The Spider’s Web- a documentary

“The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” is a documentary produced for 4,000 pounds, which traces how the City of London manages tens of trillions of dollars. The City of London itself is a bizarre structure, separate from the London with which we are all familiar. This strange subset of the city has its own governmental structure, which is largely dominated by financial interests. This well-researched and engrossing documentary explains how -after Britain’s empire collapsed in the 1960s- financial corporations based in the City of London created a series of secrecy areas or tax havens in U.K. territories from the Cayman Islands to Jersey. The result was a neo-colonial system, in which vast sums of money flowed by illicit means to the City.

One of the powerful aspects of the documentary is its ability to show how these neocolonial relationships deeply harm developing countries. While Africa’s foreign debt may seem large, for example, it is dwarfed by the funds that African elites have sent from their countries to accounts in the City of London. The system relies on the complicity of British politicians, who all to often benefit from these relationships. Indeed, as the documentary makes clear, the Briish state itself has been largely captured by these financial interests, particularly the big four accounting firms. These corporations boast on their websites about their political influence, and how their former employees later enter into key governmental or advisory positions.

The entire system operates based on ambiguity. In this murky world, authorities pretend that territories are independent, when if fact they are explicitly under British control. Those who challenge the system face subtle threats, which make escalate to overt oppression. One disturbing moment in the documentary came when a whistleblower was speaking in front of a police station in Jersey. An irate policeman left the station, smiled menacingly at the camera, and then proceeded to sound his siren throughout the interview as a form of harassment. The man himself had multiple disturbing encounters with law enforcement. At one point the film discusses the Panama papers, which were over 11 million documents that leaked from a Panamanian law firm in 2015. When these documents appeared on the web, they revealed the extent of global tax evasion and malfeasance. But what changed after these revelations? Nothing. And the reason is that these documents -while damning- didn’t reveal anything that global financial leaders or politicians did not already know.

Of course, why would the state want to allow critics to undermine this system, which enriches not only the City, but also politicians and government officials? Spooks, politicians and civil servants leave government for posts in the industry. This is their glide-path to retirement, as they sell their political expertise and connections. As the documentary makes clear, Great Britain oversees even more global funds than the United States. This reality is both astounding and also nearly entirely due to the City of London, and its success in creating secrecy jurisdictions. At the same time, how the system benefits the average citizen of Great Britain is less clear. The system ensures that British elites can avoid paying taxes, and that wealth is put into tax havens abroad, rather than being invested in Britain itself.

I don’t usually like to post regarding documentaries on YouTube, because I’m concerned that the film-makers may not have authorized the posting. As best as I can tell, however, the film-makers themselves posted the documentary, as the notes include links to a host of places to find out more about the film, as well as a Patreon link, for anyone who might wish to contribute to future films. I have no contact with the film’s director or producer, but I do think that if you are skeptical about the global financial system, a small contribution to this source might help to keep producing this kind of story.

This would be a great film to show not only in an introductory class, but also in any course that addressed neocolonialism. The film also has subtitles in a host of languages, from Spanish to Turkish. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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