Corruption as Political Economy

Italy and Greece prepare to welcome new prime ministers, with the latter already sustained by the EU’s bailout fund. This state of global political and economic reality gives resounding testimony to the failure of statism as a way of organizing human affairs — in terms not only of justice, but also efficiency.

Among the few largest economies in Europe, Italy’s makes up almost a fifth of the EU’s, but the country’s debt stands at more than twice its GDP (over $2.5 trillion). If ever the interdependence of the political and the economic were clear, it is so in Italy, the picture of a political schema marked by bribery and moral turpitude.

Greece, too, has for decades been singled out as a center of political misconduct and abuse of power. But are these Mediterranean nations so different from other governments around the world?

If we believe the burnished slogans advanced by its public relations masters in both academia and the media, the state is necessary to the creation and conservation of order in society. Its hierarchies and strictures, its layers of social and legal orthodoxy indurated over the centuries, stand between us and the arbitrariness of chaos.

The state, the argument goes, is the vehicle for expertise, managing society under the guidelines provided by shared ethical sensibilities and goals. But in our keenness to highlight how the state’s concentrated strength alienates and abuses the individual, we anarchists have perhaps failed to effectively articulate another point: That the state is a pestilence eating away at every one among the professed rationales in its favor — that every aim from fairness to economic stability is sabotaged by authority.

On its face, it may seem counterintuitive that the halls of government are the source of the great part of society’s disorder, poverty and violence. We are taught that the state, representing the interests of the people and the general welfare, is a great parapet against which indigence and crime crash and dissolve.

Never is it considered — even while only a small few actually control the mechanisms of power at any given time — that elites might have an interest in perpetuating widespread want and destitution. Though most people don’t hesitate to acknowledge that business corporations and other organizations act in the interests of those who make them up, that fundamental assumption is pitchpoled with regard to the state.

In governments the world over, in parliaments, ministries and courts, we witness the powerful, rich and connected enshrined strategically in positions of import and influence. And for all of the plain indications of corruption and profiteering, we nonetheless largely believe that there is nothing inherently contradictory about the theory and practice of the state.

We still cling to the myth that the state virtuously declines to exert its monopoly on coercion in order to respond to its own institutional incentives. Whether we recognize it or not, however, the state does — consciously or otherwise — serve the oligarchs orbiting around its center of gravity, around the headspring of privilege created by authority.

In doing so, allotting favors to the ruling class, the state produces imbalances that represent the difference between labor-saving, streamlined economies of free decisions, and the rigid, inflexible economies of today. In short, widespread corruption and widespread insolvency are natural companions.

The fundamental, structural problem with the state, the thing that makes it unworkable in principle, is that it is simply coercive exaction, blackmail and nepotism — i.e., corruption — on a large, organized and legitimized scale. Italy and Greece are mere illustrations of the same general problems that characterize all politicized, hierarchical societies.

How indeed could a nation rationally allocate resources in the forms of time, labor and things of value if individuals and communities are forcibly restricted from doing so themselves? Genuine free markets have no relation whatever to the political capitalism of the global, state-dependent economy.

When dignity and autonomy return to the life of the individual, allowing her to trade with her fellow equals on a mutually-respectful basis, the crises that Europe now hosts with wane and pass away. The state, of course, will have passed away with them, leaving real order and peace behind.

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