Corruption as State-Building? The Escalation of Administrative Politics in Early Colonial British India

Corruption as State-Building? The Escalation of Administrative Politics in Early Colonial British India
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  Corruption as State-Building? The Escalation of Administrative Politicsin Early Colonial British India Nicholas Hoover WilsonDepartment of SociologyThe University of California, Berkeleynwilson@berkeley.eduSeptember 1, 2011  Abstract: This paper addresses how the abstract moral arguments under-lying differentiated ethical spheres of social life become features ofintra-organizational conflict. By integrating the analysis of cultureand power, it also shows how autonomous moral logics can become viableresources in political struggles. An analysis of the English East In-dia Company's early colonial administration shows that a series of cor-ruption scandals within the Company's administration escalated to in-clude metropolitan authorities. As the Company's organizational pro-tection from Parliament in London decayed after the Seven Years' War,these corruption scandals came under intense scrutiny from metropolitanpolitical elites unfamiliar with the details of Indian administration.Consequently, administrators embroiled in the scandals—and hoping tosuccessfully mobilize these new observers—used abstract moral argumentsrelying on the autonomous spheres of state, society, and economy intheir appeals to those who lacked their local knowledge of India. 15051 WORDS  Introduction The social world today is populated by multiple spheres, each gov-erned by a distinctive, meaningful logic. Among these spheres, wereare used to referring to “the state” (Mitchell 1999) “society”(Habermas 1991), and “the economy” (Polanyi 1944) as though they areobjectified, social realities. And indeed, explaining where thesespheres come from, how they emerge, and how their configurations varyin different times and places has been an ongoing preoccupation ofthe social sciences since the 18 th century.In this paper I focus on a key feature of this broad process: theemergences of “moral spheres.” Like Weber, by this term I mean those“values of the world” which in modern Western societies “have beenrationalized and sublimated in terms of their own laws” (Weber1946::330). These laws are ethical, in that they define what isright and wrong to do and the substance of a well-lived life (Aristo-tle 2009:5-6; Taylor 1985:15-16), and they form a key resource fororganizing fields, thus constituting the informal basis for importantmodern institutions and processes like economic development, the ruleof law, and deliberative democratic practices (e.g., Acemoglu, John-son, and Robinson 2001; Ogilvie 2007).Studies of these autonomous spheres fall into three general cate-gories. Some subsume them into a grand modern narrative, attributingto them a teleological process of “differentiation” that makesexplaining their emergence in specific cases difficult (Durkheim1997). Others emphasize the variations evident in how they emerge,but confine themselves to tracing the effects of this initial differ-ent into the modern day (Eisenstadt 2009). Still others simplydescribe the emergence, in the process attributing extraordinaryforce to intellectual ideas to reshape policy and informal socialunderstandings (Schneewind 1998).None of these three approaches adequately explains (1) the srcins ofautonomous moral logics as viable resources in political struggles;or (21) how and why the emergence of these spheres varies consider-ably even within single, “national” cases. Thus, this paper seeks toextend these approaches via an analysis of British colonialism inIndia, specifically through the English East India Trading Company(EIC) in the late 18 th century. The EIC was a singular institution:it was a late-surviving merchant trading company and combined commer-cial, political, and patrimonial functions into a single administra-tive apparatus, and the struggles that occurred within its adminis-tration under the pressure of expensive war and global transformationprovides a useful microcosm in which to analyze the broader processof autonomization. Page 2 of 40  This paper argues that abstraction in political conflicts depends onwho observes the conflict. When metropolitan observers of Indianconflict generally had Indian experience or were directly involved inthe details of Company affairs, the EIC was able to keep the effectsof Indian corruption scandals contained. But when fallout from theSeven Years' War and the American revolution changed the structure ofdomestic British politics, the EIC's struggles drew new observers,and consequently the context of corruption scandals changed. More-over, this new context triggered reforms of the Company's administra-tion, the substance of which was driven by administrators' abstractmoral narratives about colonial administration in India.In the next section I motivate the article's analysis by discussingthe srcin of autonomous moral spheres, how colonialism figures intothat history, and why the English East India Company is an appropri-ate case to study it. Thereafter I discuss the relevant particularsof 18 th century elite English moral life, the structure of the EastIndia Company's administration, as well as intellectual efforts todisaggregate state, society, and economy. In the two following sec-tions, I discuss two corruption scandals within the Company's admin-istration in which administrators used abstract vocabularies of mo-tive as they escalated their claims against one another to London. Ithen conclude by asking in what sense colonial corruption can bethought of as a part of state-building. “The Great Disembedding,”  1  Colonialism and Corruption  Classical social theory converges on a conception of modernity as therise, on the one hand, of autonomous spheres of ethical behavior(Weber 1946:323-359), and on the other, of individuated people(Durkheim 1995; Simmel 1971:6-22). Multiple causes have been givenfor this shift, including religious rationalization transferred intosocial practices (Weber 2002), the growth of capitalism (Marx1990:Vol. I, pp. 163-177) and an increasingly complex division oflabor and its concomitant urbanization (Durkheim 1997; Simmel1971:324-339). In other words, as people come to think of themselvesas unique individuals walking distinctive paths, social life becomesdivided among spheres such as public and private, and state, society,and economy.These newly autonomous social spheres rose against an older, pater-nalistic socio-political organization in which people were deeplyembedded in local social contexts (Thompson 1991:16-96; Adams 2007).Against this earlier conception of society, two characteristics gavethese autonomous ethical spheres unique power to shape social organi- 1This is the title of chapter 4 in Taylor's Modern Social Imaginaries (2004).Page 3 of 40  zation. First, they were and are “objectified,” in the sense thatindividual people encounter them as though they are natural featuresof the world (Mitchell 1988, 1999). For example, so long as economicactivity is seen to be governed by objective, discoverable laws, peo-ple have an ethical obligation to face the implications of those lawsbravely and seek organizations that conform to them (Polanyi1944:116-135, esp. 133-135). Second, this objectification depends onconceptual abstraction, or categorizing people in terms of the objec-tive “type” they fit, rather than by their particularities (Hacking2004). The roots of this dynamic stretch back to the origins ofhuman society (Durkheim 1995:13-16), but in modernity it became a keyprinciple of social organization, since bureaucracy is carried out interms of calculable, objective rules “without regard for persons” andwith an eye towards “eliminating from official business love, hatred,and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements whichescape calculation” (Weber 1946:215-216).Abstraction and objectification are thus two key elements of moder-nity. Yet contemporary sociological approaches to where and how theyemerge have eschewed the grand explanations pursued by the classicaltheorists. Instead, recognizing the wide varieties of forms andshapes abstraction can take, they have emphasized abstraction andobjectification in local fields. We can distinguish three varietiesof explanation.The first is perhaps most straightforward, and we might call it the“domination” view. Some social actor or organization in the fieldhas power, and uses abstract concepts to exert domination over oth-ers. This “center” symbolically separates itself from those it seekscontrol over and ascribes generic characteristics to the group itseeks to control. This is an account that boils down to power, or,as Berger and Luckmann put it, the fact that “whoever holds the big-gest stick has the better chance of imposing their view of reality”(Berger and Luckmann 1967; Bourdieu 1991:223; Hacking 2004). Espe-cially when coupled with a narrative of subsequent resistance byindigenous people, this view is also well-represented in contemporarysociology as well as studies of imperialism (Stoler 1995:95-136; Fer-guson 1990). For example, Manu Goswami's study of the relationshipbetween efforts to integrate the Indian colonial economy and the riseof Indian nationalism suggests that “the movement toward a general-ized and abstract money form...was brought about through directforce, as the colonial state imposed its monetary regime on existingtransactional networks and practices” (Goswami 2004:88). In otherwords, abstraction occurs via the circulation of power in interac-tion, and objectification is a particularly pungent way of assertingthe force of a particular social order. Page 4 of 40  While the domination view of the emergence of abstraction and objec-tification privileges the initial possession of power in its explana-tion, the second view, which we might call “demographic,” concen-trates on how exactly ideas shift in favor of newly emergent views.Drawn from science studies, the idea is relatively simple: people dieand are replaced by those with the new view (Kuhn 1996:150-151).That is, new ideas are generated out of creative attempts to resolvecrises in old systems of ideas, and the proponents of the new per-spective gradually replace unpersuaded opponents over time. Thisview is somewhat gradualist and emphasizes people's deep investmentin the ideas they hold, and is represented both in studies of colo-nialism (e.g., Stokes 1989) and the relationship in contemporarysocieties between institutions and knowledge. For example, Four-cade's study of the relationship between economists and societies inFrance, Britain, and the United States emphasizes how “nationalinstitutional dynamics...reliably [structure] the individuals whocarry them out” and therefore, the institutionalization of a profes-sionalized discipline of economics in the US at the turn of the 20 th century depended on younger university-based economists replacingolder, gentry-based competitors over time (Fourcade 2009:xiv, 64-66).Of course, as Kuhn noted, ideas can change because people are per-suaded. This third, “deliberative” view has two varieties when itcomes to its explanation for abstraction. The basic idea is thatideas change as people talk to one another and try to change eachothers' minds. But over the course of that dialogue, one of twothings can happen: people can either persuade one another and overtime converge on a single view based on their shared, abstract con-ceptions of commonality (this is Habermas' (1985), and Erik OlinWright's (2010) hope); or their opposition can sharpen the edges ofthe systems of thought in conflict, leading to heavily systematic,explicit perspectives (i.e., they are provoked to abstract their per-spectives in an effort to explain and systematize them) (Geertz 1973;Mannheim 1985).How do these three perspectives apply to the formation of modernstate administrations? After all, states seek to exert power oversociety, are populated by officials with various interests, and haveproven to be a key site of contention over which categories of socialreality will be institutionalized. And yet, because the literatureexplaining the variation in how states organize these administrations(and the pace, timing, and kind of abstraction they rely on) has beendominated by a focus on state-society relations (and hence conceptu-alizes “the state” as more or less a unified variable), the ways inwhich the three mechanisms outlined above actually work remain ob-scure. 2 2See Migdal 2001 for an important corrective to this tendency.Page 5 of 40
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