The language of politics

‘Corruption’ has become a buzzword to fill the void of our post-ideological nihilism

From the World Cup to Bolsonaro, Brazil's political discourse reveals the limitations of a ubiquitous term
Photo: Gabriel Smith
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“There was no World Cup in Brazil.”

I stared at the professor with my mouth hanging wide open, wondering if I had somehow misremembered.

Fabio Durão teaches literary theory at the University of Campinas in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Currently on an academic exchange at the University of Victoria, where I study, he has a keen eye for media critique plus cultural and political analysis. He and I had originally met up to discuss the “golden shower” fiasco that engulfed the Twittersphere after blowing up on Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s feed during Carnival.

Turns out, it’s a fine point of cynical humour in São Paulo to joke that the 2014 FIFA World Cup never happened.

“The protests and the national feeling really were that bad,” Fabio explained. “I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the technical aspects of the game, and I knew even in the group stages that Brazil was not going to win. But even I never dreamed that they would be defeated 7-1 by Germany in the knockout stage.”

At some level, Brazilians realized that the situation was a sham, that even a World Cup win would have been a bittersweet victory.

During and after the 2014 World Cup and general election in Brazil, “corruption” became ubiquitous, a political buzzword powerful enough to depose left-wing leaders and prop up neofascistic reaction.

The other reason the 2014 World Cup lies dead in the national memory, Fabio continued, is that one might have at least expected all of that pent-up frustration and outrage to be transformed into a substantive critique of the structure of Brazilian soccer — a chain of exploitation that funnels players from developing nations up the ladder into international football and onto the world stage. Many members of the national team, perceived as playing with no heart, had become divas and scandalously bourgeois, interested only in highly lucrative European club football, organized through the European football confederation, UEFA, and its syndicates.

But instead, a relatively small, accidental factor in this growing unrest seized control of the entire discourse, and eventually diffused people’s outrage through a massively distributed network of bureaucratic investigations, lengthy trials, and the deafening buzz of mainstream media. This factor was, in a word, corruption. From 2011 to 2015, FIFA was under investigation for mass corruption allegations. During and after the 2014 World Cup and general election in Brazil, “corruption” became ubiquitous, a political buzzword powerful enough to depose left-wing leaders and prop up neofascistic reaction. The term has since spread, like an infection, to much of our present-day global neoliberal political discourse.

In 2014, Brazil went into serious economic decline. At the most precipitous point of its fall, what had been the largest economy in Latin America — the “B” in the BRICS grouping of emerging economies — saw a breakdown of social cohesion and a crisis in national identity amid a cataclysmic shrinkage of both GDP growth and workers’ rights. All of this heaving outrage effectively went nowhere; it merely became a sort of irritant, absorbed into the skin. A World Cup victory would have been portrayed as the national dream, almost routinely — automatically — by the oligopolistic media apparatus in Brazil: what better way to suspend the profound immiseration of an extreme economic crisis than through an inspiring victory for working-class icons on the national and internationally broadcast stage?

“Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985,” said Fabio. “After the first democratic election following redemocratization in 1989, every subsequent election year, from 1994 on, has taken place in the fall immediately following a World Cup.”

FIFA go home

What else was happening in 2014?

FIFA’s anti-doping agency introduced the “biological passport,” which mandates a series of medical tests individuals must undergo in order to qualify for participation in competitive events. An invention of the World Anti-Doping Agency, this biological passport has been incorporated as a regulatory framework into other governing bodies in international sport. The effect was that players, national teams, and nations themselves would be targeted for corruption: if the proof is in the pudding, the proverbial pudding here is the athletes’ pliable bodies.

But there’s more. The president of FIFA at the time, Sepp Blatter, was the top name in a huge corruption investigation that ended up implicating 11 top-ranking officials in the organization in a web of bribes and favours curried to the tune of $150-billion. In 2011, Blatter won his fourth consecutive FIFA presidential election, amid allegations of financial corruption, having run unopposed.

For years, FIFA was run as a mafia, parading as a world sporting organization. For instance, senior members of the British bid team referred to the evening of December 1, 2010, as the “night of the long knives” after they received only two votes in support of their 2018 host nation bid. That the 2018 tournament would take place in Britain was thought to be all but signed and sealed given their promised backers, but a last-minute push from the Russian representatives — including then–prime minister Vladimir Putin, who was one and off the phone for hours via a direct line with Blatter — sent major supporters like UEFA president Michel Platini and CONCACAF president Jack Warner over to the Russian side. It even elicited a confounding majority of support for Qatar’s bewildering 2022 host bid. The events of World Cup Decision Day 2010 triggered the subsequent corruption investigations into FIFA.

Blatter was finally forced to step down in 2015. Both he and Platini were suspended from FIFA activities for eight years (they appealed and had the ban reduced to six years in February 2016). It’s worth mentioning that, over the course of his tenure as FIFA president, and as a governing official in a host of other national and international governing bodies in sport, Blatter won many awards, medals, honourary titles and degrees, special citizenships, and the like. He was also the subject of sexual assault allegations brought forth in November 2017 by U.S. women’s team goalkeeper Hope Solo, who claimed that Blatter grabbed her ass at the 2013 Ballon d’Or awards.

But it wasn’t only Blatter. The corruption case, which led to arrests and indictments in 2015, included accusations against officials from 10 different countries. Chuck Blazer (FIFA Executive Committee member, 1996–2013; U.S. Soccer Federation Executive Vice President and CONCACAF General Secretary, 1990–2011) faced a potential 20-year sentence for crimes extending to bribery and massive fraud. In November 2014, it was reported that Blazer had been a confidential informant to the FBI and the IRS — he died before he could receive sentencing. Eight convicted defendants avoided jailtime by offering lumpsums of cash as part of their guilty pleas. The punchline almost goes without saying: all gave vastly less than the amounts that had passed through their hands immune to taxation for social benefit, and none are serving jailtime. In 2013, Sepp Blatter and then-president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff were announced as the scheduled speakers for the opening day of the 2014 World Cup. Both were met with boos from the crowd.

In response, FIFA announced there would be no speeches on the opening day. Instead, there were protests with banners that read, “FIFA GO HOME!” Nine days before the opening day, on July 3, an overpass collapsed in Belo Horizonte, which was being built as part of the World Cup infrastructure, killing two people and leaving 22 injured. This was only the most recent in a series of collapses of infrastructure, including a shoddily built staircase in Maracanã Stadium and a monorail in São Paulo. Eight construction workers died during the construction of World Cup stadiums prior to the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

World Cup as political instrument

This series of unfortunate events illustrates some alarming tropes in FIFA’s systematic usage of the World Cup tournament as a political instrument that dismantles emerging economies and reinforces global neoliberal capitalist hegemony.

First, FIFA has potential host nations bend over backwards for the right to score the maximum of political points available from the hosting of a successful tournament, which can be manipulated in order to help reinforce the neoliberal consensus (or manufactured, in the event of a tragic World Cup defeat, or re-engineered, in the event that a vague promissory right to host the next World Cup melts into air).

When a host nation is successful in its bid, they are then forced to invest massively in huge infrastructure projects, betting at bottom dollar with the most exploitative local contractors, for things that aren’t really socially necessary in the first place; the spectacle of the World Cup can serve to distract from the real material conditions of immiseration (as in the favelas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which were cleansed in order to make way for the construction of World Cup stadiums, in one case displacing as many as 700 families in the Favela do Metrô, near the Maracanã Stadium) or to dissolve and redirect budding resentment over authoritarianism, crypto-surveillance and ideological manipulation (as in Russia).

Finally, FIFA parasitizes a significant proportion of the dividends that hosting might be expected to guarantee, redirecting these funds into their own pockets, plus the pockets of political officials, heads of national and international governing bodies in sport, and so on — which, ideally, does not kill the host but keeps it reliant on the parasitic relationship. This is how the FIFA mafia operated for decades while basking in the applause of billions worldwide.

During Dilma’s first term as Brazilian president, beginning in 2011, she was quite popular — no doubt bolstered by her credentials as a former Marxist urban guerilla who fought against the fascist dictatorship and survived torture, as well as by the support of one of the most popular presidents in Latin American history, Lula de Silva. Economic growth allowed for the pursuit of a series of relatively bold economic policies, with a populist vision aimed at lifting up the suffering working class.

After the economy took a swan dive in 2014 and after Dilma was re-elected in the fall following the World Cup — albeit with thinner margins of support against a growing right-wing insurgency — the executive pursued policies that collectively spelled capitulation to neoliberal austerity, with the idea that the poorest have to tighten their belts and lift themselves up by the bootstraps in order to shoulder the burden of lifting their nations out of crisis-mode.

The stagnation of the global economy after the 2008 financial crash meant that Chinese buying power took a serious hit, which hurt Latin American exports and led to Brazil crashing out of BRICS and the rise of Russia as the familiar old spectre of opposition to global capitalist hegemony (in spite of the fact that it is essentially a mafia state run on ruthlessly capitalist principles stripped bare of liberal niceties). To a great extent, Chinese purchasing power was propping up the less developed economies within the BRICS sphere of influence. A relative slowdown of the Chinese economy thus meant slamming on the breaks elsewhere.

Furthermore, developing economies that become overly reliant on single export markets are also the most exposed to a crash, in the event of the failure of those markets. So it was that the more developed sectors of Brazil’s export economy dried up, leaving the country completely reliant on commodities such as iron, oil, soy and sugar. Much like the situation today in Venezuela — or, in an almost perverse way, Alberta — the Workers Party (PT) government was dependent on oil revenues and failed to pursue a set of courageous socialist policies aimed at full nationalization and workers’ democratic control. After decades of social welfare policies aimed at the poor and working class funded to a large extent by oil revenues, they were left especially vulnerable to economic crisis.

In turn, the PT’s capitulations to neoliberal austerity left workers feeling betrayed, and the PT hemorrhaged support from its base. This in particular exposed the party to the right-wing campaign based on trumped-up corruption charges (centered on their routine fiscal management, in the public interest, of semi-public oil company Petrobras, for which they were essentially attacked) that eventually lead to Dilma’s impeachment and the imprisonment of Lula — a “juridical-military-mediatic coup,” as Fabio put it.

‘You just can’t contain it’

At the same time, the right wing in Brazil was stoking its most reactionary elements on the back of a vile anti-corruption discourse, targeting not only poor and racialized others living in the favelas but also the LGBTQ+ community, who have manifested one of the most ardent oppositions to current president Jair Bolsonaro’s militaristic and evangelical (or neopentecostal) neoliberal authoritarianism.

It’s a familiar playbook, for those who have been closely watching Donald Trump or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Carnival carries the power to poke fun at all the repressive norms of daily life. Naturally, this symbolic status makes it a permanent threat to authoritarian and plutocratic regimes.

The “golden shower” fiasco was the most recent instantiation of this. In a failed attempt to kinkshame the queer community, for whom Carnival — a huge five-day party in Brazil that marks the beginning of Lent through the celebration of a spirit of transgression and excess — enjoys a special status, Bolsonaro shared a video depicting the erotic act of a man urinating on another man to his Twitter page. When the video was eventually removed by Twitter for its explicit content, Bolsonaro tweeted a now-infamous message: “O que é golden shower?” (What is a golden shower?)

Barring for the moment that Twitter’s algorithms are apparently more triggered by explicit sex acts between men than by neo-fascistic discourse and white supremacy, the response to this video reminds me of what Fabio says of Carnival: “You just can’t contain it.” Carnival carries the power to poke fun at all the repressive norms of daily life. Naturally, this symbolic status makes it a permanent threat to authoritarian and plutocratic regimes. And naturally, this meant that the LGBTQ+ community would end up colourfully protesting Bolsonaro’s regime during his first Carnival.

His attempt to kinkshame Carnival can only be read as an attempt to incite his reactionary base against the festival and the queer community at large. It is a well-documented fact that the queer community isdisproportionately impacted by the effects of poverty and housing instability. As if these connections weren’t enough, it was recently discovered that one of Bolsonaro’s sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, has significant ties to the local paramilitary groups found responsible for the murder of LGBTQ+ and poverty activist Marielle Franco. And a recent photo has even surfaced of another son, Jair Renan, which appears to establish that he dated the daughter of Franco’s killer.

‘It’s like an affective assault rifle’

There is little consensus regarding what corruption actually is.

It is, by definition, evil. The word comes from the Latin corruptionem, “of material things,” especially dead bodies. It is also described as an “act of becoming putrid”; “dissolution, decay” of morals, souls or bodies; a “spiritual contamination, depravity, wickedness.”

Indeed, the usefulness of the term resides precisely in its amorphousness. Murder in the favelas goes largely unpunished in Brazil, just like in the Philippine slum, the African-American hood, the Native rez. Flávio Bolsonaro has been a member of the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro since 2003, and was elected to the federal senate representing the state of Rio in 2018.

But, strangely, it is squarely within this failure to capture what is “corrupt,” to decide what “corruption” is, that the possibility for resistance and subversion grows. Capitalizing on this failure to decide is a version of what Canadian theorist Alexis Shotwell calls “purity politics,” which always appears as an attempt to reduce messy, complex, material entanglements to simple, universalizing abstractions.

What gets called “corrupt” is, quite simply, whatever we don’t like

“It’s like an affective assault rifle,” said Fabio, “and producing this affect is the only thing Bolsonaro is good at.” In psychology and social theory, “affect” refers to the capacity to touch, sway or influence the emotions. The image was especially poignant, since the day that Fabio and I met, Brazil had just experienced its first U.S.-style mass shooting, at a school in São Paulo. An assault rifle that fires affects instead of bullets would be one that wounds or kills by directing outrage.

What gets called “corrupt” is, quite simply, whatever we don’t like: whatever we wish to reject, or succeeded at ignoring for a time, before it reared its ugly, noxious head. It is, ubiquitously, what we wish to reject about our bodies, our institutions, our national identities, as something we are necessarily ashamed by, which induces us to performatively project a world that is right and fair and just. In other words, “corruption” presupposes a pure state of uncontaminated moral dignity, of righteously established legality, and so on. This is why “corruption,” as it functions in political discourse, seamlessly slides between talk about bodies, politics, and economics. If some bilious community has become a source of “corruption” in the neoliberal body politic, then it must be excised, severed from the organic whole, rendered inexistent.

Since its inception, a significant degree of queer praxis has been oriented around turning attention to systematically ignored or excluded bodies — body types, gender phenotypes and sexual orientations that we must necessarily reject in order to reassert the validity of a rigid gender binary, which always plays a double role, simultaneously, as power hierarchy — in order to subvert existing regimes of repressive normalization that act on our most deeply held ideals: be they of bodily types, gender roles, racial or national identities, etc. Here’s the rub: once you’ve bought into the “anti-corruption” discourse, in effect, you have already fallen for the neo-reactionary trap of purity politics, which has both left and right-wing variants.

A right-wing variant would be of the sort we see unfolding in Brazil, in the Philippines, in the United States, and elsewhere. However, a particularly noxious left-wing variant exists here in Canada. I’m talking about the contradiction between Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways” brand of neoliberalism — a clever code for purity politics — and the recent corruption scandal blowing up around him about the federal government’s ties to SNC-Lavalin, and the unsanctimonious “parting of ways” with former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould over her refusal to sign off on a deferral of prosecution for the Montreal-based industrial megalith after years of corrupt dealings, including massive payouts to the Gaddafi regime in Libya (whom all once branded as a corrupt dictator, according to the global neoliberal consensus).

“Corruption” has, quite simply, become the latest buzzword to fill the void of our post-ideological political nihilism.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has excoriated Trudeau on his government’s financial indiscretions, but most Canadians know that the Conservative Party’s track record can hardly be thought of as better when it comes to corruption and other dark dealings. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has called for a public inquiry, but this is just an empty pipedream, since parts of the investigation will always remain tied up with SNC’s criminal proceedings, and thus, confidential, according to the criminal code. Instead of literally calling for the impossible, it would be nice if Singh could, for once, call a spade a spade — the SNC scandal has nothing to do with corruption: it’s simply business as usual, exactly what is to be expected under the decades-long death knell of neoliberal capitalism, which is struggling to lurch from crisis to crisis with a sunny face (and as little indecent talk as possible about its ailing body).

“Corruption” has, quite simply, become the latest buzzword to fill the void of our post-ideological political nihilism. “Corruption” is the ubiquitous cause of whatever ails us. The mere sniff of it sends us right to our technocratic doctors, who are experts at incisively rooting out all manners of infection. By extending its apparatus of capture to all possible political phenomena, “corruption,” eventually, necessarily fails to adequately describe any single phenomenon: it quickly loses all purchase. And when a currency loses purchasing power, but retains its ideological value nevertheless (we could draw innumerable comparisons with the American dollar), the only, fiscally responsible, commonsensical response, is to violently reimpose the authority of the dollar, eradicating all competition, and assimilating outliers into the global body politic manufactured by the neoliberal consensus.

Instead of talking about “corruption,” we must start talking about the real effects of power, social Instead of talking about corruption, we must start talking about the real effects of power, social control, and economic exploitation. “Corruption” can only ever speak to an ideal — ideological — body; its prescriptions, even when well intentioned, are therefore marked by eliminatory exclusions, like a doctor that prescribes radiation therapy for your cancer and completely destroys your thyroid in the process, leaving you reliant on hormone supplements for the rest of your life. Or, like a neo-fascistic dictator who seeks to eradicate the visible effects of poverty, all while intensifying the pressures on these sites by undercutting immunological support networks, such as housing, safe spaces, social welfare, workers’ rights, etc. Our only response to talk of corruption can be to point out, materially and concretely, whose loss is whose gain, who wins and who loses.

These victories and defeats, and the stories we tell about them, become permanent sites of political contestation. They are won and lost through spectacular intervention, as much as through political organization. Whether World Cup or drag performance, these failures always contain a radical political potential — for better or worse. And the next failure can always be manufactured; it is always waiting, right around the corner. The only way we can inoculate ourselves from reactionary attempts to reinscribe these national failures and circumscribe the space of radical dissensus to ill-fated, autoimmune attempts to eliminate all foreign bodies, is by seizing upon these failures ourselves, as spaces for both radical political organization and the joyous affirmation of difference.

The 2026 World Cup will be held in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The concept of the joint bid was proposed in 2016. Who knows where we’ll be by then. Donald Trump recently met with Bolsonaro in the White House. By 2026, Sepp Blatter will be five years' free of his ban from all FIFA-related activities. The nascent popular government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico is a nice change in pace from the administration of neoliberal shill and (alleged) mass murderer Peña Nieto, but time will tell. If the current state of the corruption discourse in Canada and the U.S. are anything to go by, we should brace ourselves for a toxic event.

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