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In his book, The Decline of American Power, Immanuel Wallerstein points to three secular trends that put fundamental pressures on the world capitalist system causing the current deep-rooted structural crisis that the system faces. The three pressures are: worldwide rise in wages, diminishing possibilities for externalizing costs, and increased taxation*.
We can conclude that three kinds of movements (separately, or ideally in combination) can pull the figurative rug from underneath the capitalists’ collective feet:
1. Movements for aggressive increases in wages and benefits
2. Movements for aggressive internalization of all costs
3. Movements for radicalized taxation
I will focus on the question of taxation.
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 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 really could exist an objective school of thought that demonstrated and proved scientifically that giving the public goods to profit-seeking companies is anything other than theft of public goods.
We must, however, turn the conceptual table. The question of taxation must be remarried overtly to the political dimension that it does possess. One need only remember that a major 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, 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. Further, no government should be allowed to take people’s money as taxes, with which instruments of oppression of those people are acquired.
The problem with the American Revolution was that it was (in reality and not in slogans) demanding that representation be extended to a tiny minority of the ‘locals’. The original inhabitants of the continent were to be slaughtered further and their land stolen. Slaves were to remain slaves. Further, women, working classes, and huge majorities of non-property-owning classes were to receive zero representation for the taxation imposed on them now by the Founding Fathers.
But, we can revisit that slogan and give it a positively different quality all together.
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.
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 children in all neighborhoods. Individuals can choose any number of priorities, and rank them in any percentage they deem necessary. If individuals so wished, they could even give any desirable percentage of their taxes to the victims of imperialism.
This new definition of taxation is something that can bring 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 engage 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.
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 form, is revolutionary in spirit since it radically changes the terms of how the public life is set up.
And if the above is too grand a narrative for the postmodernists (who are merely covering the rear guard of the bourgeoisie), how about this way of posing the question: When shopping, do we simply hand over whatever amount the storeowner asks for, and stay content upon receiving 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 those yearning for more greenery all over our lives; we can all unite around this key issue that can helps us to bring about a realistic mechanism for positive change.
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.
Let us first assume the best-case 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 finally 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 direct, conscious and intelligent manner. Tax paying citizens will research in some depth the ramifications of their particular priorities on social policy, just as they will study more carefully about the ramifications of others’ decisions on their particular preferences.
This new taxation will also transform the legislature, forcing it to play the role that was ideally intended for a 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 and practical 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 ‘There Is No Alternative’. Such a system of taxation encourages, nurtures and nourishes an enlightened citizenry, who will dictate real alternatives on a constant basis.
An enlightened citizenry that has achieved enlightened goals will have also, in the same process, become transformed and radicalized 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 legal-legislative system that is far more to its advantage, and with much more confidence since it has transformed the system to its benefit. It will be an enlightened citizenry that has tasted its power and seen its power in action bearing concrete fruits that are long lasting.
Our central challenge is to transform the U.S. and other Northern societies in a way that imperialistic tendencies of the ruling classes can be checked by the populations whose resources (money and lives) are pilfered by the ruling classes in order to acquire overseas assets, and to engage in high-stakes international racketeering, which in turn enable them to subjugate their respective populations more effectively.
Possibilities in Defeat
Now, let us consider a less successful scenario. Even in tactical 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 is an invaluable social education. Marx expressed words to the effect that, “The best way to understand something is by trying to change it.”
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 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 an 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 will open up major cracks in the system, since it will have brought to the open the question of who should legitimately 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 timing, on top of their framework.
The significance of such cracks in the system is tremendous. Taxation touches all dimensions of public life, from how this public life is defined and 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 advantage should such notion of taxation take hold.
Also, this movement, in the very process of trying to get its demands heard and addressed, will experience and study the concrete obstacles the system throws its way, which in itself will create the potential for further radicalization, again, in a concrete way.
Finally, this movement to bring about a radicalized 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, even in tactical defeat citizens will start to see more tangibly their power and their ability to change the system.
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 institutions that are harmful to anybody’s survival; so that over time, all social institutions benefit all, as opposed to having a situation in which social institutions benefit only a tiny minority, at the price of immense misery for an absolute majority.
* Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Decline of American Power, The New Press, 2003; see particularly Chapter 3.