Panama: capitalism exposed

Submitted by AWL on 6 April, 2016 - 12:25 Author: Martin Thomas

Each week the capitalist economic system pumps new wealth, created by the labour of workers across the whole economy, into the pockets of owners and shareholders and their associates, advisers, bankers, lawyers, and so on.

No-one denies that. Those who defend capitalism as the best system available reply only that it is a manageable problem.

The greed for riches (so they say) motivates the capitalist class to innovate and improve efficiency. And the rich pay taxes. And they put their wealth into new investments which create new jobs. The Panama Papers show that in fact the rich hide their money in offshore tax havens and often pay little tax. They invest productively only when they feel fairly sure of large private gains, and much of their loot is spent on luxury and on swindling.

The papers, revealed on 3 April, are a stash of documents from just one law firm, Mossack Fonseca, based in Panama, which specialises in helping the rich by setting up for them obscure companies in which to hide their wealth, based in low-tax areas.

Many of these companies are in the British Virgin Islands, a tiny group of Caribbean islands which is a British Overseas Territory, but outside British tax laws. The islands are home to just 28,000 inhabitants, but to 950,000 companies.

As lawyer Geoffrey Robertson says: "Britain is at the heart... of international tax avoidance by allowing these little remnants of empire to have tax secrecy laws and enable offshore trusts and offshore companies to operate without transparency".

The documents were leaked to a German newspaper. It has shared them with other media outlets, in Britain the BBC and the Guardian, who have analysed the documents and will publish revelations over the next month.

Already the prime minister of Iceland has resigned after big protests followed him being named in the revelations. Several countries' tax offices have announced investigations. British prime minister David Cameron is under pressure because his father's investment firm has been revealed as using a nominal offshore base to avoid paying UK tax.

That the Panama Papers have been exposed may be partly the result of the shock given to the bourgeois world by the 2008 crash. Off balance sheet operations by banks, often based in offshore jurisdictions, were a factor in that crash. The Cayman Islands, also British, also Caribbean, seem to do more of the corporate offshoring, while the BVI specialises more in offshoring for the personal wealth of individuals and families.

Governments feel under more pressure to tighten up. The tightening-up, however, lags behind the ingenuity of the plutocrats and their advisers. The Financial Stability Board, a new international body set up in 2009 after the 2008 crash, found in its 2015 report: "The narrow measure of global shadow banking that may pose financial stability risks amounted to $36 trillion in 2014...$36 trillion is $5000 for every child, woman, and man in the world, or, as the FSB says, 12% of financial system assets... [It] has grown moderately over the past several years".

Not all "shadow banking" (banking-type operations by non-banks) is offshored, but a lot is.

Still booming in fact, according to a recent Financial Times report, doubled in numbers in London since the 2008 crash are family offices, firms of lawyers and financiers employed by wealthy families to manage their loot and save it from taxes.

No, letting the plutocrats pocket the wealth and then trusting them to pay taxes and invest well is not best available system!

The working class, which produces that wealth, should keep it in common ownership and under democratic control.

As the socialist Jean Jaures said in the French parliament when a great financial scandal of the 19th century, also called Panama, broke: "It isn't enough to brand and denounce the scandals... It would be a sad contradiction not to take up the struggle against that power that holds the railroads, the banks, and all the large enterprises...It's the beginning of the trial of the dying social order, and we are here to substitute for it a more just social order".

The 19th century scandal has another lesson. To go beyond indignation to propose socialist solutions, taking the loot back into common ownership may also be necessary to stop the scandal being exploited by right-wing demagogues who are in fact the looters' friends.

Frederick Engels wrote about the 19th century Panama: "This business brings the moment considerably nearer when our people will become the only possible leaders of the state in France. Only, things ought not to move too quickly; our people in France are not ripe for power by a long way...In the meantime, that ass Boulanger [a proto-fascist anti-semitic demagogue who had come close to seizing power in 1889] had not shot himself [which he did, literally, in 1891, first having fled to exile], he would now be master of the situation... If only some general or other does not swing himself to the top during the interval of clarification and start war, that is the one danger".

Socialists must take the high ground in response to this new scandal.

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