Column: Is there corruption without personal gain?

Published on August 5, 2014.

The scholar Herbert Docena wrote something truly provocative in these pages two or so weeks ago. He asked whether there was any difference between “the schemes cooked up by the likes of Sexy, Pogi, or Tanda” and President Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). In his view, both were forms of corruption, even though only the plunder allegedly committed by the likes of Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and Juan Ponce Enrile involved personal gain.

The problem, he suggests, is that we understand “personal gain” too narrowly. “But does someone have to directly gain from the use of public funds to be corrupt? What if the benefits are more indirect or intangible? And what if the benefits are more widely shared with members of one’s class? Is that no longer corruption?”

My answer is no, and I believe many other Filipinos will answer the same way. Set against Docena’s involved argument (as published in the Inquirer on July 18), a simple denial looks like mere reflex. But like many others, I have done some thinking about corruption; indeed, the first time I wrote on Docena (and then ceded column space for his rebuttal) in 2010, it was on the same topic.

On the definition of corruption, I think Docena is guilty of false equivalence. His argument is erudite, with the expected reference to that most appealing Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the (at least for me) surprising shout-out to the eminently practical Niccolo Machiavelli; he writes elegantly, the reader not once losing sight of the drift of his argument. But he sees no real difference between the so-called pork barrel scam and DAP.

The heart of his argument redefines personal gain, equating ill-gotten wealth hidden in an individual’s secret Swiss bank account with the economic power of “the dominant classes in our country.”

“Obviously, none of its effects—the securing of consent from subordinates, the reproduction of relations of dependence, the perpetuation of elite rule—cannot be stashed by the President in a secret Swiss account or used directly to buy a Beverly Hills condo,” he argues. “But insofar as political power remains a precondition for the dominant classes in our country to extract profits from workers or to privatize common resources, they have provided invisible but concrete ‘personal gains’ for the President himself, the members of his class, and also those of the lower classes who have been drawn to their cross-class bloc.”

I think Docena has reached this conclusion through an ideological shortcut, rather than scholarly reflection. I do not mean that he failed to bring his education to bear on the argument; he has obviously thought long and hard about what he calls “the corruption discourse.” What I mean is that his conclusion came first.

In 2010, only six weeks after Mr. Aquino assumed the presidency, he wrote a commentary on what was really at stake in the new President’s anticorruption drive. I took issue with one of his crucial points:

“But in making a distinction between procedural corruption (‘whatever violates those laws’ which govern official conduct) and substantive corruption (‘the use of public office for private gain’), Docena uses Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to illustrate the first and President Aquino, whose ‘own family continues to own shares in Luisita, despite agrarian reform,’ to illustrate the second. In other words, despite the culture of inordinate greed that animated the Arroyo years, Docena, a tireless researcher and a graduate student in UC Berkeley, still thinks the Cojuangco DNA trumps everything.”

Docena made a forceful counter-argument, which I was happy to run in this same space. I continue to think, however, that he did equate the scandal-tainted Arroyo administration with one that had barely warmed its seat in Malacañang, and that he did find Mr. Aquino already a beneficiary of a form of corruption.

In his rebuttal to my first column, he wrote: “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.” Six weeks in and pronouncing judgment based on “everything he has done so far”—that suggests to me that he was ready to judge, because the judgment was ready to hand.

In 2010, he found President Aquino benefited from the use of public office for private gain. In 2014, in the midst of the DAP controversy, he finds him guilty of “invisible but concrete” personal gains. Same difference.

* * *

Take a look at the subtle assertion that begins his second paragraph.  “For this administration, you are corrupt if you directly pocket government money. Hence, from its perspective, the difference between ‘Pogi,’ ‘Sexy’ and ‘Tanda’ on one hand, and the President on the other, can’t be more stark: Only the former are corrupt because they supposedly used public funds to enrich their families.”

But in fact it is not only “this administration” that defines corruption as directly pocketing government money. Most Filipinos would agree with this definition, and indeed all the laws dealing with graft and corruption use this assumption. Pocketing government money is corruption. Benefiting from political influence is patronage. Both have no place in a mature polity, but who benefits from understanding “personal gain” too broadly?

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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