As human beings, our first instinct is to try and survive in any given situation. Staying alive comes first; then comes the effort to minimise physical damage to ourselves and our near and dear ones; following that is the hard-wiring that makes us do whatever necessary to protect our general well-being, our property, finances and future.
It’s only after all this is reasonably secure that most of us turn to examine the right and wrong of any act we might have been forced to do in order to achieve this safety. If we know that doing something morally wrong, or illegal, has gained us protection from damage, and if we know we can get away with it again, then most of us will find a post-facto justification for our act and even an equivocal route to repeating that action in the future, should we need to.
Corrupt people get to power by recognising and using these vulnerabilities or this corruption programming in others. They either leech on to people who are already compromised and encourage them to go deeper down the hole, or they find weak targets and make them pliant first-timers in wrongdoing. When the corrupt and power-hungry come up against resistance, they make a quick division in their minds: A) that segment of the opposition which is itself compromised by venality to a greater or lesser degree and B) the segment — usually much smaller — that is harder or almost impossible to seduce or browbeat.
Carrot and stick
With group A, they speak in the mutually understood language of threats and cajolements, they put up visible sticks on the edge of one hill and equally visible carrots on the other and they begin negotiations. With group B, they try to isolate individuals, atomise strong groupings, and then bring out every dirty trick in the book to besmirch reputations, destroy trust between allies, attack resource bases, and sow doubt, fear and a sense of helplessness.
Once a corrupt, amoral regime has achieved power and got its hands on the levers of state, it proceeds both nakedly and surreptitiously to misuse these, to wreak whatever havoc it can among those who are resisting the regime, while gathering into its fold whoever breaks off from both A and B.
All this is well known to anyone who studies history.
The interesting thing is how different people interact and manage the exchange with a seemingly all-powerful, corrupt regime. We must never make the mistake of imagining that a person we think of as completely evil will always stay so — there may be a limit to the wavering and change someone is capable of, but a small pulsation in one person or a group in a direction away from gross criminality may have a knock-on effect on others who are, let’s say, closer to the middle in the scale of bad-to-good. That, in turn, may lead to bits of relief, perhaps temporary, being provided to victims of the corrupt regime.
All is not lost
Equally, however, we must never take for granted that seemingly ethical and incorruptible people, groups or institutions will always remain so — consistently doing the right thing at whatever high cost to themselves. People on the so-called ‘good side’ may also be assailed by a drop in courage or bouts of bad judgement, leading them to consciously or unconsciously aid and abet the agenda of the corrupt regime.
As the regime tightens its grip on this or that rampart of the state, you could, for instance, have a group of brave and responsible public servants come out in an unprecedented public protest at what is going on. This might give you hope that not all is lost. A while later, a couple of members of the same group might participate in a critically important public rendering of their duties, where they fail miserably, showing shameful pusillanimity and offering disastrously wrong-headed appeasement to the forces that are bent on destroying our society. Should we see this happen, we should try and not lose heart. Groups or lone individuals will find different ways of negotiating and parlaying with the onslaught of ill-used power; the same people may find different ways at different times. Things may look solid and immobile, but the political and social atoms are always on the move.
French philosopher Michel Foucault said that every exercise of power comes with a cost to the parties exercising that power. Likewise, every dishonest, unethical or cowardly compromise with power also has a cost. Every such act generates a bill that both the compromisers and the ones who have extracted that compromise will have to pay sooner or later.
The writer is a filmmaker and columnist