The good people of Reykjavik must be feeling an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. On the 20th of January 2009, thousands of citizens from all walks of life took to the streets to peacefully overthrow the Icelandic government, kick-starting the infamous Pots & Pans protests that would lead to a crowdsourced constitution and the complete reimagining of political life as they knew it.
Scenes outside the national parliament have been almost identical this week, and their grievance likewise. The Pots & Pans movement was born of the financial crisis and their government’s drastic mishandling thereof: fast forward 7 years and the now-former Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmunder Davio Gunlaugsson, has been ousted as one of many political leaders caught up in the #PanamaPapers scandal.
Gunlaugsson was supposed to be of a new generation of Icelandic politician. His youth was an apparent testament to a break from the past, while his tenure was one of steady progress and consolidation. Yet, somewhat inevitably, Gunlaugsson has turned out to be a mere modernisation of those old and haggard figureheads he so condemningly trampled on his road to office.
But are we entirely surprised? One might have reasonably assumed that, given the movement Gunlaugsson came from, he would have harboured the principled nature of a dynamic grassroots representative. Instead what we have is yet another political leader, sucked in by the promise of greatness and corrupted by the rotten system around him.
Or maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe it is not the system but the man who is corrupt – maybe he is one of the rogue minority; a bad egg in the leadership box. Of course, that would be much easier to believe were it not for the other 11.5 million documents linking a myriad of global leaders and financiers to that self-same Panamanian company: including our very own Prime Minister David Cameron.
Many questions are begged of the Panama scandal: who in our country is implicated, how does the scandal affect us, is tax avoidance illegal etc. etc. These are all entirely legitimate lines of enquiry as we establish how best to proceed. But few, it appears, have identified the most obvious and damning truths exposed in the case of Gunlaugsson and many others – deep down, we’ve known them all along.
The Panama leak has pulled back the curtain on elitist rule, or rather the corrosive venality thereof. Even next generation leaders who stand in apparent opposition to the sleaze of global financial networks will struggle to resist such expansive forces; forces that will endeavour tenaciously to draw them in by hook or indeed by crook.
Many will find themselves drawn in out of pure necessity. This is because, in order to be taken seriously, even the most astute and principled of leaders must learn to play the game, which means giving more than a small part of oneself to it. Those who refuse and decide instead to stand by their principles will usually find themselves ostracized (see: Yanis Varoufakis) from any position of real influence or authority.
For most, then, joining-to-beat-them is the illusorily desirable option. At first, those who subscribe to the system perhaps do so with the best intentions of fighting from within, once their standing as a trustworthy economic player is secured. But it is rare that such intentions endure beyond the honeymoon period.
In the case of Ireland, proving their standing meant the repeated implementation of some of the most scorching austerity measures Europe has seen; in stark defiance of the will of the Irish people. The bending-over of former Prime Minister Enda Kenny in 2011 – after promising a new and fairer vision of Irish economics at the beginning of his second term – represented not and extension of the Irish austerity success story, as European financial forces might have spun it, but a subservience of Kenny to financial networks over his own people.
Such was his initiation into the international fold; a necessary hoop to jump through for all figures with a little bit of sway over economic performance in a thoroughly globalized world. It is in this initiation process, then, that the values attached to basic human decency become secondary: how else can one justify the culture of greed and inequality in which they are now directly implicit? The arrogance, the sleaze, the detachment from humanity that accompanies the quest for wealth and the consolidation of power based thereupon is indeed sickening, but remarkably contagious.
It is the most vicious disease known to man, infecting the minds of those at the top and attacking the very body of human society – and it dictates every sphere of global governance. The psychological fabric of modern leadership must become one that can reduce people to numbers and crunch them quite efficiently, because that is how one best proves their worth on the global stage. The rich must be seen as our saviours, our wealth-builders and economy drivers, while the poor must be seen to do little but scrounge off their success.
Such thinking has done all to perpetuate the greatest double standard of modern life; that is, the blind eye turned to the perversion of elites whilst the penniless and vulnerable are persecuted for all to see. Give aid to refugees, single mothers or the unemployed and they’re a drain on the pockets of hardworking people: let a financier or political leader cheat his country out of taxes by the million and it’s considered fair game. There is no deportation or sanctions process for the rich. They make the money, so that’s OK.
The warped financial idolatry of global leadership has given rise to a belief in the invincibility of elite actors, allowing them to first rig and then cheat the system without guilt or fear of repercussion; Gunlaugsson is as much a proponent of this belief as a symptom. Is every leader inextricably preordained to become a greedy and shameless money-hoarder? Absolutely not. But many will as a necessary product of their environment, such is the corruptive nature of a world governed by the theological doctrine of capitalism. As long as money talks, the cycle continues, and human beings will exist as a second-rate commodity.