The street-level response to the Paradise Papers, the mighty follow-up punch to last year’s Panama Papers, has been curiously tepid. This is probably not what many activists, and the 100 media organizations involved in the leak, expected to happen.
In striking contrast to the bombshell release of the Panama Papers in mid-2016 that immediately triggered a 10,000-person-strong protest in Iceland leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the Paradise Papers have thus far made many headlines but no uprisings.
The world was different – arguably better – 18 months ago when commentators widely believed, as Rana Foroohar put it at the time in Time magazine: “the Panama Papers could lead to capitalism’s greatest crisis.”
Many activists justifiably, and optimistically, anticipated that the largest leak in human history would provide the evidence necessary to spark an ongoing series of protests worldwide that would yield concrete, lasting change.
Then Brexit happened, alt-right nationalism surged and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. In other words, the Panama Papers protests, and leftist activism more generally, were quickly overshadowed by a dramatic string of victories for the criminally rich who now figure prominently in the Paradise Papers.
That is why I want you to entertain the possibility that this time around the absence of predictably reactive street protests that dissipate as spontaneously as they erupt – and quite frankly, have not yielded systemic change in recent years – is a positive sign.
Rather than being an encouragement to succumb to defeatism, or a retreat into an equally false triumphalism that unconvincingly claims our movements are winning, the eerily quiet response to the Paradise Papers is a long-overdue indication that activists everywhere are either open to, or actively involved in, reimagining revolutionary activism in the 21st century.
The decreasing effectiveness of protest is a symptom of growing class segregation. The rich and powerful are not existentially threatened by protests in the street because our streets are not their streets.
Sure, noisy mobs might force one or two tax evaders to take a less public role – perhaps even resign from office – but the fundamental economic injustice of our society is not corrected.
I suspect many of us are no longer swayed by the theatrically militant rhetoric used by Brooke Harrington, a Copenhagen Business School professor, whose response to the Paradise Papers is characteristic of the progressive left: “It won’t be lost on wealth managers and those in the offshore industry that we are reaching sort of French Revolution levels of inequality and injustice.” Gazing backward in this way is detrimental to moving forward.
As long as we keep assuming that the next revolution will look like the great modernist revolutions of the past – the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, etc – whose script was dramatic street protests followed by the collapse of the regime, then we will continue to be unable to imagine into existence tomorrow’s revolution.
So here is a different story of how the Paradise Papers could instigate global social change
The fundamental lesson of the Panama and Paradise Papers is twofold. First, the people everywhere, regardless of whether they live in Russia or America, are being oppressed by the same minuscule social circle of wealthy elites who unduly control our governments, corporations, universities and culture.
We now know without a doubt – thanks to the incontrovertible evidence provided by the Panama and Paradise Papers – that there is a global plutocracy who employ the same handful of companies to hide their money and share more in common with each other than with the citizens of their countries. This sets the stage for a global social movement.
Second, and most importantly, these leaks indicate that our earth has bifurcated into two separate and unequal worlds: one inhabited by 200,000 ultra high-net-worth individuals and the other by the 7 billion left behind.
While street protest is losing its effectiveness, there is a force that could terrify these elites: the spectre of a ruthless and globally inescapable class justice.
Unlike in the 99%’s world where youth languish for months and years in jail for allegedly stealing a backpack or $5 worth of candy or a bottle of water, in the world occupied by the 1% getting caught stealing millions from the public through tax evasion might be embarrassing but is rarely prosecuted. That must change.
The ultra-rich live in a different world but they are still stuck on our planet and activists must ensure that there is nowhere to hide. From this point forward, protesters must frighten the uber-rich with a sophisticated movement to establish a new binding global legal regime dedicated to prosecuting financial crimes against humanity.
The impetus to reorient our protests away from the old model of getting angry in the streets in the hopes of toppling corrupt individuals and toward the new affirmative approach of founding a planetary legal regime, an international criminal court that ruthlessly prosecutes tax evasion as a crime against humanity, could be the greatest gift of the Paradise Papers. And only activists can make it happen.