Tax avoidance: Not illegal, just harmful and deviant?

The furore over tax avoidance, both by our national and international elites, reveals new social fault lines while highlighting a crisis of legitimacy to calls for togetherness and common purpose.

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Mayfair, hedge funds and capital’s heartland

The word plutocracy combines two elements to its meaning – that of wealth and power. To live in a plutocracy, many argue, is to see the warping of the political process by those with the resources to do so – representation for all is eroded by a seizure of control by the few.

The impact of such control is evident in financial support for political campaigns, as well as the massive infrastructure of lobbyists, the subtle closing-down of political debate and the voting patterns of ‘bought’ politicians. Yet in many ways simply understanding control by the wealthy as the capture of political institutions and actors by the rich is a rather limited reading of what we might mean by plutocracy. A broader understanding of a plutocratic society is one where our social and economic world is run to, and for, those with increasing levels of personal wealth. While these processes are often difficult to substantiate they amount to a corruption on a grand scale which pervades much of daily social and economic life, particularly given the scale exposed by the recent leak of the Panama Papers.

A society organised in this way is one in which material wealth and privilege is identified as the mark of aspiration and success, but also has the right to be passed-on to those who are members of this class. For those in such a position it is deemed natural, right and socially useful to retain and expand such privileges.

Following the revelations of huge and systematic tax avoidance by the global affluent have arisen defences by those who argue that offshore investment is nothing to concern ourselves with – this response has been rapid and aggressive, a grand denial of wrongdoing and an assertion of the freedoms of individuals to take rational decisions in the search to bolster their private wealth. The indignation of those charged with avoiding their tax dues has been impressive to watch, a form of denial of harm or wrongdoing that criminologists will recognise as strategies of avoiding the charge of illegality. In the world of the elite in this, more extensive, notion of a plutocracy, in which making money is the primary function of individuals, moving money offshore is seen as legal and rational. Indeed, it is seen as the logical choice of those with the resources to pursue tax efficient vehicles which are supplied by a cadre of operators who help those with money to maintain anonymous offshore accounts.

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There are at least two problems with this position and reasons to believe that real and effective pressure will come to bear on the Amazons, Googles and Camerons of this world. First, those institutions and individuals using apparently legal forms of investment are increasingly being challenged as normative readings of what is morally problematic and consequential on their choices changes – increasing numbers of people think it is reprehensible to avoid tax and more are now aware of the scale of these issues through leaks like the Panama Papers. Second, a key problem for those seeking to defend offshore investment is the impression we now have of the stellar wealth of our elites (such as stories of £200,000 ‘gifts’). The scale of such wealth is problematic because we also know material inequality, particularly that measured by wealth, is increasing. In addition many people have been deeply touched by forms of social and economic pain following cuts to the public realm that this and the former coalition government espoused were necessary for us as a community. Clearly this was rather a partial reading of the term community, or at least one predicated on an idea of noblesse oblige and patrician responsibility that operated in tandem with a hotline to a Panama broker.

Another key problem for our elites following the Panama Papers revelations relates to the increasingly clear impression we have of a class of people who are defined by their finances and whose allegiances are built around these interests. This is a class or group for whom identity is increasingly structured by however, and wherever, fast money can be made and enlarged, rather than through any sense of being part of a national or local community. What is revealed is a newfound robber-baron logic of plunder and secede that sees the wealthy secreting their money where it can grow and avoiding their national tax regime. In a political context in which an entire political project has been built upon the idea that there are limited resources to run essential public services (and new resources need to be found) the entwined sense of wealth and avoidance feels like nothing less than grand betrayal.

Because of these problems, of inequality and a rather profound breakdown in social cohesion, there is now a deep legitimacy crisis at work. This will not be explained away by an appeal to a legal/criminal distinction or the idea that the wealthy are like the majority of us. Instead it is much more likely that judgment will be formed on the basis of a belief by many that the structures of our economy work to privilege those who seek to avoid, work around and undermine forms of collective purpose and provision. Linked to this is the growing recognition that what we have seen thus far is only a glimpse of the trillion dollar economy of offshore finance placed by individuals looking to make more money for themselves than they can within their own tax jurisdictions.

So the key question ultimately generated by this mess is – if we are not in fact in this together, whose side are we on?

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Buy to ruin: Abandoned or neglected mansion on gated road, north London

Where politicians and corporations apply the ‘not illegal’ defence then counter-arguments are only likely to be bolstered amidst the sense of social outrage. Criminologists have long observed how socially harmful practices (in this case tax avoidance) can move to become recognised as a form of social deviance that generates shame among those engaging in such behaviour (slavery, smoking, domestic violence can be given as examples of such transitions). Another possibility seems even more likely – that we are seeing the prelude of more concerted attempts at legal prohibition that are founded on this moral outrage as well as plausible economic evidence regarding the damage of avoidance. Here the difference between evasion and avoidance may yet be the winning or losing of the next election, rather than the well-worn anecdote about it being the thickness of a prison wall.

It seems a distinct possibility that much tax avoidance will become defined as tax evasion because the majority population feels that it is morally right to frame such behaviour in this way. Moves to prohibit anonymous ownership of offshore investments seem to be a precursor to this. A synoptic world, in which the many closely watch the few, is fuelled by social media and instant leaks of millions of documents that also drive moves in this direction. Strange as it may seem, the weakness of a plutocracy today is that it emerges into conditions of counter-surveillance that may challenge its ascendency. In a world run to the rhythms of money and little else the legitimacy of plans to raze public housing, reform public health systems, cut essential social care while protecting those with profound wealth seem at worst extraordinarily callous, at best plain wrong.

The case for alternatives to austerity and a deeper form of collective endeavour is made all the stronger by the Panama Papers and, no doubt, other revelations to come about the secret life of our elites.

 

 

Urban crime cinema – Some alternatives

Life is full of clichés, no less perhaps than in the area of crime cinema. Yet the influence of crime and mystery cinema on daily cultural life is hard to underestimate, from the daily darkness of Scandinavian noir imbibed by millions, to the banal reality of crime presented in The Wire or the Scarface-quoting real gangsters that underpin the film of Saviano’s Gomorrah (see his interview in the DVD extras). So far, so obvious. Crime and violence is pervasive and its more subtle effects remain under-examined. Where then to start with films that offer authentic insights, useable frames of reference for understanding harm or an attempot to grapple with some of the mainstays of contemporary cultural reference points that, somehow, we should have watched? Here is a list of some of the more obvious examples, with a less obvious and perhaps more exciting alternative. This list will (hopefully) grow over time…

 The Wire

Watch it because you must, all five series and all all 60 hours or so. I am no fan of episodic boxed sets and The Wire wins-out because it achieves strong narrative development alongside naturalistic writing and some of the most insightful analysis of urban problems, inequality, racial divides and the fuzziness of moral boundaries. Plus you get one of the finest urban folk heroes in the form of Omar.

Alternative – Red Riding

This is tough and hard to stand-up to the resources and combined team-writing power of American television. Red Riding runs across three film-length treatments of police corruption, serial killing and the backdrop of the soon to be post-industrial wastelands of northern England. By turns a realist cop drama and realist fantasy it at least tries to achieve a sense of monumentality that is lost in the confusion of trying to work between real events and an overblown script.

Or try:

Spiral – sprawling (super) tough and often harrowing Parisian cop drama, an attempt to suggest and interrogate the machineries of law, policing and drug gangs.

 

Robocop (the first version)

Cop becomes cyborg cop to what was then thrilling effect, the effect feels clunky now and yet this is surely a prescient vision as public policing becomes a playground of corporate invaders hawking their dreams of total dominance over criminal scum using armed robots that cant tell the difference between good guys and bad, sounds familiar?

The alternative – Chappie

The follow-up piece to District 9 (essential) and Elysium, the themes are back again, a fracturing metropolis, criminal gangs operating in a society of haves and have-nots. What might happen if a law enforcement robot were re-coded as an attempt at human intelligence and development that is then captured by a violent gang? Can the vulnerable child-drone be taught to be bad? By turns funny and incredibly moving this is a must-see for the issues it raises about morality, drift and personal development in a world of mad programmers with good and ill intentions. Jaw-dropping special effects in daylight urban environments yet again prove Blomkamp can produce a winning formula.

Oceans 11

Plan a heist, have fun, we are on the side of the not so good guys, who cares?

The alternative – Pickpocket

Bresson’s beautiful and closely observed study of an anomic male deserves attention. His pickpocket is a man adrift in the masses of Parisian society, a pretence at conformity and respectability while cultivating his skills as a pickpocket addicted to the easy wins of pilfering from the punters and street inhabitants around him. Watch it because it is both beautiful and has much to make us think about where we can and cannot find excitement in a complex world that casts some of us adrift.

Training day

Not such a mainstream film perhaps, Denzil Washington acts as the morally corroded inductor of rookie cop Ethan Hawke. Washington’s presence is magnetic, with Hawke struggling to maintain the respect he craves from his mentor while trying to avoid being dragged into a world of easy wins, brutality and plain bad methods at winning.

The alternative – Beast cops

This Hong Kong variant is a charming study of life in the city, humorous plays at the old hand/rookie conventions while trying at a serious attempt at a realist crime drama. Best Film at the HK film awards this is a great introduction to the world of Hong Kong cop drama.

Die hard

Watch it because you must, because it is fun and still has some of the best one-liners from Willis and Rickman, a period piece that still works in its own terms.

The alternative – The Raid

A cult hit, The Raid features Iko Uwais, awesome martial artist from Indonesia. It is hard not to be impressed by the energy while wincing at the brutality of what is on show here. The plot revolves around an attempt to retake a tower block occupied by gangsters and the poorer residents of the city (perhaps the alternative to this film is the newer Judge Dredd but it is so one-dimensional and dreadful it cannot be recommended). It might be pushing it to suggest this is a dystopian vision of urban life and violent policing tactics but those elements are certainly here. What we only glean is any sense of how the poverty and violence of the city produces heroes and anti-heroes of this kind.

Additional – Grand Theft Auto 5

An alternative to the glut of wargames and organised crime games that are the ubiquitous mainstay of gaming culture today, this is hardly a sleeper hit or subcultural phenomenon – this IS our popular culture today. The is also likely to be the game that your young son or daughter is likely to be playing because their older brother or sister has a copy, or because their friends have an older brother or sister with a copy. It rates certificate 18 for its immersive world of freaks, villains and charismatic sociopathy. Treat it as a play-space for your latent desire to maim and slaughter without consequence, while worrying about its corrosive effect on vulnerable others that really shouldn’t be exposed to this. Undoubtedly impressive, but what are we ultimately to do with cultural products like this and their permeation into popular culture?

 

Ushering capital in, and people out

Last Sunday the Observer newspaper ran with a story covering our research on London’s alpha territories – the places in which the wealthiest live. The story was pitched around a series of working papers that we have been writing, increasingly focusing on how urban arenas like London work for those with most resources. We have been trying to say, both subtly and forecefully, that the UK is not a plutocracy in the sense that money is used simply to buy the voices of politicians or voters (though some would certainly make that argument!). Rather what we see is the way that the city, its economy and and politics, works for those with money. It produces fine and gauche homes (in quantity and vertically), it offers spaces to play and to buy and networks of contacts that provide seamless service to wrap the wealthy-up and make them feel at home. As I have written elsewhere, this cosseted lifestyle is important politically because it allows (and is desired by) the rich to feel distant from much of the distress around them.

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I have little doubt that many, indeed all, of those with eye eatering somes of money to burn have no ill intent towards their fellow citizens, indeed many of them feel that the world around them is richly dverse and full of good folk from all walks of life (and our interviews often bear this view out). The point of course is that this money is mediated and channeled through various systems of accumlation, hidden when possible from the demands of the state to find necessary services for all (tax evasion and avoidance) and, critically, produces a city that is alien to many who have lived there for generations. It is also a city that is alienating and dispossessing as we see public housing demolished, plans for the eradication of ‘sink’ estates (old chestnuts, lies and myths have come around again about the links between design and crime without looking at their social context), more welfare cuts, the layering of stress onto communities by cash-strapped or co-opted local governments and the rise of a sense that within this dogfight of contemporary urban existence – why should the poor think they should be reserved or offered some kind of free place?

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The evacuation of the public realm is an ongoing mission of the current government, in the name of economic prudence. Yet the real limits to this logic are increasingly visible. As the middle-classes are priced-out and even the upper classes (if we should call them that) feel displaced by the changes in their neighbourhoods and the political class act in the name of money rather than loyalty to their cities and constituents. In this sense the government do indeed appear to be ‘at it’ – on the one hand saying that all of this pain is necessary (or denying that any injury has even taken place) while appearing to gleefully attack forms of municipal and public provision because somehow such systems are outdated, outmoded or do not help inflate the balance sheets of those paying for their suppers. Such views don’t seem too cynical, nor are they hard to develop or access as the media increasingly focus on social and political elites and the lives of the wealthy. The rich are more and more visible and when institutions like Oxfam get angry (yes, they don’t just care about the poor elsewhere in the world, in fact they see the plight of the poor as being generated by many of ‘us’) we should take note because the nature of this debate is changing and the real contradictions of a political system that sells the majority down the river in their own name while selling assets and opportunities to the monied cannot last without being challenged or faced down electorally – we can surely expect these debates to become ever more heated.

 

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Charting the Alpha Territory

This is simply a list of links to cumulative blog outputs from the ESRC funded Alpha Territory that I have written to date and others with colleagues (Roger Burrows, Hang Kei Ho, Simon Parker, David Rhodes) project by myself and in conjunction with colleagues. I will add to this as future outputs emerge.

 

The spatial consequences of Piketty’s understanding of Capital: A response to Piketty & Savage, Theory, Culture and Society blog

http://theoryculturesociety.org/rowland-atkinson-on-the-spatial-consequences-of-pikettys-understanding-of-capital-a-response-to-piketty-savage/

 

The super-rich in London: they live amongst us, but you won’t run into them (if they can help it), British Politics and Policy, LSE

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/a-seamless-floating-space-mobility-the-super-rich-and-london/

 

The Power of Raw Money, Le Monde Diplomatique

http://mondediplo.com/2015/05/14london

London: where only the wealth of a global elite can find a home, Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/22/london-wealth-global-elite-home

Cities for the Rich, Le Monde Diplomatique

http://mondediplo.com/2010/12/22housing

Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity, Autotomically blog

https://autotomically.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/the-plan-wealth-housing-need-and-austerity/

The random neighbourhood, Autotomically blog

https://autotomically.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/the-random-neighbourhood-bringing-concentrated-wealth-into-the-concentrated-poverty-debate/

A city in thrall to capital? London, money-power and elites, Discover Society

http://discoversociety.org/2014/12/01/a-city-in-thrall-to-capital-london-money-power-and-elites/

On the Frontline: Domestic Sovereigns, Wealth and Public Space, Discover Society

http://discoversociety.org/2013/12/03/on-the-frontline-domestic-sovereigns-wealth-and-public-space/

A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich, Critical Urbanists blog

https://criticalurbanists.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/a-city-both-full-and-empty-london-and-the-super-rich-by-rowland-atkinson-university-of-sheffield/

On our own: Loneliness and social anxiety

Perhaps in many ways we really are on our own.

In the final analysis we are of course, but many other changes now place in a less social environment and this runs counter to our needs as social animals. The idea of loneliness may seem 2015-10-21 11.07.12a curious thing in a ‘mass’ society filled with social media, screen distractions and anxieties about being, if anything, too connected. As perhaps we increasingly realise, these connections are ‘social’ to the extent that we are interacting with others, yet the quality and depth of those connections if quite another thing. Facebook ‘friends’ are not companions or necessarily those we confide in and share daily experiences (though confidences and experiences are of course shared by many). In our lives many of us will feel a sense of frustration and even despair at a lack or absence of social contact with others in ways that are more meaningful and close than social media can deliver.

A whole host of social, economic, technological and demographic changes are implicated in these 2015-10-09 10.41.29issues that suggest the possibility that social life is changing in really quite deep and unsettling ways. On holiday this summer I was struck by a family sitting for dinner in a beautiful riverside location, all four of them, two young children and the two parents, were looking at their phones. One of them would remark about something or other that was amusing or an interesting fact they had learned while none of the others responded when they did so. Even in leisure we find there isn’t enough time or focus for us to engage those around us or closest to us. The world of work is little better and likely to be much worse. Email corrodes human contact while weighing many people down with distractions that feel easier than phoning others and make us sufficiently busy to shun the possibility of a coffee and chat. We claim to despise ourselves for being so busy while submitting to the mantra of being busy, almost professionally so. Similar problems exist for parents in relation to children and, more deeply, for the elderly in relation to those around them. Increasing numbers of people living on their own, family break-up and long working days all play a further role in diminishing the core of social life as a space and experience of interaction with the faces and voices of others.

Perhaps ironically to claim the value and importance of such experiences might be seen as od-fashioned and yet, as we increasingly find, we realise that the basis of a meaningful life comes not just through self-examination, but also through who and how we associate with others. Problems like obesity, diet, exercise, senses of self-worth and personal vitality are all linked to the quality of our social relationships. Meanwhile the need to have, rather than to experience and simply to be with others, further erodes the sense we have of ourselves as social animals. Our intense materialism 2015-09-23 08.02.44and holding dear of objects and possessions that are lifeless yet priceless to us further erodes the social around us. As someone once said, there is no such thing as society, and perhaps, while that was and is not true, it is MORE true than it was even then. Some of this comes from the designs of governments of many political stripes seeking to bring the mechanisms of the market into more aspects of social life that run to the rhythm of notions of trust, reciprocity, civic gain and social benefit. Such changes have not only altered the landscape of key institutions like schools, universities and hospitals but have also changed our sense of ourselves into, again, less social animals – we are on our own and it is not the state or the church or another institution that might offer an ethic or possibility of care and interest in our well-being. This has served corporations well, not least the burgeoning of caring technologies with robots and programmes developed to keep the elderly happy, distracted and less lonely. Yet another perverse effect has been the increasing meaninglessness of work within such corporations in which those a layer from the top experience a sense of personal drift and anxiety in their own work and personal lives and to which the idea of occupational continuity and a career has become almost a thing of the past. Looking outside these lives there is of course a hunger for therapies and insulating ideas that seek to preserve a sense of meaning without togetherness. As organised religion becomes mistrusted still further there are few discoveries of belief systems and ideals that might also help to give us the sense of us in connection with and supportive of, and cared by others. This is less a call for belief for its own sake but rather the need to understand perhaps that our human condition and the anxiety of a finite existence compels us to think of what ethics and values we will live by when markets trump the call of national identity, religion or notions of community.

2015-09-23 08.07.27So let us return to the idea of loneliness itself. What is it and why might we see it as a social problem. Of course the reality is that many of us have had or will have experiences of a profound sense of aloneness that persists even for those with busy lives, families and a sense of status and standing in the world. It also clearly exists for those who are disconnected or who experience prejudice that isolates them within the communities and neighbourhoods they live in. Yet, as I have tried to indicate here, the idea of loneliness perhaps strikes to the much deeper core of what it means to be social and human and to understand how that world is being affected, eroded, changed and sometimes even improved by technologies and other shifts. In a context in which governments worldwide are cutting back on the public, the social, the municipal and the shared we would do well to wonder at the logic of these choices but also start to consider the more subtle impact of austerity on us and communities as social entities that profoundly require each other in order to thrive.

Getting to know the super-rich, a reading list

For those wanting to reach the unreachable here are initial pointers to help you on your way. When we started there was very little out there, this brief list will be almost doubled in the coming year or two as a slew of edited collections and monographs appears. Social scientists, journalists and pressure groups have firmly begun to challenge forms of privacy and social closure that left such groups hidden from view and ignored by conventional social research as too hard to reach. Those days are long gone and perhaps the really exciting prospect now is of a new-found relevance to research that informs public opinion and political choices amidst a popular hunger to know more about the roots of inequality and the excesses of our system more broadly.

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Dorling, D. (2014) Inequality and the 1%. Verso Books. Dorling highlights the gap using relevant data and arguments on how wide the gap has become and how problematic this is for us all today. A great complement to Pickett and Wilkinson’s Spirit Level.

why-we-cant-afford-the-rich-fcSayer, A. (2014) Why we can’t afford the rich. Bristol: Policy Press. An angry and systematic analysis of the perversity and deep impacts of the rich on contemporary society, Sayer has spent a long time assembling deep arguments that highlight the problematic position and illegitimacy of excessive wealth in our society and others.

Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the 21st Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Read this or the summaries because you want the evidence base that explains the long-run fortunes of the wealthiest groups in society. If anything this is more powerful because it is from someone who is signed-up to the capitalist model of running things but who would join those pushing for swingeing cuts to the wealth bases of the 1%. This is the good news bible of those looking for a more equal society and ideas for how to do it, the writing is beautiful too.

di muzioDi Muzio, T. (2015) The 1% and the Rest of Us: A Political Economy of Dominant Ownership, London: Zed Books. Examines capital and wealth as forms of power that affect the rest of us in subtle and more direct ways. Perhaps most interesting for thinking through the deeper political ramifications of what is going on that pushes back against the idea that TINA.

pinconPinçon, M., & Pinðcon-Charlot, M. (1999). Grand Fortunes: Dynasties of Wealth in France. Algora Publishing. A useful and very interesting insight into the lives of the true bourgeois families in France. Despite criticism from some quarters the book is a revelation and a great insight into the patrician sensibilities and everyday life of those who are wealthy but perhaps a long way from being the footloose, globe-trotting and more selfish super-rich of a decade and a half later.

plattPlatt, S. (2015) Criminal Capital: How the Finance Industry Facilitates Crime, London: Palgrave. Important for what it says about the culture of the finance industry and the impediments to reforms that might see a more effective stemming of the facilitation of mass criminal activity and laundering which, as Platte reveals, have become the everyday stuff of the global financial economy. It remains a thorny issue that governments will not challenge the cash cows of their finance/service economies and a source of great international anger. Worried about drug trafficking, corruption and the subversion of government agendas? Start here and gem-up on how it works.

51ZwR240C0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hay, I. (Ed.). (2013). Geographies of the Super-rich. Edward Elgar Publishing. Unfortunately you will be need to be rather well-off to buy this collection but it offers an excellent selection of very useful essays that goes well beyond social geography and takes in contributions from a range of social scientists responding to the charge that the rich had been getting away with it for far too long – look out for his new handbook, with Jonathan Beaverstock, out next year.

mindsAndreotti, A., Le Galès, P., & Moreno-Fuentes, F. J. (2014). Globalised Minds, Roots in the City: Urban Upper-middle Classes in Europe. John Wiley & Sons. Terrific analysis of the ambitions, choices and urban lifestyles of managers in three European cities. This takes on the idea that the upper middle classes have exited the urban system in some sense and reveals a grounded and engaged group, despite using education to get their children ahead. I don’t think this contradicts the work of others on the idea of urban secession by the very successful, it isn’t about the super-rich or gated dwellers but a great addition to the literature.

sampsonSampson, A. (2004). Who runs this place?: the anatomy of Britain in the 21st century. John Murray. A sad loss not to have writers like Sampson anatomising the establishment and dissecting them for all to see, arguably not supplanted by Jones’ The Establishment, Who Runs This Place? Offers a great insight into the key institutions and a prescient analysis of the international schools, mobility, influence and suburban presence of a growing class of the super wealthy that could have been written today.

plutocratsFreeland, C. (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Penguin. This books is interesting for being one of the few to say something about the rich themselves, using interviews and anecdotes we gain an impression at least of the hyper-mobility, the bitchiness and competition within the ranks of the super-rich themselves. This is a light treatment but the arguments about ‘cognitive capture’ of politics by money is important and worth remembering.

 

Films

The Mayfair SetThe Mayfair Set – Seminal film from Adam Curtis that explores what the establishment did following the realisation of the declining place of Britain on the world stage and murky adventures in the arms and other trades. James Goldsmith’s off-shore palace, which features in the documentary, is now a luxury hotel.