Treasure Islands

Shaxson, Nicholas. Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Before the Cypress bailout fizzles out of the news cycle I think its worth spotlighting Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent Treasure Islands. In this book Shaxson examines the history, organization, and ethnography of ‘offshore’ as a phenomenon — not just particularly tax havens (although there is a lot of that) but the entire global syndrome of places created to remove accountability and transparency in finance and business.

Shaxson is a journalist and activist, not an anthropologist. But it’s worth reviewing Shaxson’s book on an anthropology blog because of his ethnographic approach. Like so much nonfiction these days, Shaxson uses his own personal story to drive his narrative, and his accounts of visiting the Channel Islands or the Caymans often feel like ethnographic reportage. But Shaxson’s book is also anthropological in a deeper, somewhat indefinable way. Like an anthropologist, he takes accounts of his lived experience and ties it back to broader, more invisible structures of power and economics. He uses his story to further a debate — in this case about the nature and morality of tax havens — which has big and broad stakes.

Like much of anthropology today, critique is central to his project. But despite how pissed off he obviously is, Shaxson never loses his calm or — or the ability to present a judicious and prudent view of the evidence. At the same time, he never pulls his punches. Indeed, readers can tell where reportage stops and advocacy begins because of the strength of Shaxson’s convictions.

Shaxson’s book also does a good job contextualizing the tax havens he examines, both historically and in their global context. The result is a picture of the rise and spread of an Offshore world which is ghostly and interstitial to everyday commerce and yet a central part of it. By finding, ethnographically, what is hidden in plain sight, Shaxson produces an admirably Latourian account which traces, step by step, the networks that constitute Offshore. Its a testament to his quality as a reporter that he manages to uncover as much as he does of this occult, hidden world.

This is (as far as I can tell) Shaxson’s second book. His first, Poisoned Wells, examined how resource rents in Africa militate against the continent’s chances at achieving prosperity. This book grows out of that one (a great example, btw grad student readers, of how to string an intellectual biography together) but Treasure Islands shows more maturity than Poisoned Wells. I enjoyed Poisoned Wells but it was clear throughout the book that Shaxson was trying to negotiate a lot of emotional and journalistic issues in his work. It’s a superb introduction to the oil industry in Africa (particularly the stuff on francafrique — the sections on Gabon are worth the price of admission just by themselves), but at times its vulnerable autobiographical sections strike a discordant note.

Treasure Islands keeps the first-person perspective but tempers it with time and experience. At times the book has a certain raw quality about it, but I think that that is because Shaxson wanted it to be written and read in this decade — a practice that academics, with our snail pace of publication schedules, would do well to learn from. Its meant for here and now. Its cleanly written, well organized, and the stories it tells are, like those of Poisoned Wells, so ridiculously over top that they seem more fitting for a James Bond movie than a work of nonfiction — and yet Shaxson convinces you that they are indeed all true.

Any anthropologist who reads nonfiction in their free time will enjoy this book. While its pretty light, it also makes great classroom reading if you want to introduce your students to the more weighty tomes on this subject, of if you just want to tear through a book in a week (or a single class session). Treasure Islands, like the rest of Shaxson’s work, deserves to be on every anthropologist’s radar.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

5 thoughts on “Treasure Islands

  1. This is definitely up my alley. Thx for the recommendation. It’s also current because the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) just released a massive investigative report based on a trove of leaked documents (larger than Wikileaks’ Cablegate) on global money laundering and tax havens: “Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze.” Stories from the findings are being released by various outlets worldwide.

  2. It’s a very good book indeed. Shaxson’s blog also makes for good reading as do those of Richard Murphy and the Tax Justice Network if you’re interested in tax haven stuff in general. I’ve been following their work for a few years and watched it explode in the past 12 months or so.

    It’s interesting that you mention Latour (albeit in passing); I’ve thought about this connection in the past. I think the issue of tax havens illustrates both the benefits and the limitations of the ‘follow the actors,’ network tracing, ethnographic kind of method. On the one hand the likes of Shaxson demonstrate that the networks of offshore can be traced with considerable detail and this approach is richly rewarding empirically. And yet there are clearly limits to this tracing; limits imparted by the very nature of ‘offshore’ itself. Shaxson, Murphy et al. argue that a more accurate (if less evocative) name for ‘tax havens’ is ‘secrecy jurisdictions’. That is, these are jurisdictions that literally sell *untraceability*. They package untraceability as a product and sell it to capital. Therefore, these networks are a little like something from the realm of quantum physics — if the networks are observed they cease to exist! They only exist so long as no one individual can follow them. And when they are observed they are destroyed (as the leaked account information that’s recently been published in various newspapers has demonstrated). Several writers on offshore liken the networks that constitute it to a black hole: they can be known only by inference. Quite often Latour makes it seem as though there is only one proper mode of inference in fieldwork — that of following connections. But tax havens make clear that more modes of inference are necessary for fieldwork than tracing a trajectory through all its points. Fieldwork often (perhaps always) also requires modes of inference that estimate and approximate things that are untraceable *in principle*, not just in practice; things that are essential to the story (e.g. estimates of the total amount of currency stashed offshore) but which cannot possibly be known by following chains of causes or ‘actors’ per se.

    This is a rather abstract rendering of the situation but I find it interesting!

  3. I think you’re right — it is hard to follow the network when people don’t want to let you follow it. Not all of us have the enormous cultural capital that Latour does when he does his research (particularly in France) or the colonial privilege of early ethnographers. But I think it is a much better idea to try to get up close and personal with elite networks than to rely on their self-reports about what they are up to (I think we both agree on this)

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