Corruption through Thick and Thin: Navigating Narratives on Crisis and Decay in Contemporary Lebanon

Mr. Julian Vierlinger

A historical look (Begriffsgeschichte) at the polysemic term corruption in the political context allows for a classification of available definitions into two grand groupings: thick and thin. Thick definitions address large-scale decay and crisis of polities, political entities and societies that often include a moralist or transcendental variable, which render individual “corrupt behaviour” part of a larger whole, while positioning the corrupt individual on a two-directional causal chain (or feedback loop) within a general decline of things. Thin definitions are of a more specific, technical nature, and describe individual, illicit practices on the margins of the common (or public) good and private interest. There is a historical prevalence of thick definitions, however the international dawn on Anti-Corruption politics commencing in the 1980s lead to a surge of thin definitions as they represent more operable frameworks for policy.
In Lebanon, a country plagued by high levels of corrupt practices, the duality of definitions stands in a fascinating relationship when it comes to political contestation and countering thereof: Allegations of thin corruption are countered with evocations of national crisis or moral decay — i.e, thick corruption — whereas voices decrying the factually difficult situation of the country (in political, economical and social terms) are met with campaigns denouncing the corruptibility of the messenger. In other words, evocations of thin and thick narratives on corruption are weaponised to disarm the respective other. This interplay gains in complexity due to the fact that most recent civil society mobilisation decries corruption as the main reason for the situation in the country, whereas partisans defend their often provenly corrupt leaders by stating that they are the only ones who can save the country from total collapse.
The proposed paper will investigate this phenomenon in order to shed light on how thick definitions of corruption are used in strategic political discourse, and how they affect the efficiency of modern Anti-Corruption policy. As per methodology, the paper will rely primarily on the analysis of political discourse arising around moments of political contestation in recent Lebanese history, and fieldwork undertaken on the ground this summer.