In the United States, the question of taxation was a key underlying concept of the move for independence from the British overlords, and the Revolutionary War that eventually led to independence. This is part of the political consciousness of the American public. For the past more-than-thirty years, however, the right wing in the U.S. has been successful in dictating a particular form and definition of taxation, as well as its allocation. Taxation in the United States today is a well-established (and well-concealed) mechanism of transferring wealth from the majority to a minority, in effect instituting a system of social extraction of surplus value from the population as a whole. But exactly because taxation has become such a means of social surplus extraction, the left can attack and critique the current system and turn the discursive tables on this issue.
The debate regarding taxation has historically been limited to who pays the taxes, and by what percentage. The progressive taxation gives the poor a relative break (yet there is always the sales tax to make sure that everybody pays up), and raises the rates as the incomes rise. The other way around would be regressive taxation, which has been very much in force, and increasingly so as we go, since the offensive of the Thatcher & Reagan years began in full by 1980.
The question of taxation has also always been cast as a purely ‘economic’ issue, a mere question of allocation/distribution of the tax revenues, even though those very decisions over allocation are clearly political decisions dictated by the power balance among different political classes in the society.
However, regardless of how the dominant definitions of taxation are framed, any system of taxation influences almost all spheres directly affecting people and their living conditions: healthcare, education, housing, urban development, extraction of resources, exploitation of resources, which communities the toxic waste flows to, whose water is OK to pollute, whose school funds can be cut and fed to the Charter privately-owned schools, and many more.
Critiquing the existing social order, and in particular the current deeply regressive taxation system, is a valid and necessary task of the left. For our critique to be more effective, however, at some point we must also propose some radical solutions.
The question of taxation can be looked at from a completely different perspective, however. Instead of focusing only on who pays how much of the taxes, we can refocus the debate on a more critical point, missing from the debate, which is: Who gets to decide how the tax revenues are to be allocated?
The Occupy Movement in the U.S. was born out of, among other key considerations, the socially voiced realization that for a vast majority of the American people there is no real representation forthcoming.
Even though Occupy died out as a movement, it had an extremely significant lesson for the left: an overwhelming majority of people are vocally thirsting for more democracy, and hungering for more, hell, for any representation, and for more control over the decisions that affect their lives.
In other words, the social consciousness has taken a few big steps toward a conscious negation of the current political system. That particular spontaneous movement may not have figured out the rest of the negations that would lead to positive moves, but it still took a big step forward, and led the U.S. society to a different view of itself.
In this social context, taxation can be overtly connected to its directly political aspects, by demanding a system of ‘direct representation for taxation’. If such a system is successfully instituted, every year as we file our taxes with the IRS, we also submit a list of priorities for how our tax money should be spent.
So, for example, every year with my tax filing, I can dictate that the state and federal governments spend 10% of my taxes on infrastructure, 10% on environmental cleanup in communities affected by Fracking, 20% on public education in poor communities, 10% on publicly provided healthcare in clinics created by public funds in communities without any access to healthcare, 20% on public transportation projects in communities lacking transportation, 10% on creating arts and sports centers in communities without any, 20% on creating local produce farms in urban food deserts, etc.
In practice, we may have to assign proportional shares for who gets to decide on how the tax revenues are to be spent; for example, 50% of the taxes to be spent based on the wishes of the taxpayers directly, and 50% to be decided by the Congressional representatives; or whatever split we can actually establish. The percentage is not the issue here; the main point is to focus the political discourse on the question: Who should make the budgetary decisions? In other words, the left can demand a participatory budget mechanism that introduces the first instance of direct democracy.
By advocating ‘direct representation for taxation’, the left in the United States can actually revisit the historical question of taxation as has shaped the American political history, with a new twist.
For example, we can approach the average working people who sit in traffic for two hours everyday and present them with a practical solution, a solution that resonates with their need to gain some control over their lives for all the taxes they pay. By being able to dictate to the state how their tax money should be spent, those workers — who lose two hours of their every working day to traffic-induced stress filling the body with poisons — are presented with a practical solution. They will see that they can actually fund more public transportation projects that would make the commute less of a daily nightmare.
By extension, this system of taxation will enable the people to get together and form Budgetary Unions; a new form of organizing, as contrasted to trade unions, for example. As a result, they can organize to fund their local schools, hospitals or clinics, environmental cleanup, green spaces, or other social needs.
Because taxation affects everybody, one benefit of the direct representation for taxation system is that, in effect, it helps people see their social connections, to realize that they are not atomized entities living in a social vacuum, without any alternatives for how things are set up, and it helps them realize their sociality and the real possibility of changing the conditions of that social existence.
The most obvious positive aspect of this taxation system is that it makes it possible for the taxpayers to actually allocate funds that they are currently told don’t exist for their schools, or other basic needs. Taxpayers are told on a daily basis that the government does not have money for schools, “So let’s close the dysfunctional schools, and give the money to Charter schools” (the same money that we are told does not exist!!). We see trillions of dollars handed out to banks, auto companies, or we see massive tax breaks for oil companies and others such as GE, who actually get tax refunds. And we are told, “That’s just the way it is!” But, there actually are alternatives, and realizing that fact socially is a huge positive factor in the development of the ‘subjective’ factor, to put it in old Marxist language.
Another benefit of this taxation system is that it provides a counter-weight to the transfer of social funds into the pockets of private capitalists. The Pentagon budget is a great example. It eats up about half of the federal budget, and most of that money goes to private (mostly monopoly) capitalists, such as arms manufacturers as well as industries associated with them, and corporations that service the needs of the armed forces. But, if people who pay the taxes can decide how this money is to be spent, there will be more checks and limits that can be imposed on such huge transfers of public resources to the pockets of a few privately owned corporations.
Gone will also be the impotence of the people. They will finally have a say in determining the political conditions of their lives. Their collective priorities, taken together, will determine the general shape of social policies. The citizenry will become more involved in the political process in a much more direct, conscious and intelligent manner. Deciding whether to allocate taxes to a neighborhood school or to the military can teach a lot about how both (the school system and military system) are organized, and how both affect our lives. Tax paying citizens will research in some depth the ramifications of their particular priorities on social policy, just as they will study more carefully the ramifications of others’ decisions on their particular life conditions. So, such a taxation system creates the material conditions for the growth of a more vigilant public that can in turn come up with, or at least be more easily persuaded by, socialist solutions.
This new taxation will also transform the legislature, forcing it to play one of the key roles it is ideally intended to play in a truly democratic representative body, a role it is currently not playing, namely the role of being for the people, playing the role of the servants of the public, and not the role of legal-political goons and mercenaries hired out to the most powerful economic players in the society.
In his book, The Decline of American Power, Immanuel Wallerstein points to three secular trends that put fundamental pressures on the world capitalist system: worldwide rise in wages, diminishing possibilities for externalizing costs, and increased taxation.
We can conclude then that three kinds of movements can push capitalism to its breaking point, and move the society beyond capitalism:
1. Movements for aggressive increases in wages and benefits
2. Movements for aggressive internalization of all costs by capital (e.g., environmental movements)
3. Movements for radicalized taxation
This insight by Wallerstein sheds some light on the dynamic between reform and revolution. For a long time now, the left has been stuck in the sterile dichotomy of reform v. revolution. For the same length of time, western revolutionaries have not been able to find a practical route to that revolution, all the while bad-mouthing the reformists and their wretched efforts at pushing for legislation that benefits the labor, women, minorities, etc.
To understand the significance of the reforms, it is enough to pay attention to how rabidly the rightwing politicians in the U.S., for example — especially in states with Republicans in governorships and in control of state legislatures — are doing their best to reverse those reforms, signing into law attack after attack on collective bargaining rights, women’s rights, environmental protections/regulations, public school systems, starting with, again, attacking their unions.
If the reforms had been as useless as our revolutionary comrades consider them to be, why then is the ruling class so eager to get rid of them? Would our western revolutionary comrades prefer to operate in a legal system (such as exists in Iran, for example) that allows for any worker, a bus driver let’s say, trying to organize a union to be jailed, tortured, denied medical care for even the problems caused by the torture, and basically have no legal rights whatsoever?
To blame ‘reformists’ for being reformists is hardly a substitute for detailed analysis needed of the revolutionary left’s own failures. The reforms in themselves were achievements, but of course reformists are not the ones to stick around to remind people that class struggle continues, and the other side will do its best to rescind and take back those victories.
It is indeed the duty of the true left and socialists to be present alongside the people while they struggle for reforms, and then stay with the struggling people after each victory to deepen the struggle; to ask for more and to push increasingly and steadily into the cracks in the system, to open the contradictions of the system wide open for all to see in the practical reality of their everyday lives. Revolutionary conditions have to be constructed; they do not materialize out of thin air.
In this light, we must understand that reform movements can lead to revolutionary awareness, or create better conditions for making revolutionary leaps. A movement for direct representation for taxation can play such a role; it is a practical tactical move with a real possibility of at least starting a national conversation over the terms of taxation, which in turn touches on myriad social issues.
The drive to implement this form of taxation can start with ballot initiatives in states that do allow for ballot initiatives. That move can in turn start the national conversation that establishes the legitimacy of asking: Who has the right to decide how the tax money is spent?
That puts the ruling classes on a defensive, just as the Occupy movement put the ruling classes on the defensive, by introducing the vocabulary of the 1% into the popular lexicon. That was a step forward. Now, we can take another step forward, by putting forth a concrete mechanism with which some of the social questions raised by the Occupy movement can find some solutions.
In terms of building an infrastructure necessary for a nation-wide party of the radical left in the US, the organizational implications of a movement to redefine taxation are important to consider. Such a movement, by nature, will bring together the ‘big-issue’ activists (such as anti-war activists, anti-imperialists, 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 political change in the energy sector, those wishing to change the penal system and the medieval drug laws, those wishing to bring pressure on the government to spend more on healthcare, education and infrastructure, those yearning for cleaner air, water, soil, and food, and those wishing for more artistic activities in our communities, more schools, hospitals, and those trying to re-direct urban development policies; we can all unite around this single key issue of taxation that can help us to bring about an institutional mechanism for positive change.
For another set of possibilities that such a taxation policy can open, consider the effects this movement for radical taxation can have on the movements for internalization of costs by capital, as well as the movements for improved pay and benefits. If citizens were able to allocate more funds to enact environmental regulations and enforcement, capital would have to internalize more of the costs of its reproduction, which would in turn cause it more crises. Likewise, if citizens were able to allocate funds to strike funds for public unions, for example, public employee unions, teachers unions, et al., would have more bargaining power and can extract more concessions out of capital, thereby putting it on a more defensive footing. In short, a movement for radical taxation can play as a catalyst for the other two types of movements.
And in the process, the left will have a much better chance of getting into a position to create the organizational infrastructure for a serious nationwide party of the radical left, with a realistic presence on the political map.
This piece was originally published by The North Star.