The Offshore World

In amongst a typically judicious review of Treasure Islands and Winner-Take-All Politics, David Runciman draws a suggestive comparison between the contemporary politics of financial ‘mobility’ and the legacy of colonialism.

Shaxson’s book explains how and why London became the centre of what he calls a ‘spider’s web’ of offshore activities (and in the process such a comfortable home for the likes of Saif Gaddafi). It is because offshore is the offshoot of an empire in decline. It perfectly suited a country with the appearance of grandeur and traditionally high standards, but underneath it all a reek of desperation and the pressing need for more cash.

As Shaxson shows, many of the world’s most successful tax havens are former or current British imperial outposts…What such places offer are limited or non-existent tax regimes, extremely lax regulation, weak local politics, but plenty of the trappings of respectability and democratic accountability. Depositors are happiest putting their money in locations that have the feel of a major jurisdiction like Britain without actually being subject to British rules and regulations (or British tax rates)…

…The other thing most of these places have in common is that they are islands. Islands make good tax havens, and not simply because they can cut themselves off from the demands of mainland politics. It is also because they are often tight-knit communities, in which everyone knows what’s going on but no one wants to speak out for fear of ostracism. These ‘goldfish bowls’, as Shaxson calls them, suit the offshore mindset, because they are seemingly transparent: you can see all the way through – it’s just that when you look there’s nothing there.

In some senses this confirms an established story. Imperialism 101. For others, it will unsettle the idea of globalisation and inter-dependence as essentially the negation of great power politics.

On the scale of world history, it resonates with attempts to rethink the last few hundred years not in terms of coherent nation-states acting out their interests but as a process of network construction between centralising and accumulating nodes (usually cities). Sandra Halperin, for one, speaks convincingly about the simultaneously localised and globally connected forms of elite power in the age of European expansion. Localised because the wealth enjoyed by ‘France’ or ‘England’ before the twentieth century was not evenly spread within territorial delimitations, but instead massively concentrated within pockets of development, usually at the intersections of major trade routes. And globally connected because, following world systems and neo-imperialist accounts, the fundamental political relationships were not those of antagonism between colonising and colonised communities but of collaboration between metropolitan and peripheral elites and of coercion and contestation between each of them and their respective multitudes.

Politically, it elucidates a commonality of interest for conservatives and imperial revanchists. Take Niall Ferguson, currently regaling British screens with bedtime stories about Civilization. I was somewhat surprised to discover that none of his academic publications directly address empires or their histories (surprised only because I didn’t think peer review was that effective at intellectual gate-keeping). The closest we get is a co-authored paper on how London financiers gave preferential treatment to their colonies. Anecdotal fersure, but the elective affinity between arguments for the economic and political benefits of imperial penetration and those supporting the inevitable-cum-mutually-beneficial process of financial liberalisation and ‘innovation’ seems rather more general. The casual world-straddling of the imperial octopus has, of course, also been the object of rightist complaint in the past century, although even then it seemed to mix critique and envy in roughly equal measure. Today such attachment to community, collectivity and place is distinctly retrograde. A redundant geo-spatial imagination.

Finally, there is a conjunction in terms of subjectivity. Saif Gaddafi emerges as an exemplar for Runciman, “just an offshore guy, living in an offshore world”, conducting himself (at least pre-February 2011) with all the confidence and shamelessness of the powerful in a ‘theatre of probity’.  The various defences mounted for the international mobility of capital mirror (one might say are co-constituted by) those advanced in favour of the appendages of European political hegemony. And not just in rhetoric. The requirements of non-dom status force a mobility (London, New York, Paris, Lake Como, Monocc0), but hardly an arduous one. A modern freedom of the seas, today liberated from the sordid requirements of nationalist or statist identity. A networked existence of air-conditioned power for Universal Man. The offshore mindset is, then, one with an established genealogy and an established mode of being. A kind of imperial privilege. This is our world, it says. The rest of you are just visiting.


[Image courtesy of Vulgar Army, chroniclers of the politicised Cephalopoda.]

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