Column: On the two kinds of corruption

Every now and then I use my column space in the Inquirer to run someone else’s counter-argument. This one, published on August 17, 2010, was, as we have learned to say these days, a real winner.

It is a pleasure to cede today’s column space to Herbert Docena’s elegant, carefully considered reply to “‘Politico,’ ‘Inglisero,’ ‘hacendero’”—last week’s first attempt to classify the types of criticism leveled, this early, against President Aquino. I do not agree with all of Herbert’s points, and with one key assumption of his, but all that is for another time. It is to his instructive reply (I’ve deleted a few passages, to fit the available space) that we first ought to pay attention:

Your proposed typology of the criticisms against President Aquino is very much welcome at a time when his overwhelming popularity seems to be suffocating such criticisms. I fear, however, that I may have failed to express my idea lucidly enough so as to avoid interpretations that diverge from my own intended presentation.

For one, when I made a distinction between procedural and substantive corruptions and asked questions about how Arroyo’s and Aquino’s actions could be categorized, I certainly did not hope to use Arroyo to “illustrate the first” and Aquino to “illustrate the second,” if by this you mean that, for me, Arroyo was somehow only guilty of procedural corruption.

What I thought I was doing, in fact, was to use Aquino’s apparent attempt to pin down Arroyo on what seems to me to be such narrow procedural grounds in order to show how problematic, and how revelatory, that approach can be: Arroyo after all can, and should be, considered guilty of substantive corruption, regardless of whether she followed the rules to the letter, because—in the case of the calamity funds, “Hello, Garci,” and others—she evidently used public office for private gain.

What I did say is that, like Arroyo’s, Aquino’s actions can also arguably be categorized under substantive corruption, and therein lies the reason for the cevident tension in his handling of her predecessor’s corruption: He has an interest in narrowing down the publicly accepted definition of corruption to its procedural meaning.

What I thought I was trying to illustrate then were the complexities raised by the inherent ambiguity of the term “corruption”—an ambiguity that, despite its universalizing claim, makes it the object of contention among different actors struggling to construct and stabilize its meaning.

Your statement—“[d]espite the culture of inordinate greed that animated the Arroyo years, Docena … still thinks the Cojuangco DNA trumps everything”—is rich with meaning and open to many interpretations. But if, in referring to his DNA, you think that, for me, Aquino is genetically predisposed to—or is automatically guilty by consanguinity of—corruption, then that is not what I meant.

Aquino has been in office for six weeks and everything he has done so far indicates that he does not plan to undo what his mother and his relatives have wrought. This latest Luisita “deal,” for example, is, in my view, a cold-hearted ploy to exploit the desperation of the desperate, to take advantage of those who are too broken to say no any longer to antagonists who hold yet again the Republic’s most powerful office. And Aquino has been part of it. For that, he is his own man.

Or if by “trumps everything” you think that for me, Aquino is nothing but a man reduced to one dimension (a “hacendero”), then that is also not what I meant. He is a person, and like all people, he is multi-layered and multi-dimensional …

Now if by “trumps everything” you mean that I believe that Aquino’s corruption is worse than Arroyo’s, I certainly did not make that assertion in my essay and I’m hoping you’d be open to a reinterpretation, if not a correction.

I could not have made that assertion because, while I think the actions of both can be categorized under substantive corruption, we would have needed a set of metrics to determine ordinal ranking …

How, after all, do we measure the lives destroyed by the Aquinos’ subversion of land reform—not just in Luisita but in the entire country? And anyway the point of my essay was not really to propose such a ranking.

My point, rather, is that in attempting to pin down Arroyo, Aquino has to take part—wittingly or unwittingly—in an unceasing struggle to fix society’s always slippery, because always socially constructed, moral boundaries. As social institutions produced out of the accumulation of disputes and interactions among people over the years, those boundaries have been there before Aquino even came to office: he is as much subjected to this institution as much as he is a subject—now a very powerful one—in the struggle to entrench or redefine them.

As a subject, Aquino’s actions can be expected to be affected—but not necessarily determined—by his being a hacendero. My essay somehow fits uneasily then into your “third type of critic,” if you ask me—but then again which typology captures everything? For as I wrote, Aquino’s and others’ actions in this struggle over moral boundaries can’t not be about class and yet it can’t be only about class: one’s moral sense has a way of transcending one’s class background.

That may sound like prevarication, but it really is, in my view, more of an acknowledgment of the complexity of human motivation. Precisely because his entire being can’t be reduced to his DNA, precisely because he is a multidimensional being, Aquino can still overcome his being a hacendero—that is not impossible—if his moral convictions compel him to.

Therein lies the hope—and the threat of utter disenchantment.

And as hope begins to vanish as quickly as the Luisita farmers’ hold on their land, perhaps it also becomes even more crucial to critically examine the types of acclamation proferred by the President’s defenders.

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1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

One response to “Column: On the two kinds of corruption

  1. Pingback: Column: Lost boy, playboy, bad boy | John Nery | Newsstand

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