Governments send their agents to distant climes when they need to interrogate prisoners with, shall we say, greater vigour, and individuals pack their suitcases when they feel an urge to indulge in activities (from drug use to shady sexual liaisons) that are frowned upon at home.
Many countries rely heavily on external energy supplies and when they accumulate too much waste, there are massive cargo vessels ready to ship it half way around the planet. These are just some of the symptoms of our madcap globalism and John Urry’s diagnosis may leave you feeling angry.
The financial revelations of this book are particularly distressing. Urry informs us that although the population of the Cayman Islands is only a little more than 50,000, the islands are also home to 80,000 company registrations. Given such figures, it’s reasonable to suggest that offshore business mechanisms have been taken to absurd extremes.
Urry reports that somewhere between a quarter and a third of global wealth is held offshore: this was US$21trillion in 2010, compared to US$11billion in 1968.
There’s nothing wrong with corporations, within limits, doing their best for their shareholders but, as Urry laments, it’s often difficult to work out exactly how a business operates, and one has to wonder where the lines are sometimes drawn between tax avoidance (ethically dubious) and tax evasion (flat out illegal). Many companies are ‘like Russian dolls, with multiple layers of secrecy and concealment’, and this can only be damaging to transparency, accountability and other assorted bedrocks of democracy.
Technology has only added to the opacity. At the click of a mouse, the corporate movers and shakers have access to ‘de-localised virtual environments’ that allow ‘information, money, trades, images, connections and objects to move digitally as well as physically’. Good luck keeping tabs.
In recent years, we’ve grown more scandalised by this bewildering landscape but, for the most part, there’s precious little that national governments, let alone the individual, can do to confront the consequences of the neo-liberal economy. There has been a radical ‘restructuring’ of ‘global power and domination’ and mighty CEOs are every bit as influential as elected leaders. It’s sometimes difficult to decide who’s really sailing the ship.
There is, then, an awful lot to complain about, but this book isn’t a rant. The author doesn’t expect a return to an idyllic, non-existent past when everyone paid the appropriate taxes, sourced their energy locally and only went on holiday to gaze at crumbling architectural splendours. Although a realist, he exposes contemporary excesses.
There are still, thankfully, lots of honest, honourable businesses out there, but there’s also a frightening, overcrowded digital demi-monde. Similarly, international trade is absolutely fine, but do we really want the next generation of monster vessels: 20 storeys high, the width of an eight-lane motorway and capable of carrying 18,000 containers?
Above all, is there not some way that national governments can puncture the secrecy and regain more control of some of the most basic facets of the economic process? Perhaps, as Urry predicts, the advent of 3D printing will transform manufacturing and many more commodities will be produced locally.
This would be splendid, but the savvy businessman will still presumably squirrel away some of his profits in a distant bank account.
Any hope for a solution begins with a painstaking analysis of the current situation. Here, Urry’s book scores highly. There are useful facts and figures, excursions to the banks of Switzerland and the pleasure palaces of Dubai, and a finely struck balance between indignation and scholarly precision. The result is an enlightening, albeit rather unsettling, read.
OFFSHORING by John Urry, Polity, £14.99