Rethinking the Popular: Investigating the Who/What/Why of the Anti-Corruption Campaigns

Subhashini Shriya

We recently saw the middle class rise up to the occasion to bring about, what in a flourish was termed, a “Revolution” against corruption. While the emotions and the anger that informed the launch of such an offensive against the regime can hardly be denied or dismissed, the “revolutionary” potential of the movements led by Ramdev and Hazare were grossly suspect and revealed a tendency to preserve rather than change the status quo. Is there another way to address the chagrin the middle classes feel against the dysfunctional state of the system, something they encounter and experience in the rising pressures on their everyday life as examples of corruption? Are instances of corruption aberrations in the functioning of the state or are they, instead, central to its very logic of monopolising the control over common resources in the process of mediating their appropriation by the forces of capital? Can corruption be eliminated without ridding politics of the concept of a nation-state and the capital it serves? And what would the logical orientation of a movement that seeks to address the issue of corruption as a problem integral and intrinsic to a capitalist organisation of the social and the economic be?

The centrality of the malaise of corruption in the self-image of the country has had a long history. Through the all-pervasive bureaucratic regime of the licence-permit raj to the increasingly privatised neoliberal economy that has emerged over the past two decades, corruption has been most readily identified as the primary cause of the failure of the state to deliver on promises of social welfare: the decrepit infrastructure in most parts of the country, the inefficiency of the state, the unyielding and indifferent attitude of the bureaucracy towards the people and much else. Seen as the misuse of public office for private profit, the issue has sounded the death knell of powerful regimes such as that of the Congress in 1989, post Rajiv Gandhi’s alleged involvement in the Bofors scam. That, however, has always been just as far as the discontent of the masses would drive their agenda of much dearly felt need for ‘change’. The mass disillusionment with the functioning of the state repeatedly gets articulated in the form of disenchantment with the functioning of this or that government, mostly resolving into some patching up in the superstructure of the existing regime of accumulation so that the regime is increasingly insulated from the impact of the political. As a result, this politics of mass disillusionment and disenchantment remains pigeonholed within the electoral democratic process; what with capital and the institutionalised embodiment of its logic in the state reconfigure themselves to accommodate the limited demands of such movements and/or destroy the movements by sheer brute force. The anger frustrated, finally fades away till the time another major expose is fed to the people by the mass media and the Opposition takes its place firmly by the side of the people, ready to take its turn on the other end of the equation between the ever-thwarted masses and the ever-triumphant state.

A quick look at the recent scams to have rocked the country, be it the one over allocation of 2G spectrum to telecom companies or that involving Reliance India Ltd. and the petroleum and natural gas ministry over the extraction of natural gas in the Krishna Godavari basin, makes it amply clear that the core of the debate here is not the small amounts that an average middle-class citizen of the country forgoes at every interface with the government in the form of bribes, but the misappropriation of huge sums of money and transactions between members of the state and multinational corporations and big businesses capturing the resource base of the country by means that appear to be outside the pale of the law. What becomes the benchmark of acceptability within such a perception of corruption is a law which, even on its own terms, is designed for facilitating access of big international capital to the natural resources of the country (in the form of laws such as the Land Acquisition Act 1894) and a state fully integrated in an international economy geared towards private profit-making and ever-intensifying accumulation of capital.

What gets obscured in such an understanding of the phenomenon is that the rule of law, which most anti-corruption impulses and movements pose and derive their legitimacy from, is as much intrinsic to the system of capital accumulation as the absence of the law is indispensable to it. Capital as a historically specific social system is programmed to maintain and reproduce itself through its constant expansion and intensification, thanks to the structure of its power being political-economic. That is the heart of the reason why capital is always on the lookout for fresh terrains of investment and profit-making that is constitutive of an ever-heightening process of commodification of resources. It is this process of perpetual commodification that has through history, starting as far back as the movement to enclose the agrarian/pastoral commons in 13th century England, given unto us the capitalist system or dynamic that is inherently driven to constantly militate against its own boundaries, articulated in the form of laws to regulate the twin-processes of production and reproduction, to maintain itself through its expansion and intensification. Clearly, the law and its exception constitute, in their mutual complementarity, capital and its historically specific process of accumulation. In fact, every violation of or exception to a law is almost always the founding gesture of a new law. That is the self-cannibalising essence of capitalism called creative destruction through which it beats its multiple crises in the specificity of its respective historical moments to recreate and reinforce itself. In that sense, the illegal exception to the law is not outside or beyond its ambit but is its constitutive, founding essence. This is the specific (bourgeois) historicity of the rule law with regard to the other historicities of political rule.

What is then ‘beyond’ the ambit of this law also comes to pose itself as beyond the scope of so-called capitalist accumulation through market-based competition and becomes one of the many kinds of primitive accumulation that we witness today. The state machinery being the custodian of all resources within the geographical/political boundary of the country becomes the inevitable mediating agent for capital in making this leap from the ambit of the legal to that beyond. The use of influence, both monetary and political, that big capital exercises over governments and the repressive state apparatuses under their control to acquire land and other associated common resources – thereby appropriating the means and conditions of production – for them at prices way below that of the market renders evident the limitations of formulating the question of corruption within the discourse of neo-liberal legality, a critique of corruption therefore revealing the potential to mount an effective critique of such a legal system and the state that embodies and enforces it. Such an addressing of the issue of corruption would necessarily compel movements directed against that problem to drastically alter their social orientation and appearance. That would mean those movements end their current isolation from struggles centred on questions that pose a far more direct challenge to the capitalist organisation of social life, and integrate with them. The hostility that current anti-corruption movements exhibit towards movements that are working class in character, at any rate objectively, prove that radical transformation of the system is the last thing on their agenda. That, among other things, reveals the class character of those anti-corruption movements. It is only if the politics of anti-corruption is reconfigured in those terms can the debate around corruption develop any truly revolutionary potential.


With the present condition of the revolutionary working class movement being one of retreat, such a formulation on the phenomenon of corruption is conspicuous primarily in its absence. In its place, proliferate a spectrum of responses directed by various petty bourgeois impulses characterised by an internal differentiation reflective of the variegated and oscillating nature of the petty bourgeois class position. This internal differentiation in tendencies can be identified in terms of their different degrees of affinity and antagonism towards big capital that dominates the state machinery, apparently subverting it by corrupt means.

The first can be seen as the urban middle-class, white-collar, salaried worker mobilised mostly under the leadership of Hazare. This section of the middle class remains more or less attached to big capital as its managerial and clerical cadre and sees itself as having access to enough mobility within the system to remain invested in its interests. The discursive, qualitative nature of resources that comprise the cultural capital of this section are, by dint of its urban location, common to that of the global big bourgeoisie. This allows it to find a greater resonance with the globalised, ‘westernised’ cultural idiom that is increasingly coming to dominate society. Consequently, the emphasis here remains limited to the efficiency of the state system with an eye on even the most minor of corruption practices and an elaborate law proposed as a concrete solution to the problem. The movement allows for every possibility for the state to effectively address its concerns and co-opt, more precisely subsume, it within its existing logic without much danger to the status quo.

The second is the small-town mercantile sections of the petty bourgeoisie, particularly from western Uttar Pradesh, whipped up by Ramdev. This section of the suburban petty-bourgeoisie can be understood in terms of its location outside organised corporate capital and its concomitant political marginalisation by the forces of big capital at both the central and the state level. It, however, experiences its antagonism with big capital primarily through phenomena like the constantly increasing cost of living, the centralisation and corporatisation of their occupational spheres like certain services and retail, increasing unemployment even among the educated, and other such forms of social domination that are far more indirect than those experienced by wage workers occupying lower rungs of the social ladder.  Also, having seen days of greater political and economic influence (at least at the local level) there exists among those sections an aspiration to integrate themselves with the dominant sections of the capitalist mainstream, albeit with much lower chances of actually making it than the urban professional.

The split elaborated above within a constituency that appears to have forged a broad consensus and unity on the issue of corruption is reflective of a deeper contradiction within the petty bourgeois class situation itself. The expansion of capital constantly polarises society, further splitting every terrain it enters into a section that experiences an upward mobility of sorts within the system and another which is pushed further towards proletarianisation. The petty bourgeoisie, which provides the basis for movements like that of Hazare and Ramdev, is perched precariously close to the edge of the precipice, forever vulnerable to that arbitrary sleight of hand with which capital might push it into what it itself recognises as the ‘working classes’, or the class subordinate to them. This leaves them suspended in a realm of constant competition, where every instance of consolidation of their class position and privilege gives way to another moment of threat and instability due to the constant reconfiguration and expansion of capital. At the same time such a class position is ideologically characterised by a strong aversion towards identifying with the working classes or a working-class position, not allowing the petty bourgeoisie the luxury to pose a problem without any regard for the preservation of their own position in society like the working class can. The challenge they pose to the system, therefore, always remains circumscribed by the logic of the system itself, understood only in terms of their immediate questions and demands thereof. Such petty-bourgeois movements thus always limit themselves to merely seek change of regime and not a political-economic reorganisation of society itself. Consequently, the change that such movements bring about reinforces the totality of the capitalist structure of social relations instead of demolishing it.

The difference between the socio-economic constituencies of the two leaders was not only evident in the particular kind of rhetoric employed by each one of them but also in the posing of their primary demands. Far from a detailed legislative road map to end corruption, the followers of the Baba rallied behind the much broader and ambiguous demand of “bringing back to the nation the Rs 400 trillion black money which is a national wealth”. On the other hand, much more clearly articulated have been demands pertaining to the redressal of the condition of peasants labouring under the burden of sterile and input-intensive genetically modified crops, breaking the hierarchy between English and vernacular education, propagation and encouraging of indigenous knowledge etc. On the whole, what these demands reflect is the aspiration of a section of the petty bourgeoisie, which despite having access to limited resources (such as medium-sized plots of agricultural land and higher education among others) is finding itself increasingly at a comparative disadvantage vis-a-vis another section of the petty bourgeoisie – the urban middle class of salaried workers – with an awareness, albeit inarticulate, of the losing battle it has been forced into fighting with those above it, those below and even itself.

What is needed in such circumstances is an open challenge to the capital-effected segmentation of the working class, which would indeed be a challenge to capital itself. This logic of segmentation is, however, internalised in the very processes through which different sections, including the various sections of the working class, inhabiting the capitalist social order reproduce themselves. The competitive capitalist logic of segmentation and division of the working class is integral to their modes of socialisation, education, cultural training and ambition. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the petty-bourgeois class position lies not only outside the working class but is pretty much integral to its social being as well. The self-perception of the petty-bourgeois sections within the larger working masses is grounded in their objectively identifiable social, economic and thus cultural superiority vis-à-vis the more proletarianised sections of the working masses. And this subjectivity identifies as the working class only those social strata that are subordinate to the stratum that comprises the petty-bourgeois position within the working class and which shapes the subjectivity in question. The consciousness that emanates from such petty-bourgeois subjectivity of the working class fuels the political ambition of those petty-bourgeois sections to obtain to class positions above them. Such a deadlock calls for the presence of subjective forces strong enough to expose the routine and bring this section of society, already subsumed by capital and made a part of the internally-segmented working class, to the realisation of the inevitability of such competition and vulnerability and the impossibility of consolidating their current position within capitalism. One cannot therefore overemphasise the fact that the fight against corruption has to be posed as mediating the larger fight against capitalism and the bourgeois nation-state and not reinforcing these categories as is being done by the current anti-corruption movements.

Alternately, the absence of opposition to the logic of capital in its entirety might drive such mass-populist upsurges to attempt resolving the question of segmentation through constantly displacing their anger towards the system on to a culturally constructed “other” reinforcing the national chauvinism and strong moral self-righteousness that already functions as its primary ideological vehicle. At cross purposes with the basic impulse informing its emergence, such othering only allows capital further options to transfer its crisis from one section of the same class to another, perpetuating its domination.

Indeed, the insecurity stemming from the tension between possible assimilation and imminent rejection by big capital is reflected in the particular brand of culture that different sections of the petty bourgeoisie deploy to construct the concept of national identity commensurate with the specificity of their respective cultural identities that, in turn, are contingent on the specificity of their respective socio-economic locations. Such petty-bourgeois cultural constructions, irrespective of the discursive differences due to their respective socio-economic contingencies, share the same contradictory orientation and the concomitant sense of moral superiority and cultural victimisation with regard to the globalised cultural idiom that is without doubt the ideology of big capital. At the foundation of the strong strain of cultural nationalism characteristic of Ramdev’s Bharat Swabhiman Manch lies an essentialised “Indian” identity steeped in Hindu symbolism and constructed as much in opposition to a global/’western’ cultural idiom as that of cultural minorities within the country. Such a conceptualisation of culture as identity denies one of its most significant roles — that of mediating a group’s experience of social reality in tandem with its position within the differentially inclusive capitalist organisation of production and reproduction. It only reinforces the fissures within the already stratified working class, undermining any possibility for various groups with interests antagonistic to those of capital to come together on a solidaristic, as opposed to a merely pragmatic aggregative, basis. That, needless to say, preserves and even aggravates the competition within the working class. Strong nationalist sentiments conveniently engulf both sections of the petty bourgeoisie – the Ramdev-led suburban mercantile classes and the Hazare-led urban middle classes – currently in political play offering one the hope of getting protection from the competition with big capital from a “neutral” democratic state and the other to extend the logic of competition to global proportions vying with other states for political and economic influence. The heady mix of God, godmen and parliamentary democracy is, therefore, far from allowing a critical demolition of the very logic of capitalism. If anything, it merely serves as a palliative, helping to internalise and rationalise the alienation engendered by it. This makes it increasingly easy for the movement to develop a fascistic tendency, not to suggest that such a tendency will necessarily get realised in a fascist regime.

Bourgeois morality remains of little practical significance for both the big bourgeoisie, too unscrupulously engaged in the pursuit of profit to bother with any fidelity to morals that might act as a barrier to accumulation; and the working class, which despite being ideologically hegemonised by such morality witnesses its hollowness and hypocrisy in their daily struggle with capital in the factories and on the streets. The only people for whom this remains a real concern are precisely our middle classes and the petty bourgeois, whose entire relationship with the larger capitalist system is ideologically justified by such moral categories as honesty, discipline, commitment to hard work. Such moral virtues are, however, far from being absolute and transform themselves in keeping with the economic (in the broad sense of the dominant mode of production and reproduction of life) impulses dominant at a time. In premising their entire ideological edifice on a morality so essentially changeable in nature, such movements attempt to also ossify and reify morality, transforming what are essentially political phenomena into political categories. This renders moral functions such as honesty, efficiency etc opaque, corruption as a transcendental sin, with no historicity or material/ political-economic basis, foreclosing the possibility of seeing the political economic processes that go into their construction, which ultimately is also the only key to their deconstruction and destruction. Moreover, the law becomes the guarantor and protector of such morality and becomes as absolute and transcendental as these values appear to be, only being further reinforced by such movements rather than being effectively challenged.

The recent widespread mobilisation against corruption that one witnessed remains in the very way it has articulated itself a limited and definitely non-revolutionary project. The impulses that guide it can, under the leadership of the working class, move towards an actual resolution by following the logic of what constitutes corruption and addressing those rather than shadow-boxing with corruption at the level of its isolated appearance. Given that the working class is not and cannot be seen as external to the current mobilisation and also the increasing segmentation within the petty bourgeoisie itself, the possibility of such a transformation of the movement remains the function of the strength of existing subjective forces to guide the blow to the heart of the matter.

Needless to say, envisioning a fight against corruption led by the working class would entail locating it in the broader continuum of class struggle, amidst a whole set of other agitations to expose and counter capital in all its operations. A struggle against corruption in itself can, therefore, never suffice as a revolutionary campaign without being closely linked to movements against unemployment, price rise, work hours and wages etc. A primary question that such a revolutionary reconceptualisation of the problem would have to deal with is that of form. This is to say that such a movement would have to clearly distinguish itself from mass movements led by petty bourgeois tendencies constitutive of the current campaigns mounted by Ramdev and Hazare. Such distinction would arise primarily from the mobilisation of a different constituency: the proletarianised sections of the working class who have nothing to lose in seeking to decimate capitalism. The agitational methods of such a movement would differ radically from the current campaigns restricted to symbolic hunger strikes and civil society-speak and could take a variety of militant forms such as the gherao of public offices charged with corruption, active mass mobilisations against reduction of rents and prices in working-class neighbourhoods and for better access to social wages such as health, sanitation and so on and disobeying all laws and policies that enable the exploitation and domination of the working masses by legitimising continuous expropriation of their means and conditions of production, including the reconfiguration of social space and time and so on. Most importantly, such a movement can arise only in conjunction with a spontaneous upheaval of the working class. Spontaneity here suggests a high degree of class consciousness in the working class where it is able to invest the movement with an organic creativity and is not led by the top, it would only then be able to make the journey from being a  mass-populist movement it currently is (and which very much functions within the bounds of hegemony, actually strengthening it) to being a popular movement (which reflects the counter-hegemonic will of the working class that poses the social not as a stabilised juridical system of segmentation but as one of continuous “real movement”).

This, however, is not to dismiss or belittle the importance of a vanguardist force to organise that spontaneity and channel it to revolutionary ends, the development of class consciousness itself being dialectically bound with the strength of subjective forces. Last but not least, the possibility of such a movement can only be envisioned where the working class has already been extensively organised and mobilised by the revolutionary forces. This condition in itself makes necessary the raising of issues closer to the everyday lives of the working class for whom the oppression of inhuman hours of work and crazy work load is much more crucial than issues of corruption and for whom such issues would have to be the primary basis for organising. Having developed its own subjective strength as a class, the working class led by a revolutionary organisation/party can address concerns such as corruption as part of an offensive against capital and the state instead of playing on the defensive and being forced to join a bandwagon led by essentially compromised forces functioning within the limited logic that capital allows it access to. The alliance forged with the petty bourgeoisie in such a scenario will emerge from the common struggle against capital and not the dependence of a Communist organisation on petty bourgeois mobilisation in the absence of an extensive independent mass base. That is something that some so-called radical communist groups, which have frenetically rushed to either join the Hazare movement or seek through their completely bankrupt ideological contortions a popular element in the Ramdev movement, would do well to remember. The fight against corruption then would have to be not just against the small-time government clerk or the bureaucrat, waged through the means of legislative amendments, but also against such ploys as the Lokpal Bill. Such struggles must surely not be about re-instilling public faith in farces such as the bourgeois law and parliamentary democracy, but must, instead, envisage the decimation of such discourses and practices of cooptative politics as its principal task.

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