The normalization of corruption

Even without seeing the names in the so-called “Napoles list,” we may assume that the number of implicated lawmakers is so incredibly large as to support the conclusion that, in this country, corruption has become the normal behavior and honest public service the exception. But, if corruption is illegal, how can it become normal?

There are two possible explanations. One, corruption has come to be treated as an unalterable given, and so, except in cases of glaring abuse, the law turns a blind eye and tends to be lenient about it. Two, the corrupt themselves do not see their acts as criminal or immoral.  The milieu in which they operate supplies them with the rationalizations, attitudes, and beliefs that insulate them from guilt or remorse. In the sociological literature on deviance, these defensive maneuvers are called “techniques of neutralization.”

Although the sociologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza developed this theory in relation to juvenile delinquency, I think it has great heuristic value for the analysis of pervasive corruption in transitional societies like the Philippines.

According to Sykes and Matza, there are five common techniques of neutralization (read: rationalization/justification) for deviant acts. These are: (1) denial of responsibility, (2) denial of injury, (3) denial of victim, (4) condemnation of the condemners, and (5) appeal to higher loyalties. I would have added one more—the projection of the idea that no one has clean hands. But perhaps this is already treated under “condemnation of the condemners,” in which the corrupt try to regain the moral high ground by railing against the hypocrisy of those who condemn them.

Note how these concepts are richly fleshed out by the accused in the pork barrel scam in the course of their discursive exchange with the Department of Justice and the media.

Below are composite statements assembled from the rationalizations that have been offered by those who have been formally indicted. Though they may strike the reader as familiar, no single person actually uttered them.

Denial of responsibility.  “Why should I be blamed for this mess? My office only recommends the projects. I have no participation in their actual implementation. My signatures were forged! Why am I being held accountable for public funds that never passed my office? The implementing agencies and the Commission on Audit should have been more vigilant.”

Denial of injury.  “All my PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) allotments went to the intended beneficiaries. The projects were requested by the communities themselves.  Their needs would have gone unserved if I had not allotted my PDAF to these neglected constituencies. It is not my fault if some of these funds were misused or stolen down the line.”

Denial of victim. “Who is the victim here? No one among the recipient communities of the PDAF is complaining. The blanket allegations of corruption are coming from the vociferous middle classes and the social media. No one can say I pocketed a single peso of these funds. The people themselves know how many times I have had to draw from my own pocket to help them in times of emergency.”

Condemnation of the condemners.  “The government prosecutors are zeroing in on the administration’s political enemies and sparing its allies, who are themselves no strangers to corruption. These are politically motivated charges, and these investigations are nothing but a witch-hunt launched by hypocrites engaged in the same shady activities. Let the DOJ release the complete Napoles list, and let us see who among their allies have clean hands! Why are they not filing the next batch of cases?”

Appeal to higher loyalties. This technique is used when the deviant tries to justify violation of community norms by appealing to higher norms, as when a lawmaker attempts to justify the improper use of public funds by invoking the needs of, say, a higher ideological cause. We have not seen examples of this in the current debate, as there has been absolutely no admission of wrongdoing. We have seen it, however, in the early attempts to rationalize the pork barrel system itself.

What emerges from all these is a pattern where a criminal not only denies culpability but also attempts to neutralize the crime by offering a glimpse of the moral universe he or she is coming from. Their significance for the study of corruption lies, I think, in the way they provide clues on how ordinary individuals who may think of themselves as deeply moral gradually silence their moral doubts and appease their conscience as they begin to participate in the culture of corruption.

There are at least three factors to consider in understanding corruption. The first and the most difficult to analyze is motive. I have argued, in this regard, that the astonishing amount of money needed to win in our elections constitutes the single most compelling motive for corruption. It also explains the bloated sense of entitlement politicians feel once they take office.

The second is opportunity. A weak control system and a highly politicized bureaucracy together create a fertile ground for the flourishing of corruption. This is the soil that has nurtured the likes of Janet Lim Napoles, a resourceful fixer who masterfully handled the dirty and dangerous side of corrupt operations.

And the third is the deviant subculture that teaches the methods of corruption, provides the contacts, and offers the rationalizations by which the negative character of the corrupt act is diminished, if not entirely extinguished, in the minds of the perpetrators. It is out of this subculture that techniques of neutralization grow.

* * *