Monday, 28 November 2011

Bribery culture

Sir Robert Walpole - from Wikipedia

Often we have to use certain words and phrases simply because they are in common use and we must make the best of them if we wish to be understood.

When we speak of modern government and the way it uses the power of our money to get its way, we are often speaking of a form of bribery, even though bribery isn’t the word we commonly see in the media. Funding is a far more common word. Even investment is pressed into service.

Of course those in power have always used bribery in one way or another. Sir Robert Walpole was widely suspected of using bribery to retain power, which is scarcely surprising as the electoral system was effectively based on bribery anyway.

However, we have to move on to modern times to see the full flowering of government by bribery. The whole state has become a gargantuan machine for the distribution of largesse as its primary tool for wielding influence. Laws and regulations have their place too of course, but bribery is the big one. Yet today we tend not to use the word bribery in this context, unlike Sir Robert Walpole’s day when language was often more direct than our peculiarly genteel age.

Now we have massive, super-complex networks of back-scratching, favour-trading and the indirect sale of sinecures conducted away from the common view. So involved and extensive is this kind of subtle bidirectional bribery that most of it goes unnoticed. After all, life has to be lived.

Okay, let’s take a concrete example to set the scene. NHS doctors are paid huge salaries not to rock the healthcare boat and point out its deficiencies. In return they get a medical practice where their medical skills and rapport with their patients are of no real significance. That could be usefully described as bribery. Why usefully? Because the word bribery brings out an aspect of the situation which should not be left to lie fallow.

How about passive smoking and other health issues? Of course that’s an easy one. The state creates fake charities bribed by their very nature to churn out policy-based evidence where an evidence-based policy isn’t on the table.

Academia is another, more subtle and diffuse example of widespread bribery. Key official interests such as diversity and equality pervade academia such that academics who embrace official political norms are more likely to thrive than those who don’t. However, this is a murky and complex area because there are exceptions, but there is still good reason to think that numerous academics have effectively been bribed with their own careers. Climate science is the obvious example.

Parents and children. This is another obvious one. Increase exam pass-rates, increase the number of university degrees and you bribe millions with their own education and the education of their children. What’s the return? A contribution to passive stability which is what modern government is all about.

How about a more complex one to lob into the mix? Consumer culture is little more than Juvenal’s bread and circuses – bribe the citizens to get on with their own little lives. The modern twist is to promote everything as an aspect of consumption from lifestyles to careers to relationships. 

From consumer culture we get a politically isolated life with its ersatz excitements, so the state maintains its grip on entertained and largely uncaring citizens. Uncaring but not unaware because that’s the real essence of bribery – both parties commit to it Bribery has become endemic because too many of us look the other way. Make bribery pervasive enough and it becomes a culture.


Sam Vega said...

Excellent post - many thanks. One of those that I will return to repeatedly, and it's not often that one can say that about a blog!

A few preliminary thoughts.

1) I tend to see the agency that does the bribing as very diffuse, rather than just the government. We all have little bits of it within us, and it might be that it is a manifestation of our (fallen!) human condition, and that "government" is merely the term for that awful bunch of shits who seek each other out to form a confederacy. But it is in offices and tennis clubs etc. throughout the land.

2) Ah, yes, equality and diversity!! I deal with this on a daily basis at work, and you are right that I have effectively been bribed with my own career. It is truly staggering how unreflecting many otherwise intelligent people are. The best I can hope for is an exchange of wry looks across a meeting. A kindred spirit, who also knows they are submerged in bullshit but knows that they should be breathing pure air...

Sam Vega said...

And another thought... (this is surely the sign of a good post!)

The Great Education Bribe of increasing pass rates and degree courses suggests that one of the contradictions inherent in the system is inflation. When we all have degrees, the establishment will have to find another term to label the qualifications held by the best. The trouble is, nobody wins when the entire system is based on falsehoods.

Anonymous said...

I doubt much has changed from Caesar's day to Walpole's day to our present day. The techniques are less obvious but the old you-scratch-my-back is still there. Only more and more openness and a powerful press can counter the old political games - bring back the NoW - it was a rag, but it was a noble competitor in the gutter of life.

I think (possibly wrongly) politics got more honest from Walpole's time up to the Victorian era and on into the 1970s. From then I feel it has gone downhill. In fact I feel we are heading backwards into the Regency condition of society and on back to the Georgian era - without the industrial revolution. Anyone need an ostler?

rogerh said...

Sorry, it was me.

Sam Vega said...


"Anyone need an ostler?"

Only if they are a black transsexual, thanks. I've got E&D quotas to meet.

A K Haart said...

SV - many thanks and yes, the agency that does the bribing is very diffuse - we are all tainted by consent.

I also know about those wry looks across a meeting, although I'm out of it now thank goodness.

rogerh - I tend to agree with you about the trend - we seem to be going backwards to me too. Corruption is more professional now.

James Higham said...

It genuinely does require a cleanout of the Big Three from Westminster for a start, on the grounds of corruption, even in preselection. The places will be taken by independents.

A K Haart said...

JH - yes, the Big Three have to go.