#act power thursdays: Panamapapers – State power, or state powerlessness?


Thursdays, I grapple with how states wield power in an inter-connected, hyper-competitive world. As this week is cyber week, and the #Panamapapers scandal broke last Sunday, it seems only fitting to have a closer look.

The #Panamapapers leak involves some 11.5 million documents (4.8 million emails, 3 million folders, and 2.1 million PDFs), many times more than the WikiLeaks cables, Pentagon Papers and Snowden documents combined. They pertain to 12 current or former heads of state, and more
than 60 relatives of and associates of heads of state and other
politicians. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists,
based in Washington, D.C. shared the work of parsing through all that material among journalists at 109 media organizations in 76 countries, ranging
from the BBC to the Miami Herald.

From a statecraft angle, events could be interpreted in several ways:

On the one hand, the release of documents could be a targeted move by a (state) actor, with the aim of destabilising opponents or particular institutions, such as other states. Under this scenario, control over data and (at least indirect) control over dissemination of data appears as a power instrument, updated to the specifications of the 21st century.

Cui bono? For the time being, we have no information as to who could be behind this leak, and this nurtures the ever popular conspiracy theories. The CIA (not many Americans seem to be involved…), the Mossad, etc., etc,…you name it. It seems fantastically incredible that so many people should have used the
same law firm to organise their shady dealings. The lack of
imagination seems simply striking.

Where the money comes from:


If this is a new power tool, how effective is it? It appears for the time being not terribly effective. Apart from egalitarian democracies such as Iceland, the direct political fall-out looks to be pretty limited.

That this is all a big destabilisation machination is the preferred
line of defense of authoritarian leaders named, such as for example
Vladimir Putin. Kremlin spokespeople went on
preemptive damage control before the #Panamapapers scandal broke,
announcing that defamatory disclosures by Russia’s enemies were to happen in the very next days. 

Watch a The Guardian video clip here
on how Russia’s president has moved some pocket money (a mere
billion) off-shore. In Russia itself, apart from Echo Moskvy radio
station and Novaya Gazeta newspaper, nobody was tempted to touch this hot
potato…And Novaya Gazeta will soon receive the visit of the tax police
to “reward” them for their revelations. In other tightly controlled countries, such as China, information management will be similarly effective.


While one reading could be data and the possibility to reveal it as a power instrument, another reading of the affair is the extent to which the state has in fact lost control in our networked word – over financial markets and its opaque conduits, over private sector actors operating on its territory and beyond, and over the loyalty of its citizens.

An altogether pessimist interpretation of the latest leak could be that “the state”, as an incarnation of the social contract between those governing and those governed is in the process of disappearing (or has already disappeared) in a number of countries. Either those governing are using state institutions and resources to foster their own private interests, or those governed feel no longer honour-bound to contribute to a common good. Or both! Such pillaging by private actors, more less or meshed with organised crime has always existed. But now we know in great detail.

For those speaking French, I am linking to a Facebook post by Denis Robert. Robert was instrumental, among other things in bringing the Clearstream scandal to the attention of the public in 2001. His post is the exasperated rant of a person who has dedicated a lot of his life to exposing and fighting financial crime, all happily organised by officially working banks and law-firms under our very noses, who once exposed tend to get away mostly scot-free. Robert himself has had to fight an estimated 66 court cases to date, all designed to deny him the right to speak up.
Robert is tired of the short attention span of the public, of the amateurism of his journalist colleagues and of the duplicity and/ or inaction of pretty much all of the political class.

We are living through a period of rapid change, with existing institutions at pains to keep up, and increasingly failing to produce political legitimacy. Revelations like the #Panamapapers are as necessary, as they are painful. And dangerous: They contribute to the ongoing erosion of trust inside our body politic(s). And it is this erosion of trust that is truly worrisome.

Johanna M

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