One of the most popular programmes on US television in the 1980s was an American vanity show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It was unashamedly mindless TV, permanently see-sawing between aspirational and voyeuristic as it took us on rose-tinted journeys through the villas and private jets of the wealthy.
Substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships may have lurked in these superficially dazzling worlds, but all the starstruck audience was treated to were carefully curated storylines of hard work amply rewarded: the American Dream, in short.
Monday’s release of the Panama Papers might just be the 21st century’s version of Lifestyles on a massive dose of schadenfreude.
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The huge data dump promises to provide a fascinating backstory into how $20 trillion, much of it belonging to the world’s most powerful politicians, criminals, heads of corporations and political fixers, went unaccounted for … and the vast industry dedicated to spiriting it from sight.
‘Honey, I shrunk the middle class!’
It is a reminder that we inhabit the moment of greatest inequality in human history, not just in financial but social solidarity terms too.
The Internet has enabled the setting-up of truly global management platforms allowing a few to remotely profit from the labour of the many, while levelling the playing field for the working and middle classes between the West and the rest.
As inequality increased, most democracies started presenting a new feature in their elections: the candidate representing privilege.
Free market legislation and global logistical networks have prised open economies, collapsed distances, extracted value from vulnerable locales, and redirected it to geopolitically powerful centres, all at unmatched speeds. The new global elite whose misdemeanours the Panama Papers document are the creation of this quickest of wealth transfers.
In becoming history’s first truly universal platform, the Internet annuls all the local replications in the service supply chain that allowed local communities at regional and local level to benefit from the trickle-down effect.
Companies such as Skype, Amazon and Airbnb could not have attained global monopoly in their fields without the Internet, but that still comes at the expense of local actors.
Despite offering free or reduced-price services, the economies of scale that flowed from globally dominating their field made them mythically rich overnight. Never had the global market been cornered in so many disciplines so quickly.
This process resulted in diverse wealth transfers, hollowed-out welfare states in the West, and greater inequality. Multinationals boosted their profit margins as production shifted from well-protected middle-class jobs in the West to production hubs with less stringent labour compensation laws and trade unions.
This also resulted in a polarising emerging class divide in many developing countries, as a new class of networked, multilingual, foreign-educated haves grew at the expense of monolingual, hardscrabble have-nots.
The more privilege the one class acquired, the more it locked the other side into a churning circle of exploitation. As inequality increased, most democracies started presenting a new feature in their elections: the candidate representing privilege.
A former United Nations official wrote a much-shared op-ed last month revealing rampant archaic privileges and epic incompetence in the world’s largest international organisation. He described the UN as “a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again”.
The article came at a time when privilege and its discontents are trending in social media discussions. At a time when inequality is widening again in what has been dubbed the Great Divergence, online audiences are tackling the ballooning disparity and its beneficiaries with the appetite of a digital lynch mob.
Privilege is increasingly cropping up in conversation as a malignant noun, with an entire glossary of witty neologisms (“mansplaining”, “driving while black”) cropping up to populate the field, including a new app(EquiTable) for splitting restaurant bills on an “affirmative fractions” basis.
While it can often seem like political correctness run amok, this renewed focus is part of a convergence that the Internet’s next manifestation, currently known as the Internet of Things, is likely to accelerate. This highly interconnected digital grid will overlay every aspect of our physical landscape and link its components to each other through an all-penetrating array of tools and pressure points.
Alarmingly intrusive on the one hand, it will also facilitate measuring the components of privilege with frightening intimacy for the first time ever: incomes and expenditures, what we consume, and our energy footprint can be entered to create an ecological score.
Being able to assess, reward and penalise the wasteful or modest among us is important in a post-nation-state age in which the value attached to people and the ease with which they travel ought finally to be delinked from the country in which they happened to be born. The system, which would be global, would surpass any existing electronic tax system by assessing participants not just on their income or free market-dictated expenditures, but on their environmental impact too.
The potential for developing this into a tool for checking privilege and anti-ecological behaviour is huge. And given that the infrastructure for the Internet of Things is already largely there, setting up a system that rewards those who live modestly by nourishing themselves locally while taxing the privileged who don’t think twice about jumping on to a transpacific flight, feasting on imported foods or having a high-meat diet, is not a stretch. A carbon credits system similar to what countries already comply with could similarly be widened to include individuals.
If handled well, this could tip the balance of technology away from regulating populations and towards empowering them. Opposition is likely from countries unwilling to forsake power over their citizens. But the Panama Papers are the clearest warning bell that the system is broken and that a mechanism for monitoring privilege is essential at this stage of global integration.
The alternative is further secrecy benefiting the wealthy and corrupt, more environmental degradation, and more of the surveillance panopticon we currently already inhabit. If only Lifestyles had included the carbon score of each of their protagonists at the end of each episode!
Iason Athanasiadis is an award-winning photojournalist who covers the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.