Exploiting people, exploiting land, and keeping its ugly side secret. Its historical effects are all too recognisable in the Pandora papers now
Whenever there’s a leak of documents from the remote islands and obscure jurisdictions where rich people hide their money, such as this week’s release of the Pandora papers, we ask ourselves how such things could happen. How did we end up with a global system that enables great wealth to be transferred offshore, untaxed and hidden from public view? Politicians condemn it as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. But it’s not. It is the face of capitalism.
Capitalism was arguably born on a remote island. A few decades after the Portuguese colonised Madeira in 1420, they developed a system that differed in some respects from anything that had gone before. By felling the forests after which they named the island (madeira is Portuguese for wood), they created, in this uninhabited sphere, a blank slate – a terra nullius – in which a new economy could be built. Financed by bankers in Genoa and Flanders, they transported enslaved people from Africa to plant and process sugar. They developed an economy in which land, labour and money lost their previous social meaning and became tradable commodities.
George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist
Join the Guardian’s head of investigations Paul Lewis and guests in this special livestreamed event looking into the Pandora papers revelations on Monday 18 October, 8pm BST | 9pm CEST | 12am PDT | 3pm EDT. Book tickets here