The world is only beginning to grasp the full import of the revelations contained in the 11.5 million leaked documents that comprise the “Panama Papers,” in which an anonymous source spilled the beans to a German newspaper on decades of work by Mossack Fonseca of Panama, a leading offshore corporate service provider. The reputation of the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong have taken a hit, and an Icelandic prime minister has been forced from office more rapidly than ever in that republic’s history (1944-).
Yet as names continue to pop up and reputations continue to fall down, Micah White, a co-founder of Occupy and thus a militant democratic activist, wrote last week in the Guardian, “The Panama Papers represents the coming-of-age of leaktivism…the activist theory…that leaking information is an effective form of social protest.” White greets with tremendous approval the “leak that dwarfs all previous leaks in human history” by arguing that the documents, currently being examined by the Washington based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, shall have a “destabilizing effect on governments worldwide. Many of the most powerful leaders may lose their legitimacy in the days to come.”
An historic opportunity for activism, cognitive space, and irrefutable argument is thus made available for White and the revolutionary comrades to “face the same globalized enemy. It does not matter if you live in the UK, Brazil, Russia, or Pakistan. The truth is the ultra-rich wield their wealth to maintain a stranglehold on power while simultaneously hiding from the taxman.” Without denying the righteousness—White actually quotes John’s Gospel in support of his position—or necessity of some forms of international protest, at some times, for some reasons, both diplomatic prudence and ethical imperative call for a qualification of the extreme views of White and of his comrades.
Turning first to the diplomatic dimension, White appears indignant that men and women of great wealth and high social standing should be able to utilize “offshore” resources to avoid paying their taxes, and rightly so. Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, Andorra and Liechtenstein, and evidently also Panama abound in private banks that provide anonymous accounts, in addition to other instruments of highly confidential wealth management; and hardly anyone will plead the cause of African dictators who raid the treasury, of Arab dictators who raid the soil, or of Russian oligarchs who raided the state and then stashed away their ill-gotten gains in such places.
But White appears oblivious to the considerable extent to which the ability to move money offshore has long empowered the very dissident and opposition groups he claims to champion. The most famous example involved extended Jewish families who, fleeing certain death in Hitler’s Reich, were able to conceal assets in Swiss private banks, which were much used by the Resistance more generally. The struggle against European fascism would have been even more desperate than it was without the ability to move money offshore.
But there are throughout twentieth and twenty-first century history countless other examples of Arab Christian, Chechen Muslim, Kurdish stateless, and other groups who, fleeing political persecution, were able to survive on the basis of confidential financial institutions willing to help them conceal assets from some authoritarian regime that was seeking not merely their taxes, but their lives. To rejoice in the unmasking of offshore accounts, as White does, is to undermine an important vehicle of opposition to the same existing regimes his movement so detests.
The morality of his position also deserves interrogation. To suggest that “it does not matter” whether one inhabits Britain or Russia is to deeply insult the countless journalists and opposition groups attacked by Putin’s authoritarian regime, and the same applies to the hundreds of thousands of victims of sectarian killing in the former British India or of institutionalized racism in Brazil. It matters enormously where and under what regime one lives, and neither Marx nor Lenin themselves would have ever imagined otherwise.
But apart from this, the contention that we should welcome the further seditious destabilization of international politics is profoundly debatable. The most obvious examples are found in the Middle East, where the American effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein eventually resulted in the formation of the bloodthirsty Islamic State, and where endogenous revolts against secular-leftist Arab dictators beginning in 2011 have induced domestic anarchy and the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Whilst Our Lord indeed uttered the words, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), as White cites, the truth referred to in that passage as throughout John was knowledge of Christ’s divine status, not knowledge, emphatically, of the sexual histories, criminal records, mental health struggles, or financial dealings of other people; and the implicit assumption among revolutionary activists that all human privacy represents an idol to be smashed whenever possible raises very disturbing implications for human dignity.
In conclusion, the revolutionary mindset extols “leaktivism,” wherein private concerns are shared with the world via journalists, and awaits the hemorrhage into the public sphere of more Panama Paper-type discoveries. Yet the abolition of offshore accounts would in fact rob resistance groups of an important seditious instrument, and the practice of leaking perhaps induces chaos rather than reform. Offshore tax avoidance does call for reaction, but not for over-reaction.
Mark R. Royce (Ph.D., George Mason) is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at NVCC Annandale, where he has taught numerous courses in international politics. His dissertation concerns European religion and politics, and his works have appeared in The European Legacy and International & Comparative Law Quarterly.
Photo Credit: By Art Bicnick via Flickr. On April 4, Icelanders in Reykjavík protested against Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson after the Panama Papers leak revealed he and his wife had set up a company in the British Virgin Islands. Protesters threw bananas, eggs, and skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product) onto the Parliament building. Gunnlaugsson resigned on April 5.