Reader feedback: Slovakia's corruption is democratic

Re: Corruption keeps with tradition, By Lukáš Fila, Aug 29 - Sep 5, Vol 10, No 33

In the "developed societies" of Europe and North America, we believe, democratic institutions and the judicial system keep the social cancer of corruption under control. We allow for exceptions but think that, by and large, our institutions keep the system clean. We are wrong. In fact, though corruption works openly everywhere in central Europe, it is for that very reason more "honest" and even more democratic.

Wherever politics and business are fused together, corruption flourishes. Business interests always need influence in the political sector to acquire such necessities as favourable regulation, contracts, licences, and information. They achieve such influence through money and through cronyism. Connections become the most valuable commodities in society, essential for turning the wheels of business and commerce.

In the West we do not generally experience corruption in its everyday form of bribery. That, however, does not mean that liberal democracies have no corruption. It just takes a different, more hidden form. Bribes continue, though not in everyday life. More importantly, the economic and social value of honours, privilege, influence, hospitality, and job preferment often mean corruption does not need to be converted into hard currency. But such practices are no less corrupt for being cashless. And these forms of corruption - dependent on the old school tie or membership in clubs or donations to political parties - add up to a less participatory social and political system.

Moreover, our corruption itself is less democratic and participatory: It is limited to those with privilege and access to the system. The union between politics and business - the commodification of influence - is deeply entrenched in our society and only those with privelege can avail themselves of this commodity. This subtler sort of corruption occurs within a stable and caste-divided social order where privilege can flourish, but within constraints. It depends on rules that are mainly informal, indeed largely unspoken.

The belief in our individual and systemic niceness and probity generates a particular indigenous brand of corruption: the coverup that seeks to sustain the illusion of the infallibility of our democratic processes. In other words, if somebody does wrong, then provided they have the right connections, they may well get away with it. Indeed, they may well get away with it simply because nobody wants to admit faults in our democratic and legal system.

But you cannot keep the lid on corruption for ever. Over recent years we have seen a cracking of the facades of cover-up with increasing frequency and severity. Our most horrifying examples in the UK have been in what I would call the care gulag, the "homes" where brutes, perverts, and paedophiles flourished, and where whistleblowers were gagged and victimised. In Sunderland, UK, Colin Smart, a brave civil servant who prepared a dossier on abuses, was rewarded with a gagging order and a lawsuit which eventually cost him Ł5,000 to settle. Only when the victims themselves began to sue did the truth emerge.

In every case all the responsible bodies were overwhelmingly concerned with keeping the lid on. And these are good citizens who themselves would abhor violence or cash-corruption. A society is well on the way to a corrupted state when many good people are involved in concealment.

There is a deliberate blurring of the boundary between image and reality; indeed, in some cases, all is image. When image-making becomes the key to what "we believe", then content loses all meaning, as it does in the spin given to the Palko affair.

What we have to fear most is our faith in the system. Whether it is politics, science, the academy, the professions, the judiciary or the police, there is an ethic at work that emasculates the fight against corruption. To protect the facade of our belief in the system, where it supposedly saves us from the corrupt abuses of power, the whistleblower becomes the most hated of all pariahs.

In Slovakia, at least, corruption is far more open, far more transparent, and thus more democratic, for it means every citizen has the opportunity to offer bribes to doctors, judges, policeman etc. Whereas in the UK corruption is open to a priviliged few who have access to the system, in Slovakia we can and do bribe officials on a daily basis.

Corruption is part of human nature. No society is free of corruption. So any society that remains blasé about its ability to contain and withstand corruption is vulnerable. Democracy, too, has its sociology of corruption. The more we fuse all life into business, the more we need to acquire, develop, and attune a new kind of moral sensitivity to the possibilities of corruption. We have to start living in the foreign country that Slovakia has become instead of relying on the imaginary ethos of the land, the system, and the people we never quite were.

Bryan Reynolds
Nitra, Slovakia

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