Who Absolves the Priests? The Panama Papers, Transparency, and Confession

In the aftermath of the Panama Papers leak, a global outcry for transparency and confession has arisen. Calls for more oversight and regulation abound. The public wants those implicated to come clean, step into the light, and confess their financial deeds done in the dark.

While such confession might be an important ritual we need to move forward, there are systemic reasons why this secrecy happens and why it will keep happening.

What's particularly telling about the Panama Papers leak is that those exposed are not simply wealthy private citizens but politicians, even heads of state. The Papers don't just reveal the well-known tendency of the rich to dodge taxes. The leak shows that those who have helped to construct, run, and (presumably) police our global financial system use it to their greatest advantage.

And why wouldn't they? As architects of the system, this union of politicians and financial elites has a bird's eye view of the field and stands partly outside it. They wrote (and keep rewriting) the rulebook. Of course they'll use every trick in the game to win. This shouldn't surprise us. Indeed, as Slavoj Zizek notes, it's surprisingly unsurprising.

This is why the outcry and call for greater transparency and public admission are greeted with lukewarm response. At times the sense of outrage is met with perplexity, defensiveness, or the claim that these shadow acts were "perfectly legal." And let's not forget that to date only one person implicated in the 2008 financial crisis has been prosecuted.

It's a bit like demanding priests to confess their sins to the congregation and ask the flock for forgiveness. It sounds nice. It's probably something that would make the congregation feel better, more cared for and included. But something about it goes against the logic of the system.

Let me explain.

In the early 20th century, the German social theorist Walter Benjamin described capitalism as a religion and bankers as a kind of priesthood. Capitalism motivates us to strive for this-worldly salvation through wealth accumulation, engaging in repetitive labor rituals, and managing our guilty debt in the hopes of accessing sacred credit. Bankers control the flow of the grace of the system: capital.

Just as priests mediate access to the grace of God, so bankers serve as gatekeepers, opening and closing access to capital, the means of this-worldly redemption.

We can expand Benjamin's priest label to include politicians, since, as Benjamin would acknowledge, state leaders work to ensure the success of capitalism. The politician-banker class serves as intermediary to the flow and accumulation of capital.

And just as priests, like the rest of us, are sinners too and stand in need of forgiveness before God, so politicians owe debts to the system, as we do, and need access to the grace of capital.

Taxation is one such form of debt, one owed to the government. Avoiding taxation is an attempt to get out of that debt. Legal documents declaring that you actually don't owe this debt to the government--such as the tax havens Mossack Fonseca created--are a way to have this debt absolved.

They're a form of debt forgiveness.

This is a political-financial equivalent of declaring the priestly "te absolvo."

Who absolves the priests? After all, they need grace and forgiveness too. Why, they do, of course. Members of the priesthood can confess to each other, assure each other of forgiveness, and keep each other's secrets. They don't need the laity for this.

That's why it was irrelevant to this cadre of politicians and bankers, the architects and gatekeepers--the priests--of the global financial system, to divulge their dark deeds to the public.

Indeed, part of the public outcry against the Papers' revelations quite possibly results from the hurt we feel in realizing that we ordinary folk are mostly irrelevant. It's not even that these elites worked hard to shield their deeds from our eyes. They simply did their dealings with each other, in the vestry or boardroom. We were barely part of the equation.

Just as a thoughtful and pastorally-minded priest might engage in transparency for the sake of shepherding his flock, so savvy politicians may come clean in order to manage their leadership of the citizenry. But neither needs to do this to protect their capital, whether the spiritual capital of divine grace or the financial capital of the banking industry. For this the priest turns to other priests and to God, while the politicians and bankers turn to each other.

There is no incentive to confess to the public in this area. There can be censure and penalty, more oversight and regulation, but these are external pressures to tinker with rather than change the system.

Only by radically rethinking the flow of the grace of capital, such that the people actually become necessary, can the kind of transparency yearned for be achieved. Just as ideas of priesthood can be altered to become more inclusive, so can structures granting access to capital. Then the grace that the system now withholds might be available to all.

This is a slightly emended version of a piece that appeared previously on Patheos.com.