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
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”.
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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