RYBN Collective: The Great Offshore
Bij hoge uitzondering een recensie in het Engels. Van het Franstalige boek The Great Offshore (‘About Art, Money, Sovereignty, Governance, and Colonialism’). Vertaling van de recensie naar het Nederlands kunt u hier spoedig verwachten.
(Door Patrice Riemens)
“Notre vie est un voyage
Dans l’hiver et dans la Nuit,
Nous cherchons notre passage
Dans le Ciel où rien ne luit.” (*)
As I was a third way into the RYBN collective’s essays collection on ’the Great Offshore’ – and may be not even as far as that – I was thinking of quitting, seriously. I could take it no more, seized by the same sentiments I had after three weeks in China, and that was way back in 2005: a distinct feel of “We Are Toast” – this country is simply too big, and moves about too fast, and ‘we’ (in the West) simply won’t be able to stay in the race.
But OK, I soldiered on, and I now have read the whole book (just over 500 pp) and the sentiment has not only stayed, but grown bigger and more oppressive. Unlike the PRC, where lone-man-at-the-helm Xi YiPing could (& probably will) fall foul of a party cabal or an economic or environmental catastrophe, the system underpinning ’the Great Offshore’ is simply too big … to be failed. The words of Mark Fisher (if it’s not Slavoj Zizek or Fredric Jameson 😉 come to mind: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.
And capitalism having achieved escape velocity – literally and figuratively – is what the Great Offshore is about. Strangely enough, even though the collective has ‘produced’ itself on various international scenes, lately at Alkovi in Helsinki, with all their material in English, the book is in French, and there is no ‘imperial language’ version yet – but let me check, I am a bit late with this review. No, nope for the moment … (And yes, it is a _Parisian_ collective …)
The authors (well, most of them) in the RYBN collective’s book embark us on a journey along the funky locales – both geographic and virtual – where capital has stacked its financial assets away form the prying eyes of diverse parties and especially, various national taxmen. Or actually the not so prying eyes of the later, since the very existence of these fiscal paradises – sometimes simply ensconced in their very own jurisdictions – proves that countries feigning to combat them have in truth every interest in making them possible – and ongoing.
The trip is not only in explanatory text – most of excellent quality, even if a number of them are a bit dated (Femke Heregraven’s for instance, is from 2010), yet most are fortunately more recent. The essays are interspesed with photo reportages where it all actually, or rather, supposedly happens: London, Amsterdam, Malta, Jersey,Basel, and Luxembourg – so not that much tropical islands and palm-fringed beaches here (maybe the airfare was a bit too steep 😉 but an architecture tour along rather typically bland CBD edifices, some of them even fairly unprepossessing. A far cry from the lurid descriptions of cartoonist or activist lore …
Fact is that ‘the Great Offshore’ happens in buildings that are sometimes situated … just a few blocks away from your own house, if you happen to live in London, Amsterdam and a few more on those cities on the global financial map. And what happens there the authors explain quite well, despite the deliberately obfuscating walls of secrecy around the activities taking place inside.
Secrecy and ‘discretion’ is of course the name of the game if you engage with ‘the Great Offshore’, and yet the most (un-?)surprising finding of the book is that the operations of the corporate tax dodgers – and dodgers of other scrutinies – generate an incredible amount of data. Thus the crimes appear to happen in plain sight, so to speak, even tough one needs to be (moderately) conversant in finance economics to decipher its manifestations. Something the members of RYBN seem to have elevated into an art form.
Probably the best way to ‘penetrate’ the inner workings of the Great Offshore is simply … to go for it, as a seeker of its services. Artist Paolo Cirio describes in the chapter devoted to his ‘Loophole4all project how he did exactly that, pretending to run such an evasive corporate entity and desiring to incorporate it (‘Alpha Beta’ Ltd, the imagination of businessmen being quite limited – or is the ability of registrars to detect a spoof?) in the Cayman Islands. The registration proces turned out to be surprisingly easy – and very affordable to boot, less than $2500 all in. Through his fictional, but legally incorporated company, PC was able to ‘interact’ with various actors and facilitators in the Great Offshore galaxy, and learn something – but probably not that much, as organisations operating in that sphere hold their cards close to their chests, and their clients don’t want to know too mutch anyway (plausible deniability anyone?).
What the collective and their associated authors discovered, or rather, confirmed – as it had been pointed by many students of the phenomenon already -, during their various ‘fishing expeditions’, was the ritualistic, not to say sorcery akin methods and practices prevailing in the Great Offshore realm, all hidden, but thinly, behind a veneer of rationality and economic rigor. The regretted Anil Ramdas’ early (1987) study of Dutch immigration judges dancing around the ’totem pole of the law’ (*2) come to mind (mine at least 😉 No wonder the collective references Tiqqun and Philip K Dick among their sources … (*3)
RYBN’s The Great Offshore Book is divided in five thematic parts, which are just as disparate (in the words of the collective) as they are intertwined and intertwined. The first discusses the ‘two speed’ governance regime which links at the same time as it divides the global economic realm in its onshore and offshore manifestations. The second is about both the mode of operation and the mode of representation of offshore finance, an at first sight somewhat befuddling combo, but saved by the empirical findings of artists-researchers (it includes Paolo Cirio’s ‘incorporation’ outing in the Cayman Islands). The third part discusses the relationship between established art and offshore, a fascinating issue ever since art, the upmarket variety that is, has by now been fully incorporated in the financial vortex of assets hoarding – literally, as it is stockpiled in ‘hostile environment’ bunkers conveniently located in the extraterritorial zones of international airports.
The fourth part discusses yet another (relatively) recent manifestation of ‘de-linked’ – what the French call ‘hors sol’ – corporate and UHNWI (*4) excess, the increasingly active trade in documentary identity, a.k.a. ‘passports of convenience’, usually profiled as ‘reward for investments’ (unproductive and peanuts to their owners anyway).
The fifth part is maybe the most fascinating, and for me at last the truly original and new issue of the book: global capitalism literally attaining escape velocity … in space. Spatial privatisation and extractivisim as the next frontier, suitably established/incorporated in fiscal paradise Luxemburg (’NewSpace’). Still in the greenhorn stage – but so full of wealth accumulation potential. Welcome to the ‘Alienoscene’, our extremely unevenly distributed future!
The Global Offshore has many merits, not the least being that it makes one enthusiastic about that eternal academic dude: further research! But it also avoids a perilous issue of epistemological self enquiry, briefly discussed in the book’s introduction, and broadly mentioned yet not examined by Anne Launay in the ZeroDeux interview: ‘serious’ research, but undertaken by artists. With the concomitant risk of not being taken seriously by the very people it should wind up the most: academics. Which is rather an indictment of the academic system, which is increasingly loath to take up ‘tricky’ societal and economic issues, leaving the field to artists and investigative journalists, both a despised, and soon to be made a near-extinct category.
The other blank – but no reproach here – consists evidently in asking the (in)famous Lenin question: “what is to be done?”. This brings us back to the begin of this review, on the matter of despondent helplessness, and of … China. To start with the latter, the iron, inflexible grip of Xi Jinping’sCPC on the economy might well provide the only effective answer to the unbounded expansion of irresponsible and unresponsive neo-liberal, and increasingly libertarian capital. The only way to bridle it – and its UHNWI ‘stakeholders’ – is, imho, the ‘executive’ decision to do them ‘a Jack Ma’ (5*), whatever it takes. That is, a very political intervention in what is, ultimately, a very political issue. But given the credentials of the current Chinese regime, this is not really a beckoning perspective. Yet the only available alternative, I am afraid, seems to be the current laissez-faire dispensation, run by ‘democratically (or not) elected politicians who, in the face of offshores and soon spaced-out capital, are either impotent at best or complicit at worst (and most likely).
Fiesole July 5th, 2021
The Great Offshore
Villecomtal-sur-Arros (France), UV Editions, 2021, 506pp
(*) “Chanson des Gardes Suisses, 1793”
quoted by both Louis-Ferdinand Celine (in Voyage au fond de la nuit) and Greil Markus (in Lipstick Traces, the secret history of the twentieth century)
(*2) In the Anne Launay ZeroDeux interview – see below – she is quoted as saying that … “even if the economics (…) of offshoring are couched in a discourse of scientific rationality (…) it does stand rather badly when confronted with reality, and appears to be more akin to ritualistic traditions, belief in fetishes, or a totemic cult”. Quite literally Anil Ramdas’ conclusion at the end of his research, an academic analysis not really appreciated by the judiciary in its time – and it did ensure that the government made the publication of his thesis impossible, sinking the award of the PhD degree he was entitled to …
(*3) Speaking of which, Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’ novel might have been a productive addition to RYBN Collective’s research, which mentions the crucial role of computer communication and algorithms often enough, but is thin on crypto. But then Cyberpunk literature, which provides one of the very best descriptive and analytical insights into our societies (where the future has arrived, but is not evenly distributed, in William Gibson’s words) is somehow overlooked by most authors, and this, alas, includes the more ‘edgy’ ones also.
(*4) Ultra High Net Worth Individuals:
(5*) Jack Ma:
Jack Ma was for all practical purposes economically and socially eviscerated by government ‘regulators’ at Xi Jinping’s behest when he was deemed to have crossed the ‘red line’ that marks the Red Power’s domain of exclusive rule.
A very good explanatory of the RYBN Collective’s approach is given in an interview to ‘ZeroDeux’ online magazine – again in French – by Anne Launey author and member of the collective (most authors are not, btw):
RYBN members’ (virtual) intervention at Moneylab#8 (video stream)
RYBN site: http://www.rybn.org/