You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 60: Why We Talk About Corruption

Why We Talk About Corruption

Whenever we hear the word corruption, we always think that it’s others who are corrupt; it’s never the people we support, and it’s certainly never us. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Malini Ranganathan and AU’s College of Arts and Sciences professor David Pike join us to talk about corruption, the stories we tell about it, and the narratives to which we cling.

Professors Ranganathan and Pike discuss the inspiration behind their recent book, “Corruption Plots,” and explain why the story is so important now (2:01). Ranganathan walks us through defining what exactly “corruption talk” is and how it differs from actual corruption (4:39). Pike describes the meaning behind the book’s title and explains the ways in which the multiple connotations of the word “plots” make up different aspects of the co-authors’ research expertise (6:32).

Since the book itself is comprised of a multitude of stories, Ranganathan (8:40) and Pike (11:25) give their favorite anecdote and memory from their on-the-ground research. Pulling from his own discipline, what does Pike think fiction can teach us that real-life fieldwork cannot (13:29)? Ranganathan also describes what Operation Clean the Nation was and how understanding it can teach us about corruption narratives (18:35).

Why do social difference and inequality matter in the study of corruption (21:49)? And how does corruption apply to the middle class (25:12)? What is the relationship between corruption and capitalism, and are there economic systems that do a better job of preventing systemic corruption (27:48)?

During our “Take Five” segment, Professors Ranganathan and Pike share the five things they would tell anti-corruption agencies (15:14).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Corruption is something people love to rail against. When we do, it's always someone else who's corrupt; some politician, some real estate developer, some president, but it's never the people we support who are corrupt and of course, it's never us. That's the magic of corruption, it's always something being perpetrated by someone else. Of course, the truth is that corruption can spring up anywhere in any system, but the stories we tell ourselves about where corruption happens and who causes it aren't always accurate.

0:48      KS: Today we're talking about corruption, mostly in urban settings, the stories we tell about it, and the narratives to which we cling. I'm joined by Malini Ranganathan and David Pike. Malini is a professor in the School of International Service, a political ecologist and geographer, and a scholar of urban environmental justice. Specifically, she studies how cast and racial histories shape segregated housing and property relations, water and sanitation access and flood and climate vulnerability in both India and the US.

1:20      KS: David is a literature professor in AU's College of Arts and Sciences. He's the author of numerous books and articles on medieval literature, modernism, film, urban fantasy, and global urban culture. Together, Malini and David are also co-authors, along with Sapana Doshi, of "Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics, and Publics of the Late Capitalist City." Malini and David, thanks for joining Big World.

1:47      Malini Ranganathan: Thanks for having us.

1:48      David Pike: Thank you.

1:49      KS: All right. First question for both of you: what was the inspiration behind this book? Why did you want to tell this story now, and why did you want to tell it this way? Malini, I'll start with you.

2:01      MR: The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an explosion of corruption related scandals that have captured global headlines. Recall, for instance, the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers, leaked documents that reveal secret offshore accounts and tax havens of political and business elites. Beyond leaked documents, corruption scandals have toppled or severely challenged elected leaders from Brazil to Lebanon to India. Even in the US, we saw anti-corruption slogans being mobilized across the political spectrum in the 2016 presidential election. But herein lies the rub. We wrote this book because we found that corruption discourse can be mobilized by some of the very same people who themselves are guilty of fraud and wheeler dealing.

2:52      MR: Think, for instance, of real estate baron Donald Trump effectively mobilizing the, "Drain the swamp," slogan to stoke right-wing voter frenzy. So corruption is a slippery, contradictory, labeling practice, and we wanted to take a hard look at that. While corruption is of course, nothing new, we wrote this book because the scale and frequency of scandals and the mobilizing power of anti-corruption discourse, not only in the so-called global south, but also in the heart of Western democracies, begs the question, what does corruption talk tell us about the moment in which we live.

3:28      KS: And David, what about you, why did you want to write this story now?

3:32      DP: Well, corruption happens everywhere, as you mentioned in the opener, but it's driven by the money in the corporation, the cluster in the world's mega cities, and in the financial centers. Our book is very deliberately set in global cities because so many corruption stories remind us that whether it's affecting the rainforest, the desert or the urban slum, corruption begins and ends where the money is and so we focus our book on cities of the global south from Mumbai and Bangalore in India to Lagos, Cairo, and Rio de Janeiro but we also follow the money back to how corruption works in stages like the global north like New York, London and Washington, DC, but these cities are not just about money and power.

4:08      DP: They're also where the majority of the world's people now live and so corruption stories are not just spectacular scandals about fraudulent land grabs or shell companies, or black money skyscrapers or slum evictions, or infrastructure scams, all of which we write about. We call them stories because they're about the people behind corruption, the lives that are ruined by corruption and the activists that are fighting corruption and they're also about where those people live.

4:33      KS: Malini, there's corruption and there's corruption talk. What is corruption talk?

4:39      MR: So put simply, we argue that in many ways, corruption exists only insofar as it is talked about, only insofar as it is labeled and named as corruption. Kay, you may be a politician taking large campaign donations from real estate companies based on the promise that you will approve a development project if you get elected or I may be a major developer that has gotten a backdoor approval to flout an environmental regulation to build on a wetland. These activities can go undetected. The public may not even flinch, but what if suddenly they do get detected? What if suddenly they get thrown into the spotlight? Then they have a higher chance of being called corruption.

5:23      MR: So we define corruption talk not by any kind of pre-given barometer of what is and what is not corruption, but rather as a kind of storytelling practice that calls attention to wrongdoing during moments of rupture. It's a naming practice that calls attention to what is understood as the unethical exercise of power, even when that exercise of power may not necessarily be illegal. So we all know that what is legal is not always what is ethical, so we want to disrupt common sense notions of corruption that simply equate it with illegality or graft. We pay attention to the word associations, the visual imagery, the emotions, the spaces through which corruption stories come to life through which the corruption label is enacted and made public. This is what we mean by corruption talk.

6:19      KS: And David talking about the connotation that words have, the word plots has a nefarious connotation, for sure. So why did you and your co-authors title the book "Corruption Plots?"

6:32      DP: Well, it came out of our unusual collaboration. Usually when academics collaborate, they're still in the same field or the same discipline, but we're not. I'm trained in humanities, and Malini and Sapana are trained in the social sciences, so one of the first things that we had to do to write this book was find a vocabulary that, not just that we could agree on, but that made sense in our different disciplines in geography and ethnography and in literary studies and film. So we knew that we were writing about stories, whether they were stories told by journalists and activists, by displaced slum dwellers or by novelists and filmmakers and all stories have plots. They take a bunch of events and they turn them into a compelling narrative. That's why we watch something or listen to something because it has a good plot.

7:16      DP: So every corruption story involves a scam or a scheme. It uncovers a plot and because every corruption story takes place in space and time, it's also about the literal plot occupied by an apartment building, a skyscraper, a slum, the plot of land. So corruption plots are about stories, the way that my field understands them as fictions, the way that ethnographers understand them as plotting life events into a story, and also the way that geographers understand cities as made of plots of land. So the title means all these different things at once to us, and that also reminds us that there's never only one story about corruption. What we call a corruption plot, is the collection

8:00      DP: ... of different stories, of different perspectives and of completing claims to shared space in a very crowded world, which all cities are, more and more crowded.

8:11      KS: I love that. I love it when a title can have multiple meanings and they all resonate and support each other. As you said, it's a little unusual to be collaborating across disciplines this way. I don't know how often each of you has researched a project like this with other scholars, let alone across disciplines as opposed to on your own. I am curious to hear from each of you, what is your favorite anecdote from your research for this book? I can start with you again, Malini.

8:40      MR: So we were in both Mumbai and Bangalore in 2018, and these are very large cities. Mumbai especially is a financial powerhouse of the country. But both of them are really known for very rapidly transacted real estate.

8:56      MR: So all of us were there, David, Sapana, and myself, and we were doing combined field work early that year. We were taken on a scam tour by an anti-corruption, an anti-eviction activist who we talk about in the book called Simpreet Singh. He took us to iconic high profile real estate scandals and land grabs that he had exposed that were also talked about in the media.

9:26      MR: At times we had to pinch ourselves, Kay, because it was hard to know whether this was real life or if we had entered the films and the novels that we were actually studying and writing about in the book. So the stories seemed quite fantastical, but they were happening in real time, in real life.

9:43      MR: Our favorite anecdote comes from the slum slated for redevelopment, that is to say, the land was to be turned over to a commercial real estate developer and developed for market rate housing and the slum dwellers, some of whom would be able to retain the housing there, but some of whom wouldn't. So it's a very controversial process in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore.

10:05      MR: This particular slum, called Vikhroli Park Site, was the setting for a quite incredible corruption scandal. So we enter the slum and Simpreet, the activist, introduces us to another activist, Sandeep Yeole, who has long lived in the slum and he's been very active in the social and political affairs of the slum. So we follow Sandeep up a narrow staircase to a second story bastee, which means slum or settlement in Hindi, office.

10:37      MR: He unlocks the door of his bastee and we see what can only be described as a hoarder's paradise. There are dust-laden books everywhere, piled high from the floor to the ceiling on subjects ranging from cooking to constitutional law. The floor is cluttered with cardboard boxes. There are reams of newspapers and dusty, old files. There are old electronics. The air is obviously really thick with sort of mustiness and our dumbfounded looks. So we clear space on the floor and we set up some chairs. Over the course of listening to his very fantastical plot, we come to understand that one function of this mess is to camouflage, is to conceal, cell phone cameras.

11:25      DP: For me, this was actually near the beginning, if I remember, of our research, and this was one of the first times I'd done fieldwork, so this was a new experience to me. I'd done site-specific research in many places around the world, but I'd never been this involved with individuals explaining, talking about their lives, and sharing their lives.

11:43      DP: This, of course, felt to me like Bollywood, so I knew it from that angle, and also that seemed to be how Sandeep was understanding it. So he was videotaping a sting. He showed himself receiving a bribe from a developer, which he was secretly filming. It was an enormous bribe, I can't even remember the numbers, but it was crazy. He then posted the sting video, which implicated not only the developer, but also the state agency that had entered into an agreement with the developer. The video went viral, it racked up millions of clicks. You can still watch it on YouTube, it's still there unless somebody took it down since this went to press. And it made the primetime news.

12:25      DP: So it was a sensational story that was both a story like a film, but with real world consequences and real world players. Really for me, it both crossed the boundaries of our disciplines and also spoke to each of our disciplines in different ways.

12:42      KS: Yeah, I think it was so interesting when I was reading this part of the book, talking about crossing over the disciplines, your description of his office as what can only be described as a hoarder's paradise. The thinking about the dust, I could practically feel my nose starting to tickle, like I was going to start sneezing. I could just see myself there. You can really picture it. Then to realize that that isn't a plot from fiction, that's something that's happening. It was really very interesting.

13:10      KS: David, the book is replete with references to actual books and films, including Graceland, Brown Girl in the Ring, Kaala and Last Man In Tower. From your perspective, in your discipline, what does fiction, including satire, teach us that fieldwork cannot?

13:29      DP: So fieldwork, as I discovered doing this research, because I didn't speak the language most of the time, so I was mostly just watching and observing, so it gives us lived experience in the form of stories and also in the form of these spaces, these actual plots, what actual people tell us about what actually happened to them. This is essential for understanding how it feels to be in the middle of a changing city, to be displaced from your home, to be caught in a flood.

13:54      DP: Fictional films or novels also tell us stories about lived experiences, but they can knit together multiple perspectives, multiple experiences, and multiple times and places. They can imagine perspectives that we can't know directly or that don't yet exist. They can tell us what might have happened in the past to lead to the current moment or what might happen in the future, depending on what we do or don't do as a consequence of what's going on in the present. They can condense complex phenomena, let's say the climate crisis, into a single cataclysmic drought or flood, or they can embody the shadowy scheming of global finance into a single, evil developer in order to expose the injustice of slum renewal in a biting satire.

14:37      DP: For us in this book, you need all kinds of corruption stories. You need the personal histories, you need the journalistic exposes, and you need the large scale fictions to really understand the complex plots that circulate around apartment buildings or peripheries or slums.

15:00      KS: Malini Ranganathan and David Pike, it's time to take five, and this is when you, our guests, get to dream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be.

15:10      KS: What are five things you would tell anti-corruption agencies?

15:14      DP: Look in the mirror. You have good intentions, but remember the corruption is everywhere. It's not just in the other places. It's going on in the Global North, even if it's not called corruption. So look in the mirror and understand your own position within what you're trying to understand and to change.

15:30      MR: Number two, going along with the self-reflection, I would tell anti-corruption agencies to stop imagining corruption as only carried out by bureaucrats or government agencies in the Global South. It's very much also practiced by corporations, by entities that blur public and private power and it's sort of networked through the economic system. So rather than always searching for it elsewhere, we have

16:00      MR: To also look much closer to home, as David said. And we also have to find that corporations are complicit in political corruption.

16:08      DP: The third would be, pay attention to stories, because corruption doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens within situated places, situated human, situated convention, situated laws. Everything that happens, happens within a context. And the way people understand those contexts and the way we explain them and work them out is by telling stories about them. So we need to listen to the stories as opposed to just looking at the very end. We have to think about the process and think about the different stories and the ways that different stories are told differently in different places, and understand all that part, the forms that corruption talk takes, because the form that corruption talks takes is actually what makes corruption talk. It doesn't exist outside of those stories and outside of the persuasion that those stories make happen.

16:56      MR: Number four, I would say listen to activists. Activists who are on the ground fighting housing discrimination, fighting slum lords in DC, which of course, there is a really important housing movement in our own city here. Fighting slum evictions, fighting the theft of wetlands and lakes and forests, right? These are activists who are identifying the unethical uses and abuses of power as far as the contemporary city goes. And I think it's really important that that agencies that are committed and invested in anti-corruption actually listen to the activists. And then I would say number five is that since we have focused so much on the art of storytelling, we must realize that not all corruption plots are created equal. Some have more traction and purchase in the world. For instance, when Trump rallied up his base around election fraud, that has a story that has much, much more emotional charge than another story that someone might be telling. And so we really need to be careful and cognizant of the power relations that shape corruption plots and corruption stories, and we just need to be attuned to the entanglements of between power and corruption.

18:16      KS: Thank you.

18:22      KS: Malini, you examined a number of case studies in the book, and one I wanted to ask you about in particular, what was Operation Clean the Nation, and what does it teach us about corruption narratives?

18:35      MR: This is a really important story. This name Operation Clean the Nation is used by Nigerian American novelist, Chris Abani in his novel Graceland, to refer to a massive government-led cleansing or eviction of a slum called Maroko in Lagos, Nigeria. But the campaign discussed in this wonderfully written novel, which I would encourage our listeners to go and read, is based on real life events. In 1990, 300,000 slum residents were displaced from Maroko, the actual name of both the real life slum, as well as the slum covered in the novel by then governor of Lagos, Colonel Rasaki. It was an extremely violent event. Rasaki dispatched bulldozers, firearms to crush the resistance, and the official justification for the eviction given in both the novel that Abani goes into, and in history, if you read academic articles or newspaper articles about this, was that Maroko's residents, the urban poor, the working class, were considered illegal squatters.

19:48      MR: And this was sensitive wetland, ecologically sensitive land. They were considered eyesores, they were considered pussy [Ed. note: or purulent] eyesores that were thought to be dangerous and dirty, a threat to society. And in fact, autocrats have long been known to do these so-called cleansing campaigns, particularly targeting the bodies and homes of working class urban poor groups. In India in 1975, which we link this back to then prime minister Indira Gandhi in a period called the Emergency Dispatch Bulldozers to raise slums in Delhi that were largely Muslim occupied to the ground. So again, under the pretext of these were illegal squatters, but also political threats.

20:28      MR: So what the novelist does, is to show... Like, someone like Abani, I think, and also Rohinton Mistry that that talked about this period of Delhi's history is to show the other hypocrisy of this so-called cleansing, right? It's not the poor and the working class and the squatters who are moral blocked on society, of course, but it is the fattened autocrats, the international and domestic elite to support them, who are corrupted to the core. So Clean the Nation is a great kind of window into these hypocritical processes that are often carried out by the elite in the name of cleaning. But actually we know through reading such works, and understanding such histories that we really understand who the filth and the rot are in the first place.

21:17      KS: Man, there's a lot of evocative language that I think is used in the book and around your discussion of it. I mean, pussy [Ed. note: or purulent] eyesore may be the most evocative term I've ever heard. But just thinking about filth and who is clean and who is dirty and who is perceived that way, and what society says about certain groups of people, Malini, you pay attention to social difference in the book, especially to caste, race, class, and gender. Why does social difference and inequality matter to the study of corruption?

21:49      MR: In all the corruption stories that we tell in the book, and I think more generally in the ways that we're trying to theorize corruption, we pay close attention to the class, caste, racial and gender positionality, not only of the person or groups who are being labeled corrupt, but also the person or groups who are narrating the corruption story, who are using that tag. So for instance, we're aware that the privilege securely property, middle class often claim the moral high ground and blame, as was just seen, the cast are racially oppressed or class oppressed, poor, or even sort of politicians for being corrupt. But what we try to uncover in the book is the middle class themselves certainly aren't guilt free. And they themselves get embroiled in machinations in entry and gossip and sort of backdoor dealing in the multi-story building, which is the sort of place for middle class respectability par excellence.

22:54      MR: So I think with any storytelling practice, it's important... But especially corruption that's so ethically charged, it's important to pay attention to the storyteller and also who the story is being targeted at and try to understand that story as coming from a matrix of social difference, and also being targeted to people of particular kinds of backgrounds. I think what we're seeing today is also this continuation of the use of corruption talk to kind of denigrate particular groups or other particular groups. And we see this in the turn to the global rights, where nationalist leaders are mobilizing corruption talk to criminalize in other racial, religious, or ethnic minorities. I think it's important that we pay attention to the ways in which corruption talk becomes weaponized to delineate who belongs to the nation, who is an outsider, who is legal, who is illegal, et cetera.

23:55      KS: It's so interesting what I was saying at the beginning about how corruption is always something that someone else is doing, and when

24:00      KS: We talk about how the dialogue around this tends to go up and down from the middle. So there's this tendency to punch down and the working poor minorities, people who are living in situations that the middle class would say, "This is a dirty place. This is a not safe place. This is corrupt." And then it's easy to turn that narrative toward politicians and specifically they point it toward each other all the time of, "My opponent is corrupt and I am not corrupt. Oh no, they're very corrupt." But the middle class does tend to escape a lot of scrutiny, and it's held up as the moral and ethical ... It's what you want to be. They're pure. So one of the books chapters looks specifically at multi-story buildings. And I know this is where you get into some of that middle class dialogue. The multi-story building. It's obviously a fertile ground for storytelling. You have lots of lives, lots of families in a multi-story building. So David, how does your examination of the multi-story building specifically draw out narratives of corruption and how does that apply to the middle class?

25:12      DP: So as you and Malini both discussed, one of the challenges with writing about corruption is escaping that it's always someone else dynamic. And one of the ways we do that in the book is by looking at the different ways corruption gets plotted in different spaces or different kinds of spaces around the cities and around the world. So each chapter of the book brings together stories about a particular kind of plot. And what we found in our research is that multi-story buildings are where city dwellers typically set stories that examine our question shared values.

25:46      DP: And in many ways, the assumed shared value of a community is always embodied in its middle class. That doesn't mean that's the only value there is, but it's where it seems to get concentrated in images and imaginations about the cities. So while some of our chapters are about places or topoi that are associated with the urban poor, slums, peripheries, swamps, wetlands, the multi-story building we found is about the middle class people who imagine themselves as typical citizens, the ones who expect the rules and laws to work for them and when they don't, then they call it corruption.

26:19      DP: So we found the corruption plot typical of multi-story buildings is always about the gap between understanding what everyone else does is corruption, while always understanding your own behavior as incorruptible. So we learned about what people call themselves, mostly men, one-man armies, fighting to keep their buildings from being sold to developers or mostly fighting against their own corrupt neighbors who want to sell out for various reasons. We learned about the tactics in the loopholes found by those same one-man armies, which from the outside look a lot like corruption too. Some of them are legal, some of them aren't.

26:53      DP: And we found many satirical fictions that delighted in showing up the hypocrisy and the self-delusion of ostensibly upright citizens who use every corrupt means at their disposed in order to profit from redevelopment while seeing themselves as upright middle class uncorruptible citizens. So where typical corruption plots locate corruption only among the urban poor and the powerful rich, plots that are set in multi-story buildings remind us that corruption is a shared behavior that we find easier to see or identify in some places and with some populations than we do with others.

27:25      KS: Malini, I want to close with a question you pose in the book, "What does corruption talk tell us about the contemporary moment in which we live." Specifically, what is the relationship between corruption and capitalism and are there economic systems that do a better job of preventing systemic corruption?

27:48      MR: Yeah, that's a big question. We do indeed ask that. Absolutely. I think that corruption talk when studied at that granular level from the streets of Mumbai and Bangalore, but also when observed through creative writing from diverse urban worlds, it does tell us something about the ethical, economic and political stakes of these times. I was reading recently that Oxfam says that the richest 1% of the world grabbed nearly two thirds of all new wealth created since 2020. That is during a period when the world was going through the most major modern pandemic.

28:35      MR: And so that's really telling that we continue to experience gaping levels of economic inequality in the world. And so clearly something is not working with the system. And so I think what corruption in terms of how it's narrated is doing, it's not just stories about corruption of the system, the system being broken here and there in certain parts, but really it's corruption as the system, in the sense that the entirety of the system is working for a few people really well, but not working for a lot of other people.

29:15      MR: So I think these stories show us how what we call corruption is in fact a way of understanding and explaining to ourselves what's wrong with this system of late capitalism. And I think in that way, capitalism and corruption are inseparable from each other. I think that's a pretty profound insight that we put forward in ways that absolutely fly in the face of major anti-corruption organizations such as Transparency International or The World Bank, which says more capitalism can fix corruption. I think we're saying that actually the two really go together.

29:54      MR: On the other hand, we're also saying that we need to pay attention to how corruption discourse is used opportunistically by certain people and groups and leaders in quite regressive ways, how, as I mentioned, autocrats successfully mobilize anti-corruption discourse to win or thwart democracy, win elections or thwart elections. And so ultimately, to answer your question on alternatives, I think we need many more checks and balances than the status quo is willing to institute right now. We need cooperative, regenerative, pro-labor, pro-environmental economies rather than economies that veer towards wealth hoarding for the few,

30:38      KS: Malini Ranganathan and David Pike, thank you for joining Big World to discuss urban corruption. It's been great to speak with both of you and I learned a lot. Thank you.

30:47      MR: Thank you so much.

30:49      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like waking up thinking it's Monday and realizing it's still Sunday. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guests

Malini Ranganathan,
professor, SIS

David Pike,
professor, CAS

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on your favorite podcast platform.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now