“Modernity’s Corruption: Empire and Morality in the Making of British India” by Nicholas Hoover Wilson

Calcutta, 1788 (British Museum) Calcutta, 1788 (British Museum)

Common sense has it that corruption is a quid pro quo practiced by individuals who disregard their institutional duties and responsibilities in favor of personal gain. However, this is a relatively recent definition or association that came to be enshrined in establishments bureaucratic in nature (as opposed to monarchical or feudal systems that existed previously) from the mid-18th century to mid-19th century when allegations against and among East India Company’s officials reached the British Parliament.

In Modernity’s Corruption: Empire and Morality in the Making of British India, Nicholas Hoover Wilson examines the history of this period to explain that the Company’s example is a crucial case study in how, at least in the West, corruption came to be defined in terms of a universal lens (in which corruption is conceptualised as something essential about a person or a behavior), replacing the situational one (in which corruption is “inevitably suspended in and defined by a web of other relations”). The former continues to be used even today but it makes more sense to re-evaluate it by paying attention to the latter, especially as the world seems to be moving towards relational understanding of what it means to be corrupt.


Modernity’s Corruption: Empire and Morality in the Making of British India, Nicholas Hoover Wilson (Columbia University Press, May 2023)
Modernity’s Corruption: Empire and Morality in the Making of British India, Nicholas Hoover Wilson (Columbia University Press, May 2023)

Robert Clive, the first Governor of Bengal, who was also credited with the victory of the Company at the 1757 Battle of Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal, was charged with corruption in 1772, given the huge wealth he had amassed especially through illicit means in his dealings with the ruling elite in Bengal. When responding to allegations of wrongdoing in front of a parliamentary committee, he is supposed to have said:


Am I not rather deserving of praise for the moderation which marked my proceedings? Consider the situation in which the victory at Plassey had placed me. A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels! Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!


Wilson uses his defense (along with those of different officials throughout the book) to suggest that there is something interesting at work here. These words are indicators of a very different moral order in which what is considered immoral today (in absolute terms) was defensible as an exercise of restraint and moderation: look at what else could have happened—they argue—the extortion could have been greater or someone else could have extracted greater wealth! Indeed, the case studies of investigations into the actions of several Company officials—smartly unpacked by Wilson—indicate, statutory bodies and lawmakers had to enforce an overarching frame of reference to punish or acquit officials because the relational or particularistic view of events didn’t quite make sense to them. Here were officials bickering amongst each other saying that others have had it easier. Instead of going through every counter-allegation against others which would have proved to be very convoluted, investigators found it easier to impose a universal moral code in which any bribe was a violation irrespective of circumstances.

As Wilson clarifies, turning to the Company for a lesson in the transition from the situational to the universal approach makes sense because it fits into the period that is referred to as “modernity” and is an important example of “modern state bureaucracy”. In itself, the Company as a case study may have nothing generalizable to say about corruption but when the various examples of individual controversies add up, they reveal factors such as complexity of social activity, individuals’ behavior, escalations of the issues to higher authorities within the organization and invocations of morality during debates. These factors are critical to the unfolding of anti-corruption proceedings today.

The transition from particularism to universalism helps understand that corruption, as we conceive of it today, is a very modern phenomenon rooted in the Company’s history: it is always a case arising from “moments of organizational struggle”: “whatever else corruption may be, it is a style of accusation intended to mobilize an audience to one’s side during an organizational struggle.” Wilson consults historical documents he came across while researching land laws.


Calling his book a work of “historical sociology” that navigates different domains such as philosophy, history, economics, political science and so on, Wilson puts together an account of corruption that builds on a range of nuances and requires familiarity with all of these on the part of readers. His ability to move from one specific case to another while substantiating it with historical and philosophical contexts is baffling to readers who are used to speaking to one discourse at a time.

The pictures Wilson paints to cover the shift from Company officials beating each other entangled in situational order in which everything was provoked by something else to the political elite who sought to be disinterested and act as impartial spectators throw the takeaways for thinking about the present times in stark relief: reading the former requires a lot of patience while stumbling on the latter helps one make sense of why reading about corruption and its history makes sense at this point in time. While almost everyone has been corrupt in the sense of violating the code of putting official duty over personal gain by taking sick leave when not warranted or taking office stationery home for personal use, the world seems to be moving towards the situational order once again in which embezzling money from clients is corrupt rather than lying about sick leave. A similar relational logic was at work, Wilson argues, when impeachment proceedings were initiated against former US President Donald Trump. Referring to the Capitol Hill riots in January 2021, Wilson writes:


The Universal understanding of corruption spectacularly failed to describe or restrain the activity of Trump and his underlings. Among other things, Trump’s presidency offered a nauseating demonstration that many structures and procedures (privileged, white, highly educated) Americans took for granted were themselves simply conventions. For example, because the Supreme Court has progressively narrowed the legal definition of “corruption” from an appearance of a conflict of interest to the cumbersome demonstration of a concrete quid pro quo, there was little recourse for those who wanted to restrain a president who simply ignored worries about conflicts of interest.


Because the “narrow” interpretation of corruption as quid pro quo seems to be failing, Wilson argues, that in order to handle such situations better, society needs to move away from a universalist understanding of corruption to a situational one or a new universal one in which “we must also attend, on the one hand, to the structure of the moral backgrounds on which any understanding of corruption depends, and, on the other hand, to the risks of excluding other understandings (and thus, other people) in the process of constructing it.”

While this is a huge jump from 18th-century Company to the US in the 21st century, Modernity’s Corruption will bring a pause to any unthinking discussions of what corruption means and how its broad, universalist usage might be difficult to pin any concrete blame on anyone. The method of an objective spectator might have worked once upon a time in which committees located far had to make sense of what their countrymen were doing in a colony or empire but it is precisely the failure to speak of corruption in situational, concrete senses as one passion taking over the other (to invoke Greek antiquity) that wrongdoers may get away with anything

Further inquiries into corruption across time and space would help determine whether perception of which acts are corrupt (and which are not) is indeed changing. Perhaps a better question to ask is how, when, and to what extent one can bring the corrupt to justice irrespective of the universal or situational definition of corruption.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.