Taxation or racketeering?
Give citizens the right to dictate to the government how to spend their money
tSeptember 23, 2005
In view of the utterly disgusting atrocities committed against the people of New Orleans, and in view of the comprehensive militarization of the concept of social welfare in the United States, and, further, in view of the fact that at every opportunity people‚s tax money is being shifted increasingly to the likes of Halliburton and other corporate stockholders -- instead of being spent on infrastructure (e.g. the levees) prior to this socially-created catastrophe or on humanitarian relief efforts after such disasters -- we on the Left must ask ourselves some hard questions.
Must we always remain reactive? Wait for the rulers to act and then react to the latest move made by the thieves, who are perpetually a few steps ahead? Must they always determine the battle, the pace and the framework?
Turning the tables is possible. Let us start from that assumption.
So, how can we turn the tables? In other words, what would constitute the first few steps of a strategic move? For, after all, if we are not moving strategically, what are we doing then?
Any such strategic movement for change will have complexities that are dictated by the historical juncture of, on the one hand, the current grievances and, on the other, the strategic vision that drives the movements that are addressing those grievances. As such, there must first exist a real movement (an organized, articulate group of people) engaging the really existing woes of a society, before it can develop into other things; including a revolutionary movement.
Let us examine, first, what activities we have historically engaged in to force change for the better, and look at their limitations.
Demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, and other 'pressure' tactics, are qualitatively reactive. They ultimately legitimate the system since they are in effect asking it to behave better; they do not, in and of themselves, pose a fundamental threat to the system, unless they are approaching, in shape and intentions, the final insurrectionary moments of a long and sustained social movement that has been maturing for several years, at least.
In terms of bringing about change, the effectiveness of demonstrations and civil disobedience is highly varied. Unless demonstrations are huge, steady, on a daily basis, and accompanied by millions of other forms of activities applying pressure at all levels, from local to the national to international, they will have little effect. In the long run (or any run), they can be ignored; as was the case with millions of people demonstrating worldwide against the imminent invasion of Iraq in February of 2003.
It is pointless to merely and politely ask a living organism to cease to act as it does, of its own choosing. Would you or I cease to exist at the mere insistence of an enemy?
I am not arguing that we should not hold demonstrations. Not at all! We should have lots of them, in fact. I am however saying that by themselves they will not change anything fundamentally; not even superficially if not carried out massively and persistently over a long time, thereby making it impossible to carry out business as usual.
The world capitalist system is in a deep crisis, and the ruling classes have zero illusions regarding that, and know fully well how much is at stake for them and their long-term survival. They, more than most in fact, understand the depth of the problems and contradictions that grips their world system. So, in this deep crisis they can safely ignore even tens of millions of peaceful demonstrators who are very polite and go home after a few big demonstrations, not to return to any such activity for another God knows how many months and years; sheep they may not be, but still fully participating agents they end up being; agents that make the system run as it does, and the demonstrations will be remembered (when mentioned at all) as a mere passing nuisance. Let them eat street!
The reason Cindy Sheehan has become a symbol is because she has ceased to continue living 'as usual'. And by doing so, she has proved that to move against the ruling elite you have to stop acting in the business-as-usual fashion, and stick it out come what may, before you can hope to bring to a stop business-as-usual for the rulers.
This leads to a related issue. Associated with the Œpressure‚ tactics (as a way of forcing change) is the idea formulated by the popular sentiment that says, „Things will have to get worse before people act.‰ And Cindy Sheehan ironically crystallizes this very clearly. She had to suffer a personal loss before she saw the reality of social life in the light she sees it now. Prior to her son‚s death in a war of aggression, she was content enough with the business-as-usual.
The Sheehan phenomenon, as positive as it is at the moment, points to a very dark reality and a signature characteristic of being a citizen of the First World. If we remain reactive only, and wait for the conditions to get increasingly worse; and, further, if for people in the center (First World) to turn oppositional it must take personal loss, we are faced with the necessity of millions and millions of lives lost in the periphery (Third World) so as to bring about a change of heart among enough people to constitute an oppositional movement in the center, and such a reactive movement will achieve very little and will forever be tens of steps behind the strategies of the rulers.
What about strikes then? Strikes are much better, of course, but likewise to be effective at all, they need to be carried out over a long time, must be disruptive on an (ideally) international scale if not a national one, or at least be regional in scope. In the very least, they must be directed at very key, particular locations or industries, such as ports from which war supplies are shipped, or at companies producing the military hardware, or, again ideally, in the armed forces themselves. This latter 'precision' striking, however, in the current legal atmosphere is easily criminalized, forcing the strike funds and energies to be channeled into legal battles, and hence easily harnessed and emasculated. Meaning, the system has triumphed yet again. Unless, of course, the strike rates are very high and sustained for a long time, and joined by secondary and tertiary sympathy strikes, in an expanding fashion.
Again, I am not advocating against strikes at all. We needs lots of strikes, in a lot of places, and constantly. In fact, right now, I would positively welcome any labor strike organized purely on political grounds of opposition to the occupation of Iraq, and purely to demand the immediate return of the troops. I am, however, pointing out the limited effectiveness of strikes when carried out in the isolation of singular crafts within singular industries or companies, for short time periods and completely in isolation from all the other social struggles going on in the society at large.
So, what else? Legislative drives such as ballot initiatives or single-issue campaigns have their clear limitations, too. From an insanely high ratio of input-to-output -- input of the combined social energy of tens of thousands of individuals over all the years it takes, to the output of a piece of legislation well-stacked in the favor of the rich and the powerful, in the best of outcomes -- all the way to, once again, the ultimate legitimation of the system.
Who Decides How to Spend Taxes
All these forms of struggle, however, when combined and applied to achieving the goals of a social movement with clearly defined parameters for its view of social justice, can bring about real social change. Together, they can put an end to the business of merely begging the rulers to change their ways; something they have no interest in doing.
According to Immanuel Wallerstein, in times of crisis and disintegration, such as we are in right now, small inputs can lead to big changes. I would add that those inputs must be towards an outcome with (qualitatively) the potential to make an impact.
The question of taxation is one place where a fruitful movement can be made. The debate regarding taxation has always been limited to who (and by what percentage) pays the taxes. The progressive taxation being that which gives the poor a relative break (there is always the sales tax to make sure that everybody pays up), and the rates increase as the income rises. The other way around would be the regressive taxation, which has been very much in force since the offensive of the Thatcher & Reagan years.
The question of taxation has also always been cast as a purely 'economic' factor, even as the very political procedure of changing the terms of the screw are publicly debated in the legislatures of the bourgeoisie worldwide.
So, for example, even as the Reaganite offensive was very clearly transferring increasing proportions of people's money from the lower classes to the very highest classes, in order to keep the debate's framework as 'economic', they had to come up with completely fantastical ideas they called "Reaganomics". As if there was a seriously objective school of thought out there that could demonstrate and prove scientifically that giving the public goods to profit-seeking companies is anything other than theft of public goods.
It is in the framing of the question of taxation that, I believe, we can turn the political tables in a fundamental way, and, what is more important, in a realistic and practical way.
The question of taxation must be remarried overtly to the political dimension that it does possess. One need only remember that a pillar of the American Revolution and the War of Independence that a third of the population of the original colonies conducted against the British overlords, was crystallized into the slogan, 'No Taxation without Representation!'
And quite rightly so, too. Surely there must be some difference between a legitimate government of the people, for the people, by the people on the one hand, and on the other a bunch of racketeers. No government or state authority should be allowed to take anybody's money as 'taxes', for which no political representation is offered, or, worse, with which instruments of oppression of those very taxpayers are acquired.
The problem with the American Revolution was that it was (in reality and not in slogans) demanding that representation be extended only to a tiny minority at the top of the society. The original inhabitants of the continent, the American Indians, were to be slaughtered further and their lands stolen in increasing amounts. Slaves were to be kept slaves. Further, women, working classes, and huge majorities of non-property-owning classes did not acquire any representation for the taxation that continued to be levied against them, now by the Founding Fathers.
But, we can revisit that slogan and give it a positively different quality all together.
We can demand a new system of taxation be instituted, whereby every year, as people file their taxes, they also file a 'priority list', submitting to the government their instructions for spending their money. In other words, at the same time as they hand over their money they dictate to the government the order of priorities for the expenditure of their money. So, for example, when I hand over my money to the IRS, I likewise hand over my instructions to the effect that of the taxes I have paid, the government must spend 25% of it on education for immigrants who are not documented; 25% on the health of the same population; 20% on environmental clean up efforts in poor neighborhoods and towns; 10% on infrastructure building in poor neighborhoods and towns; 10% on research into diseases; and 10% on the proliferation of artistic activities among the elderly. Individuals can choose any number of priorities, and rank them in any percentage they deem necessary. Citizens may even give any percentage of their taxes to go toward reparations to the victims of imperialist powers.
This new definition of taxation is something that brings about unities that will clarify the class divisions, almost immediately.
Although it starts as a completely reformist move, if enacted it can revolutionize the entire legislative-legal system, and redefine radically the question of the form of representation that can truly be called modern at last. How so? By opening it up to the possibility for fundamental changes that can be realistically directed (or at least influenced) by the 'will of the people'.
This new definition of taxation also gives a practical dimension (as well as a real-life lever) in our struggle for achieving social and economic justice.
It is not with some abstract ideal (such as 'socialism') in mind that people's daily struggles grapple with reality. As we have learned from Cindy Sheehan, people struggle to achieve very concrete objectives, such as 'bring them home now'. The question of taxation, in the same spirit, is that real and concrete link to the actual lives of absolutely everybody.
Representation for the taxes paid, today, with the statistical sciences available and with the technology that is available, can easily be wedded to the very individual who pays the taxes, and can therefore be the first real form of direct democracy that can and must be implemented.
There are no excuses for refusing this. It is not some 'nut case' 'commie' conspiracy. It is the continuation of the American Revolution, and in its pursuit methods used by Wobblies can be applied at will. It is a legal demand, yet the movement to bring it about, although 'reformist' in scope and form, is indeed revolutionary in spirit just as the Populist Movement was in the nineteenth century, and as much as Civil Rights movement became in the form of the Black Panther Party. Yet, it is a movement that need not pick up a single gun. At least not initially, and for as long as the system does not resort to violence to suppress it.
And if the above is too grand a narrative for the postmodernist nags (who are really just covering the rear guard of the bourgeoisie), well how about this way of posing the question: When shopping, do we simply hand over whatever amount the storeowner asks for to be given only whatever the storeowner decides to gives us for the money?
In terms of building an infrastructure necessary for a nation-wide party of the radical left in the US, or anywhere, the organizational implications of a movement to redefine taxation are immense.
Such a movement, by nature, will bring together all the 'big-issues' activists (such as anti-war people, the anti-imperialists, the socialists -- i.e., the 'Grand Narrative' people) and join them with 'single-issue' activists in an immediate alliance, both strategically and organizationally. All the activists who are trying to bring about environmental change, those wishing to change the penal system and the medieval drug laws, those wishing to bring pressure on the government to spend more on health, education and infrastructure, all those yearning for cleaner air, water, soil, and food, and all those wishing for more artistic activities proliferating our homes, schools, hospitals, and more greenery all over our lives; we can all unite around this key issue that helps all of us bring about a realistic mechanism to enable us to put our collective money where our hearts and minds are. And in the process, we will have formed the organizational infrastructure for a serious nationwide party of the radical left, with a realistic presence on the political map. No more begging!
In short, the conversation regarding the redefinition of taxes is one that can affect and bring together all other political conversations, as well as give them a realistic and practical channel to becoming a part of the actually existing political landscape. Further, the movement to achieve this redefinition of taxes, whether or not all its strategic goals are achieved, will be by nature a movement that can only lead to more radical possibilities; even in defeat.
Let us first assume the best scenario. The movement achieves its first strategic goals, and a new system of taxation is instituted, whereby the citizens dictate to the government how to spend their money. This way, a stop will have been put to the political machinations by the fat cat Senators and Representatives, who are way too chummy with billionaire company owners who have them on pay roll to make sure all kinds of friendly legislation is passed to line their collective pockets ever so deeply.
Likewise gone will be the impotence of the people. They will have a say (in a major way) in determining the political conditions of their lives. Their collective priorities, taken together, will determine the general shape of social policies. Further, the citizenry will become more involved in the political process in a much more conscious and intelligent manner. Each citizen will research in some depth the ramifications of their particular priorities on social policy, and will study more carefully about the ramifications of others' decisions on his or her particular preferences.
This new taxation will also transform the legislature, forcing it to play more of the role that was (ideally) intended for a truly democratic representative body, meaning the role of being of the people (not of the corporations); meaning playing the role of the servants of the public, and not the role of legal-political goons and mercenaries at the hire of the most economically powerful of the society.
This best-case scenario is a miniature utopia of sorts. It contains the seeds of bigger utopias. And it contains these possible bigger utopias in a real way discernable to the public. Each person may have a different utopia and, seeing the real possibility of bringing it closer to reality, will act to do so and consequently will break out of the prison house of history, out of 'just this'. Such a system of taxation encourages, nurtures and nourishes an enlightened citizenry.
An enlightened citizenry that has achieved enlightened goals will have also, in the same process, transformed and radicalized itself, and will have evolved into a more formidable opponent for the current system. And within this new political framework, the enlightened citizenry will be fighting the class enemies within a system that is far more to its advantage than the current one, and with much more confidence since it has transformed the system to its advantage. It will be an enlightened citizenry that has tasted its own powers and seen its power in action bearing concrete fruits that are long lasting.
As an example, compare this to an anti-war movement mobilized to oppose the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. In all likelihood such a movement, even if and when completely successful in forcing the US and Israeli ruling classes to withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and recognize the complete independent sovereignty of those people, that very success will lead to the dissolution of the anti-war movement, without institutionalizing any mechanisms so as to prevent the ruling class from waging future aggressive wars. The challenge is to transform the society, so that imperialistic tendencies of the ruling class can be checked by the very populations whose resources (money and lives) are pilfered by the ruling class in order to acquire overseas assets, and to engage in high-stakes international racketeering.
Possibilities in Defeat
Now, let us consider a less successful scenario. Even in complete defeat, this movement to radicalize taxation will, by its end, have come to a thorough understanding of the limitations of the institutions buttressing this system that brings about so much misery. That is an invaluable social education. I believe it was Marx who said, "The best way to understand something is by trying to change it." Or, words to that effect.
This is because in the process of building this movement several things have to take place. First, a significant number of people must come to see the inherent justice of the slogan, 'No Taxation without Representation!' in a completely new light. Second, we must succeed in putting to the public vote (in almost all, or at least a substantial number of the states) whether or not to adopt a radicalized taxation. This means that the idea has now spread nationally.
So, even before any votes are cast, the nationwide attention grabbed by this new notion of taxation will by itself be a great achievement. In the process of creating this new public dialogue, the population will divide along class lines far more likely and more clearly, than would be the case with (I would argue) most other concrete issues.
Now, even in a bad-case scenario, it is still quite probable that in a few states the 'Yes' votes (meaning, Yes to radicalized taxation) will get the majority. Even this modest victory (which, no doubt, will be televised as a resounding and utter defeat for this absolutely crazy idea) will open up major cracks in the system. It will have legitimately brought to the open the question of who should legitimately get to decide how the taxes must be spent. From that point on, the movement can persistently hammer at it more and more; meaning, from that point on, the system will be on the defensive, and no longer dictating all the terms for all the fights, plus their timings, on top of their frameworks.
The significance of such cracks in the system is tremendous, because the new taxation system is radically a different way of looking at not just at a small-potato issue. Taxation touches all dimensions of public life, from how this public life is organized, to who gets to 'play' in it, all the way to how the rules are set. In all those key and essential aspects, the discursive tables will have turned to our major advantage, should such notion of taxation take hold.
Also, in the process, a real movement will have been built not based on a single-issue at all, in fact. This movement, seeing the limitations of the system in the very process of getting its demands heard, and seeing the concrete obstacles the system throws its way, will have great potential for becoming more radicalized.
Further, the movement to bring about this redefined taxation will have created a de facto political organization nationwide; an organization that can easily evolve into a national party of the radical left.
From this point on, strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies will find more cohesion since they are imbued with an in-built objective that drives them to garner any and all their capabilities in order to achieve their goals. In short, citizens will start to see their power more tangibly.
On the success side, again, such a movement, if and when successful, will dictate to a significant extent how the system may exist. That would be far more advantageous a position, from which to launch further strategic battles.
The historical struggle to fundamentally change this system must engage a point in reality that is of essential importance to the survival of the system as it is, and must radicalize itself, its goals and its methods as it develops, all the while engaged with social reality and its institutionalized forms. Our key tasks are to transform those institutions that must be transformed in order to benefit everybody, and get rid of those that are harmful to anybody's survival; so that over time, all social institutions benefit all, as opposed to having a situation that social institutions are merely erected in order to benefit only a tiny minority, at the price of immense misery for an insane majority.
Reza Fiyouzat is an applied linguist/university instructor, and a freelance writer and analyst. He keeps a blog at Revolutionary Flowerpot Society.