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Opaque transparency

Three years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby found himself in a bit of a pickle.

As part of his ministry he felt that he should come out against “Wonga”, a payday lending company, which he found problematic in how it lent money at high rates to those who can’t make it to the end of the month. Everyone agreed with the Archbishop, until he was shocked to hear the Church was indirectly investing in “Wonga” through third and fourth parties.

Needless to say, His Grace withdrew this investment and continued to fight until he successfully forced the government to act and regulate payday lending. 

Far from demeaning the Church, this exemplifies how even when an institution takes great care in investing ethically, it is still in danger of falling foul of the market’s shady character.

Markets are predominantly opaque. Thus failing to understand how the few haves continue to plunder the rights of the many have nots, renders any outrage over concealed dealings as fake and nonsensical. 

In other words, this is a flawed system, but we are all mortgaged into it. This is why most political parties are wedded to the political economy of what they see as the “centre ground”, meaning: “don’t rock the boat as otherwise we will all go down together.” 

Even if all these offshore companies and hidden financial deals were to become transparent, there will be other ways of making global market dealing more opaque. After all, we are told, that such dealing is not illegal, even when it remains broadly hidden. 

In his book La Società Trasparente, first published in 1989, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo takes a leaf from Theo Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and states the following: “As the self-transparency of society becomes possible from a purely technical point of view, this self-transparency is shown to be an ideal of domination not emancipation.” 

Adorno and Horkheimer famously confirm that in liberating human reason from superstition, the Enlightenment also opened the way for new forms of oppression, especially phenomena like Fascism and Stalinism.

Confirming the constant paradox by which history operates, Vattimo argues that in this case, self-transparency even stops itself from being realized in that within the communication system there will be mechanisms which will halt it. 

One does not need a course in dialectical logic to understand how this works. Just look at how the free explosion of information on the World Wide Web has now created a mechanism by which the wide ownership and distribution of information is also made opaque by the same rate of transparency that opened it.

Beyond the myth of progress, human history continues to move around in paradoxical circles. These circles are marked by those returns by which they appear to repeat themselves, only to constantly spin out new paradoxical circles. 

This is how human discovery works. For humans to generate the best form of energy, they first had to create the worst form of destruction—a case in point being nuclear science. This paradox can’t be helped. Our own knowledge somehow moves ahead of us in the possibilities that it creates.

After Martin Heidegger, philosophers of modernity have argued that new technological forms of making tend to anticipate our very being. You could say that technologically speaking we anticipate ourselves, and this could be both a virtue as well as a curse. 

Like Wikileaks, the Panama papers gave rise to a new political-economic reality. Yet what they revealed is neither a surprise nor a scandal. The global economy is now subjected to a new wave of transparency that will inevitably trigger a new form of response where in a year or two, we would regard the reactions that are happening now as politically insufficient

Like Wikileaks, the Panama papers gave rise to a new political-economic reality. Yet what they revealed is neither a surprise nor a scandal. The global economy is now subjected to a new wave of transparency that will inevitably trigger a new form of response where in a year or two, we would regard the reactions that are happening now as politically insufficient. 

Panama has revealed the normal face of the global polity. Beyond any assumption of national boundary or cultural identity, capital has now reached its full potential. In its newfound transparency capital has become even more obscure. Somehow wealth needs reinvention. It seems to be taking other forms through other combinations. This is why markets are more liquid, unpredictable, and far more volatile than ever before. 

Upon receiving the Charlemagne Prize, Pope Francis said that, “we need to move from a liquid economy prepared to use corruption as a means of obtaining profits, to a social economy that guarantees access to land and lodging through labour.” 

Quoting his encyclical Laudato Sí, Francis explains that “labour is in fact the setting in which individuals and communities bring into play many aspects of life: creativity, planning for the future, developing talents, living out values, relating to others, giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that we ‘continue to prioritize the role of access to steady employment for everyone, no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.’” 

Unless we prioritise labour, market economies are bound to remain anti-democratic, and thus prone to use corruption as a means of profits. Once labour is taken out, any belief in the global market system will remain liquid, and thus opaque; especially when, in our attempt to make the market transparent, we find that the system becomes further distanced from democratic accountability.

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