Gone with the wind in Dominica

‘It’s all mashed up.’ Dominicans used to reserve this expression for bus crashes, often accompanied by a ‘so sorry for you’ for the hapless victims. Now it could be used to describe the entire island.

Last September, Hurricane Maria swept through the eastern Caribbean, lingering for six deadly hours over the lush forest cover and vulnerable villages in Dominica, one of the region’s poorest countries.

Maria’s 280-kilometre-an-hour winds almost wiped out the island’s flimsy housing stock, destroying 62 per cent of all dwellings and severely damaging the electrical grid. It stripped away most of the vegetation, turning the island’s green shades brown. Dominica’s small population of 71,000 has been depleted by 57 casualties and the departure of hundreds of residents, at least temporarily.

Dominica, like many small islands in the Global South, has become ‘a canary in the mine’ for carbon-induced climate degradation. Whether it’s Fiji and the Marshalls in the Pacific, the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean or Haiti and Saint Martin in the Caribbean, islanders are paying a huge price. Research confirms that rising sea temperatures incubate super-storms and hurricanes such as Maria.

Add to this recurrent droughts, floods and rising sea levels that threaten to make low-lying islands disappear and you have a little discussed eco-catastrophe.

The Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, is emerging as a champion of these frontline small-island states. Addressing the UN General Assembly after Maria, he said: 
‘We in the Caribbean do not produce greenhouse gases or sulphate aerosols. We do not pollute or overfish our oceans. We have made no contribution to global warming that can move the needle.’

Dominica is now rallying to rebuild in a more climate-appropriate manner: renewable energy based on solar and thermal power, buildings better able to withstand extreme weather, and agricultural self-reliance through climate-smart technologies and irrigation systems. For, as Skerritt told Al-Jazeera recently: ‘This is a practical situation [not a theoretical one]… this is our life, these are our livelihoods.’

Introducing Jacinda Ardern

In a pleasant change for this column from first-past-the-post, an exercise in proportional representation has brought a 37-year-old Prime Minister to power in New Zealand/Aotearoa – the country’s youngest in 150 years – with the support of the Green and New Zealand First parties.

The charismatic and relentlessly positive Jacinda Ardern came out of nowhere to snatch victory from Bill English’s conservative National Party. While Ardern’s Labour Party finished around seven percentage points behind the front-running Nationals, her ability to make common cause with the other two main parties put her in the driver’s seat, charged with bringing about a change for the 56 per cent of New Zealanders who had voted for one.

Ardern is a longstanding Labour activist and a former Mormon who left the church over its stance against LGBT+ rights. A strong advocate for decriminalizing abortion, tackling child poverty and stopping foreign speculation in the real-estate market, she has referred to capitalism as a ‘blatant failure’ in the face of rampant homelessness in New Zealand and opposed the National Party’s plans to cut taxes for the rich.

Her challenge will be to maintain the coalition that supports her minority government with just a paper-thin majority of seats. To keep the Greens on side, she will need to take convincing action against climate change and keep her promise to increase funds for conservation. At the same time, she will need to placate the curmudgeonly Winston Peters and the quirky brand of populism of his New Zealand First Party. Her decision to make Peters Deputy PM may help. Interesting times ahead.

Whose streets? The clampdown on popular rights

It beggared belief – a line of armoured St. Louis police chanting ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ But that’s exactly how they trumpeted their power in September as they cleared the streets of people protesting against police brutality.

The officers were celebrating the acquittal of one of their own on charges of the unjustified killing of a black motorist. Of course, it is no surprise to anyone that heavily armed police control US streets, often acting like armed militias occupying poor communities. What was different was the sheer brazenness of using a chant, made famous by the Occupy movement, to glorify their own power.

Usually such arbitrary police activities are justified by professionalized gobbledygook. But it is a sign of the times. In those countries that even allow demonstrations a police permit is usually required to exercise this ‘right’.

The control of public space – streets, squares, parks, even Barcelona’s polling stations – is increasingly subject to arbitrary state intervention to try to prevent unapproved political expression

The control of public space – streets, squares, parks, even Barcelona’s polling stations – is increasingly subject to arbitrary state intervention to try to prevent unapproved political expression. Such public spaces – Tahrir Square in Cairo and Gezi Park in Istanbul, for example – have long been rallying places for expressing dissent. The freedom to use public space is one of a set of crucial rights that together comprise democracy. Stopping people doing so significantly reduces the possibility of opposition. It is part of a broad establishment strategy that critics, such as the citizens’ rights advocacy group Civicus, refer to as ‘the closing of political space’.

Across the political spectrum, and across the world, this space is being squeezed. Repressive tools include everything from ad hoc administrative regulation, restrictive legislation, misuse of anti-terrorist measures, surveillance, draconian border controls, heavy-handed policing, manipulation of the judiciary, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, even torture and murder.

The Civicus folks have a map to rate the health of national political space using set categories – ‘closed’, ‘repressed’, ‘obstructed’, ‘narrowed’ and ‘open’. According to their reckoning only two per cent of the world’s population now enjoy truly ‘open’ political space, which is to be found in countries including Ireland, Portugal, Germany and much of Scandinavia. For the rest of us it’s an uphill struggle.

Neither of the two main political trends – rightist populist nationalism on the one hand and neoliberalism (of both centre-Right and centre-Left) on the other – have much use for open political space. While they talk a different language and may use different methods, they share a common desire to turn political space into an administered zone. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Vladimir Putin in Russia, to Donald Trump in the US and Mariano Rajoy in Spain, any commitment to meaningful democratic rights is paper thin.

This is also true in many places throughout the Global South. In India, once considered ‘the world’s largest democracy’, the space to organize is under intense pressure from the Hindu fundamentalist regime of Narendra Modi. In a France traumatized by terrorism, basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly (remember liberté, egalité, fraternité?) are under threat. In nominally democratic Peru, the government is even using ‘preventive charges’ against activists if it gets wind of future plans of resistance.

Why ‘small’ freedoms matter

Our freedoms are pretty fragile these days.

By freedoms I’m thinking about all the little ones: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, of privacy, of communication, of opinion, of movement – in short freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the government. I’m not thinking here of the big F ‘Freedom’ that at least some of those taking away our actual freedoms claim to be striving to protect.

This big F version seems to have more to do with the freedom to manoeuvre by those who run the state and the corporations that control the economy. They have little interest in the fragile freedoms of everyday life – often seen as annoying obstacles to growth and profit. Their right to manoeuvre and our right to resist rub up against each other.

Any state that monopolizes power, be it autocratic or representational, is prone to capture by powerful elites: usually large transnational corporations and international banking conglomerates

The big F Freedom is articulated in many ways, but its final point of reference remains a national sovereignty exercised by centralized nation-states to pursue elite-defined national interests and make sure its ‘own’ citizens are obedient. Any state that monopolizes power, be it autocratic or representational, is prone to capture by powerful elites: usually large transnational corporations and international banking conglomerates. Any counter-power – vigorous labour and social movements, a lively civil society, a reciprocal and democratic economy – requires the oxygen of political space if it is to breathe.

These days our current system of centralized representative government is in serious trouble. Large numbers no longer bother to vote. Political parties have trouble attracting members. There is a huge disconnect between the self-image of politicians (enlightened and selfless servants of the public interest) and how the general public regards them (manipulative liars bent on feathering their own nests).

While partisan politics generate a lot of heat there are few significant policy differences and actual achievements remain pathetic. The inability or unwillingness of most political and bureaucratic elites to solve, or even address, basic questions of runaway inequality and looming ecocide has left their legitimacy in tatters. Repression is often the only card left in their hand.

Dutch author David Van Reybrouck, in his recent, provocatively titled Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, refers to this as Democratic Fatigue Syndrome.

He and a great many others are making a strong case that democracy is badly in need of a rethink. Radical theorists Michael Hardt and Tony Negri, in their groundbreaking Assembly, see a democracy of participation as our best chance for achieving a healthy post-capitalist world. An emerging consensus of these critics holds that we need to move in the direction of popular participation and away from remote representation by an aristocratic caste.

There is a plethora of projects and ideas afoot to democratize our money-driven variant of representation. These include a radical municipalism where local government steps in to fill the void left by the absentee national state. A commons-based democracy based on collectively managing and expanding what we hold in common (from air to air waves) rather than watching them ruined through privatization. Ideas for a more participatory democracy include: citizen juries to discuss policy options; a return to a rotating drawing of lots to fill important positions; revocable mandates; participatory budgeting; more direct rule through legislative initiative from below; fairly organized and thoughtful referenda; and local assembly democracy.

Shrinking political space: take action!

Contacts and resources

Civicus (The World Campaign for Citizen Participation) is the single best source of information about the squeezing of political space around the world. It is also a great rallying point for campaigns to defend activists and their rights. civicus.org

The Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute is deeply involved in crafting alternatives and promoting discussion of rights-denying corporate capitalism. They have an interesting paper entitled ‘Rethinking Shrinking Space’. tni.org

The US-based International Center for Not-For-Profit Law tracks repressive legislation and violations of civil society, including those currently taking place in the US. icnl.org

Further reading

Michael Hardt and Tony Negri, Assembly, Oxford University Press, 2017.

David Van Reybrouck, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, Bodley Head, 2016.

But these are controversial and far-reaching changes likely to be resisted by both die-hard nationalists and those with wealth and power at stake.

That is why the need to defend and widen political space is so vital. If activists committed to recreating democracy are to have any chance they need to be have their basic rights protected. Without the rights to freely communicate, assemble and organize (all now under pressure almost everywhere), a truly participative democracy will never happen. Indeed, we are likely to lose even the meagre democracy we have. It is essential to stop the current clampdown on rights.

From friends to foes: South Sudan’s power pair

JOB: Current president and former vice-president of South Sudan

REPUTATION: A pair of thin-skinned, feuding kleptocrats

From Asmara to Addis, it’s an all too familiar story for Africans – yesterday’s freedom fighters become today’s ambitious autocrats.

Both Kiir, the populist president in his signature black cowboy hat, and Machar, the PhD with blood on his hands (forced to apologize for the massacre of 2,000 Dinka), earned their spurs fighting for South Sudan’s independence, a bitter decades-long struggle that saw three million die in the crossfire between the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Front (SPLF) and the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The accidental death of long-time SPLF leader John Garang in 2005 (who believed South Sudan should maintain its autonomous status) left the movement in the hands of Kiir and Machar who favoured outright independence.

After a successful referendum in 2011, things looked rosy for an independent South Sudan with a healthy starting budget balance and great oil and mineral wealth. Just six years later the country has deteriorated into the definition of an ungovernable failed state, plagued by a chronic lack of food and basic physical security. According to Transparency International’s 2016 Index, South Sudan is also the second-most corrupt country in the world.

Few in power have clean hands. Kiir became the county’s first president with Machar gaining the vice-presidency. From the get go, it was definitely not a marriage made in heaven. Both have reputations for fragile Trump-like egos – Kiir once threw a newspaper editor in jail for his lack of respect in reporting his daughter’s lavish wedding. Kiir, from the majority Dinka tribe, and Machar, from the second-largest Nuers, both cynically use deeply rooted tribal tensions to buttress their own positions. After years of strain, the shaky Kiir-Machar alliance came completely unglued in December 2013 after a gunfight among Presidential Guards of the Tiger Division in the capital Juba.

The violence was spurred by still unproven rumours of a military coup. The Nuer Machar faction of the Division took to the bush and civil war made the perilous existence of the South Sudanese people even more so. The dissident faction formed the SPLM-IO (SPLM in Opposition) under the titular leadership of Machar, who is currently under house arrest in Pretoria, South Africa.

For two years running the newly independent South Sudan has been forced to cancel its official independence day celebrations. Not that there is much to celebrate – although that usually doesn’t stop those bent on national puffery. The treasury is bare, and insecurity and starvation stalk the land. The former is due to a combination of constant tribal civil war and entrepreneurial crime fuelled by a flood of weapons and angry young men without much else to do. The latter currently has hundreds of thousands teetering on the edge of famine, with food aid used as a political football by both sides.

Kiir repeatedly declares his corruption-fighting credentials but in April 2013 he fired deputy foreign minister Elias Wako Nyamellel for acknowledging that South Sudan is corrupt and ‘rotten to the core’.

Kiir jokes that ‘my 10 years in power are worse than his many years in the bush fighting for independence’. Not many South Sudanese would disagree.

There was a brief flash of hope in 2015. But despite a great hand-shaking by the two antagonists to celebrate a ceasefire signed in Addis Ababa (put together over 18 months by negotiating teams on up to $2,000 a day), it was widely ignored on the ground. So today South Sudan is awash with weapons, child soldiers, refugees, rape, famine and arbitrary repression of everyone from foreign NGOs to dissident journalists and activists.

Since the war restarted some 1.8 million have fled the country with another 1.9 million displaced. In the long term radical change is needed. But a start could be if the UN embargo against exporting weapons to a country spending millions on arms in the middle of a famine were respected – Canada, Israel and China are among many suspected violators. And Kiir and Machar need to be pressured to end their divisive political grandstanding – opening talks to ease Dinka/Nuer tensions is just a phone call away.

Sources: The Guardian; The Daily Mail; openDemocracy.net; Wikipedia; BBC; Al Jazeera; thesudantribune.com; Transparency International; The Washington Post; The Globe and Mail; www.chatham house.org; suddinstitute.org; africanarguments.org

Header Image: Riek Machar (left) and Salva Kiir (right) sit for an official photo. Picture: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

Our picks from the Toronto Hot Docs

Highlights from the largest documentary film festival in the world.

Chasing Coral (93 minutes)

directed by Jeff Orlowski

It’s hard to believe that a documentary can reduce the viewer to almost tearful identification with a bunch of polyps anchored on the ocean floor singularly lacking in cute faces or limpid eyes. But Orlowski and his team do just that, moving from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and ending up on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – nature’s Manhattan – to show with spectacular underwater camera-work that coral is a living and wondrous thing. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of climate change that even Donald Trump would have trouble denying. Chasing Coral blends thoughtful testimonies from marine biologists, with stories like that of a self-confessed ‘coral nerd’ from landlocked Colorado, to paint an ecocide in the making. And it tells us what we need to do to stop it.


Winnie (98 minutes)

directed by Pascale Lamche

This is a political and personal profile of the charismatic and controversial first lady of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Lamche combines well-deployed archival footage with startling interviews from various parts of the political spectrum in a largely successful attempt to revive the reputation of Nelson Mandala’s ‘struggle wife’. In doing so, she raises important questions about the deal struck to end apartheid and the subsequent Peace and Reconciliation Process, and the way in which both have set limits on South African emancipation. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela comes through as a complicated and strong figure, who often stood alone in some of the darkest days of white nationalist domination.


The film moves like a freight train through recent South African history, portraying Winnie as a proud rock of the movement who is targeted first by the security services of the regime, and then by many of her own ANC comrades. Did her pride lead her to commit crimes in the name of anti-apartheid? The film leans towards ‘no’, but the question remains unanswered.


Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World
(80 minutes)

directed by Barry Aldrich

A fascinating exploration-exposé of the business of modern art, this film seeks to address why, when stock markets around the world plunged in 2008, knocking billions off share prices, the price of modern art on auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s barely blinked. Big-time art dealers, agents, auction houses, galleries, public museums, critics, major collectors, show organizers and artists themselves come under the director’s microscope, as he exposes the ‘nod-and-a-wink’ world of intersecting corruptions.

Blurred Lines

Art journalists and idiosyncratic insiders explain how this environment operates against a background of glitzy, high profile openings to international art shows. The only question not answered (or asked) is how did the super-rich gather the wealth necessary to participate in this game?


Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower
(78 minutes)

directed by Joe Piscatella


You can’t search Joshua Wong’s name on Chinese search engines. But nerdish, bespectacled Wong is both the unlikely star of this film and the catalyst of the democratic movement that shook Hong Kong in defiance of the overlords in Beijing. From age 11 (he is now 21), Wong’s indomitable spirit and impressive courage has meant trouble for the elite that wants to integrate Hong Kong into the authoritarian mould of Chinese capitalism. The film catches the movement from its early days, resisting a propagandist national education policy, to the 2014 mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents to assert their right to the democratic self-rule promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement. The film moves back and forth between street action and the strategy sessions of a core group of activists behind the movement. This kind of access provides a gripping blend of non-violent protest with an intimate biography of an emerging popular leader who just won’t go away.


Ask the Sexpert (75 minutes)

directed by Vaishali Sinha


This is a heart-warming profile of a 90-year-old Mumbai gynaecologist turned sex therapist. Dr Mahinder Whatsa started along the sex advice route when a local newspaper editor suggested he run a column in the paper; his non-judgemental common sense was an instant hit with those in need. Now, Dr Whatsa has become a local celebrity, seeing clients at all hours of the day and night in his apartment perched on the Mumbai waterfront. In a country with a reputation for puritanical moralism, he has been an irritant to local conservatives. One outraged woman is even trying to shut him up by taking him to court for defying arcane indecency laws. But with gentle humour and an unflagging commitment to gender equality and sexual health, the sex-positive Whatsa just keeps going. Ask the Sexpert is one small antidote that shows that multi-dimensional India cannot be contained by the narrow-minded, martial, religious nationalism of Narendra Modi’s BJP party.


All films reviewed by Richard Swift

City of Ghosts (91 minutes)

directed by Martin Heineman


This documentary about the citizen journalists behind Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is definitely not for the faint hearted. It contains shocking execution scenes (including some carried out by children) perpetrated by Daesh (ISIS) during the brutal ‘pacification’ of the capital of their caliphate in Eastern Syria. The camera moves between clandestine shooting in Raqqa itself, to footage from an increasingly dangerous Eastern Turkey, to RBSS ‘safe houses’ in Germany. We become acquainted with the incredibly brave but severely traumatized figures who make up the core of RBSS’s external group and who amplify the news gathered from increasingly desperate activists left behind in the city. The immediacy and direct access of City of Shadows leaves the viewer with an all too real sense of what Daesh is about and the perils involved in resisting them. In the end the activists of RBSS (many of whom have been killed) struggle to maintain their sanity and some sense of a normal life while still keeping up this desperately important work.


All films reviewed by Richard Swift

Introducing Ecuador's Lenin Moreno

Lenin Moreno
Ecuador's new president, Lenin Moreno. Credit:  Agencia de Noticias ANDES

In a hotly contested April election, Ecuadorians replaced one Leftist president with another. The result was unusual in several ways.

Firstly, the new president, 64-year-old Lenin Moreno, is paraplegic and now the world’s only head of state in a wheelchair. In 2013, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy work for disabled people.

With Latin America’s Bolivarian and leftist wave in definite ebb (losses in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and a referendum defeat in Bolivia), Moreno’s election to replace Rafael Correa is a sign that the conservative drift on the continent may be slowing. And unlike Presidents to the north in Venezuela and to the south in Bolivia, Correa did not try to extend his term indefinitely, choosing instead to step down from power and break the identification of ‘21st century socialism’ with one particular leader. This proved quite successful – Moreno and his Alianza Pais party won nearly 52 per cent of the vote in the second round of the election, on 2 April this year.

Moreno, whose disability resulted from a brutal robbery, used laughter therapy as part of his recovery. He promises to continue ‘the revolution’ listening more closely to critics than Correa who faced charges of high-handed censorship and corruption. Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame, who resides in exile in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, was much relieved by Moreno’s victory since his opponent, conservative pro-austerity banker Guillermo Lasso, had promised save tax dollars by ending the offer of sanctuary.

The populist moment


© Volker Straeter

Populism sure is getting bad reviews. All manner of evil is getting laid at its door: racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, jingoism – and that’s just the start. The conventional view is that populism is an irrational and impatient response to modern dilemmas that are best solved by conventional politics and economics. There is much evidence linking current politicians and political campaigns deemed populist – Trump, much of the Brexit campaign, Orbán in Hungary, the far-Right parties across Europe – to simple-minded scapegoating as a way to achieve or stay in power. But throwing the term populism around so loosely is just a bit too easy and analytically lazy.

For a start – who is a populist? Looking over the span of decades since decolonization (the 1950s and 1960s) a plethora of leaders and their movements have earned the label. These include Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Here we have some of Africa’s most revered and effective leaders. Sankara (who did not have much time before his assassination) and the others earned their populist labels by their effort to forge a deeper, more self-reliant decolonization than so many African leaders were willing to settle for. Today, Ghana and Tanzania are two of the more coherently democratic societies in post-colonial Africa.

Pile of populists

More recently, in Latin America a wave of leftwing governments (referred to as Bolivarian) were swept into power by poor voters tired of brutal military rule that enriched the continent’s oligarchs and transnational corporations to the cost of everyone else. In country after country these ‘populists’ pursued egalitarian goals and significantly reduced both extreme poverty and inequality. Much (but not all) of this movement is now in retreat, suffering problems of bureaucratism and corruption that also plagued its more conventional predecessors.

Left populism’s recent difficulties have led to much crowing on the part of the privileged in capital cities of Latin America as well as in Washington, London or Ottawa. That harbinger of establishment anti-populism The Economist expressed delight that at least some of Latin America’s ‘spendthrift’ populists are fading from the scene. There is also a simple-minded tendency to lump all populists together: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (where there is a long history of both Left and Right populism) with the indigenous radicalism that propelled the still-popular Evo Morales and his MAS party to power in Bolivia.

Drawing the ‘unwashed’ into politics is perceived as a threat by anti-populists, who prefer to preside over a mass of passive consumers and resentful taxpayers

Populist credentials often seem to hang on personal political style. It is much easier for a fiery balcony orator like Hugo Chávez (a lightning rod of the anti-populists) to carry the label than Uruguay’s José ‘Pepe’ Mujica (a former Tupamaro guerrilla) famous for his integrity and modest personal lifestyle. Yet both get dumped in the populist pile.

Also lost on the anti-populists is the absurdity of placing Silvio Berlusconi (the very model for Donald Trump?) in the same bag as Beppe Grillo of Italy’s popular Five Star protest movement that, whatever its faults, is opposed to almost everything Berlusconi represents. Their definition of populism is wedded to a loose notion of appealing to the people outside the conventions and structures of politics-as-usual. Drawing the ‘unwashed’ into politics is perceived as a threat by anti-populists, who prefer to preside over a mass of passive consumers and resentful taxpayers. But what gets missed in this blanket assault is that populism comes from all parts of the political spectrum, with widely varying philosophies, levels of integrity and preoccupations. Perhaps surprisingly, the simplest and clearest definition of populism comes from a lapsed aristocratic neoconservative, the Japanese-American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. According to him, populism is ‘the label that political elites attach to policies supported by local citizens that they don’t like’.

Trapped in the centre

Maybe it’s easier to define what isn’t populism than what is. The ‘neoliberal consensus’ that spreads from the centre-Left to the centre-Right and champions the discipline of the global market as the best way of organizing human affairs is definitely not populist. The shrinking difference between Left and Right in contemporary politics is based on the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ to a system in which most people feel they have little or no control. A professional political class has usurped any notion that democracy is about the broad self-governance of the citizenry.

Fortunately people are stubborn in clinging to the notion that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and that things could and should be different

Bill Clinton’s infamous campaign slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ captures the flavour of it all. The economy and those who control it set the limits of democratic choice. In daily life, debt and poverty box in far too many. Bureaucratic states in combination with the corporate economy are set on an auto-pilot course of carbon-based growth, economic insecurity, inequality and ecological destruction. It is the champions of this system that so easily throw around the P-word to express a coded disdain for ordinary people and their political capacities. Their technocratic arrogance has provoked the current ‘populist moment’, most recently bringing us Donald Trump but also Bernie Sanders.

Fortunately, people are stubborn in clinging to the notion that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and that things could and should be different. That some of these hopes turn in illusory and misguided directions and can be captured by monsters for their own dubious purposes is undeniable. How could it be otherwise in a system poisoned by the Hobbesian ethic of the ‘war of all against all’ – where the insecure are too easily manipulated to look down for scapegoats rather than up at the glamorous wealthy for causes of their grief? At their best, Left variants of populism draw a line between the besieged majority and ‘Old Corruption’ as the British radical pamphleteer William Cobbett used to describe it back in the day. For The People’s Party in 19th-century western US states like Kansas and Idaho, the main culprits were the banks, railroads and the gold standard. Today, Occupy calls it the one per cent, and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos refers to it as la Casta (a scandal-ridden political class) – but it’s still Old Corruption in designer clothes. Populists are often accused of the crime of trading in the blame of ‘Others’, but it is one thing to be critical of corrupt political elites and big banks, and quite another to scapegoat vulnerable minorities: whether immigrants, refugees, Roma or Jews. The undoubted shortcomings of Left populism need to be leavened by a cosmopolitan tolerance and internationalism if it is to effectively undercut the jingoism of the Right.

While the intelligentsia will always be suspicious of populism of whatever stripe, these days, without Left populist parties and movements, the political polarization is between racist and xenophobic movements of the populist Right and the sterile consensus politics of the Centre Right and Centre Left. It is becoming apparent that this Centre simply cannot hold. The notion that we as a species are in profound crisis is rapidly spreading. The problems we face of wrenching inequality and the carbon countdown to climate degradation do not lend themselves to a little technocratic tinkering. The basic structures of capitalist society need a thorough rethink that must involve a broadening of democracy. A rough-and-ready and even impolite populism of the Left, unafraid of accusation and confrontation, could be an important agent in building such a sustainable future.

Richard Swift is a former co-editor of New Internationalist and author of SOS Alternatives to Capitalism.

The Transition Movements meets De-Growth

Co-Founder of the Transition Movement, Naresh Giangrande in conversation with Richard Swift, author of SOS Alternatives to Capitalism and a former editor of New Internationalist magazine for more than two decades. These two thinkers were brought together in the Caribbean island of Dominica, with Earthbooktv's Jessica Canham and Timothy Speaks Fishleigh at the Earthbook retreat centre in the mountains of Dominica.

Tax cheating, easy living

Tax cheating
Tax cheating: Floating on top of the world – a well-heeled client enjoys himself in the infinity pool of the luxurious Marina Bay Sands hotel overlooking Singapore’s financial district (where discretion is guaranteed). ©Paolo Woods & Gabriele Galimberti/INSTITUTE

Should I declare it? It’s a question many of us ask as tax time rolls around. Aside from the fear of getting caught, why do we actually pay taxes? After all, anyone’s individual taxes don’t amount to very much in the overall scheme of things. Who would miss them? And then there are all those irritating things governments waste our taxes on – corporate subsidies, expensive military hardware, big salaries for high-handed bureaucrats.

But in the end our taxes are also part of the social bond that ties us together as a society: giving us basic services we all need, supporting the most vulnerable of us and restraining the predatory tendencies to which capitalism seems preternaturally inclined. If we look at it this way, taxes are the gift we give each other. When we lose faith in that simple truth, we move a little bit closer to the abyss of the ‘war of all against all’.

This year has been a bad one for tax cheats. The New York Times’ October disclosure that Donald Trump likely used a variety of accounting tricks to avoid paying nearly a billion dollars in federal taxes was only one in a string of shocking revelations that shed new light on the unfair tax practices of transnationals and the ultra-rich. From Apple Ireland’s spat with the European Union to the Panama Papers and Bahamas Leaks, this year has seen tax dodgers in the limelight as never before. And with public pressure mounting, even the political class has taken notice, with David Cameron – himself the not-so-proud beneficiary of an offshore trust – vowing last May to ‘push… corruption to the top of the international agenda’.1 Given the heat, it’s easy to imagine tax cheats sweating in their designer suits.

Or maybe not. After all, this is hardly the first time tax dodging has gone under the microscope. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, G20 leaders came together to proclaim ‘the end of financial secrecy’. As far back as 1961, John F Kennedy was asking US Congress for legislation to drive tax havens ‘out of existence’.2 Yet since the 1960s, the amount of wealth held in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions – the term experts use to refer to the 70-odd offshore financial centres whose low tax rates and loose regulations draw tax cheats the world over – has increased astronomically. Since 2008 alone, private wealth parked in tax havens increased by a staggering 25 per cent.3 While exact figures are hard to come by, French economist Gabriel Zucman estimates – conservatively – that $7.6 trillion is currently held offshore, eight per cent of total global financial wealth.3 James Henry, senior advisor at the Tax Justice Network, puts that number much higher, at anywhere from $21 to $32 trillion.4

While economists continue to quibble about the exact figures, all agree that the offshore economy is massive. More than half of all banking assets are routed offshore, as is about half of global trade. Like it or not – and most of us have many reasons not to like it – the offshore world isn’t going anywhere.

The life offshore

What is ‘offshore’? The word conjures images of swaying palm trees, expensive cigars and lax tax laws – sleepy islands where corrupt plutocrats and cunning mobsters quietly squirrel away their ill-begotten millions. And while this is certainly part of the offshore equation, it only scratches the surface. In essence, offshore is anywhere that allows its clients – a mix of criminals, corporations and the very rich – to get around the pesky taxes and regulations imposed by other jurisdictions. While Caribbean tax havens still play an important role, some of the biggest players in the offshore world are not islands at all. The City of London sits at the heart of a colonial network of secrecy jurisdictions and offshore financial centres comprised of its crown dependencies and overseas territories. American banks offer tax-free accounts and secrecy services to illicit foreign capital, making the US one of the biggest players in the offshore economy. Many of offshore’s biggest clients are establishment figures like Iceland’s former prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson and familiar brands like Pepsi, Google and Facebook.

Tax cheating: Campaigners help force consumer-sensitive Starbucks to pay $9.7 million in UK taxes – which corporate avoiders are next in the crosshairs?  Jenny Matthews/Alamy Stock Photo
CaptionTax cheating: Campaigners help force consumer-sensitive Starbucks to pay $9.7 million in UK taxes – which corporate avoiders are next in the crosshairs? Jenny Matthews/Alamy Stock Photo

Today the offshore world comprises an economic system, a complex web of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions that is simultaneously separate from and integral to the functioning of the global economy. Each cog within this system has its own special function: from offices in London or New York, the wealthy use arcane accounting arrangements to squirrel away billions in Cayman-domiciled hedge funds, where the money multiplies tax free. Transnationals use complex ‘transfer pricing’ arrangements to shift billions in profit from the large, high-tax nations where they do business to single-employee letterbox subsidiaries in havens like Jersey, Bermuda and Luxembourg. Investment banks and other financial desperadoes take advantage of the low taxes and loose regulation offered offshore to engage in the kind of financial chicanery that destroyed Enron and led to the 2008 credit crunch.

Today, the offshore world has become an essential part of the bloated international financial sector that lies like deadweight on the possibility of a fair economy based on a simple first principle: meeting the basic needs of ordinary people. The system can seem complicated, and that’s the point; tax cheats rely on soporific tax law and fragmented international regulation to shield their money from tax authorities.

An example: a British entrepreneur plans to leave millions to her children, and wants to avoid hefty inheritance tax. She might set up a Bahamian trust to administer the money, which it in turn deposits in an account in the tax-free Caymans. The trust’s directors might be ‘dummy nominees’ – professionals paid to manage hundreds of similar companies. Its beneficiary might turn out to be an anonymous Delaware corporation whose director, a Panamanian lawyer, is bound by attorney-client privilege to conceal the company’s ultimate beneficiaries: in this case, the woman’s now wealthy children.

If the British tax authorities want to look into the money, they will have their work cut out for them. By exploiting strict secrecy laws in tax havens and taking advantage of the arcane tangle of legislation that exists across multiple jurisdictions, cheats are able to dodge tax almost completely, often while staying within the letter of the law.

A story: the Cayman Islands is what’s known as a ‘pure’ tax haven. It imposes no direct tax, meaning that there is zero tax on corporate profits, income, inheritance, or capital gains. As such, it has become a magnet for mobile capital looking to escape the hands of ‘revenuers’. Today, the Caymans are the world’s sixth-biggest banking centre, home to 40 per cent of the world’s hedge funds and thousands of transnational subsidiaries controlling some $1.4 trillion in liabilities.5

More than half of all banking assets are routed offshore, as is about half of global trade

In 2004, the Caymans were hit by Hurricane Ivan, a category-five storm that caused major damage, cutting power and destroying infrastructure across the islands. When the storm cleared, several people were dead and more than a quarter of the islands’ dwellings had been left uninhabitable. This should have had the global financial elite panicking. But markets barely registered Ivan. McKeeva Bush, then leader of Cayman government business, reported that the islands’ financial services industry ‘offered continuity of service throughout the hurricane,’ cheerfully noting that ‘as a consequence of the multi-jurisdictional nature of many Cayman Islands firms, financial service provision continued at a high level.’6

This story underscores an essential point about the offshore world. While the Caymans may be home to 100,000 registered companies, very little substantive economic activity takes place there. Apart from the legion of parasitic lawyers and accountants who have set up shop to facilitate tax dodging, almost all the money in the Caymans – whose citizens derive little benefit from the islands’ outsized financial industry – passes through only on paper on its way to Wall Street or the City of London.

What capital values about the Cayman Islands is not any special technical or productive capacity, but rather its sovereignty; the islands, like most offshore destinations, are a ‘legislative elsewhere’: a financial wild west where the wealthy shape lawmaking and escape cumbersome taxes and regulations.

What’s wrong with tax avoidance?

Tax cheats are careful to stress the difference between evasion and avoidance. While evasion is illegal, avoidance – using complicated accounting tricks and complex multijurisdictional structures to slash tax bills – is not only legal, but imperative. Indeed, many corporate tax avoiders speak proudly of ‘tax neutralization’ strategies, arguing that they owe a ‘fiduciary responsibility’ to shareholders to pay as little tax as possible.

This thinking rests on a neoliberal reformulation of taxation. Most of us still see tax as the price we pay for the social infrastructure – roads, schools, healthcare – that makes democratic life possible. But as a neoliberal ethos of austerity and self-interest comes to dominate our politics, any sense of our social obligations to each other goes out the window. If we are just a conglomerate of isolated individuals, if fortunes really are ‘self-made’ rather than resting on myriad unquantifiable social investments, then tax can only ever be experienced as a ‘burden’. This is why Donald Trump can project himself as the neoliberal hero par excellence, ‘brilliantly [using]’ tax laws to avoid federal taxes.

In this climate of unmitigated greed, tax havens are thriving like never before. Economists estimate that governments lose about $400 billion in tax revenue each year to the offshore economy, more than twice the annual global aid budget.3 This flow of wealth offshore has a corrosive effect on democracy, fuelling inequality and austerity and pushing the burden of taxation onto small local businesses and middle- and working-class taxpayers who cannot afford teams of accountants and lawyers.

Politicians who receive kickbacks and campaign contributions from tax abusers continue to drag their feet

As taxation becomes an optional matter for those with means, those without begin to wonder why they have been left to foot the bill. In countries like Greece and Italy, and large parts of the Global South, a contagion of tax avoidance is spreading throughout the economy, undermining all revenue collection and drying up the fragile glue that holds society together.

The offshore system also drives harmful tax competition, pushing down tax rates worldwide. In a globalized economy, where capital is free to choose where to set up shop, national economies must compete with each other in order to attract and keep jobs and investment. If transnationals don’t like a particular tax or regulatory regime, the threat of relocation is often enough to get policymakers to see things their way. If not, there is always somewhere else eager to offer lower tax and other sweeteners. Whether it is Belgium’s fiscal incentive scheme aiding McDonald’s and some 35 other corporate freeloaders, or sweetheart tax deals offered to the mining industry from East Africa to the Nevada desert, politicians of all stripes live in fear of the ‘jobs hissy fit’ that corporate CEOs are so good at throwing if they don’t get their way. Tax competition further undermines democracy globally, wrestling control of tax policy from elected governments and forcing countries into a Hobbesian race to the bottom. Some experts believe that in 10 years, corporate taxation will be a thing of the past.

The offshore system has had a particularly devastating impact in the Global South, where a combination of rampant corruption and decrepit tax administrations has amplified its impact. It’s estimated that between 2004 and 2013, more than $7.8 trillion flowed illicitly from developing economies to offshore accounts; many such economies lose more to tax havens than they receive in aid and foreign investment combined.7 In sub-Saharan Africa, the problem is so bad that experts estimate the continent has lost 80 cents for every dollar of external debt accrued since 1975.8 While Western politicians are quick to point a finger at supposedly endemic ‘third world’ corruption, little attention is paid to the role of tax havens, including both the US and the City of London, in actively abetting the illegal transfer of wealth from developing economies.

When will it end?

Little is being done to curb tax avoidance and rein in the offshore system. While it’s true that, after years of half-hearted and ineffective legislation, pressure from civil society is finally forcing governments to take tax cheats seriously, the response is still surprisingly lacklustre. Yet the technical problems are not insurmountable, and economists have offered ambitious but doable proposals on how to begin tackling tax dodgers. Britain could, with the swoop of a pen, reform the vast network of crown dependencies and overseas territories over which it has ultimate political control – it exercised this power in 2000 to decriminalize homosexuality in its Caribbean territories.9

The problem is political will. The offshore system continues to survive and thrive because there are powerful interests – one-per-centers and transnational corporations – who want it that way. Lawmakers seeking to reform the system are continually met with fierce resistance from powerful lobby groups like the Coalition for Tax Competition. Politicians who receive kickbacks and campaign contributions from tax abusers continue to drag their feet. Many politicians are themselves enthusiastic participants in the offshore economy: the Panama Papers revelations have compromised political luminaries such as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the King of Saudi Arabia, and close relatives of Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. In this climate of rampant greed and corruption, the impetus falls on regular citizens to hold tax cheats to account. No-one else will do it for us.

  1. The Independent nin.tl/anti-corruption-2016
  2. Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands, Vintage books, London, 2012.
  3. Gabriel Zucman, The Hidden Wealth of Nations, University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  4. James Henry, The Price of Offshore Revisited, Tax Justice Network, July 2012.
  5. Financial Secrecy Index nin.tl/cayman-offshoring
  6. UK Parliament nin.tl/ivan-cayman
  7. Global Financial Integrity nin.tl/illicit-flows
  8. Elcano Royal Institute nin.tl/Africa-capital-flight
  9. Pink News nin.tl/gay-rights-cayman

HotDocs Festival - Film review special

Still from Norman Lear film

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. (91 minutes)

This is a polished documentary biopic of one of the great innovators of mainstream US television. Lear is now a dynamic 92-year-old, still full of energy and ideas. The film strings together some fabulous music with often amusing footage from Lear’s youth (he grew up in a poor and broken Jewish New York family) to later public appearances on talk shows. Throughout, Lear is the very model of wit and grace.

Back in the day, which for Lear was from the late 1960s into the 1980s, he worked 75-hour-weeks to create and write sit-coms such as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons – bringing issues like racism, reproductive rights, national chauvinism, violence, sexual orientation and drug addiction centre-stage on US network TV. For the fundamentalist Right he was the anti-Christ and they vilified him wherever and whenever they could. He finally quit Hollywood and set up People for the American Way to defend cultural space against their incursions.

Rating: ★★★★

Hooligan Sparrow

directed by Nanfu Wang. (85 minutes)

Ye Haiyen (‘Hooligan Sparrow’) is a Chinese sex-rights activist who, with great humour and resilience, challenges her country’s hypocrisy, puritanism and exploitative practices. The film opens on the tourist resort island where the irrepressible Ye previously antagonized brothel owners by, as part of her campaign for sex workers’ rights, offering free sex to migrant workers. Now she is on the trail of a local school principal who has been taking 11-year-olds to a resort hotel for sex. (Ye claims it is a widespread practice in China for principals to offer young students to local party officials as bribes.) The publicity forces reluctant police to arrest the teacher and as he is hauled off, Ye, surrounded by fellow activists, sports a sign saying: ‘Hey, principal, get a room with me and leave the kids alone.’

The authorities are not amused. Soon Ye, accompanied by young filmmaker Wang, are fleeing police and assorted pro-government goons. Ye is impressive and so is Wang, who braves smashed cameras to smuggle her footage out of China. Her first film, not the most polished of pieces, is a raw effort to expose injustice under perilous circumstances.

Rating: ★★★

Fireflies in the Abyss

directed by Chandrasekhar Reddy. (88 minutes)

Eleven-year-old Suraj and his friends and family can barely survive as rat-hole miners, scraping coal from rock in a dangerous pit mine in northeast India. Filmmaker Reddy took months winning the trust of these Nepalese migrants by living with them and sharing the risks of going down into the unstable coal pits, his camera perched on a rickety trolley. It makes for a slow and thoughtful documentary.

This is much more than a standard exposé of child labour and appalling working conditions. Reddy captures the rhythms of life in a marginal mining community, and in the laughter and tears of the Nepalese workers themselves. We are immersed in their intersecting personal stories that give a sense of individual hopes and fears against the backdrop of often bleak, at times beautiful, countryside. The kids here grow up too fast, with a stubborn smile and a determination to survive.

Rating: ★★★

A Revolution in Four Seasons

directed by Jesse Deeter. (90 minutes)

The Arab Spring’s one fragile success story is Tunisia and this film seeks to explore its dynamics through the stories of two women. Both sympathize with the aspirations for freedom, but in radically different ways. One is freelance journalist and blogger Emna Ben Jemaa who craves a secular freedom that fits her cosmopolitan roots in urban Tunis. The other is Jawhara Ettis, a star of the youth movement of the Islamist Ennahda Party, who sees her country’s future in tolerant but decidedly religious terms. She is elected to the Tunisian Parliament after the overthrow of the country’s corrupt leader, Ben Ali.

Deeter resists arranging for the two activists to meet. Instead, she draws from their parallel stories and reactions to the vicissitudes of a revolution in which they invest much hope. Both women marry and have their first child against the backdrop of demonstrations, assassinations and political intrigue. It’s not an easy ride. Tunisia has been scarred by fundamentalist terrorism that threatens to derail the precarious consensus, presenting a cruel challenge to both the women’s perspectives. This is political documentary-making at its best, delivering gripping human drama that provides understanding without sacrificing complexity.

Rating: ★★★★

Do Not Resist

directed by Craig Atkinson. (70 minutes)

From Ferguson Missouri to small-town USA, this is a harrowing exposé of the militariza­tion of police tactics and technologies. We see a system of profiling and surveillance way beyond the imaginings of the most paranoid activist. We meet the ideologues of this dystopian police state: training cheerleaders who preach the gospel of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ to uniformed superheroes, ‘criminologists’ who champion drones killing without human orders, and the pre-crime profiling of ‘killers’ (mostly people of colour) not yet born.

Modern US policing is organized around highly militarized SWAT squads driving to the homes of potential ‘perps’ at unexpected hours and smashing up their houses and belongings. The tactics and technologies have been road-tested in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Director Craig Atkinson captures the gung-ho enthusiasm of these frat boy cops with very few discordant or critical voices to puncture the night­mare. It makes for an important document that we ignore at our peril.

Rating: ★★★★

Chasing Asylum

directed by Eva Orner. (96 minutes)

Clandestine footage from the Australian refugee gulags on Pacific islands provides an unflinching examination of one of the most draconian anti-migration systems in the world. The Australian political class has constructed this system of camps to send out the message that no illegal migrant will ever be welcome on the shores of the sub-continent. Refugees (mostly from Asia) are left to rot in stifling prisons where lives of regimented boredom are leading to an epidemic of despair and self-harm.

Orner’s footage is striking in that you rarely see the face of camp staff. This is due to fear of the government’s repressive legislation that could mean job loss, hefty fines, even prison for whistleblowers. This contributes to the film’s claustrophobic feel, deriving both from prison bars and the camera playing on the wrists or shoulders of anonymous interviewees. The effects of this refugee policy are intercut with clips of the political elite mobilizing fear and xenophobia to justify the unjustifiable. Orner puts Australia’s shame on display for all to judge.

Rating: ★★★


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