How much could a Banana Republic cost?

In October 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the Pandora Papers, a collection of leaked tax haven files exposing the secret offshore holdings of more than 400 heads of state, politicians and celebrities. It was a small window into the secret world of wealth and power from the people who actually run the world, including former Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Also among the luminaries implied, in this case as the designated beneficiary of the investment income of a German consultant from a Hispano-Saudi investment fund, was a flashback: “His Majesty King Juan Carlos Borbón de Borbón. It is almost difficult to see why a former king of a former European imperial power would bother to engage in international monetary fraud. After all, Juan Carlos I acquired the political power that he has to talk about the old-fashioned way: his parents were literally kings. As with many political leaders of old, his position in the ruling class was a gift.

Juan Carlos I is a child of the famous House of Bourbon, one of the most prosperous dynastic houses in Europe during the last millennium. Over the centuries, the House of Bourbon amassed a reign over substantial European territory: the “Neapolitan Bourbons” ruled over Naples and Sicily, and the Orleans branch of the family moved away from power over the Empire of the Brazil. Juan Carlos’ ancestors included Louis XIV, a grandfather with too many degrees of “great” to be counted, who is remembered for his steadfast adherence to the “divine right of kings” and his many affairs of childbearing. A few greats down the line, it also included Louis XVI, who is best remembered for making his way through the French Revolution (and the notable affair with Madame Guillotine that followed).

The Bourbons are just one of the many dynastic houses of the famous reigning houses of Europe. The Tudors and Stuarts built a great British Empire out of the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland; the Habsburgs ruled the Holy Roman Empire for four centuries and even ruled an Emperor of Mexico once. Dynastic houses are by no means a European phenomenon: the Aisin-Gioro House managed to hold power in China for over three centuries until the country became a republic in 1911; the Osman House and the House of Solomon occupied the Ottoman and Ethiopian empires respectively for most of a millennium.

But these families represent a long gone political era. There are still monarchs here and there, but most are constrained by elected officials (with some notable exceptions).

This may explain why some of today’s royal heirs cannot be bothered by the ancient rules and intrigues of the royal household. Princess Mako of Japan renounced his royal title as a member of the Imperial House of Japan to marry a commoner, Kei Komuro. She might expect a sympathetic ear from Prince Harry in relatively recent history Windsor House, who married famous non-royal actress Meghan Markle. Despite what one might assume from the storm of controversy the move sparked, it’s not clear that it matters much. As Patrick Freyne pointed out in Irish weather, only one of the two Houses, that of Windsor and that of the “Californian celebrity”, has a future – and “it is the one with the Netflix agreement”. Nowadays, it would be fairer to call Queen Elizabeth “Meghan Markle’s mother-in-law” than “the ruler of England”.

TThe royal family and the houses that generate them are clearly the old guard. But who is the new guard? It’s hard to explain why we aren’t asking the question already, despite growing polarization driven by anti-elite sentiment. Doug Henwood recently shot explaining a left-wing version of this reluctance to Jacobin: “The central concept of Marxism is class struggle, but tradition shows a strange lack of investigation by the ruling class.

Perhaps the past power arrangements were so simple and unsubtle that there was little point in developing an intellectual tradition around identifying the ruling class. Any European serf who wanted to know who was in charge could use a few obvious guesses: maybe the guy with the big golden crown, or the one who owns the land on which you harvest the grain and take a share. , or those who send your sons will die in battles for places none of your family has ever been. An African embarked on a slave ship and dispatched to labor camps in South America, the Caribbean or the United States would be able to spot their owner and thus design their local power structure as simply as daylight. The subjects colonized in the Americas, the African continent, and South Asia knew what power structure reigned supreme: those who came out of nowhere with guns and a flag and began demanding that you speak a new language.

But the end of the era of the Bourbons and the Habsburgs is also the beginning of a global era where power is diversifying (in a lot of sense) and was also announced a little less. Our new power structures themselves are dizzyingly complex: financial flows and even ownership structures are protected by Byzantine assortments of legal documents and front companies, supply chains for products. so convoluted that companies that make products don’t even understand them—strategic as can this carefully cultivated ignorance. This is largely why it took largest journalistic investigation in human history sifting through the 2.94 terabytes of data leaked to 600 journalists in 150 publications just to determine which political leaders owned which summer castles.

TThese obscurations not only obscure wealth, but also the power structures that govern our lives. They protect the business owners evicting people from home, agribusiness tycoons behind land grabbing, and the profiteers behind abusive working conditions and genocidal conflict. Cultural changes add to the obscuration: billionaires and even royalty often dresses like dirty hipsters or regular business types.

In a series of articles to follow, I’ll explore three types of answers to the question of who and what runs the world.

Perhaps the world is stuck in the pocket of the “Big Guns” – people and institutions organized around violence, like the military and the Mafias. A classic alternative response blames “Big Green”: The key to understanding our political reality is to follow institutions organized around money, such as asset managers and multinational corporations. Or maybe the information age has changed everything and the power now really resides in the “big charts”: people and institutions organized around knowledge, like think tanks and the tech industry. .

Whichever route we take, we can help each other at a base starting hypothesisWhatever people and organizations are in power, they are probably some of the incredibly wealthy people. After all, one can guess that a banana republic costs a little over ten dollars. Whoever makes the decision and however it is done, it must be supported by a substantial amount of money and wealth.

But how rich are the rulers, exactly? If money is all the ball game – betting everything on “Big Green” – then maybe we should just expect the rulers to be just the richest people on earth. On the other hand, if the theories of the “Big Guns” or the “Big Graphs” are right, money plays a more instrumental role. We should expect rulers to have enough wealth to buy soldiers and politicians, but not necessarily to be the wealthiest people or institutions.

These differences in thinking about different types of power correspond to different ways of answering the question: could a banana republic cost?

Edward K. Thompson