In the last decades a chain of scandals fuelled a growing popular awareness of the relevance of corruption as an hidden factor which may negatively affect political and economic decision-making, distorting in public policy – in terms of growing ineffectiveness and inequality – not only in less developed and authoritarian regimes, but also in advanced, capitalist liberal-democracies. The perception of rampant corruption in the political, economic and financial arenas has been one of the leading factor of a growing dissatisfaction against the elites, as exemplified by the Indignatos in Spain or the “occupy movement” of New York in 2011, with its radical protest against the top one percent of wealthiest people in society that exercise an opaque political influence, driven by the disproportionate share of financial and material capital that they possess and is actually converted into hidden and corrupt relationships with public decision-makers. In a vicious circle, more or less developed liberal-democracies where bribery is perceived as a still significant or proliferating reality suffer a mounting de-legitimization of elected representatives and political institutions, since widespread mistrust towards public actors is at the same time a consequence and a facilitating factor for the development of a texture of systemic corrupt exchanges. Besides the “voice” of anti-establishment movements and the “exit” strategy of escalating abstention or de-engagement in political activity, also the populistic appeals of would-be political leaders have been encouraged by the opportunity to wave the issue of corruption to challenge the traditional elite, occasionally challenging the stability of democratic institutions. Not surprisingly, rampant corruption in advanced democracies has been denounced by social movements and social scientists alike (della Porta 2013; della Porta 2014). A corresponding interest on the issue of corruption came out also within the social sciences but, in spite of a large scientific debate, no consensus emerged on a commonly accepted definition. The classical concept of corruption looks at deviations of a polity from the inherent virtues of a “good” political order, often related to the degradation of citizens’ moral attitudes and social values, designating a degenerative process operating at a macro-social and institutional level, through the perversion of certain constitutive features of a political system (Dobel, 1978). The predominant approach takes instead corruption as a specific social practice, having distinctive features which can be defined at micro-level, within a particular relational context. Any explanation of its facilitating conditions and effects requires an analysis of facilitating factors and effects on variables at a macro-level, but a distinction can be maintained between individual actions and their social premises or consequences (Gambetta 2002). Corrupt practices are characterizes by an actor’s violation of standards of behaviour characterized as an abuse of entrusted power, which can be associated to legal (i.e. public-office centred), informal (as stated by the public opinion’s judgement) or public-interest criteria (Heidenheimer and Johnston 2002). As such, evidence of large-scale corruption practices in the public sector is at the same time a signal of the failure of the institutional and societal mechanisms of control over the integrity and effectiveness in public agents’ delegation of power, and a challenge to all the basic principles of democratic government: corruption within democracy is necessarily also corruption of a democracy.
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