Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper discusses moral and legal ambivalences around wāsṭa in Jordan—a form of intercessory patronage that is both widely practiced and condemned. On the one hand, citizens use wāsṭa to gain access to state welfare by invoking ethical notions of patronage, and legal notions of justice. At the same time, they ethically and legally condemn it as a culturally entrenched form of corruption that undermines social justice understood as the rule of law. I take these ambivalences as a starting point to revisit two observations long made by anthropologists of corruption—namely, the difficulty of distinguishing between obvious acts of corruption from other phenomena that bear family resemblance to them, and the simultaneous banalization and condemnation of petty corruption in everyday life. Through an ethnographic account of wāsṭa interactions in the offices of members of parliament, and in the state bureaucracy, as well as legal debates about the criminalization of the practice, I show how these ambivalences can be traced not to contradictions between incommensurable sets of social norms, nor to the condition of being simultaneously a subject of law and of virtue. Rather, they can be traced to a structural contradiction within the liberal idea of the rule of law itself. Hence, I argue that the principle of legal equality as an aspirational horizon is not only unable to deliver the social justice it promises. It also generates a hermeneutic of suspicion whereby corruption is felt to be everywhere, but is nowhere to be located with forensic certainty.