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The Currency of Sentiment: An Essay on Informal Accumulation in Colonial India

by Dilip Simeon, 18 August 2011

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The discourse of corruption normalises the inequality of wage labour. By encouraging us to focus on bribes, commissions and kick-backs - informal deductions in formal monetary transactions - it deflects attention from the endemic deductions of surplus value in capitalist production. Indian ’corruption’ has a further ramification, that of normalising the conventional forms of exploitation and mediated labour relationships in the so-called informal sector. Although the practices I have mentioned are not customarily placed in the lexicon of Indian corruption, they are in my opinion, the foundation of Indian modernity. At the outset of this essay I referred to the ideological function of a vision of society working entirely on abstractions - this means that the discourse of corruption can idealise a thoroughly regulated society, operating in the complete absence of sentiment and informality. It encourages us to believe that if only the fortuitous inflections of whimsical sentiment and human wickedness were ended, we would be liberated from ’corruption’. But no society can function in this way. What is at issue is not the existence or transience of the currency of sentiment, but its historically specific contents and the ends to which it is put by the commanders of class society.

This essay was first presented to a seminar on Corruption at the Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University in April 1999, and later published in a collection edited by Emmanuel Krieke and William Chester Jordan, entitled Corrupt Histories, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, 2004; pp 386-427.

Every native of India, I verily believe, is corrupt.
— Lord Cornwallis, Governor General for the East India Company 1786-1795.
cited by Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj, The New Cambridge History of India, C.U.P.

Yet in a world of unrelieved gloom there remains an essential difference between the scoundreldom of the top dogs and that of Ah Q, the difference which separates the executioner from the victim. Grotesque, odious and contemptible though he may be, Ah Q is finally redeemed in our eyes by a kind of fundamental innocence: his deprivation is total, he possesses nothing of his own - not even his vices, which in fact are merely a pathetic caricature of the vices of his oppressors.
— Simon Leys, in "Is Ah Q Alive and Well?", from Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics


The most striking thing about the term `corruption’ is the combination of its ubiquity as a diagnostic category in the sociology of administration, with its rhetorical, pejorative meaning in civil and political life. One the one hand it is treated as an analytical term in state discourse and in an ideological spectrum ranging from proponents of the status-quo to its radical critics. Development experts, World Bank economists and politicians cite corruption as a barrier to `growth’, free investment and social justice. Sociological processes, institutional flaws, cultural norms and errors of judgement by policy makers may be cited as its causes. It may be attributed to insufficient modernisation, looked upon as an inevitable reaction to cumbersome bureaucracies, or treated as a fact of life. It has also been treated as an inevitable symptom of transition from backward (and more recently, ex-Communist) economies to modernity. In this case its pejorative aspect gets diminished - it has been suggested that “the taking of bribes by government officials in these countries can be viewed with equanimity to the extent that it at least indicates an understanding of how market forces operate in a liberal economic environment”. ‘Corruption’ is equally useful as a rhetorical device in criticisms of the establishment. Politicians of different persuasions regularly accuse their opponents of corruption, although these accusations are often references to personal characteristics and idiosyncrasies rather than part of a systemic critique. Its normative tint makes corruption a suitable idiom for a range of populisms, not to speak of imperial concerns. And by describing as fortuitous elements of degeneration which signify fundamental shortcomings in the polity, the discourse of corruption serves to detract from broader issues.

The phenomenon denoted by the term `corruption’ is steeped in ambivalence. However its rhetorical use permits of no ambivalence - to aver that such and such person (or institution) is corrupt is an unambiguous statement about the character of the said agent. It is this perpetual oscillation between a crystalline ethical judgement when used in any Present and a phenomenological translucence when these judgements are scrutinized, either in the same Present or historiographically, that has given `corruption’ its unique stamina in public discourse. It satisfies the need for monochromatic explanations of malfunctioning systems, even as it promises to quench our thirst for a moral statement about those systems. In our period, when the globalised world economy envisioned by Marx has come into its own, `corruption’ flourishes in the vocabulary of modern capitalist society, its usage fraught with the tension I have pointed to above. This liminality of meaning is not accidental, but derives from its special function as the acceptable, assimilable malaise of the capitalist order. We are all against corruption. It is supposed to occur everywhere (alas, human nature is such, etc); and at the same time it is the one flaw that the discourse of Capital allows us to find in capitalist society. Its usage suggests that corruption is a mere epiphenomenon which will fade away with the advent of honest politicians, or be controlled within tolerable limits, depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Either way, criticisms of corruption as well as promises to eradicate it may always be made, since like Capital (if Fukuyama is to be believed), it will be with us for quite some time.

I shall begin with a speculative argument in which the reader might discern a distinction between corruption as discourse and corruption as practice. An explanation of the latter implies a critique of the former. (It also implies an infusion of fresh meaning to the term). I suggest that there are certain hybridised social relations which form the basis of the Indian polity, and which are sought to be maintained as a form of social ordering. These relations produce practices which can be named corrupt, ranging from bribery and graft to nepotism and influence-peddling. They also give rise to a hypocritical public culture wherein people practice themselves what they criticize in others. The discourse of corruption seizes upon the manifestations while ignoring the well-springs. I will reverse the procedure and try and identify those social relations. The argument will proceed through a recounting of events and circumstances culled from my research in labour history. The first set of issues deals with the politics of the labour movement in India’s first company town, Jamshedpur, in the rich metallurgical zone of Chota Nagpur. This material focusses on the relationship between the state, colonial capital and labour, and informal mechanisms of control. After this, I cite materials related to employment in the so-called sector of informal labour, particularly in the coalfields of colonial India. The conclusion will recapitulate the argument, and continue the speculation.

A Speculation

The association of corruption with money does not exhaust its meaning. Contemporary usages listed by the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary include the following: (as an adjective) depraved, infected with evil, perverted from fidelity; (as a verb): to render morally unsound, destroy the moral purity or chastity of, defile; contaminate, induce to act dishonestly or unfaithfully, pervert the text or sense of a law etc., for evil ends, destroy the purity of (a language) or the correctness of (a text), putrefy, undergo moral decay, degenerate, destroy moral purity (as in Acton); (as a noun), a change for the worse of an institution or custom, a departure from a state of original purity, moral deterioration. To my mind the crux of the matter lies in "perversion from fidelity", implying moral decay, faithlessness, betrayal. This perversion can take place only in the realm of public trust, even if that trust be located in the sphere of private enterprise or small-scale group activity, where the corrupt agent misuses power (or betrays responsibilities) deriving from, or accruing to the public weal for a private purpose.

`Corruption’ cannot be understood as a departure from a state of original purity. Nor should it be seen as an excrescence originating in `tradition’, incomplete modernisation or the degeneration of personality. Despite being ideologised as external to the system, it is something immanent, controlled to some degree. Corruption arises from the dynamic tension between (and functional interdependence of) two kinds of institutional space. The first vests in rational categories of governance, such as Law, Contract, Value, Regulation, Citizenship and the Universal Interest, categories that operate through what I shall name the currency of abstraction. Such abstractions are manifested in formal, rule-governed structures. They have a long history, but have become far-reaching and tenacious under modern capitalism and the nation-state. The second is the nexus defined by informal ties of social knowledge and kinship, conventions and identities, and the myriad conduits of power and information inherent in daily life, which I refer to collectively and for want of a better term, as the currency of sentiment. What characterises them is not surreptitiousness, which may or may not be present, but their informality. It is true that informality has its own codes of propriety, but these are outside the purview of official regulation. Both types of relationships play a role in the exercise of power.

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[full text of the essay is available below for download]

The Currency of Sentiment (Dilip Simeon)
[FULL TEXT PDF (32 Pages)]
This essay was first presented to a seminar on Corruption at the Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University in April 1999, and later published in a collection edited by Emmanuel Krieke and William Chester Jordan, entitled Corrupt Histories, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, 2004; pp 386-427.