The Panama Papers as an illustration of hegemonic struggle for either a New Feudalism or New Democracy

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Currently, I’m writing my first peer-reviewed journal article to be submitted in coming days to Antipode: a journal of radical geography. The below is an extract, dealing with the protest which claimed the figurative scalp of the Icelandic PM in what I felt was a really inspiring display of popular rebellion against corruption.

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Readers should be familiar of the revelations uncovered by the Panama Papers (see Foroohar 2016), courtesy of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The 11.5 million documents, the largest ever leak of its kind, which are only just starting to be scrutinized by the public, illustrate some of the questionable activities of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The documents show how they assisted many members of the global plutocratic elite; both institutions like UBS and HSBC, and individuals like footballer Lionel Messi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, establish a complex web of shell companies in order to take advantage of Panama’s particular status as a tax haven and evade paying tax on various assets and income streams in their own countries. Within 24 hours of the first data release becoming public, the first head of state, in Iceland, had been toppled. A rapid response and impressively, spontaneously co-ordinated network of social movements and individuals (22,000 out of a total national population of 330,000) resulted in a devastatingly effective mobilisation at the national parliament. The now former Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson of the Progressive Party, is married to one of the wealthiest people in the country; billionaire Anna Sigurlaug Palsdottir.

In a television interview in April 2016 on the subject of how Iceland recovered from the financial crisis of 2008 (notably, the country is one of the few to have handed down jail sentences for bankers as part of the Ponzi scheme which dragged the world into recession), Gunnlaugsson described how important it was for everyone to pay a fair share into society; even going so far as to claim that paying less than one’s share constitutes cheating society (Fontaine 2016). His implication in the Panama Papers stems from the fact that he bought a shell company by the name of Wintris based in the British Virgin Islands, from a Panamanian company using a Luxembourgian bank. Already the nefarious geography of tax haven exploitation should be apparent. He failed to disclose his 50% ownership of said company when he was elected in 2009, months later selling his share to his wife for one US dollar; a common tactic used by Mossack Fonseca to obscure ownership of clients’ assets to evade taxation. At the time of writing, civil society organisations of other countries such as the UK are hoping to pull off a similarly successful rebellion against the avarice and corruption of their own local financial-political elite.

The Icelandic case represents a number of important aspects of the spectrum from New Feudalism to New Democracy that I propose, as a way of more accessibly, and accurately describing how hegemonic struggle is currently unfolding. Firstly, inequality is extreme and is being exacerbated by the incestuous revolving door between government and the heads of industry it claims to be regulating. Not just in terms of the head of state having an exceptionally wealthy partner, but as a whole of government problem that flows from the top down, legitimising a culture of “money can buy anything”. Secondly, it shows how the class of consolidated wealth and power represents those who fly high above the rest of us in their bubble of tax havens and infinite mobility; as though they were globalised finance-capital itself in human form. These are the New Feudalists; those who are remaking our world in the image of traditional feudalism, but with far more powerful ideological and military tools at their disposal to impose it than the monarchs of past epochs. Thirdly, in the public’s instantaneous and deafening reaction to the revelations, we find that the popular classes are, contrary to the orthodox depiction of postmodern polity in the corporate media, not merely cynical and too “apathetic” to change anything in material political terms– no matter how much they complain rhetorically. They didn’t meekly stand by and put up with a corrupt politician who claimed to represent their interests. No, they rejected this old conception of democracy; of an alienated mass of individuals, compliantly doing whatever their thoroughly objectionable “leaders” tell them to. Instead, in an inspiring moment of prefigurative reinvention, they remade their democracy anew and demanded with their bodies and voices that it be better. That it not merely “represent” them in the traditional manner, but bend to the rule of the people. Where things go for Iceland’s polity beyond this, who knows. The obscene levels of inequality and the political system which helped create it are not going away overnight. But this will undoubtedly spark a wave of increased confidence in the popular forces’ appetite for more militant agitation, and it’s far from being the only place we can find evidence of a New Democracy taking shape that operates simultaneously globally; through the instant connectivity of social media and other forms of ICT, and as a campaign directed at legislators in the local nation state.

Foroohar, R. (2016) The Panama Papers could lead to Capitalism’s Great Crisis, Time Magazine, Accessed April 4 2016 http://time.com/4280864/panama-papers-capitalism/

Fontaine, P. (2016) PM Apologises for behaviour, says will not resign, The Reykjavik Grapevine, Accessed April 2016 http://grapevine.is/news/2016/04/04/pm-apologises-for-behaviour-says-will-not-resign/

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