Sunday, 10 December 2017

Words that are emptied of meaning - 'Hinduism is a tolerant religion and 'Islam is a religion of peace'.

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” says Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet’s advice is given to actors rehearsing a play within the play, but it is advice all of us can take. Words not suited to action are considered empty or hollow. We do not trust people whose words have little or nothing to do with their actions.

And yet, as communities, we tend to fall into this trap. We repeat some words, almost as if they were mantras, blithely ignoring the fact that our actions often do not vindicate such words.

The two most common sets of words that I hear these days come from Hindus and Muslims, all of them well meaning. Hindus in India keep telling me that “Hinduism is an inclusive, tolerant religion” and Muslims all over the world keep telling me that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Now, no doubt, they are largely right. There is much in history to suggest that Hinduism is an inclusive and tolerant religion, and that Islam puts a lot of stress on peace: the basic greeting of Islam, salaam-alai-kum, means ‘peace be on you.’

And yet, if we stop with these words, we are either being wilfully blind or displaying a remarkable lack of awareness and self-criticism. Because, very often, these words are not redeemed by action. Anyone who reads the newspapers today can see that not all Hindus are inclusive and not all Muslims are peace-loving.

The religion of Rahul Gandhi

One cannot help noticing that if Hinduism was always inclusive and tolerant, then the recent controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s religious beliefs would not have occurred. One also cannot help noticing that if Islam was equated solely with peace, groups of Muslims would not be shooting at each other in almost every third Muslim country in the world.

Let’s face it: why should the fact of Rahul Gandhi’s religious beliefs — or, for that matter, Jawaharlal Nehru’s agnosticism — become a matter of discussion in an India full of inclusive and tolerant Hindus? Let alone the fact that the oldest community of Christians in India can be dated back to 2,000 years, a truly inclusive and tolerant Hindu would not expect other Indians to obtain a ‘Hindu’ religious certificate in order to run for office. Similarly, surely, such a Hindu would be able to accept not just Indian Muslims, who have contributed to India for about 1,500 years, but also monuments, such as the Taj Mahal, associated with the so-called Muslim period of India. I must say that I was surrounded by really tolerant and inclusive Hindus in the India in which I grew up, and I must add that their numbers seem to be greatly reduced today.

Violence instead of protest

Similarly, the Muslim claim that Islam is a religion of peace seems hollow not just when one looks at what some Muslims are doing to other Muslims, but also when one hears religious discourses about the supposed ‘moral victory’ of Islam over other faiths. I will not even talk of Islamist terrorism, mostly because it is often discussed in excess to its reality, but surely some other people would bring it up, and who can say that their fears are totally unjustified? Islam might be a religion of peace, but too many Muslims seem to take recourse to violence instead of peaceful and democratic modes of protest and action.

Once again, this is a tendency that has increased in Muslim communities — where there is increasing impatience with those Muslims who do not kowtow to fundamentalist prescriptions.

In such a context, when Hindus say that Hinduism is an inclusive and tolerant religion, and Muslims say that Islam is a religion of peace, there can be only two explanations. First, and positively, what they mean is that the essence of Hinduism is inclusive and the essence of Islam is peaceful, and hence intolerant Hindus or violent Muslims are going against the essence of their own religions. If this is the intention, the statements are at least partly justified.

But, often, this is not the intention. The intention is not to critique wrong tendencies within Hinduism or Islam but to dismiss criticisms — from within or outside. Often, Hindus who beat the drum of the inclusiveness of Hinduism do so in order to dismiss contrary evidence, and so do Muslims who beat the drum of the peacefulness of Islam. In such cases, what they utter are empty words. Or worse: inclusiveness becomes a weapon to exclude, peace becomes a justification of violence.

The statements “Hinduism is an inclusive, tolerant religion” and “Islam is a religion of peace” contain much truth — but this truth has to be regularly vindicated by action. There seems to be an increasing failure to do so on the part of many Hindus and Muslims. Each one of us has to face up to this failure. Every time we use such words, we need to ask ourselves: do we really mean it, and does the evidence around us sustain such claims? We have to ask ourselves: are we using these words as ideals or as excuses?

Because, finally, words only mean what we put into them — by our daily acts. And when we use words that are being emptied of meaning, we simultaneously hollow out the rich and wonderful realities of our world.

Is polyamory finally ready to become an open secret in India?

Jayanthi Madhukar in The Hindu

She is 27 and lives in Bengaluru. Let’s call her Radhika. Radhika says she was 18 when she became “conscious” that she wanted to be intimate with multiple partners. In other words, that she was polyamorous. She has come out to a few friends and reactions have been mixed.

“Some are accepting, but some are sceptical, and tell me that I am being foolish and polyamory will never work.” She hasn’t told her parents yet simply because they will not understand. Even more difficult has been to find partners willing to accept polyamory. Radhika says she has been practising polyamory for only two years now, when she finally began to find the first few partners open to the idea.

The dictionary defines polyamory as ‘the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all the people involved.’ Its definition is often expanded as ‘consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy’ to differentiate it from what it is often misunderstood for — a committed couple in an open relationship where each is allowed to experiment outside the relationship every now and then. In polyamory, however, there is no single committed couple — the polyamorous group is committed to every one of its members, mentally and physically.

In hushed tones

As definitions of relationships and sexualities morph dramatically across the world, India is no exception. Polyamory India is a Facebook group formed about eight years ago by the San Diego-based Rohit Juneja and has as its background image the words, ‘The capacity for human love is unlimited.’ And about a year ago, Bangalore Polycules was formed, a ‘hush-hush’ community of people who are polyamorous and meet occasionally in private spaces.

Members have come together through an underground network. In a departure from their fool-proof privacy, the group organised a public event, a screening of a French film Lutine on polyamory, in order to educate more people about it. And when earlier this year, they announced the event at the city’s famous art space, 1 Shanthiroad Studio, it led also to their name cropping up on search engines.

That is how I found them. And perhaps that’s how Basit Manham found them. At 24, Manham says he is dealing with depression. Outwardly, his lean frame exudes confidence, showing no signs of the inner turmoil. Manham, a college dropout, moved to Bengaluru from Pune about a year ago as the senior community manager of Stay Abode. He comes from an orthodox Muslim family and in 2014, when he declared himself as ‘agnostic’ on social media, he was immediately disowned by his family and has had to support himself since. A few months later, he used social media again to declare that he was polyamorous.

Two major public declarations in quick succession, and their fallout, have clearly affected him deeply. “Probably,” he says. Alone in a new place, all Manham wanted was to be with people who would not question him or judge his choices. And then he stumbled upon Bangalore Polycules.

Not polygamy

The film screening of Lutine was open to all, polyamorous or otherwise, and it was followed by a Skype Q&A with the film’s director Isabelle Broué. When asked who had organised the screening and Q&A session, the gallery representatives would only say that they got a request for the event via email and that there was a good turnout of people. A city-based filmmaker who attended it says he could not figure out who the founders of the group were.

I spoke to Broué in an email interview, and she recollected her experience of talking to audience members. One of the questions asked of her was a common one that vexes most Polycules members. Is polyamory the same as polygamy? “I gave the usual answer: that polygamy is about being ‘officially’ in an union (from the Greek word gamos) with someone, whereas in polyamory, we’re talking about intimate relationships without social recognition,” says Broué, who is polyamorous herself.

Polyamory is about equity and egality: any person in a relationship has the same rights, no matter her or his gender, sexual orientation or age. But what Broué remembers most is seeing so many women in the audience, mostly “young women”. It reaffirmed her belief that polyamory is a way to assert yourself as a free person. “It is both personal and political,” she says, “a feminist way of living your relationships.”

On the evening of the event, one of the audience members, who had attended out of curiosity, got the feeling that the “whole thing was about kids wanting to have a good time”. Otherwise why wouldn’t they be in a monogamous relationship? Radhika doesn’t agree. “I am polyamorous,” she says. “I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. Whenever I’ve been in monogamous relationships, I have resented the fact that wanting a relationship with someone else is considered taboo (unless it’s within the framework of friendship). And that has been very stifling.”

Coming out as polyamorous in today’s society is obviously still difficult, despite the growing openness. What makes it easier are groups like the Polycules. As one of its members says in an email interview, the “primary purpose of this group is to be a place where people can share and support each other.”

For Manham, it was pure serendipity that he found a local community. He has been to a few of their meet-ups and finds the members are on his wavelength. He cannot give more details — the group has requested him not to volunteer more information about it. He says, “Idea-wise, we are connected and that’s enough for me.”

A polyamorous person can choose to be in a hierarchal or non-hierarchal relationship, which, simply put, means they could have a primary partner or all partners can be of equal relevance. In Manham’s case, his first relationship broke up because his girlfriend was not okay with him seeing others. “Each of my relationships satisfies a different emotional need. I can’t satisfy someone in all ways and vice versa,” he explains.

In a monogamous relationship, one either makes do with the partner, warts and all, or tries to change the partner. “Most poly people do not change anything about a partner,” Manham says. “It is cruel to try and change someone.”

Polyamorous people are also quick to point out that their proclivity for more than one partner does not make them simply promiscuous or disloyal.

A survey conducted of the Bangalore Polycules members found that 72% inform their partners of other relationships. About 85% said they would continue with a satisfying relationship even when sex dwindles or isn’t in the equation. They cite this to indicate that their ethics overrule the assumptions of promiscuity labelled on them. The Polyamory India group says on its Facebook page: ‘It is not about free sex, casual sex, extramarital affairs and nor is it a way to make friends or pick up sex partners. If you are looking for any of these please go elsewhere.’

The Bangalore Polycules community has people of diverse gender identity: male, female and other genders. Their sexual orientations range from heterosexuals at 35%, bisexual 35% and 30% homosexuals and others. But no matter what, all of them listed understanding and communication as the most important aspects in each of their relationships. “Communication is important because there is no standard protocol as there is in monogamy,” says Radhika. “Being receptive to each other’s needs, desires and preferences is crucial.” One of the Polycules members, who identified as demi-sexual, stressed on “honest communication” as being the key to satisfying polyamorous relationships.

Still, jealousy rears its ugly head. Sitting in a crowded restaurant and eating a piping hot vada and sambar, Manham is dealing with a few issues himself. “I still feel uncomfortable when my primary partner tells me about her other relationships,” he confesses. Only uncomfortable? “No, make that jealous,” he says, after a moment of silence. “So, I tell her it is okay if she doesn’t tell me about her relationships.” But omission is not honest communication. And that is a troubling issue.

It is not that polyamorous people do not feel jealousy. “We try to handle it differently,” as Radhika says. Some of it, according to her, is about thinking from a different perspective; people conventionally are not jealous if one friend seeks other friendships. “Often, jealousy stems from unmet needs in a current relationship, so figuring out what those are could be helpful,” she says. For Manham, acknowledging the emotion and reasoning it out is a step forward. As he says, “No matter what, I will support my primary partner, even when she has any issues with her other relationships.”

Questions of fidelity

Most members of Bangalore Polycules said that sex is not the key factor driving them to polyamory. In fact, for Manham, he broke off two relationships when he realised the partners were in it for sex only. “I thought we were in a relationship,” he says. One respondent said that even though he was not in a relationship at the moment, for him, platonic love transcends sex. He calls himself ‘asexual’, and he thinks it is possible to be connected only emotionally.

When questioned about what happens at the meet-ups, Manham retorts, “Just because we resonated idea-wise, doesn’t mean that I was sexually attracted to them.” Orgies are not the point of the meet-ups, a myth most non-poly people conjure. And in sexual relations, it is unwritten convention that the onus of safe sex is on all the partners. As Manham tells me, he and his partners (there are currently three), inform each other if they have had unprotected sex.

The expectations of emotional fidelity, on the other hand, are divided among members. Exactly half the respondents said they expected it, while the other half said they did not.

One issue that has yet to come up for most of them — given that the majority are in the 26-40 years age bracket — is the question of children. Will anything change then? Manham isn’t sure. And neither were some of the others. One of them, a young computer engineer in his early 30s, who guards his privacy ferociously as he is unsure of his workplace’s reactions, says he is now under pressure from his family to get married, settle down, have children.

“They look at my polyamory relationships as a ‘macho’ thing and want me to commit to one girl and have children,” he says. “But none of my partners are ready to be married and, frankly, neither am I. And having children out of wedlock will bring in other issues.”

For now, the issues facing the group are privacy related. As they grow older, there will no doubt be new issues. But the challenge at any age will be getting the right to live their lives the way they want, without society telling them how to live.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Dekh lee Teri Khudai

Movie: Kinare Kinare -1963 Singer: Talat Mehmood Music Director: Jaidev Lyricist: Nyay Sharma

Dekh lee teree khudayee bas meraa dil bhar gayaa dekh lee teree khudayee teree rahemat chup rahee teree rahemat chup rahee mai rote rote mar gayaa dekh lee teree khudayee Mere maalik kyaa kahu teree duwaaon kaa fareb mere maalik kyaa kahu teree duwaaon kaa fareb mujhpe yun chhaayaa ke mujhko mujhpe yun chhaayaa ke mujhko ghar se beghar kar gayaa dekh lee teree khudayee Woh bahaare naachatee thee jhumatee thee badaliya woh bahaare naachatee thee jhumatee thee badaliya apanee kismat yaad aate apanee kismat yaad aate hee meraa jee dar gayaa dekh lee teree khudayee bas meraa dil bhar gayaa dekh lee teree khudayee teree rahemat chup rahee teree rahemat chup rahee mai rote rote mar gayaa dekh lee teree khudayee देख ली तेरी खुदाई बस मेरा दिल भर गया देख ली तेरी खुदाई तेरी रहेमत चुप रही तेरी रहेमत चुप रही मैं रोते-रोते मर गया देख ली तेरी खुदाई मेरे मालिक क्या कहूँ तेरी दुआओं का फ़रेब मेरे मालिक क्या कहूँ तेरी दुआओं का फ़रेब मुझ पे यूँ छा कि मुझको मुझ पे यूँ छा कि मुझको घर से बेघर कर गया देख ली तेरी खुदाई वो बहारें नाच उठी थी झूम उठी थीं बदलियाँ वो बहारें नाच उठी थी झूम उठी थीं बदलियाँ अपनी क़िस्मत याद आते अपनी क़िस्मत याद आते ही मेरा दिल डर गया देख ली तेरी खुदाई बस मेरा दिल भर गया देख ली तेरी खुदाई तेरी रहेमत चुप रही तेरी रहेमत चुप रही मैं रोते-रोते मर गया देख ली तेरी खुदाई

The Brexit monomania built on blind faith

Tim Harford in The FT

Image result for salisbury cathedral

For Christmas reading, the British political establishment might pick up something by William Golding, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983. Lord of the Flies is his most famous work, with its grim suggestion that the line between innocent children and murderers is thin. For an insight into Brexit Britain’s current predicament after a week of chaos, however, I recommend The Spire.

The book is a study of monomania. Dean Jocelin has visions of adding to his cathedral a 400-foot steeple, an expression of human prayers reaching into the heavens. But the intensity of his ambition blinds him to his other duties and threatens both the cathedral and the community around it. As Jocelin himself admits, “at the moment of vision, the eyes see nothing”. 

It is impossible to miss the analogy. The UK is being driven by visionary enthusiasts for Brexit just as surely as Jocelin’s attendants had to bend to his will. Whether their visions are realistic is quite another question. Last summer David Davis, the man charged with delivering Brexit, predicted that the UK would be able to negotiate a free trade area “massively larger than the EU” within two years. That was 17 months ago. Whatever Mr Davis was gazing at back then, it wasn’t reality. 

Then there are those wretched experts, who tell Jocelin that his spire is impossible. The master builder, Roger Mason, confronts him with an inescapable dilemma: if the spire’s structure is too lightweight, the next storm will blow it down; a sturdier structure will warp the cathedral beneath it, or sink into the swamp. 

Jocelin berates him for lack of faith; the dean wants to have his cake and eat it. Nor can evidence dissuade him. When Mason digs into the cathedral’s non-existent foundations, showing Jocelin the soft earth writhing under the weight of the building, the zealot’s faith is strengthened. If the current cathedral stands on foundations of mud, isn’t that proof that miracles are possible? 

Brexit, of course, is not only possible but almost inevitable. But the promises that have been made cannot be fulfilled any more than Jocelin’s spire could safely be built. We cannot “have access” to the single market (that is, remain in it) while also ending freedom of movement; we cannot leave the customs union without introducing a customs border. The discovery of the week — surprising to nobody who has been paying attention — is that this customs border can be located on neither land nor sea. 

Jocelin ignores the experts. “I thought it would be simple,” he says. “I had to build in faith, against advice. That’s the only way.” And it proves all too easy to ignore those who might restrain him. One faithful priest, “Father Anonymous”, is too boring to notice. In another life, perhaps he would have been an economist. Others, Jocelin remarks sharply, would profit if the project was thwarted. It is true that sometimes the experts have an eye on their own finances. They may nonetheless be right. 

Admittedly, pure determination sometimes finds a way. Monomaniacs change the world, sometimes for the better. One recalls the description of Steve Jobs in his early years at Apple, generating a “reality distortion field” that could redefine what was possible by “sheer mental force”. 

Even The Spire was inspired not by folly, but by a triumph. For more than 15 years Golding was a teacher in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral, whose 404-foot spire has been the tallest in the country for nearly five centuries. Perhaps long-forgotten experts once warned that it could never be built. 

Whether Brexit eventually turns into something worth admiring will be for future historians to judge. For now, Golding invites us to ponder the cost. Jocelin’s ambition requires an army of builders to deliver it; that army murders an innocent person. 

“Let it be so,” says Jocelin to the heavens. “Cost what you like.” 

The project takes a toll in ways that blinkered Jocelin did not consider and takes too long to notice. Letters from allies go unanswered. Urgent business is postponed. The cathedral starts to die; the congregation leaves. 

Observers of British politics will not find the parallel hard to discern: the centre ground has been hollowed out, the economy is faltering, respect for basic norms of truth-telling are in tatters, and the union itself is under strain. 

Jocelin slowly realises the toll his project is taking on those around him, but since he is doing the work of God, any price must be worth paying. British politicians obey the will not of God, but of the British people as expressed in a referendum. It seems to amount to the same thing. 

In the end, Jocelin is stripped of his job and his dignity. The long-predicted storm comes. Reality asserts itself. The vision, the visionary and the spire itself crack under the strain. 

“I thought I was doing a great work,” Jocelin confesses. “And all I was doing was bringing ruin and breeding hate.” 

And yet the spire does not fall. That is where Golding leaves us: the project cannot go on, but it cannot be undone. Disaster hangs in the air. “Has it fallen yet?” asks the stricken Jocelin. Not yet.

Airbnb, Uber, eBay: in this intangible world workers must adapt to survive

John Harris in The Guardian

As descriptions of capitalism go, it’s surely one of the best ever written: poetic, urgent, and as much to do with metaphysics as economics. According to the Communist Manifesto: “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.” And then the kicker: “All that is solid melts into air.”

Whatever their shortcomings as revolutionaries and futurologists, Marx and Engels’ vision of ceaselessly changing economies and societies seems just as pertinent now as it did 169 years ago, with one particularly surreal caveat.

Most traditional conceptions of capitalism have been founded in some notion of material stuff: physical property, premises, machinery, goods. But the companies at the forefront of the 21st-century economy have a very different way of operating, as evidenced by one of the year’s most talked-about books. It has a title that, somewhere in the socialist hereafter, must have been greeted with mirth by the ghosts of Karl and Fred. Written by the economist Jonathan Haskel and the innovation researcher Stian Westlake, Capitalism Without Capital may sound like a riddle but actually makes perfect sense.

Airbnb has revolutionised the market in accommodation but owns no property. Chinese online giant Alibaba is reckoned to be the world’s biggest retailer but holds no stock. Neither does that byword for modern shopping, eBay. Meanwhile, Uber has arrived to upturn personal transport but owns no cars.

Such are the strange ways of what is becoming known as platform capitalism: a model which took a shift that had been under way since the 1970s to its logical conclusion. Cutting-edge capitalism is increasingly weightless. What makes the difference between winners and losers is not physical things, but such quicksilver commodities as ideas, knowledge, research, software, brands, networks and relationships.

Haskel and Westlake centre their story on a shift in investment, away from “tangible” assets to these “intangible” items. In the United States, the share of GDP devoted to the latter is reckoned to have overtaken the former in the mid-1990s; in the UK, the watershed was reached towards the end of that decade. In other countries – Italy and Spain, for instance – investing in old-fashioned kit and plant still takes precedence. But in all the statistics there is a clear implication: that as we head into the future, intangibles will rule.

This cuts across many of the usual laws and expectations of economics. Physical assets, in any crude understanding, can be bought and sold. But intangibles are much more difficult entities. As the authors say: “Toyota invests millions in its lean production systems, but it would be impossible to separate these investments from their factories and somehow sell them off.”

Intangible assets are open to “spillovers”: the tendency of ideas and innovations to spread, often way beyond the intentions of their inventors. As part of the same process, they tend to have synergies with each other, often unexpectedly: “The MP3 protocol, combined with the miniaturised hard disk and Apple’s design skills, created the iPod, a very valuable innovation.”

And, liberated from any dependence on a fixed stock of machinery, the creations of these intangible assets can spread at speed, and quickly dominate their field – which is why Uber has become inescapable in less than a decade and 13 years after Facebook’s launch, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network is central to the lives of a quarter of humanity.

The world, then, changes quickly. The physical production that companies still need is increasingly both outsourced to distant, low-wage countries and automated. Even employment in what we think of as “services” is looking alarmingly vulnerable to robotics and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, intangibles dominate not just the business world but our everyday lives. From music through books to cars, the centrality of physical stuff is dwindling away.

So an inevitable question arises: in economies and societies in which the intangible is king, and having a specific skill tied to a particular activity seems much less valuable than a generalised set of attributes, who will prosper? And who is in danger of sinking?

As Haskel and Westlake see it, the future belongs to people who can thrive in an ethereal, unpredictable world, and endlessly adapt – “product managers, lawyers, business development people, design engineers, marketers, head-hunters, and so forth”. Or, put another way, “people who combine decent data-analytical skills with the soft skills needed to broker relationships inside and outside their own company”.

These people cluster in cities – where, as evidenced by the increasingly costly London, New York and San Francisco, their ever-increasing presence is pushing up property prices. The fact that their mixture of aptitudes can easily seem rare often fosters a “cult of talent” that pushes their pay into the stratosphere. They move to urban areas, partly in pursuit of the kind of “synergies” and “spillovers” mentioned above, and network their heads off.

Extend the notion of intangibles into questions of culture, and you have a key to what is unsettling western societies

The old world is a factory canteen in a company town, full of harried workers keeping their heads down before they graft on a production line; the new reality is symbolised by a street-corner coffee shop full of people answerable to a mixture of employers, who may be either working or socialising, or both.

I know this tribe of people increasingly well. Around a month ago, I spent an afternoon at the tech division of the insurance giant Aviva, housed in what it calls a “digital garage”. The first person I met was the twentysomething who had recently designed all the visual aspects of its websites and apps, and came not from the world of financial services, but the games company Activision.

A few yards away, some of his colleagues were working on a classic example of spillover and synergy, perfecting software that will allow people to access spoken financial advice via the Amazon Echo. That week, they were working in insurance. The next, they might be bringing their talents to a completely different part of the economy.

Obviously, not everybody is like that. And as consistent work involving physical stuff increasingly falls away, it seems the clash between two very different kinds of people will characterise the painful birth pangs of a new reality.

In a frustratingly brief section of the book, Haskel and Westlake tentatively put Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in this context, which seems absolutely right. Indeed, extend the notion of intangibles beyond assets and into questions of culture, and you have a key to what is so unsettling many western societies: on one side sit social forces loyal to such ideas as place, vocation and family; on the other is a cluster of people happy to accede to the modern economy’s demands and reinvent themselves whenever required, and be free of such quaint baggage.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” says the Communist Manifesto. The future will be too, with the kind of ironic twist that those two 19th-century Germans would have found delicious: that taking capital out of capitalism will probably spread uncertainty and agitation as never before.

A tax haven blacklist without the UK is a whitewash

Prem Sikka in The Guardian

At the heart of the intensifying debate about fairness and inequality is tax. Who can think without shuddering of the opportunity costs incurred by needy economies robbed of the tax to which they are entitled? In that context, and against the backdrop of exposure exercises such as the Paradise Papers, there was understandable enthusiasm for the European Union’s latest list of uncooperative tax havens. It arrived this week, amid much ballyhoo and talk of toughness. What a disappointment.

The EU put 17 extra-EU jurisdictions on a blacklist: American Samoa, Bahrain, Barbados, Grenada, Guam, South Korea, Macau, Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Namibia, Palau, Panama, St Lucia, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. They could lose access to EU funds and incur sanctions soon to be announced. But contrast the list with what we know was revealed about international tax avoidance by both the Paradise and Panama Papers.

The EU seems to have targeted countries with little economic, military or diplomatic weight. The list includes Panama, which was central to the Panama Papers, but not Bermuda, which was central to the Paradise Papers. In imperialist mode, the EU paints a picture that broadly says that “those over there” in low-income countries, at the periphery of the global economy, are a source of the world’s economic problems and should face sanctions. The blacklist does not include any western country, even though accountants, lawyers, banks and much of the infrastructure that lubricates global tax avoidance are located in the west. Also excluded are UK crown dependencies and overseas territories, which have undermined the tax base of other countries for decades.

Another 47 jurisdictions are included in a “greylist”: these are not compliant with the standards demanded by the EU, but have given commitments to change their rules. This list includes Andorra, Belize, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Switzerland. But even that is deficient. And Luxembourg is missing altogether.

Where is the UK on either list? It offers special tax arrangements to non-domiciled billionaires that are not available to British citizens. We are deeply complicit. The UK has long enabled large companies and accountancy firms to write favourable tax laws, and has entered into sweetheart deals with major corporations.

The UK has long enabled accountancy firms to write favourable tax laws, and entered into sweetheart deals

The issue of tax avoidance is not going away. Corporations and wealthy elites are addicted to it. And many of the tax havens, as comparatively small countries, are not readily going to dilute their practices, as a decent standard of living cannot easily be provided by seasonal tourism, agriculture and fishing.

But the EU blacklist is a wasted opportunity because there are things the international community can do. Tax havens should, for example, be offered favourable financial grants by the EU and other countries to rebuild their economies and become hubs for new industries, and research and development. Grants should be conditional on step-by-step progress towards meeting specified benchmarks on transparency, accountability and cooperation, including a publicly available register of beneficial ownership of all companies and trusts, and a list of the assets held by wealthy individuals. Havens would need to commit to automatic exchange of information with other countries on any matter relating to tax or illicit financial flows.

The accounts of corporations and limited liability partnerships holed up in tax havens should also be made public. At the very least, the EU and the UK should insist that the public accountability mechanisms in tax havens match those on mainland Europe.

As for jurisdictions that reject reform, they should face sanctions. The imposition of a withholding tax, of say 20%, on all interest and dividend payments to individuals and companies would reduce their attractiveness. Labour’s 2017 manifesto contained that idea.

The EU, the UK and other countries could also ensure that no individual or company under their jurisdiction would be able to import or export any goods or services from designated tax havens. The UK is being asked to pay a fee to secure access to EU markets after Brexit; by the same logic, a fee should be demanded from tax havens in the shape of better transparency and accountability. Persistently aggressive jurisdictions might suffer travel and visa restrictions, or be denied the use of international satellites that tax havens rely on for communications and financial transactions.

These ideas, and there are others, may not curb the predatory practices of tax havens overnight, but any or all would give the sponsors and users of these territories considerable food for thought. Action is often promised, but how many weak governments have sought refuge behind the claim that global tax avoidance requires international solutions, while at the same time undermining possibilities of international solutions? Too many.

We cannot afford to go on like this. Be brave and follow the money.