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.