A few days ago, I submitted my tax documents to the various government agencies that require them. For me, as for many others I’m sure, this process was fraught and scary. It was fraught because I reject the legitimacy of taxation and most of the uses to which the various government agencies put my accumulated abstract labor (i.e. money). It was fraught also because many of my friends support taxation whole-heartedly, and more or less everyone submits to it as an unavoidable evil – much like searches at the airport. The process was scary because I realized I owed more than $1200. I only made a little more than $16,000 last year, working as a part-time instructor at a regional campus of the Indiana University system. I have no idea how I will come up with this money and I fear the networked bureaucracy that will likely attempt to extort a great deal more.
One of the interesting paradoxes of our present political climate is that many people on the left support taxation. Presently, front organizations of the Democratic Party are holding rallies across the US in support of the “Buffett Rule,” initially proposed by billionaire Warren Buffett and endorsed by President Obama as part of his re-election campaign. The rule would apply a 30% tax rate to anyone making over $1 million/year. It seems to me that many well-meaning people show up at these rallies believing that, in doing so, they are supporting public services and the workers who provide them. I find this situation puzzling and those who rally misguided.
To be clear, it is not surprising that reformists support taxation – whether of billionaires or ordinary folks. From their standpoint, taxation serves to rectify some of the excesses that are built into capitalism. For reformist supporters of taxation, the problem isn’t the system of capitalism itself but its abuse by greedy individuals who seek personal gain over the common good. It takes a little from everyone to insure that everyone has access to some fundamental public goods – the more you have the more it takes. I believe that these people are misguided in their thinking about the issue, but our disagreement runs deep. Plus, as I said, their views are not surprising.
What I do find surprising is that such measures receive the support of people who identify themselves as anti-capitalists. From Karl Marx to Emma Goldman, radical anti-capitalists have never believed that existing governmental organizations could be used in this fashion. Marx himself understood that existing “democracies” serve what he called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” What he meant by this is relatively simple: despite their frequent claims to allow everyone a voice and to treat all people equally, capitalist societies are truly controlled by the owner class. For example, paying no heed to public outrage and massive protests both Democrats and Republicans supported the massive bailout of banks and other financial institutions in 2008. Of course, this is only one egregious example. The truth is that nearly every government institution exists to serve the will of the owner class. This is hardly surprising if you consider that in 2008 nearly 2/3 of the US Senate were millionaires.
It seems to me that there are two principle arguments from the left in favor of taxation: (1) Taxation is a means of redistributing wealth and (2) policies focused on taxing the wealthy and redistributing their wealth serve the strategic aim of heightening class consciousness. Regarding the first, it’s simply false. Insofar as taxation amounts to a redistribution of wealth, it serves the same purpose now as it did in the days of lords and kings – to take the fruits from those who work and give them to those who own. Mitt Romney’s revelation recently that he paid less than 15% in taxes on income from capital gains should illustrate the point well enough. Federal and state governments subsidize his various enterprises well beyond this limited figure, while he reaps the surplus value produced by workers under his employ. This case is not limited; it’s the norm. Perhaps the most egregious expression of this dynamic is the US war machine. Ordinary people pay taxes so that contractors can win outlandish contracts to murder people all over the world – ultimately, of course, to subsidize various capitalist enterprises (the most obvious of which being weapons manufacture). The rightwing idea that the worker is put upon by moochers has an element of truth – except the moochers tend to live in mansions, play tennis, and wear suits.
What about the argument based on strategy, though? Does it not heighten class consciousness to demand that the wealthy pay their fair share to support public goods? First, it’s questionable from the outset whether allying with reformist elites could ever serve radical ends. Rather, reformist elites consistently co-opt energy from radical political movements to achieve narrow political gains – which from any rational standpoint are themselves policy failures. We refer to them as “opportunists” for a reason. Here, one can take the healthcare debate as an example. The groundswell of support for universal healthcare – itself a half-measure – was co-opted to achieve a massive give-away to insurance companies. Democrats congratulate themselves on another fine victory. Meanwhile, there are no significant strategic gains for radical movements. Worse yet, and here’s the real issue, the working class is betrayed (again!) by those who believe they know better. They were supposed to get health insurance, but instead they got fines. Finally, many working class people already oppose taxation in the abstract and very few people find it an enjoyable experience. In short, precisely a campaign against taxation would be an easy strategic target for left challenges to the State and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Now, some will argue that I have overlooked all the important public goods paid for by taxes and all the services they provide to the poor and working class. In the first place, we should dispel the mystification produced by money. Those services are provided by the workers who build bridges, teach classes, and staff libraries – not pieces of paper. The real issue is how we can work together cooperatively to meet all of our needs. And I’m almost certain that extorting labor from some workers to provide the necessities for other workers is exploitative, inefficient, and alienating. Indeed, that’s actually how the whole system works. At the end of the day, we should be honest with ourselves: in capitalist society profit triumphs over all. Any institution or organization that does not serve profit will be dismantled. This means that while fire hydrants and bridges may appear to be “public” they also serve the private interests of the owner class. Public education, to take but one example, produces an obedient, standardized workforce literate enough to meet the demands of (post-) industrial capitalism. Certainly, I’m in favor of cooperative labor in support of the needs of all – the poor and working class first and foremost – but that’s exactly why I oppose taxation: there’s no cooperation there at all.