Saturday 15 March 2014

Inventing space, determining location: Accounting as geography; or, Consider the banana …

This post is based on research I did for a paper presented at the Materialism and World Politics conference at the LSE in 2012.

[…] consider the banana. 
Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl.  The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain.  The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you. 
The second route - the accountants' paper trail - is more roundabout.  When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the profits generated, from a tax point of view?  In Honduras?  In the British supermarket?  In the multinational's head office?  How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs?  Nobody can say for sure.  So the accountants can, more or less, make it up. 
Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world (2011), p.11.
Accountancy is a key but almost completely neglected geographical practice.  Accountancy literally geo-graphs because it decides where things happen and what institutions are responsible for what events.  It is also the site of considerable political contestation between activists, journalists, politicians, capitalists and accountants themselves.

I propose to investigate a number of documents produced by or associated with the Tax Justice Network.  The TJN is an independent international advocacy network founded in 2003 that is comprised primarily of accountancy professionals; it is "dedicated to high-level research, analysis and advocacy in the field of international tax and the international aspects of financial regulation."  In the aftermath of the recent financial crises the TJN was highly successful in engaging media, publics and political institutions at a variety of levels.  The TJN also publish their accounts online.


Defining the Secrecy World: Rethinking the language of ‘offshore’, part of the 'Mapping the Faultlines' project.  A paper by chartered accountant and political activist Richard Murphy.  In this paper Murphy attempts to precisely define concepts such as 'offshore,' 'tax haven,' 'secrecy jurisdiction' and 'secrecy world.'  He also examines the peculiar topology of so-called 'offshore' spaces.

Highlights of the paper: the 'secrecy world' or 'offshore' is:
[…] a space that has no specific location. This space is created by tax haven legislation […] the illicit financial flows that are the cause of concern with the secrecy world do not flow through locations as such, but do instead flow through the secrecy space that secrecy jurisdictions create (secrecy jurisdictions being the new term tax havens). As the paper shows, to locate these transactions in a place is not only impossible in many cases, it is also futile: they are not intended to be and cannot be located in that way. They float over and around the locations which are used to facilitate their existence as if in an unregulated ether. This suggests that any attempt to measure or regulate them solely on a national basis will always be problematic. […] Secrecy jurisdictions enable the creation of two distinct places, ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. The former is a regulated, onshore, domestic space. The latter is the offshore space that is ‘elsewhere’. Elsewhere is deemed by the secrecy jurisdiction to be somewhere distinctly different and outside its own domain.
It is demonstrated that accountancy is geography, that accountants (and lawyers) define both where things happen and which political-legal apparatuses are responsible for the regulation of spatially indeterminate events.  Accountancy is, therefore, intimately related with both [law] and [pol] as well as the economic modes.  I think this also demonstrates that space needs to be thought polymodally - that the modes create space in their own particular ways and any concrete spatial assemblage is a confluential compound of multiple modal factors.

Richard Murphy was a founder of the Tax Justice Network and writes one of the most popular economics blogs in the UK.


The Financial Secrecy Index is a project of the Tax Justice Network.  The FSI project "ranks jurisdictions according to their secrecy and the scale of their activities."  By quantifying secretiveness it is hoped that pressure can be brought on financial jurisdictions to engage in more open and transparent practices.  In other words, the FSI is a metrological device produced by politically activist accountants that makes tax issues public.

Of every three litres of oil sold on open markets, at least one comes from Switzerland. As regards coffee, the proportion is one coffee bean out of two; and with cereals it is one kilo out of three.
Of course, these commodities do not physically pass through Switzerland but rather are traded through the burgeoning Swiss commodities markets.  The Berne Declaration is a Swiss NGO that works "towards equitable North-South relations" by monitoring "the role of Swiss corporations, banks, and government agencies."  The BD's recent publication Commodities - Switzerland's most dangerous business examines what it calls
one of globalisation’s biggest winners, a powerful industry whose dealings often take it into dangerous areas. In the last decade Switzerland has emerged as one of the world’s dominant trading hubs for commodities, handling from 15 to 25 per cent of world trade. All the world’s largest trading houses operate partly or mainly out of this seemingly peaceful and innocent country. But while these powerful companies experience an unprecedented boom, the population of many resource-rich developing countries remain mired in poverty. This book tackles the question of why.
This document demonstrates how the geography of [att] is unthinkable (indeed, unwriteable) without accountancy.  Moreover, accountancy is unthinkable without [pol] and [mor].  Finally, it provides further evidence of the complex topology of trade, tax, and 'offshore.'


Apple iTunes Europe's registered address in Luxembourg.  Allegedly all the company's European correspondence passes [or rather passed; apparently it has been moved] through this one inconspicuous mailbox.  A potent symbol of the spatial complexities (or absurdities, if you prefer) of 'offshore' and of the astonishing feats of accountancy qua geo-graphy.


1209 North Orange Street, Wilmington, Delaware - the legal address of 285,000 separate businesses, including "American Airlines, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric, Google, JP Morgan Chase, and Wal-Mart."

This brings to mind the folds of [tec]:
The hammer that I find on my workbench is not contemporary to my action today: it keeps folded heterogenous temporalities, one of which has the antiquity of the planet, because of the mineral from which it has been moulded, while another has that of the age of the oak which provided the handle, while still another has the age of the 10 years since it came out of the German factory which produced it for the market. When I grab the handle, I insert my gesture in a ‘garland of time’ as Michel Serres has put it, which allows me to insert myself in a variety of temporalities or time differentials, which account for (or rather imply) the relative solidity which is often associated with technical action. What is true of time holds for space as well, for this humble hammer holds in place quite heterogenous spaces that nothing, before the technical action, could gather together: the forests of the Ardennes, the mines of the Ruhr, the German factory, the tool van which offers discounts every Wednesday on Bourbonnais streets, and finally the workshop of a particularly clumsy Sunday bricoleur. 
Bruno Latour, Morality and Technology: The End of the Means (2002), p.249.
The folds of the engineers are impressive, no doubt, but what about the folds of the lawyers and accountants?!  Any more space-time compression and we'd need Dr Who…

Friday 14 March 2014


To be natural is to be nurtured; to be cultural is to be cultivated.


'Mind' is an artefact of being locked in an oven.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Anti-anthropocentrism: it's not a competition

There's a long history of one-upmanship in leftist academe (and in leftism generally). Whether it's trying to be further 'left,' more 'radical' or more 'critical' than everyone else it seems that there's always a rush to go further, faster, more fastidiously, lest one be accused of being 'conservative,' 'unradical,' 'uncritical' or whatever.

It seems to me that anthropocentrism might be taking on that mantle - that is, there's an ongoing competition to be ever more anti-anthropocentric than everyone else. No narcissistic wound is ever fatal enough; no number of decentrings will ever spin the human subject far enough into oblivion; no amount of uncritically imbibed pop science will ever cement the deep, dark nihilism that is apparently necessary to properly cleanse thought of its subject-centred pretensions.

Now, I'm broadly on board with the notion that anthropocentrism is a supreme vice that philosophy, the humanities, the social sciences and perhaps even the Western world at large have been unpardonably guilty of; I fully accept the need for decentrings, for the need to recognise and cognise our narcisstic wounds, to understand our smallness and insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things, etc.

However, anti-anthropocentrism can't be a competition. An absolutely non- anthropocentric philosophy would be a rather self-indulgently pointless thing, even if it were possible. If thought isn't motivated by worldly concerns from an embodied, socialised, air-conditioned point of view then what can it be motivated by? What animates it? What's its purpose?

There's a degree of anthropocentrism that is not only inevitable, it's also desirable, is it not?

All this stuff about how we have to be able to think the absolutely inhuman in order to properly understand our natural, natal, cosmic predicament - this has some merit. Certainly we have to come to understand that existence is in no way given to us or predisposed towards us; that all we have is this planet, one planet only; that Earth, even in its terrifying fragility, is vastly more powerful and enduring than we are; that it (and life) will comfortably outlive us, and so on.

But even this urge to cut human pretensions down to size, this kind of will-to- diminution is anthropocentric in quite an irreducible, unavoidable sense. Stengers writes: 'Of the Earth, the present subject of our scenarios, we can presuppose a single thing: it doesn’t care about the questions we ask about it.' If we accept this it must also mean that the Earth doesn't care if we think about it in a mathematical, scientific or nihilistic way or in a way that reduces it to images and poetry or spirits and demons. So, who or what are we trying to impress with our absolute, unreserved decentredness?

I'm not sure that I can 'think' the absolutely inhuman but I can certainly imagine something like it. It takes very little effort to mentally conjure up an image of a world after humans, all overgrown (or rather regrown) and moved on with its life, all traces of human existence either crumbled or buried. All this I can imagine quite readily, in fact, thanks in no small part to film and literature. But I find it difficult to maintain an entirely disembodied, affectless point of view on the scene (and utterly impossible to imagine the scene with no point of view at all). It provokes feeling; it's melancholy, like walking past a former lover who doesn't recognise you. The viewpoint is inextricably part of that world so long as I inhabit it; it is a precondition of that world's imagining.

So, no, I can't imagine the absolutely inhuman, absent all filterings and formattings. And yet imagining (rather than 'thinking,' whatever that means) the almost-but-not-completely-inhuman doesn't seem to be particularly difficult. And isn't this good enough?

The whole 'thinking the inhuman' thing seems to be a rather bloated, overblown, overstated problem. Representations of the literally post-human are a problem for art and science as much as they are for philosophy, perhaps even more so. If we are able to vividly imagine the world beyond, before and after humans and their attachments it is because of these very same well-nourished, expertly-assembled, diligently-arrayed complexes, networks, assemblages.

And, so, why bemoan the impossibility of thinking the outside in all its purity? The inside is what draws the outside in and paints it in such vivid colours. Shouldn't we spend a little more time mixing our paints and a little less hankering after transcendence?

Sunday 9 March 2014

Something is missing from [pol]itics

I've been meaning to write this up for months.  Finally I have a first draft (which is all it is!).

Reading the Inquiry into Modes of Existence book last time I was struck by a lack, something missing, something implicit in the political mode when it assumes all of the following:

1) No issue, no politics: publics (and hence politics) are provoked into being by problems, issues, things.

2) Politics has no inertia; it "has to constantly start over"; if an issue is truly resolved its public dissolves. A group is always 'on the move,' nomadic.

3) [pol] is not restricted to the domain of politics; [pol] can be found not just in parliaments and embassies but also offices, churches, rotary clubs, family homes… Politics can be found wherever collectives are traced out, whatever their shape, size, form, durability or purpose.

Individually I find these three tenets of AIME to be acceptable. However, I cannot shake a sense of unease when I look at the above… Isn't something missing? Doesn't something just not add up? It's a jarring sensation, a feeling of dislocation, a contrast. Yes, something is certainly amiss.

Politics is provoked by issues; it becomes obvious, explicated at times of strife, tumult, stress - in 'interesting times,' as the proverb has it. And politics, we are told, has always to start from scratch. At the termination of every bout of representation (bout is the right word in so many ways) the clock is reset to zero, the multitude goes back to a several, disloyal plurality. For every issue a new politics; no inertia. Okay, fine. But if we look around ourselves we see nothing that matches this description. All the world is replete with coagulations, clumps, clusters huddled together for warmth, joined together with endlessly variegated bonds, laughing, sharing stories, bartering, fighting. When the clock chimes for midnight do they scatter, disaggregate, deny that they know one another? Of course not. The carriage stays a carriage, the pumpkin a pumpkin, the husband a husband. It is self-evident that human groups stick together through political changes of all sorts, even the breakdown of the greatest, most godly and god-awful institutions, let alone mere political issues.

'Ah, but you've forgotten habit [hab]. Of course groups hang together over time; politics is messy, issues overlap, politics is instituted and habits blur the edges of political occasions. Of course political patterns fall into ruts, patterns, routines; that's inevitable, it comes with the fact of institutions, the fact of complexity.' A fair point but, no, this will not do. The difference is much deeper.

What, then?

It's something that's often said in times of crisis, upheaval, stress, bereavement. 'I'm here for you; I'll always be here for you, no matter what.' What kind of speech act could be more important to us? What intimacy could be more essential to our security, our stability, to our very sense of self? To know that, to hear that promise: 'whatever issues cross our paths we will persist together, our relationship will prevail; no, it will be stronger for all of this; issues, however terrible, will only bring us closer together.'

Politics, habituated or not, cannot possibly absorb these sentiments; they are totally and completely at odds with it - they pass it by at exactly 90 degrees. This other, non-political mode of speech is also issue-based (or at least it is issue-related) but it reacts to issues in another way entirely. When an issue is resolved the political group has no bonds remaining, it scatters; this other kind of group, contrariwise, is left strengthened by the trial; closer, more bonded, more intimate than ever.

'Always, no matter what': this is the root of the contrast; not its only instantiation but the instance we can see it most clearly. I would like to call it kinship [kin].

'That's not how we do things in this family,' 'if you're under my roof you'll abide by my rules,' 'speak for yourself,' 'you're not the boss of me'. What family hasn't experienced moments like these? Yes, family is political, no doubt. But that's not all. How awful it would be if our groups only held together through speech acts like these.

A convenient etymological relation can be drawn here: kinship shares a root with kindness. To be kin is to be there for another ('no matter what'). Of course all we really have is promises. There can be betrayal; therefore, there can be felicity conditions. 'You said you'd be there for me but you left me all alone!' A kin relation is certainly fragile; certainly it needs upkeep, just like anything else.

Another thing should be clear: this is not a metaphysical rationalisation of the nuclear family. Just what form the being-thereness takes is a complex and entirely open (indeed, empirical) question. I am 'there for' all kinds of people (and things) in many different ways. I will happily be-there-for a stranger asking for the time or for directions; I will of course aid some unknown person who is injured or in distress. However, my thereness, my sensitivity, my openness has limits. I am there-for my sisters, friends, grandparents in stronger ways; I am much more sensitive to their needs, much more receptive to their requests. There are varieties and gradations of my being-there-for; as many nuances as there are relations, in fact.

And so it is with scorn that I must regard the Modernist [dc·kin] crossing: 'I am a citizen of the world!' says Socrates (and every self-congratulatory cosmopolitan since).  All merely local ties wash away in the face of the Globe.  But who is this world-citizen of such infinite time, energy and attention? With the best will in the world no one can be-there-for even the tiniest fraction of their worldly cohabitants. We are finite. So, we are reliant, once more, on institutions. And isn't this the chief virtue of the welfare state? (This, the greatest Modern achievement, no? Is that too strong?) I am not there-for a man diagnosed with cancer in Glasgow; how could I be? This is a country of millions and I live nowhere near! And yet do I not play some small part in his treatment, thanks to the institutions of the National Health Service and Inland Revenue? That is what we might call institutionalised collective solidarity; or, to use a vulgar simplification, society.

Does the world-citizen pay taxes? Pah! We have world-citizens, today. They live on yachts and will fly to space to avoid the taxman. Might we call this world-citizen John Galt? I'd prefer Eric Packer (of Don Delillo's novel Cosmopolis and the David Cronenberg film of the same name). He is the world-citizen of cyber-capital - in his armoured limousine, blithely, sleepily consulting his Chief of Theory while the outside tears itself apart. Yes, the 1% read philosophy, too. I am sure that it makes them feel warm inside.

If there is to be anything like a world-citizen worthy of the name it is only through institutions that this can be realised. The most selfless, giving, caring person can, on their own, only be-there-for the tiniest fraction of the cosmopolis. What institutions maximise our sensitivities, our therenesses?

The Family of Man was a work of propaganda. The Family of the Earthbound is a messianic fantasy. Very well…