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LUXCORE Conference: Elites, Corruption and the ‘Defiance Industry’

LUXCORE Conference

20 May 2022

09:00 – 13:45 CET

Location: Department of History and Cultures (DISCI), University of Bologna, Italy

In-person (for presenters and audience) / hybrid (for presenters only)

Please register here:

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Elites, Corruption and the ‘Defiance Industry’: On Luxury, Sanctions Busting and Other Evasions

While much of the analysis of corruption has been devoted to the misuse of public resources by individual state officials and much of current research on anti-corruption explores the potential of artificial intelligence and big data, few academic studies have focused on the actions of elite networks capable of diverting substantial financial flows and challenging or shaping regulations and auditing procedures across sectors, while treading the fine line between legality and illegality, supported by professional enablers. New layered realms of opacity, secrecy, and luxury emerge, serving the criminal economies that aim to defy legislation, regulation, and technological surveillance. Offshore havens, luxury real estate, private jets, luxury yachts, freeports, and the creative structures of layering, secrecy, opacity, and evasion have been spotlighted by revelations such as Pandora Papers, but the multiple intersections of luxury and corruption remain largely unexplored in both anthropology and criminology (Kuldova 2021). The ongoing war in Ukraine has already resulted in a massive expansion of sanctions regimes and further securitization of anti-corruption. US and its Western partners have targeted sanctions, among others, at Russian corrupt senior officials, oligarchs, and high-ranking elites, and cracked down on notorious luxury real estate enclaves which have been tolerated until now. There is no doubt that this war and the international response to it will result in an intensification, expansion, and transformation of the anti-corruption regimes and their further integration into sanctions regimes, anti-money laundering (AML), anti-bribery, countering the financing of terrorism (CFT), and related measures directed at fighting transnational financial and organized crime. The success of these measures relies heavily on the compliance of the private sector with these regulations and their private suppliers of sanctions and compliance intelligence and tech, as has become visible to all in the current conflict. At the same time, we have seen that over the last two decades, an entire global industry has emerged, catering to the needs of the corrupt and the criminal (Markus 2017). This industry thrives at the border between the legal and illegal and consists of ‘evasion experts’ facilitating tax evasion and money laundering (Zucman 2015), be it through shell companies, art, luxury real estate, or other high-end goods and relying on infrastructures such as freeports. We introduce the concept of the ‘defiance industry’ to capture this apparatus and its logic. The Russian oligarchs, and they are not alone, have shown us also that evasion, often carefully kept invisible and untraceable, paradoxically manifests itself in luxurious defiance vis-à-vis national and transnational systems of regulation, and in visible refusals to ‘self-regulate’ and to submit oneself voluntarily to the global regime of ethics of transparency, openness, accountability, and audit – or else, to comply. This raises also questions of sovereignty and ‘special liberty’, or else, of the sense of entitlement to transgress rules, norms, and regulations in the name of self-interest irrespective of harmful consequences (Hall and Wilson 2014).

Conference Program

09:00 – 09:10 Welcome by Davide Casciano

09:10 – 09:35 Can We Think Corruption and Anti-Corruption through the Death Drive and the Politics of Enjoyment?

Thomas Raymen

University of Northumbria, Newcastle

The basic premise of this paper is a simple one: That the death drive is present within and inherent to the actions of corrupt actors, the anti-corruption and compliance industry, and the populist modes of politics organised around combatting and rooting out corruption. It is an open and speculative paper that considers how we might think these issues through the lens of the death drive and its politics and economy of enjoyment, contemplating what analytical benefits this might bring.

09:35 – 09:45 Discussion

09:45 – 10:10 Luxury, Corruption, and the Logic of the Scandal: How it Fuels the Anti-Corruption, Compliance, and the Private Intelligence Industry

Tereza Østbø Kuldova

Oslo Metropolitan University

The paper, grounded in digital ethnography of the compliance and anti-corruption industry and interviews with industry actors, delves into the logic of spectacular scandals and the ways in which they are used to legitimize and fuel the growth of anticorruption, compliance, and private intelligence industries – by now well integrated into each other – and the development of anomaly, suspicion, threat and risk detection systems designed to prevent scandals, safeguard reputations, avoid fines and fight transnational financial crimes, corruption, money-laundering, and more. And yet, despite the massive growth of these control, surveillance, and intelligence systems, scandals have not gone anywhere; to the contrary, defiance appears systemic. The question is, what do these systems serve then and what world do they create?

10:10 – 10:20 Discussion

10:20 – 10:45 Conspicuous Sanctions – the Luxury Boat Diplomacy of the 2022 War in Ukraine

Jardar Østbø

Institute for Defence Studies, Norwegian Defence University College

With luxury yachts as a case study, this paper analyzes the Western sanctions against Russian individuals in the context of the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Examining the background of, compliance with, and defiance of these sanctions, and drawing on Thorstein Veblen’s theory of the leisure class, it seeks to explain the yachts’ prominence among the sanctions’ targets and asks to what extent individual sanctions reflect the realities of Russian politics and those of the global financial system.

10:45 – 10:55 Discussion

10:55 – 11:15 Break

11:15 – 11:40 Singing Wives and Oligarch Patrons: Sounding Out the Wealth of Russian Elites Through Popular Music

Ingrid M. Tolstad

Oslo Metropolitan University

Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork on Swedo-Russian musical collaborations, this paper explores the link between popular music and the conspicuous consumption of Russia’s wealthy elite. Presenting two specific cases, one following a Russian millionaire wife’s efforts to become a pop star and the other exploring a wealthy Russian’s pursuit of patronage for emerging pop artists, it is argued that popular music represents a means for Russia’s rich elite not only to show off their wealth and luxurious lifestyles but also to exchange monetary means for other forms of (cultural) capital, such as fame, coolness and associations with a Western lifestyle.

11:40 – 11:50 Discussion

11:50 – 12:15 Corruption via Luxury Goods as ‘Gifts’ Encountered by Japanese Residing in Nigeria to Construct the New Capital City: Comparing Cultural Contexts of Bribes vs Gifts

Millie Creighton

University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

This paper explores the interface of Japanese, based in Nigeria in the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s to work on construction of the new capital Abuja by the Japanese architect Tange Kenzo and his design firm, and Nigeria as a highly different cultural context for them. It explores corruption, sometimes in the form of ‘gifts’ validated culturally both in Japan and Nigeria at that time, despite being problematic, and more clearly corrupt ‘bribes’, along with their experiences and reactions to these and events surrounding them.

12:15 – 12:25 Discussion

12:25 – 12:50 “As one reprimands the thief, one should also reprimand the owner of the yams on the road”: Some Ongoing Reflections about Luxury, Special Liberty, and the Moral Economy of Corruption in Lagos, Nigeria

Davide Casciano

University of Bologna

While national and international discourses of corruption in Nigeria tend to focus mainly on the actions of the political elites, most of the population aspires to solve the state's inadequacies by creating successful ‘businesses.’ Yet, what can emerge if we shift our attention from the state to the super-rich and exclusive areas of Lagos, dotted with tantalizing multi-billion ‘yams’? This work-in-progress paper aims to explore the complex ties between these spaces and the resourceful actors who inhabit them.

12:50 – 13:00 Discussion

13:00 – 13:25 Shooting Elites: An Ethnography of Wedding Film Production for Elites

Alex Vailati

Federal University of Pernambuco

This paper explores practices of family film production in the metropolitan region of Recife, one of the largest state capitals in Brazil’s Northeast, focusing on elite wedding videos and the ways in which they contribute to class reproduction and serve as a window to explore the different levels of hegemony that produces those future memories.

13:25 – 13:35 Discussion

13:35 – 13:45 Concluding Remarks by Thomas Raymen

This workshop is part of the project Luxury, Corruption and Global Ethics: Towards a Critical Theory of the Moral Economy of Fraud (LUXCORE), funded by the Research Council of Norway (313004).

Contact organizers:

Davide Casciano

Tereza Østbø Kuldova


Hall, Steve, and D. Wilson. 2014. New Foundations: Pseudo-pacification and special liberty as potential cornerstones for a multi-level theory of homicide and serial murder, European Journal of Criminology 11 (5): 635-655.

Kuldova, T. Ø. 2021. Luxury and Corruption. In The Oxford Handbook of Luxury Business, edited by Pierre-Yves Donzé, Veronique Pouillard and Joanne Roberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Markus, Stanislav. 2017. Oligarchs and Corruption in Putin’s Russia: Of Sand Castles and Geopolitical Volunteering. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 18 (2): 26-32.

Zucman, Gabriel. 2015. The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens. Chicago: Chicago University Press.


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