public trust in that institution.” Like economics or politics, however, culture as easily loses autonomy to its own institutions: to the academy, the art world, the music industry, the movie biz, the comedy scene, within its own enclaves of the internet and the general attention economy. Like parties and firms, institutional forms like museums, universities, venues, galleries and publications inherently constrain as they enable. We can do and make more— but only more of whatever satisfies their conditions or criteria, however corny or compromised. They offer recognition, scale, influence, livelihood, and “success,” and are unavoidable to a degree. Taken too seriously, though, they eventually cost culture its autonomy, its ability to freely answer its truest, grandest, noblest purposes. The question, to be answered in each particular case, is when and whether the constraints undo the gains.
And finally, another question, is how culture can be corrupted in that third weirder register… When culture becomes device, or gamed according to incentives or the conditions of success… When it works according to criteria or ambitions rather than from living tensions…When you have artforms optimized for effect or exposure. Conferences that look great on the calendars…Papers that primarily convey their own brilliance…Criticism that neatly orders things from best to worst… Music and narratives that hit buttons and satisfy audiences…You might end up with a scattering of good artists, good musicians, and good writers, but nothing unified enough to call “culture”— a word I would prefer precisely because it doesn’t automatically evoke any specific institution, activity, profession, person, or ready criteria (at least not here in the United States). However, like the congressional examples above, it’s not enough to think of cultural corruptions as venal. They’re often not even noticeable. They happen slowly, cumulatively— through minor operations and pricks of ambition that leech the excitement out of everything. And like the congressional examples, the best remedy won’t rely on the arrival of purists or incorruptibles (though thankfully these do show up now and then, and are usually my favorites). The best remedy will lessen the pressures that corrupt, inwardly and outwardly, fostering one of those periods or places of cultural upheaval in which each register of undue influence, for whatever reason, loses much of its pull or appeal. Think of the Hellenes. The Encyclopaedists. Zurich Dada. Olneyville. It’s really a weird question, maybe the magic question: what happens in those brief interludes that causes us to stop caring not only about riches and recognition, but institutional demands and legitimacy— and even the criteria and ambitions that previously sorted the good from the bad?