The release of the Panama Papers last weekend — a paper trail of eleven million leaked documents from the Mossack Fonseca global law firm — shows how major global banks move assets of billionaire capitalists and major political figures offshore to protect them from taxation. The revelation has stirred up a political hornets’ nest all over the world. The Icelandic government is probably going to fall and its parliament swept by a Pirate Party majority because of the revelations. UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s career may well be on the line. And I doubt the actual workers in the workers’ paradise of China are real pleased to learn the leaders of the, ahem, Communist Party have been moving their stolen loot into tax havens.
As an anarchist, I’m obviously not losing much sleep over the idea of state taxing authorities losing revenue. I’ve done plenty of business with hardworking tradespeople on a cash discount basis, and we were entirely happy with the arrangement. One of the benefits of informal arrangements within the social economy is that the direct exchange of labor for labor avoids the overhead of feeding the bureaucratic state.
So what’s different about this case?
For starters, the state’s main function is to serve the very plutocrats who have been offshoring their wealth to avoid taxation. It subsidizes big business out of the general revenue. It enforces entry barriers, restraints on competition and artificial property rights like “intellectual property,” enabling all the monopoly rents that those plutocrats live on. Corporate capitalism, as Noam Chomsky says, is socialized cost and privatized profit. And the cost of doing all these things is funded by coercive taxation. Consider this in the light of a recent report that some 74% of billionaires’ wealth (and I consider that a very conservative estimate) comes from rents obtained with the help of the state.
Even the “progressive” stuff the state does is for the purpose of keeping capitalism on a long-term stable basis and maximizing the sustainable rate of exploitation. And most of it — old age pensions, welfare, food stamps — is either funded by the recipients themselves through payroll taxes, or amount to the capitalist state funding cleanup costs for what the rich have done to the rest of us.
What’s more, the very classes that control the state, and benefit from its subsidies and enforcement of monopoly rents, turn around and move their ill-gotten “privatized profit” offshore. This is part — an unusually ugly part — of a much larger trend, over the past three or four decades of neoliberalism, of shifting the main burden of taxation onto the wages of labor and off of returns on accumulated property.
So yeah — this selective enforcement of the tax laws, in favor of the very classes served by the state, stinks to high heaven.
But more important than confirming my low opinion of the rich and powerful, and giving me some entertainment, the story gives me hope in a big way. The Panama Papers represent, as the title of an article by The Guardian‘s Micah White puts it “leaktivism’s coming of age” (April 5). If leaks by Chelsea Manning in 2010 and Edward Snowden in 2013 were the gigantic “baby steps,” the Panama Papers are a sign of what we can expect as leaktivism matures.
And as Glyn Moody points out at Techdirt (“Terabyte-Sized ‘Panama Papers’ Leak Confirms The Continuing Rise Of The Super-Whistleblowers,” April 4), a leak on this scale wouldn’t have been possible five years ago — but is now, thanks to terabyte-scale thumb drives.
I remember my exhilaration at the doxxing of HBGary and Stratfor, and my hope that we were entering a period where every week would see a similar information H-bomb dropped on a new Fortune 500 corporation. And I remember my sadness when FBI busted Sabu and the core of the LulzSec group.
But maybe it’s finally happening for real — only this time through the efforts of inside leakers rather than outside hackers. I’m getting that feeling I had back in 2011. Who’s going to be the lucky target this week? Shell? Monsanto? Nestle? The FBI? The RIAA? Whether this is it or not, I don’t think it will be long before we see a real-life version of the scenarios in Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, where all the iniquities of powerful institutions are dragged into the light of day.
It’s a good time to be alive.
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