Friday, December 07, 2018

When Elites Become Parasites: The Panama Papers

I’m deep into the new manuscript, but this week I broke down and watched a documentary I’ve been waiting a long time to see: Alex Winter’s The Panama Papers. It was superb: gripping, fascinating, and most of all, given the breadth of institutional corruption it examines, outrage-inducing. I think its Winter’s best work yet, which is saying a lot.


The title refers to an enormous archive of criminality turned over to journalists in 2016 by a still-anonymous whistleblower—the internal records of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which, it turns out, was a key nexus for money laundering and tax evasion by prominent politicians, narcotics kingpins, and other criminals. Winters follows both the substance of the story and the unprecedented manner in which it was reported, with over 300 journalists collaborating to make sense of the massive amount of data while also seeking safety in numbers to protect themselves from the extremely powerful people whose secret criminality the Panama Papers threatened to expose.

That last point is in no way hyperbolic: in the course of the film, Winter recounts the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who before her death tirelessly exposed corruption in Malta, and whose son was one of the Panama Papers reporters.

How much elite tax evasion and dirty money was exposed in the Panama Papers?

Not a billion dollars.

Or a hundred billion.

Not even a trillion.

Eight Trillion dollars.

Yes, you read that right.

Winter lays it out in jaw-dropping fashion at the 1:03:45 mark in a recent interview with Intercepted:

“The thing that the film really that we set out to show because it was kind of the lightbulb moment that I think happened to every journalist that I interviewed—everybody. Other than say, you know, tax investigators who have been working for 50 years. But every investigator came onto the story and thought: 'Well, offshore whatever, you know, so the rich hide their money like down in the Caymans. Big deal.' But each one of them a light bulb went off and they realized that it really was a systemic level of corruption. That you’re dealing with such an enormous amount of money that it renders ideas like the federal deficit completely meaningless. The idea of having to argue how much goes into defense as to how much goes into having clean water, and national health, and education. I mean, all of those problems would be immediately solved if you didn’t have this level of kleptocracy. So, you are dealing with that scale of theft, essentially.

"And the amount of work that we all have to do as public citizens to try to claw whatever money we can for public services, and infrastructure, and the ability to not die of some, you know, even minor disease because you can’t afford the medication, all of that would be meaningless if this system was not in place. And so, we wanted to show that, but we also wanted to show complicity. That it isn’t just, you wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for the legal tax dodging mechanisms that we have in the U.K. and the U.S., if you didn’t have complicity on the part of every major bank in the world, you know, that are all taking part in upholding this system. So, it isn’t just Assad. It isn’t just Putin. It isn’t just these people that we label as the bad guys. It’s like the whole damn system is basically complicit."

Journalism based on the Panama Paper led to the resignation and imprisonment of prime ministers, changes in laws, and a broader understanding of the breadth and depth of the institutionalized scam being perpetrated by global elites on the rest of us. Prosecutions are ongoing. Obviously much good has come out of the reporting the film explores.

But we have a long, long way to go in correcting the essential parasitism of a class of people who have created and exploited a system that enables them to hide eight trillion dollars in assets while the rest of us pay taxes and start GoFundMe campaigns when we need medical treatment.

Watching the film, I remembered this exchange from my novel Inside Out, published in 2010:

Hort took another bite of steak and washed it down with some wine. “The most important thing is this. America is ruled by an oligarchy. If you want to understand America, you have to understand the oligarchy. And if you don’t understand the oligarchy, you can’t understand America.”

Ben thought of what Larison had said. “You’re talking about a conspiracy?”

“Not at all. Conspiracies are hidden…Most of the people who are part of the oligarchy don’t even recognize its existence. If they recognize it at all, they think of it as just a benevolent, informal establishment. They tell themselves it selflessly serves the country’s interests rather than selfishly serving its own…You see, when the oligarchy looks in the mirror and says, ‘The State is me,’ it’s not inaccurate. It’s not hubris. They’re just describing reality…”


“You’re saying it can’t be beaten?”

Hort laughed. “You can’t beat the oligarchy. You can’t beat it because the oligarchy has already won. The establishment is like a virus that’s taken over the organs of the host. Now it acts as a kind of life support system, and if you remove it, the patient it battens on will die. Remember the scene in that movie Alien? Where the creature attaches itself to John Hurt’s face, runs a tentacle down his throat, and puts him in a coma, but if they cut it off, it’ll kill him? That’s the oligarchy. The establishment is a creature whose first priority is ensuring that if you try to remove it, you’ll wind up killing the host.”

I hope Hort was wrong. If he was, the Panama Papers whistleblower, the courageous journalists who reported on the underlying documents, and Winter’s fine film will be instrumental in making it so.

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