In the last decades a growing popular awareness emerged of the relevance of corruption as an hidden factor which may negatively influence political and economic decision-making processes in both liberal-democratic and authoritarian regimes. A corresponding interest came out also within the social sciences but, as often happens, in spite of a large scientific debate there is still no consensus on any commonly accepted definition of what corruption is. It is quite obvious that such an old-fashioned concept may carry several meanings. Among them, in classical political theory the term corruption is used to indicate a degenerative process operating at a macro-social level, through the perversion of certain constitutive features of an institutional system. In this macro perspective – which obviously requires a preliminary normative judgement, i.e. a value-based distinction between “better” and “worse” institutions – the theoretical focus is on the general premises and consequences of the state of degradation of political systems as a whole and social values underlying them.
The authors adopt a different approach – which is dominant in the social sciences – takes corruption as a specific social practice, having distinctive features which can be defined at micro-level, minimizing value-laden implications and requirements. Corruption is a type of behaviour, a specific social practice which can emerge within a particular relational context. Any explanation of its facilitating conditions and effects, however, may require an analysis of variables at a macro-level, but there is a clear distinction between individual actions and their social premises or consequences.
In particular, we reflect on the specific characteristics of corruption in the evolution – rampant years and crisis –of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism as second “great transformation” has brought about a move towards free market and away from social protection. Sponsored by international financial organizations, such as IMF or WB, policies in various states have been oriented towards privatization, liberalization and deregulation. Notwithstanding the promises of a separation of market and the state, as well as on the benefits of increased competition, those policies have increased the power of big corporations, distorting the market and colluding with the states. The ideology of neoliberalism supported a message of depoliticization which is misleading on at least two accounts: first, it cover the importance that state decision still have in the spread of neoliberal doctrine and practices; second, markets proved highly inefficient. Indeed, neoliberalism in the crisis brought about a crisis of legitimacy, which took the specific form of a crisis or responsibility. Rampant corruption has been denounced by social movements and social scientists alike.
Social science literature on political corruption, heavily influenced by rational choice paradigms and economic visions of politics, has not paid attention to the role of changed in capitalism and democracy on the spread and modelling of new patterns of corruption. What is more, it has often developed explanations of corruption that considered it as a natural by-product of intervention of the state on the market, in terms of both public services and regulation, invoking free market as a solution—privatization, liberalization and deregulation were indeed considered as (part of) the solution. In reality, our research on corrupt exchanges in times of neoliberalism points at those policies as rather part of the problem.