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Mr Cynicism goes to Panama

Last night I joked to a friend that it would take 24 hours for the usual suspects to come out with ‘actually, the Panama papers are bad’ hot takes. As it goes, I actually significantly underestimated the reflexes of the auto-reaction machine.

Quite a lot of this stuff can be ignored when it takes the form of ‘Putin is a poor, victimised anti-imperialist hero’ or ‘all the media are secret CIA stooges’ etc. There are reasonable questions to ask along the lines of focus and frameworks in reporting, of course, but making this story about the media reporting it is an error. (Tangentially, I suspect there is some stuff coming on people in American public life, but a dearth of Americans in the disclosures thus far might have plausible explanations, given both the transparency deal between Panama and the IRS, and the USA’s own lax approaches to corporate taxation, Delaware &c.) It is worth remembering there is apparently a lot more coming in general, not least the full list of companies and individuals promised by the ICIJ in May.

The more interesting objections take the following positions: it’s a non-story, really, ‘rich people keep money in banks’ and people already know everyone is corrupt; it’s not a non-story, but detracts from ‘real’ politics or is a highly reified spectacle with little chance of meaningful impact; taxation is not an automatic good, and any linking of these stories to austerity obscures the political choices involved in the latter; relatedly, concern about the distribution of wealth is not the same as, nor is even necessarily allied to, a concern with ending the exploitation on which wealth depends. I think all of these misread the significance of the leak: the story isn’t ‘rich people put their money in banks’ but legal corruption on a global scale, uniting public and private sectors, and mediated through banks, law firms and financial statelets. It unites wealth extraction in the global south with the insulated private fortunes of the ultimate beneficiaries of that process here. And though certainly austerity is a political choice, any major expansion of social provision (rather than simply stanching the wounds) will require greater revenue: here is one place to look. The ability to link grotesque detail to major policy is politically potent, and so many of these stories offer the opportunity to tackle obdurate public lies. Obscene property prices will magically fund social housing? Here is a king – an actual king – dodging any contribution to that process by owning his luxury houses through a legal fiction. Political scandals are not given, they are made.

What is most striking about these objections are that they are united by a sense that the implications of these revelations won’t be pursued to their proper end, they’ll be bought off with some minimal ‘reform’ masquerading as a victory. Another way of putting this, it seems to me, is that they are united by a sense of the absence of any left worth the name, capable of actually pushing the links in these scandals to their proper conclusions. I can sympathise with that, but I don’t think things are quite that bleak. Of course, rules on transparency, objections to corruption or arguing about social settlements are not the promised land: but they are useful agitants on the way there. Even rhetoric along the lines of early c20th run-up to the New Deal would be a welcome reinjection of some serious animus into political life. I can’t buy the faux-worldliness that insists this is not somehow revolting or scandalous – and more so for the refrains about legality and legitimacy, for corruption stinks most when dressed in the law – and more so, that though this leak is large, it is one small fraction of a far vaster global web of such institutions, many of them operated under the protecting wing of the British state. Plenty to build on there.