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Editor’s note: This piece contains explicit descriptions which may be upsetting for some readers.
Every so often, a cluster of news stories combine to become more than the simple sum of their parts. In the last few weeks, stories have emerged that reinforce the argument made by some academics and commentators suggesting that the West, including Canada, is beginning to devolve into a kind of new feudalism. First up the revelations, leaked by an insider, that Swiss banking giant HSBC actively facilitates gross tax evasion on the part of the world’s wealthy and also launders billions in drug money.
Second, we have been provided a window on the heart-stopping corruption and moral turpitude of (at least some of) the global political elite through revelations that former IMF chief Dominique Gaston André Strauss-Kahn (I’m not making that up) — the same guy accused of raping a New York hotel maid who settled out of court — is now charged with “aggravated pimping” for providing prostitutes for sex orgies. This is the man who was once destined to be the French Socialist Party’s presidential candidate.
Then there was the story of NBC rock star “news” anchor Brian Williams lying about his war experience (the helicopter story) in the beginning weeks of the Iraq war. This lie, while pretty inconsequential in the scheme of things, does allow us to shine some light on the role of these talking hairdos in the new feudal order.
How does all this relate to neo-feudalism? There is no single definition of feudalism or its 2.0 version, but there are some characteristics common to most. Wikipedia has this helpful explanation of neo-feudalism:
“a theorized contemporary rebirth of policies of governance, economy and public life reminiscent of those present in many feudal societies, such as unequal rights and legal protections for common people and for nobility.”
Ah, yes, the nobility. That would pretty much describe the principals in the three stories that managed to break through the “let’s-make-everyone-stupid” machine that is today’s mass media.
The HSBC story certainly reinforces one key component of neo-feudalism: unequal rights and legal protections for ordinary people and the super-privileged. The story on HSBC was leaked to selected media around the world (including the CBC). The story has been front-page news in Britain ever since it was first revealed, with opposition politicians and citizens alike calling for criminal prosecution. But after a brief exposure here — and the naming of a couple of billionaires — there seems to be a distinct lack of outrage.
The Guardian covered the story and contrasted two citizens (serf and noble?):
“She was a poor Scottish cleaner who confessed to benefits fraud of £25,000 and got seven months in jail. He is a wealthy property dealer whose father hid a six-figure sum from the taxman … and paid a small penalty.”
One of the most graphic features of the HSBC saga is the description of one of its services to clients. Many of these clients are hiding money from their governments’ tax departments, so avoiding a paper trail is critical. They can’t just wire $50,000 to their client’s bank account. So the bank would package used, small denomination bills in “bricks” which the client would pick up in person and then courier to their home address in Britain, France — or Canada.
The amount of lost revenue stashed away in tax havens is truly staggering. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists estimates that it amounts to $7.6 trillion — and a loss to governments around the world of some $200 billion every year. HSBC’s Swiss office accounts for $100 billion of the total deposits.
Some 1,859 Canadians hold accounts at HSBC valued at $4 billion. Of that number, 264 have taken advantage of Revenue Canada’s voluntary disclosure program. As a result, not a single tax evader has so far been charged for the crimes they committed — stealing from the government. I am pretty sure there is no comparable get-out-of jail-free card for the (handful of) impoverished people cheating on social assistance. As far as I am aware, no one in the mainstream media has even thought of investigating this staggering double standard. That is how deeply entrenched the new normal has become.
Double standards and outrageous conduct
As for Strauss-Kahn, his response to being charged is so outrageous it is worthy of Marie Antoinette. He whined: “The prosecution gives the impression of unbridled activity. There were only twelve parties in total — that is four per year over three years.” Sniff, sniff. The bothersome courts, the disrespectful media. It really is too much.
It is apparently completely beyond this sophisticated member of the French ruling elite that he did anything wrong. He testified to using “rough” sex (sound familiar, CBC fans?) — stating matter-of-factly that he needed sex “with exceptional frequency.” There can be no doubt, then, that women should be expected to service his needs. It isn’t just that he hired prostitutes — it’s the brutal sex practices engaged in by Strauss-Kahn and his powerful friends that is the most disturbing.
The utter contempt for women was palpable — he referred to them as “material.” Two of the women described “beast-like” scenes — another that she felt like “meat in a slaughterhouse.” As one story describes: “A prostitute named Mounia testified that Strauss-Kahn had insisted on a particular sexual act, and proceeded with it despite her unwillingness — even though she was gesturing for him to stop: ‘I felt that he understood. I was crying, I was in pain.'”
In addition to the barbaric attitude towards women, testimony also revealed overt corruption — powerful people seeking political favours from Strauss-Kahn often hired prostitutes for him. This was while he was making a $500,000, tax-free salary for the IMF. You know the IMF — the organization that has destroyed social programs in half the countries of the world, demanding austerity in the pursuit of the moral imperative of balanced budgets.
Ah, yes, and Brian Williams. What is notable about this story is that Williams has been lying for years in the service of the U.S. empire, and the more he lied the more he was paid and praised. This lie is actually far less egregious in terms of its damage to the body politic than any of the other ones. Pimping for George Bush, promoting the war in Iraq, accepting the grotesque lies about weapons of mass destruction — and calling the war “the cleanest war in all of military history” all the while claiming it triggered the Arab Spring movements. As Joshua Franks of Counterpunch magazine writes: “[Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw et al] are vastly too invested in the elite they aspire to join and defend. Whatever they may have been as they came up in the craft, too much money and aggrandizement has ruined them.”
Pimping for the elite
These multi-millionaire so-called journalists are the equivalent of courtiers to the super-wealthy 1% — shamelessly pandering to them without a hint of embarrassment or remorse. They hobnob with billionaires and CEOs and do their bidding as naturally as they breathe the same air. And you don’t have to look far to find a similar trend here in our very own Peter Mansbridge, pal of the Prime Minister whose “interviews” with Harper — with not a single tough question asked — are an embarrassment to the craft of journalism.
The moral and ethical rot at the core of these stories can be characterized quite nicely by the word pimping — HSBC for the rich and drug lords, Strauss-Kahn for other members of the political and economic elite, and Williams and his ilk for well-paid complicity in the worst excesses of U.S. (and Canadian) militarism.
I’m sure there’s a good metaphor for all of this. Oh, yes, now I remember. Off with their heads.
Image: Jixuan Zhou/flickr
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