Priv­i­lege and the Panama Papers

Lesotho Times - - Opinion - Ia­son Athanasiadis

ONE of the most pop­u­lar pro­grammes on US tele­vi­sion in the 1980s was an Amer­i­can van­ity show called Life­styles of the Rich and Fa­mous. It was unashamedly mind­less TV, per­ma­nently see-saw­ing be­tween as­pi­ra­tional and voyeuris­tic as it took us on rose-tinted jour­neys through the vil­las and pri­vate jets of the wealthy.

Sub­stance abuse and dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ships may have lurked in these su­per­fi­cially daz­zling worlds, but all the starstruck au­di­ence was treated to were care­fully cu­rated sto­ry­lines of hard work am­ply re­warded: the Amer­i­can Dream, in short. Mon­day’s re­lease of the Panama Papers might just be the 21st cen­tury’s ver­sion of Life­styles on a mas­sive dose of schaden­freude.

The huge data dump prom­ises to pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing back­story into how $20 tril­lion, much of it be­long­ing to the world’s most pow­er­ful politi­cians, crim­i­nals, heads of cor­po­ra­tions and po­lit­i­cal fix­ers, went un­ac­counted for … and the vast in­dus­try ded­i­cated to spir­it­ing it from sight.

It is a re­minder that we in­habit the moment of great­est in­equal­ity in hu­man his­tory, not just in fi­nan­cial but so­cial sol­i­dar­ity terms too.

The In­ter­net has en­abled the set­ting-up of truly global man­age­ment plat­forms al­low­ing a few to re­motely profit from the labour of the many, while lev­el­ling the play­ing field for the work­ing and mid­dle classes be­tween the West and the rest.

Free mar­ket legislation and global lo­gis­ti­cal net­works have prised open economies, col­lapsed dis­tances, ex­tracted value from vul­ner­a­ble lo­cales, and redi­rected it to geopo­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful cen­tres, all at un­matched speeds. The new global elite whose mis­de­meanours the Panama Papers doc­u­ment are the cre­ation of this quick­est of wealth trans­fers.

In be­com­ing his­tory’s first truly uni­ver­sal plat­form, the In­ter­net an­nuls all the lo­cal repli­ca­tions in the ser­vice sup­ply chain that al­lowed lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties at re­gional and lo­cal level to ben­e­fit from the trickle-down ef­fect.

Com­pa­nies such as Skype, Ama­zon and Airbnb could not have at­tained global mo­nop­oly in their fields with­out the In­ter­net, but that still comes at the ex­pense of lo­cal ac­tors. De­spite of­fer­ing free or re­duced-price ser­vices, the economies of scale that flowed from glob­ally dom­i­nat­ing their field made them myth­i­cally rich overnight. Never had the global mar­ket been cor­nered in so many dis­ci­plines so quickly.

This process re­sulted in di­verse wealth trans­fers, hol­lowed-out wel­fare states in the West, and greater in­equal­ity. Multi­na­tion­als boosted their profit mar­gins as pro­duc­tion shifted from well-pro­tected mid­dle-class jobs in the West to pro­duc­tion hubs with less strin­gent labour com­pen­sa­tion laws and trade unions.

This also re­sulted in a po­lar­is­ing emerg­ing class di­vide in many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, as a new class of net­worked, mul­ti­lin­gual, for­eign-ed­u­cated haves grew at the ex­pense of mono­lin­gual, hard­scrab­ble have-nots.

The more priv­i­lege the one class ac­quired, the more it locked the other side into a churn­ing cir­cle of ex­ploita­tion. As in­equal­ity in­creased, most democ­ra­cies started pre­sent­ing a new fea­ture in their elec­tions: the can­di­date rep­re­sent­ing priv­i­lege.

Check­ing priv­i­lege A for­mer United Na­tions of­fi­cial wrote a much-shared op-ed last month re­veal­ing ram­pant ar­chaic priv­i­leges and epic in­com­pe­tence in the world’s largest in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion. He de­scribed the UN as “a black hole into which dis­ap­pear count­less tax dol­lars and hu­man as­pi­ra­tions, never to be seen again”.

The ar­ti­cle came at a time when priv­i­lege and its dis­con­tents are trend­ing in so­cial me­dia dis­cus­sions. At a time when in­equal­ity is widen­ing again in what has been dubbed the Great Di­ver­gence, on­line au­di­ences are tack­ling the bal­loon­ing dis­par­ity and its ben­e­fi­cia­ries with the ap­petite of a dig­i­tal lynch mob.priv­i­lege is in­creas­ingly crop­ping up in con­ver­sa­tion as a ma­lig­nant noun, with an en­tire glos­sary of witty ne­ol­o­gisms (“mansplain­ing”, “driv­ing while black”) crop­ping up to pop­u­late the field, in­clud­ing a new app(eq­ui­table) for split­ting restau­rant bills on an “af­fir­ma­tive frac­tions” ba­sis.

While it can of­ten seem like po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness run amok, this re­newed fo­cus is part of a con­ver­gence that the In­ter­net’s next man­i­fes­ta­tion, cur­rently known as the In­ter­net of Things, is likely to ac­cel­er­ate. This highly in­ter­con­nected dig­i­tal grid will over­lay ev­ery as­pect of our phys­i­cal land­scape and link its com­po­nents to each other through an all-pen­e­trat­ing ar­ray of tools and pres­sure points.

Alarm­ingly in­tru­sive on the one hand, it will also fa­cil­i­tate mea­sur­ing the com­po­nents of priv­i­lege with fright­en­ing intimacy for the first time ever: in­comes and ex­pen­di­tures, what we con­sume, and our energy foot­print can be en­tered to cre­ate an eco­log­i­cal score.

Be­ing able to as­sess, re­ward and pe­nalise the waste­ful or mod­est among us is im­por­tant in a post-na­tion-state age in which the value at­tached to peo­ple and the ease with which they travel ought fi­nally to be delinked from the coun­try in which they hap­pened to be born. The sys­tem, which would be global, would sur­pass any ex­ist­ing elec­tronic tax sys­tem by as­sess­ing par­tic­i­pants not just on their in­come or free mar­ket-dic­tated ex­pen­di­tures, but on their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact too.

Pe­nal­is­ing con­sumerism The po­ten­tial for de­vel­op­ing this into a tool for check­ing priv­i­lege and anti-eco­log­i­cal be­hav­iour is huge. And given that the in­fra­struc­ture for the In­ter­net of Things is al­ready largely there, set­ting up a sys­tem that re­wards those who live mod­estly by nour­ish­ing them­selves lo­cally while tax­ing the priv­i­leged who don’t think twice about jump­ing on to a tran­spa­cific flight, feast­ing on im­ported foods or hav­ing a high-meat diet, is not a stretch. A car­bon cred­its sys­tem sim­i­lar to what coun­tries al­ready com­ply with could sim­i­larly be widened to in­clude in­di­vid­u­als.

If han­dled well, this could tip the bal­ance of tech­nol­ogy away from reg­u­lat­ing pop­u­la­tions and to­wards em­pow­er­ing them. Op­po­si­tion is likely from coun­tries un­will­ing to for­sake power over their cit­i­zens. But the Panama Papers are the clear­est warn­ing bell that the sys­tem is bro­ken and that a mech­a­nism for mon­i­tor­ing priv­i­lege is es­sen­tial at this stage of global in­te­gra­tion.

l Athanasiadis is a pho­to­jour­nal­ist who cov­ers the Mid­dle East.

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