Tim Adams re­views Oliver Bul­lough’s shock­ing tale of the global klep­toc­racy

Oliver Bul­lough’s tale of global klep­toc­racy is com­pelling, but its con­clu­sions are bleak, writes Tim Adams

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

Money­land: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take It Back Oliver Bul­lough

Pro­file Books, £20, pp304

Along with his friend, the an­ti­cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Ro­man Boriso­vich, the jour­nal­ist Oliver Bul­lough has re­cently been act­ing as a guide on London “Klep­toc­racy Tours”. Adapt­ing the open-top bus prin­ci­ple, groups of sight­seers are taken on a jour­ney through the cap­i­tal that show­cases the north London man­sion com­plexes owned by Rus­sian oli­garchs, the Eaton Square fan­tasies pur­chased by Mid­dle Eastern po­lit­i­cal dy­nas­ties, the £100m apart­ments bought off­plan by cor­rupt African politi­cians and oth­ers who have ex­tracted their bil­lions in coun­tries that have next to no fi­nan­cial ac­count­abil­ity and have found ways to hide them in the lux­u­ri­ous square footage of Kens­ing­ton and Bel­gravia.

This metic­u­lously re­searched and fan­tas­ti­cally dis­turb­ing book is ef­fec­tively the global ver­sion of that tour. Bul­lough traces the ways in which, over the last three decades, a crim­i­nal elite of politi­cians and “busi­ness­men” have been able to move their thieved for­tunes around the world, through off­shoring and shell com­pa­nies, and have seen those for­tunes set­tle in the places that have the high­est-paid lawyers and ac­coun­tants. Some econ­o­mists’ es­ti­mates put the amount of money se­creted in this way at $20tn (£15tn). Bul­lough calls the new world in which the klep­to­cratic class ex­ists and does not ex­ist Money­land – a shift­ing Brob­d­ing­nag of “Mal­tese pass­ports, English li­bel, Amer­i­can pri­vacy, Pana­ma­nian shell com­pa­nies, Jer­sey trusts, Liecht­en­stein foun­da­tions”, all de­signed to keep knowl­edge of out­ra­geous for­tune out of the sight of tax of­fi­cials and tax-pay­ing vot­ers.

There are 100,000 prop­er­ties owned off­shore in Eng­land and Wales. As he gath­ers knowl­edge about some of them, Bul­lough finds him­self in a kind of per­ma­nent al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity. “The build­ing where I buy my morn­ing cof­fee is owned in the Ba­hamas. The place I get my hair cut is owned in Gi­bral­tar. A build­ing site on my way to the train sta­tion is owned in the Isle of Man. If we spent all of our time try­ing to puz­zle out what is re­ally hap­pen­ing [in our cities] we’d have no time to do any­thing else…” Partly be­cause “I am a jour­nal­ist and all jour­nal­ists are fas­ci­nated by crooks”, Bul­lough makes it his busi­ness to ex­pose at least a few parts of this puz­zle, the dizzy­ing cre­ation of a self-in­ter­ested “ser­vices in­dus­try” in western democ­ra­cies that has con­trived to turn the globe into a money-laun­der­ing op­por­tu­nity.

He be­gins in Ukraine, be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion, at the pres­i­den­tial palaces of Vik­tor Yanukovych, which after his over­throw be­came a ghoul­ish tourist at­trac­tion, a glimpse be­hind the gold-en­crusted doors of the new world or­der. By 2014, it’s al­leged that Yanukovych and 45 of his cronies owned as­sets equiv­a­lent to half of the na­tional econ­omy. In the­ory, as a pub­lic ser­vant, Yanukovych, now in ex­ile in Rus­sia, had never been paid more than $2,000 a month. Clut­ter be­came an is­sue. Pi­casso vases, 14th-cen­tury icons and Rus­sian masterpieces were stacked up in Yanukovych’s garage. Pa­pers that he tried to de­stroy as he fled the coun­try by dump­ing them into the har­bour were fished out by pro­test­ers and dried in a sauna. They of­fered a blue­print for the ways in which a coun­try could be­come a racket to en­rich its gov­ern­ment.

As he sub­se­quently trav­els in Money­land, a vir­tual tour of the places where sub­ter­ranean flows of cash are cre­ated (Rus­sia, China, Saudi Ara­bia, An­gola, Afghanistan), where they are pro­cessed (Jer­sey, Ne­vis, Ne­vada) and where they erupt (New York, Monaco, Geneva, London), Bul­lough sees traces of that Ukrainian model of gov­ern­ment wher­ever he looks. He pro­vides an ex­cel­lent pot­ted his­tory of its gen­e­sis, the ways in which the post­war Bret­ton Woods agree­ment de­signed to pre­vent glob­alised spec­u­la­tion was at­tacked and un­der­mined by bankers ped­dling eu­rodol­lars in the 1960s, and how we have reached the point to­day where “money flows across fron­tiers, but laws do not” – the sim­ple equa­tion that de­scribes all the ex­cesses and in­equal­i­ties of our po­lit­i­cal mo­ment. That equa­tion is main­tained, Bul­lough ar­gues, by what he calls “the Money­land ratchet”, the myr­iad strate­gies by which the own­ers of ill-got­ten for­tunes, and the po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests that serve them, work tire­lessly to loosen reg­u­la­tions for mov­ing money. How they en­cour­age the eter­nal growth in­dus­try of loop­holes and fo­ment the on­go­ing strug­gle to de­stroy the kinds of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion that might threaten them.

The sub­ti­tle of his book of­fers the prom­ise of a so­lu­tion to this klep­toc­racy, a reck­on­ing: “how to take it back”. Though the whole en­ter­prise is a spir­ited ar­gu­ment for trans­parency, for ac­count­abil­ity, Bul­lough has – of course – only the ob­vi­ous an­swers to how to dis­man­tle Money­land. Reg­u­la­tion, the rule of law, in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, supra­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion. Those things would re­quire a col­lec­tive will­ing­ness to ac­cept po­ten­tial hard­ship in the west – where off­shoring re­mains a boom in­dus­try – and pro­found po­lit­i­cal courage. In its ab­sence, Bul­lough fears, and he is not hold­ing his breath, “the mis­ery in dis­tant coun­tries will be­come our mis­ery”.

To or­der Money­land for £17 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

There are 100,000 prop­er­ties owned off­shore in Eng­land and Wales

The home of the for­mer pres­i­dent of Ukraine, Vik­tor Yanukovych. Jeff J Mitchell/ Getty Im­ages

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