At the height of its power, before it was compelled by an antitrust suit brought against it by the US government to dissolve into multiple separate organisations, John D. Rockefeller’s and Henry Flagler’s Standard Oil was caricatured as “The Octopus”. Why? Because it’s influence was pervasive—it was an integrated oil corporation that spanned the globe, and more importantly, not all of its members were known. It was hard to tell who was being grasped by one of the Octopus’s tentacles and who wasn’t. Nowadays, the equivalent of the Octopus of Standard Oil is probably the “Fat Cats” of the financial industry.
For example, investigative journalist Roberto Saviano considers London to be the global centre of illicit finance. The place where dirty money is made clean:
“If I asked what is the most corrupt place on Earth, you might say it’s Afghanistan, maybe Greece, Nigeria, the south of Italy. I would say it is the UK. It’s not UK bureaucracy, police, or politics, but what is corrupt is the financial capital. Ninety per cent of the owners of capital in London have their headquarters offshore.”
… Saviano said that there was a hidden danger of voting to leave the European Union that was little discussed. He said if the UK left the EU, it would undermine joint attempts to fight illegal economies.
‘Leaving the EU means allowing the Qatari societies, the Mexican cartels, the Russia Mafia to gain even more power,’ he said, highlighting the fact HSBC had paid $1.9bn in fines to the US government for financial irregularities in dealing with money that had come from cartels.
He added: ‘We have proof, we have evidence. Today, the criminal economy is bigger than the legal economy. Drug trafficking eclipses the revenue of oil firms. Cocaine is a £300bn-a-year business. Criminal capitalism is capitalism without rules. Mafia and organised crime does not abide by the rule of law – and most financial companies who reside offshore are exactly the same.’
So, it’s known—but in most cases cannot be proved—that Russian oligarches, Saudi princes, and Mexican drug lords all filter their money through the mechanisms of London’s financial district. But the rabbit hole is deeper. Not only is dirty money made clean, the newly clean money is also used to soil mechanisms of governance and keep the captains of Saviano’s “capitalism without rules” out of the fetters they so truly deserve.
THE FATTEST OF CATS
I recently became aware of the work of Nicholas Wilson, also known as “Mr Ethical”. It would not be unfair to say that he is engaged in a fight against a seemingly implacable enemy. Consider some of the dirt he has dug up involving one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, in regards to the pattern of their employment.
Why would HSBC entice former public officials to leave their posts and work for them? Perhaps to ensure that nobody shines too bright a light on the relationships and mechanisms that HSBC deploys to keep itself and its clients out of trouble?
It’s a distortion of Nassim Taleb’s notion of “skin in the game”—they put their skin in other’s game. By purchasing privileged insight and preferential treatment through the employment of—or, in other cases, “contact with”—former public officials, and by creating weak ties between these officials and the bank, HSBC also offers the implicit threat of, “If we go down, you do too.” Here’s an example of how this plays out.
Consider the strange case of Lisa Osofsky. She was employed to monitor HSBC’s adherence to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement relating to a billion dollar money laundering case. In October 2017 Lisa and her husband, Marc Wassermann—who also has ties to the bank—took out a multi-million pound mortgage with HSBC. in December 2017 the bank was given a “clean bill of health”. In August 2018 Lisa began work as the Director of the Serious Fraud Office, which is “a specialist prosecuting authority tackling the top level of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption.”
I won’t go much further into this. At least not right now—there are others who do it way better than I can. Like Nicholas Wilson. Polite warning, though: once you see all this, it’s hard to stop looking. But learning about it does have me thinking about how exactly one confronts such an immense entity.
The treasure trove that is TV Tropes contains a few ways to classify villains. One is using the notion of character tiers (going from bottom tier to God tier). Another is using the sliding scale of villain threat, which goes from “local” threat (“The villain poses significant harm to a single person or small group of persons or a localised area”) to “omniversal” threat: “…these villains will not stop at a single Multiverse, but they will cross all of reality to take over or simply destroy the totality of The ‘Verse/Series Franchise (if said totality exists beyond a Multiverse), taking control over or obliterating all alternate dimensions, planes of existence, parallel universes, possible universes, timelines, alternate continuities, realities, and Multiverses within said totality.” But my favourite is Super Weight, which has a classification which goes from “Fragile Weight” and “Muggle Weight” to “Cosmic Weight” and “Author Weight”. The definition of an “Author Weight” character is as follows:
“Characters in this weight class are absolutely Omnipotent and likely Omniscient. They are capable of exerting their will on all of reality and the entire universe (or even the totality of the multiverse) or even the plot itself without exception. Destiny/Fate is their play-thing. They cannot be killed/destroyed by any means. Any limits they have are self-imposed. While this weight is almost always reserved for God, the Author, and the Game Master, characters can be written for at this level. Just don’t expect it to be a normal story. As a result, a character at this level is fairly rare.”
I’m more concerned with the low-end of the scale. What can a “muggle weight” playable character do against a “National Threat” that can “destroy a country or take it over and turn it into a Crapsack World”?
Not a totalitarian regime, such as Soviet Russia or the Third Reich. I don’t believe there is much one can do, alone. As I’ve said before, when you’re up against the power of the state resistance isn’t futile, but it’s not far off. No, I’m more concerned with how an individual can go up against a powerful institution or entity within the confines of a democratic state—the oil industry, the military-industrial complex, an international bank.
On Twitter I follow an account called Tabletop Scenarios. They posit situations like, “The secondary keyboard installed on your mobile device has been sending keystrokes home.” Well, here’s my tabletop scenario:
“You have discovered evidence of corruption on a mass scale. An international financial institution is using its wealth to subvert international, national and regional regulations, and worse, it is dangling the carrot of lucrative future employment to officials in high places to ensure that itself and its clients remain free from public and private scrutiny.
You have followed standard protocols, made the right advances down the right avenues, and still you’ve heard nothing. What do you do to raise awareness and bring about action and change?”
Before you can thrive, you must survive. This applies to business, to sport, to academia, and most definitely to the fight against an implacable, mid-level enemy. As Sun Tzu put it two thousand years ago: “In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponent.” So how does one go about making themselves “invincible”?
The first thing to do is to create an audience. Even an audience composed of a few people is enough to change the game. Spectators compel the antagonist to act with some measure of honour and decency—more than they would if left to engage behind closed doors. And a public figure, either major, minor, or minuscule, is one who cannot simply be removed from the confines of the game or eliminated (although there are exceptions—see Jamal Khashoggi, Meng Hongwei, and the many journalists killed whilst reporting and investigating the Mexican drug cartels).
Once the seeds of an audience have been planted, the next step is to assess your attack surface, specifically how vulnerable you are in terms of economics. Here the keywords are “debt”, “downside” and “dependencies”, each of which result in a definite risk to your campaign. If the total of these three things is substantial then all your opponent has to do to put you out of the game is put the brakes on your cash flow. What campaigner will pursue the fight if his wife and children are starving and homeless? Which brings me to the next step.
Determine your redundancies and your reputational fragility. Your redundancies are, essentially, the resources that would allow you to maintain a bare minimum living standard in the absence of income. If you have no cash savings, live in London and have no friends who will let you sleep on their sofa, you are more vulnerable than someone with a few months worth of cash in the bank, a paid off mortgage in a small, remote town and a strong supportive social network. Similarly, if your income is strongly dependent upon your reputation—perhaps you’re a politician or a lawyer—then you are particularly vulnerable to the simple smear campaign, the putting about of sultry and unsubstantiated rumours and allegations. If your income is dependent upon your rep being squeaky clean, then the obvious thing for an adversary to do is throw a little dirt on the canvas. It doesn’t really matter if the accusations and insinuations are true. What matters is that they sow the seeds of doubt, the seeds that can be the difference between “You’re hired” and “We’ve decided to go with another provider for now.”
Of course, there is a defense to this last—do nothing indefensible. A smear campaign can be endured if you are secure in the knowledge of your own good and have independent means. But bear in mind, “indefensible” does not mean an act that cannot be interpreted in a dark light. It means do nothing that you wold not be willing to stand up in a public forum and defend.
The final piece to the puzzle of the defense is, quite simply, documentation. Every interaction, every shred of evidence, every question, every response—save it all in multiple places.
BETWEEN DEFENCE AND ATTACK
Build an audience; assess debt, dependencies and downside; determine redundancies and reputational fragility; do nothing indefensible; become a documentarian of your cause. That pretty much handles the aspect of defense when confronting an immense enemy. Now, let’s consider the hybrid, kinda-attack-kinda-defense strategies, of which there are two.
The first concerns the ideas of optionality, slack and serendipity. As someone building a case, you need these things. Optionality and slack—usually in the form of unallocated time, money, energy and attention—allow you to pursue and exploit opportunities that arise due to serendipity. For example, let’s say that you’ve gone public and consistently talk about your cause and share your ongoing findings online. Doing so might net you a reader who is in close proximity to your struggle, someone who knows something you’re not in a position to ever find out. Unfortunately, this person may feel uncomfortable sharing his knowledge in any other format except face-to-face. With no optionality or slack in your system, it is hard to jump on this opportunity. But with a base level of stringently unallocated resources, such opportunities will occur more and yield a higher rate of return. It becomes possible to give up a day or two in pursuit of a long shot, or follow the trail for an improbable payoff of evidence.
The second hybrid strategy concerns narratives. The aim is, essentially, to narrativise your cause or fight so that it becomes easily comprehensible to an impartial observer, and thus make it more likely that they will pledge their direct or indirect support. Telling someone, “I’m campaigning against Bank A’s legal but immoral manipulation of regulation that is designed to maintain an impermeable barrier between the public and private sector” has less effect than, “Bank A is attempting to manipulate our system of democracy for extreme profits; I’m fighting back.” The former barely registers; the latter shoots right into the brain and pegs you as an individual engaged in a noble fight against a titanic enemy.
You may not think it, but this is the hardest part of the game. It’s possible to survive for a long, long time. What is harder, and almost unheard of, is to win. But what does it even mean to “win”? Say you’re fighting a corrupt system. Is it winning to see the system itself and everyone associated with it crash and burn? Is it winning to see the system persist but the people punished? Is it winning to enhance the symmetry of the people involved—should those who reap massive profit also be liable for massive punishment? The question that needs to be asked is this: Are you trying to win the game, bring in new players, or change the rules?
With that out of the way, we can turn to offensive strategies.
The simplest offensive strategies are the mirror of those strategies your adversary uses against you. They consist of the undermining of foundations, the sowing of doubt and discord, the public examinations of damning evidence, the asking of awkward questions, the pursuit of prosecution and change using typical institutional means alongside a barrage of guerrilla marketing and individual warfare. However.
The odds are stacked in their favour. You may have right on your side, but right doesn’t always equate to might. As much as we like to deny it, self-interest and power—in the form of money and connections—run rampant over morality. Add to this the fact that, alongside might, your opponent can unleash immense complexity to slow you down. An example of this comes in the form of shell companies.
Big money leaves a trail. There’s no really inconspicuous way to move it. So the next best thing is to camouflage its motion behind a series of complex legal manoeuvres and border crossings, to make the resources required to trace it accurately and definitively so immense that following the trail to its end is just too costly. (For more on this type of tomfoolery, see James Junius’ Russian Dolls and reports about the Panama Papers.)
When I began this post, I had a vision in mind: a mini-playbook that individuals can use to take down or combat nefarious collectives. It hasn’t turned out that way, mainly because as I’ve thought about going on the attack I’ve realised that the search for and exploitation of vulnerabilities is so difficult. As I said above, the probable result of engagement with a morally questionable but definitely powerful adversary is a whole lot of pain and not a lot of change. It’s no wonder that whistleblowers run out of breath. The whole system is set to bring about the exhaustion of their resources. And a long time before that happens, exasperation sets in. A noble fight is easy, especially when audiences applaud you. But when nobody seems to care? When you slave away and see no recompense, and worse, no progress? In such a situation it’s easy to ask yourself, “Why do I bother?”
You’re fighting a system which is a consequence of human nature. Greed is in our genetic code. As soon as one system which gives it expression is stamped out, another steps in to fill the void. So it was, so it is, and so it will continue to be. Which, again, raises the question: Why bother? Why fight when you can’t win—or not indefinitely, at least? In answer, I turn to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to David Rowe’s The Proverbs of Middle-Earth, which says:
“…to act with hope and nobility however dark the future may appear. This is encapsulated when he and Gimli recount their journey with Aragorn. Having braved the Paths of the Dead, galloped through southern Gondor to Pelagir, and raced up the river in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle outside Minas Tirith, they still know that if Frodo should fail, all their efforts would be in vain. Was all their effort therefore a waste? Legolas says no, on the basis that results neither define nor denigrate virtue.
‘Follow what may, great deeds are not lessened in worth,’ said Legolas. ‘Great deed was the riding of the Paths of the Dead, and great it shall remain, though none be left in Gondor to sing of it in the days that are to come.’ “
This timeline may be one without Elves, Dwarves, or other magic creatures, but it is still one filled with doers of heroic deeds. Investigative journalists, campaigners, activists, whistleblowers—they fight not because their victory is likely or permanent, but because it is the right thing to do. For that, I am thankful, and by that, I am inspired. And while it may not help them pay their rent, or serve as the capstone in their prosecution case, I feel that it is worth saying to them while I have the chance, thank you.