Archive for June, 2015

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Preparing E15 :

Corruption prevention and the disciplined subject

It is useful to investigate the link between world-constructions and self-constructions, and I am deeply convinced that accounting is one of these bridging constructions between something that could be called “inner space” and something that could be called “outer space”. Keith Hoskin is investigating this link, and thus, I am happy to review his essay/article
‘‘What about the box?’’ Some thoughts on the possibility of ‘corruption prevention’, and of ‘the disciplined and ethical subject’. (Critical Perspectives on Accounting (2015))
Readers of this blog know: This is of course not an academic review. It is a review for practitioners. Thus, you will not find what others have said on this topic. I will only take up on what I understand Hoskin wants to say. Then I will say what he says but should not say. And finally I will add what he does not say but should say.

 

I. Content
Hoskin is searching for different ways of how to address “corruption”. An article of Neu, Everett, Rahaman, Martinez (2015) on “Preventing corruption within government procurement: Constructing the disciplined and ethical subject” stimulated him to re-read Foucault. Following Foucault, a French philosopher who died in the 80s of the last century, Hoskin offers two ways of how to approach the general theme of “how to address corruption”: an analysis of our construction of the outer world, an analysis of our construction of ourselves, and the link between these two worlds.
In the construction of the outer space, definition power would mean to have a frame in which others could be accused of being corrupt (i.e. dishonest) or could be praised to have integrity. For an elite, it is important that it could violate the rules of others, but has a tool at hand to legalize this violation of the rules of others. Hoskin believes that auditing is a perfect tool for this. Following Foucault, he calls this mechanism “hyper-legalization”. The flipside of this process is the criminalization of the oppressed. On this he writes:
“The illegalism of rights exercised by those descendants of the old bourgeoisie who now populate large corporate entities, big government, and the professional service firms operating across the accounting, financial and legal arenas appears as inoculated and impervious to law’s attacks now as then. On the contrary, we increasingly witness how such recourse, thoughtfully strategised, can operate in a directly contrary direction: just select the appropriate specific form of law (usually of the contract or commercial type) and you can incarnate an illegalism of rights which, with the appropriate admixture of disciplinary experts and expertise, can decisively trump old sovereign state law.” (p. 8)
Because it is so essential to move the frontier of what is legal or illegal, Hoskin calls the overall behavior (following the terminology of Foucault) “illegalism” which would include these two elements: criminalization of the suppressed and hyper-legalization of the actions of their superiors. In short, elites have the possibility to hide themselves in “cloaks of transparency” – which is a very nice metaphor.
Secondly, there is a line of self-construction, a self-formation which creates a subject which in turn takes part in “truth games”. It is not further explained where these truth games come from. Knowing Foucault a bit, I would say that this topic rests on the ultimately opaque “care for the self”, described by Foucault in his last lectures, which could be found in „La courage pour la verité“. Foucault´s thinking is circling around the problem how truth is generated.
The post-Foucaultian subject, a kind of entrepreneur of oneself – is, as Hoskin continues, a subject that is disciplining itself, and disciplining others. This subject should have ethical values in order to fight corruption – and here Hoskin would like to make a connection between both streams.

 

II. Outreach
However, at this point, for me, the chain of logic was broken. Why should subjects of this kind have ethical values? How should they fight corruption? Why they should do this?
Hoskin describes the biological reality of these subjects – he makes a big leap to the biological reality of human capital. It is a complex idea, and I think the best is too make it short and to listen to these “subjects” as they describe themselves in:
quantifiedself
This is a bit an interpretation of what Hoskin is doing, but I think it is admissible: Indeed, it is a very far leap, and it would probably require several steps to make the link between truth production and biological human capital evident. I do not want to say that this link does not exist; I want to say that it requires more explanation. For instance, we could probably say that in the traditional civil society, the net worth of a person is determined by his or her personal capital balance (his or her “net worth”), while in the post-Foucault world, it is determined by verifiable, uploaded bio-parameters?
I have difficulties in believing that self-quantifiers enter into difficult ethical discourses – but this may be a prejudice. (U. Vormbusch is investigating this new form of number based self-construction: uni hagen.)

There are many other topics in the text of Hoskin, which are also interesting and also somehow connected with the general theme; but, on the other hand, it would be no loss for the reader if the passages on prison, Colbert, Mr. Snowden, NSA and Ms. Chelsea Manning were missing. Also the link to TTIP is not so self-explainable: Yes, TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is a project of a multilateral agreement that is intended to introduce courts of arbitration, which are then superior to “sovereign” state laws, and this is a kind of the described hyper-legalization. But, you cannot say that TTIP is that kind of agreement that is made in order to create new realms for bribing or corruption. The link between TTIP and corruption and corruption prevention is loose.

 

III. Outlines for re-assembling the original idea
This brings me to my third point: Let us say what could be said, but is not said, or not said clearly enough, according to my taste. I must admit that this is a very free interpretation of the article.
To say what corruption is, is a technique of truth production. If you say what is not true, you do this with the intention to determine what is true (or, rarely, you tell the truth by mistake – the Freudian slip, which is irrelevant here). Even if you say that a person is corrupt, you say this with the intention to deconstruct his or her constructions. This discourse (of allegations and defense) is linked with the production of the self. You need somebody else to determine who you are – in a pure and honest sense. You can further investigate this desire (to know about yourself), but first it is clear that you do certainly not need corruption in this process. What is more: if you claim that others are corrupt, you deeply and knowingly violate their integrity. In order to know who you are you must fight corruption in others, because, if their view would be corrupted, you will never find out who you are: You would sit in the dictator trap – your lackeys would never tell you the truth. From this ensues that anti-corruption is an accelerating game in truth production. Uncorrupted world construction is in this way a by-product of a disciplined self-construction. An uncorrupted self is the product of a disciplined world construction. The word “product” means that this is a dynamic process.
Imagine the following situation: You are an auditor. You are to verify books of an NGO (i.e. enthusiasts), working in another country, ignoring local laws and regulations (because “it is a cruel dictatorship”). Of course, you understand now that this is a process of hyper-legalization – you should introduce correctness from scratch. Really, you “incarnate an illegalism of rights which, with the appropriate admixture of disciplinary experts and expertise, can decisively trump old sovereign state law”, as Hoskin said. Not this process is seen critically (because it is inevitable), but more the ethical implications: How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you legitimize yourself? How do you construct yourself in order to serve as a subject with the competence to construct a fair framework? I mean, you cannot say that the Declaration of Human Rights says something about Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, can you?
One answer could be: There should be standards! (A sufficiently arrogant auditor has to say this with a nasal tone: “But, there should be standards! – It is impertinent, that there aren’t any!”). In other words, we request that there should be rules of procedures how to disregard laws in other countries. This is difficult to imagine, at least in a public form. Maybe, some of the security services have this.
And here is one important message to Mr. Hoskin: You can read the International Standards on Auditing forwards and backwards, in particular ISA 800 “THE INDEPENDENT AUDITOR’S REPORT ON SPECIAL PURPOSE AUDIT ENGAGEMENTS” and ISA 250 and SAS 56 on supposed illegal acts by clients, and you can imagine why I have done this in the past (because I was constantly and exactly in the situation of hyper-legalization as described above); in the end you come to the following conclusion: the ISAs do not prohibit that auditors express an opinion on reports which are created in a hyper-space of hyper-legalism. They even exactly and precisely allow it. This is, I would say, and always has been the purpose of auditing: extracting and sanctioning rules or conventions or at least practices from scratch in worlds of chaos. It is part of our success. There is nothing cynical about this. You must understand that rules do not grow on trees; they are forged by ugly accounting workers in the workshops of the world in daily practice, followed blindly, based on trust. There is nothing democratic about this: it is work.
From this ensues that standards cannot ease our bad conscience. Standards could, at best, create comfort, because you can learn them, and then reality would be the “subject” of expert opinion. However, this is of course not satisfying. The answer of the self to the above described situation would be: There must be ethics! In our historical situation, this is, I feel, the best answer.
You must understand how true to life this answer is: it is an answer of an auditor-self that would like to survive in the current hyper-legalized world. It is a very proactive approach. Maybe it is a bit barbaric. You simply say to yourself: “I know that ethics are a bit unethical; so being ethical is not a reason for being afraid of dirt!“ And at the end of the working day, this auditor-self would say: “Somebody has to tidy up this pile of figures! It smells but that is what I am paid for. I get paid for telling others the truth about themselves, based on figures. This is unpleasant. They do not like this. I do not like this. The main thing is that they pay for this! Also something based on figures.”
The result of the hyper-legalistic situation described above is that the auditor-self must start with theory. If we do not start with theory, there is a risk that our profession will develop an ethical code similar to Samurai ethics, or the ethics of contract killers as Marion Hersh described this in “Ethical Engineering” (London 2015):
“… successful hitmen, like other successful “professionals”, must have a code of professional ethics. It might cover issues such as charging a fair price, confidentiality, refusing bribes, meeting deadlines, rejecting commissions which cannot be fulfilled and behaving discretely and professionally”.
In other words, it could be that we develop a professional code that only talks about the form but not about the substance of our business. In this example, one question is always avoided: Is killing others ethically justifiable? We see that a kind of ethical engineering is required, not in the sense that scientists should provide us with Sunday speech ethics, but that we must engineer our ethics ourselves.
Yes, accounting is a link between world-construction and self-construction. Accounting speaks the language of both of these worlds. Take “integrity”, “discipline”, “debt” – all these words construct something in the outer world, something in the inner world and they construct a bridge. “Integrity” is an ethical value and it has also the meaning of “physical integrity”; “discipline” could be a scientific profession or an inner value; “debt” could be a “subjective” feeling or an “objective” necessity. You see that our professional language in itself is systematically bridging the worlds! And so far we even have not talked about “money”, and what it is! But do we understand what our language has done to us?
May be, we could say: Accounting is about finding formulas about balancing the self and the others. I personally would not like to go into the direction of an “enhanced” construction of a self – Foucault does not offer a tool box for optimizing yourself; I would prefer taking part in the construction of a scientific accounting school. Theory is a requirement of practice.

Frank Fabel, MA, CPA (inactive), CEO FWS, Chairman empacta