Written by Daniel Oliveira

Translated by Francisco Chuquela

First of all, a warning: despite referring to two related cases, this text isn’t about the recent operations carried out by the Public Prosecution Service, much less those involving the controversial judge Rui Rangel and Benfica, whose dimensions and severity are still not easy to assess. It is about a time and a tension. Far beyond Portugal, Brazil or any other example cited. It’s about a paradox.

Here is my confession of my discomfort: in several moments in which cases of corruption have been subject of debate I find myself in a place that wouldn’t naturally be mine. I won’t be the best judge of my own character, but I am sure that I am among the people who, in their personal and professional life, will be farther away from the behavior of a corrupt. My honesty (not my purity) is one of the few things I am sure about myself. However, in the various cases where armies of moralists arise, I haven’t marched by their side. Surely for having a certain difficulty in aligning with the spirit of lynching that so frighteningly marks our times and behind which people aren’t always very recommendable. But more probably because I demand, in this function, a more systemic look than mere indignation. Even because I know that the aimless indignation tends to take with it more than the corrupt and to benefit, in the climate of indifferentiation which creates, the corrupt himself.

Although it isn’t the specific subject of this text, the case of Brazil is a good case. I have written extensively on the subject and won’t concentrate on it. What interests me here is the way it is analyzed. Always with three errors that result from the same superficial look at the phenomenon of corruption: the idea that there is in Brazil a party of corruption; the apolitical and strictly ethical discourse on corruption; and the belief that corruption is solved through a general “cleaning” carried out by Justice. Because I have no political office, I am free to the full sincerity of this text. That is why we, commentators who don’t need to be popular, should serve.

Without focusing more on what I consider to be the true motivations of the encirclement of the PT and Lula da Silva, I assume that the Workers’ Party didn’t change, contrary to what happened in relation to its social policy, the ethical standard of behavior of Brazilian rulers. But it seems to me cynical and blind to try to get the idea that this party is a focus of corruption more intense than all the rest. In fact, we can even say that it was PT’s policies, either by strengthening legal means for the judiciary or by creating a more demanding middle class, which created the critical mass that would allow a more vigorous position relatively to the corruption. As this wasn’t accompanied by more ethical rigor, the PT itself would become a victim of the broth it created.

My problem with this sudden collective awakening to an ancient reality of Brazilian society and politics is that it feeds an illusion: that corruption is a strictly ethical phenomenon that is resolved only with more citizens’ demands and vigor in repression. My thesis, although it dispenses neither the repression nor the demand, is different. It demands, at the same time, more patience and more depth and scope in anti-corruption policies.

The poorest people are no less serious. However, it is undeniable that societies with greater poverty are more corrupt. This doesn’t, as some candidly contend, result in citizens’ lack of education. In Portugal, the county that reelected a convicted is the most literate and rich of the country. Corruption is endemic in the poorest countries for the same reason that public policies in those countries tend to favor a privileged minority: inequality in the distribution of resources and incomes corresponds to an unequal distribution of power and to the destruction of any sense of community.

Unequal distribution of power implies a differentiated influence on political power. That is translated into informal forms of influence, the perpetuation of oligarchies and, in the limit, the naturalization of corruption as a way to circumvent an equality that only exists in the vote and that, by only existing in the vote, becomes unsustainable in practice. What I am saying is that democracy, being a condition for fair societies and with real equality of all before the law, isn’t sustainable in deeply unequal societies. Widespread corruption is no more than a symptom of this unsustainability.

The most gullible people think that a “cleansing” is enough to break the vicious circle between inequality and corruption. Or is it all the same, coming from other corrupt new sides, as happened in Italy, or is it democracy, not corruption, that collapses, as can happen in Brazil.

As for the feeling of community, it is very evident in a book I quoted earlier (“The Spirit of Equality” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett). In it, among many other things, it is shown how people from socially and economically developed countries (where Brazil isn’t part) respond very differently to the same simple question: “Do you trust others?” In Portugal the positive answers accounted to 11%, in Sweden to 70%. The thesis of the book, proven in numerous data and variables, is that the difference isn’t mainly cultural, ethnic, historical, religious, education or wealth. It is related to equality. Economic inequality creates a wall between citizens and destroys any idea of belonging. Trust in others, as well as solidarity with others, is born, if not only an abstract value, of empathy among people. This requires a sense of community: people who cross each other on the same streets, in the same neighborhoods, in the same public transportation, in the same schools, in the same country, in the same life. In unequal societies, such as the Portuguese, this doesn’t happen. And so the sense of community is relatively low.

In Brazil the thing is much more radical. To the point of the murder of eight children and young people, from 11 to 19 years, by police of Rio de Janeiro, didn’t lead the country to experience a deep collective depression. Because the poor and the black aren’t very people for the Brazilian elite. It is not evil. Or is it, in the sense that indifference to the lives of others is intrinsically wrong. But this indifference has its origin: the total absence of empathy. And this absence has to do with the radical difference of life experiences that inequality feeds. Now, there is no law, rule and collective ethics with no sense of community. Without this sense of community, equality before the law and before the State is nothing but a generous idea without practical reference.

It is a fish tail: inequality feeds corruption while corruption hinders a fair distribution of resources, allowing those who have money to buy the will of the elect. Stealing the vow to the poor, the only thing that each of them has in equal quantity as a rich one. Breaking this vicious circle is the biggest difficulty. In cases where there is no revolutionary cut, or a civil war, or carnage like in Rwanda, it takes time. Once again, the most credulous believe that a collective “ethical shock” is enough. A “cleansing”. Experience tells us that not only isn’t enough, but the effects are often quite perverse. The “Clean Hands” operation didn’t end or reduce corruption in Italy. It only decimated the political system, destroying the traditional parties, creating brutal instability and replacing corrupt ones with others as much or even more corrupt ones. Why? First, because the conditions that favor corruption remained intact – in this case, the fragility of the State vis-à-vis powers that parallel the law structure social and economic relations. Second, because when corruption in the political system is widespread the only possible victory is the total emptying of the political class. Although the Italian judges have tried, it can’t be replaced by them. Either everything is the same, coming from other corrupt new sides, or it is democracy, not corruption, that collapses, as it can happen in Brazil.

Am I arguing that in unequal countries or with the specific problems of Italy one must turn a blind eye to corruption? I am defending the opposite: that the demand must be much greater and depends essentially on political conditions. As it turned out, in Brazil the reduction of inequality made a very old reality become more unbearable for Brazilians. Am I arguing that justice must suspend its duty not to lead a country to a democratic collapse? It would be a cynical and unsustainable stance. None of this. What I am advocating is that it fulfills its role and no more than its role. If it is true that we can’t wait forever for the moment when politics regenerates, the politics of burned land isn’t usually the best strategy for solving problems.

The role of Justice is not to “cleanse” the political system. It is to judge each case by its exact value. That means doing everything without trying to frame your everyday life in any crusade, where the whole political system, call itself the “Clean Hands”. Because there is a difference between many judgments of many politicians over time and what, in the media narrative and the judges themselves, turns into a great judgment of politics. Some leave the judges in the place where they should be, the other throws us into a confrontation that democracy cannot resist. Some allow each magistrate to concentrate on the process, not making all others depend on him, the other turns him into a vigilant and inevitably push him to a time when the ends – to clean up politics – justify the means – the outrage of the law to which the magistrates, more than any person, owe total obedience. The rhetoric of “cleansing” creates a general environment that suppresses any critical sense: anyone who is not unconditionally on the side of the accusation is friends with the corrupt, the judge who doesn’t condemn the accused heavily calls into question the regenerative legitimacy of the whole class. Cleaning is cleaning, it can’t leave “waste” by the way.

Vigorous impetus is, contrary to appearance, the negation of the will of justice. Because it is decentralized from the process, where lies the sole authority of judges (in which no one votes and who are as human as all of us) to depend on the charisma and popularity of the judge. And because he gives the judiciary the illusion of sharing with the media the role of counterpower and not just another power. A role he can’t have. When we see, as we have seen, Baltazar Garzón, Carlos Alexandre and Sérgio Moro agree to participate in a joint conference in Estoril, we realize that these magistrates, with very different positions in each of the countries, internalized the idea that they are specialized judges in what has public impact. Above all, they specialize in politicians.

When we see that the process of embezzlement that involves the nature of magazines bought by ministerial offices for more than six years (I still expect more data to realize what is being said) comes from a complaint by the Association of Portuguese Judges (ASJP), born of a confrontation with the government in 2010, we realize that there are those who want to turn the judge into an accuser, with the political class as the main target. And we realize that we have entered a phase of coping with powers and not merely a fight against corruption. And we remember, once again, the phrase that presented the VIII Congress of the ASJP in 2008: “The nineteenth century was the century of legislative power and the twentieth century of executive power, could the 21st century become the century of judicial power?” If there are many magistrates who believe this isn’t only the fight against corruption is lost. It’s democracy.

I return to my initial discomfort. I consider corruption one of the most serious problems that democracy can face. Because it subverts it in all its foundations. I consider it especially serious when it involves political forces that fight for equality, because they betray in their behavior everything they defend. But I don’t embark on the general enthusiasm with dynamics that will not only have no effect on the reduction of corruption as they call into question a greater good, which is democracy. Any serious fight against corruption is a struggle for greater equality among citizens, distributing power more equitably, bringing all social life closer to the democratic and generous idea that each man, with one vote, has the same weight in the society. And creating conditions for the general sense of belonging to a community, without which the idea of common good is pure rhetoric. This isn’t done with expeditious Justicialist “cleanups” that can only end in disenchantment, creating a void of power that an authoritarian populist will try to occupy. It is done by ensuring that everyone, in politics and in justice, fulfills his role. Knowing that it takes time to get to the right place. (x) 

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