Love Your Taxes

"And so Nancy said 'let them eat cake dear', and I said 'the only cake those pinko commie unionists are gettin' is yellowcake..."

Often you hear a fun quote, only to discover later that it's wrongly attributed, or a fiction, like the majority of factoids in circulation on any given day. So I'll cautiously say that I've always loved the wisdom of Max Planck's (paraphrased) "science progresses one funeral at a time." He did say it, although the words are slightly different, and it's a brilliant comment on the nature of ideas. Unlike the quaint family portrait of science always trotted out, where it invents hypotheses that are then rigorously scrutinised by peers and experiment, science is as much of a festering pit of personal ambition and outright stupidity as any other human pursuit. Which is what Planck saw, that you can point 0ut the most obvious flaws in logic and evidence behind any existing idea, but generally those ideas stay put until the generation of scientists with careers riding on them dies.

I kinda hope neo-liberalism is like that. Like most ideas, when you ferret among the original thinkers, it's quite nicely thought-out and has plenty to recommend it. But enough boneheads and outright venality has hijacked the tradition now to make it well past its use by date. Thatcher and Reagan are probably the two most important political figures in this story, and you can trace a lot of where neoliberalism has ended up today back to them.

Founders of the tradition such as Hayek weren't anywhere near as extreme as the political wing of liberalism has since become. Today its strongest proponents are true extremists, and head up major mainstream political parties. Hayek was reflecting on the fascist disasters of the 20th century, but suggested a genuine experimentation in new social forms, rather than a wholesale demolition of government. The Republicans in the US, probably the headquarters of neo-liberal thought in the world today, are now dominated by more extreme views, and launch wave after wave of destruction of public institutions and tax codes. Some neo-liberals sincerely believe they're doing the right thing, others are more cynical and use the ideas to further their own (individual) ends.

What infuriates and puzzles those opposed to all of this is how popular the ideas are, even amongst those who cop the brunt of these excesses. This is a deliberate outcome of many years of hard political slog in framing common political ideas in ways that resonate with many people. The "Left" has much still to learn about that sort of slog (the wider work of setting up think tanks, building a body of belief etc.). And that's another thing about ideas, the "Left" tends to assume a good idea just works, all by itself. It can make beautiful, even noble, speeches, full of wisdom and wit and humour. And it looks down on what it sees as the sordid realities of politics, the deal-making and compromises, and political strategy and tactics. And so it gets fucked over, repeatedly.

Why have the neo-liberal extremists won the day? Because they took the reality that the average Joe is completely (and rightly) uninterested in formal politics, and condensed it all down to some key gut messages which it then has been ramming home with obsessive passion for decades. Gut messages that have just enough truth to resonate with people, even if the true agenda is about as good for them as cholera. You know them, sing along:

1. government is bad and wasteful and inefficient and corrupt

2. unions - see 1.

3. tax is robbery

4. anything above the level of the individual is a restriction of freedom.

Short, simple, visceral ideas. Endlessly reinforced with cherry-picked examples illustrating 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the media. Never mind that private industry is full of corruption and incompetence and waste, and that unions have done and continue to do so much good work, and that tax funds so much that's essential in modern life, and actually makes business possible. None of those counter-arguments have that same visceral gut wrench.

To counter extreme neo-liberalism it won't be good enough to try to out-logic these ideas. They don't function that way, they appeal to emotions. Emotions about being ripped off, and about lack of control. It also won't be good enough to take these deliberate straw men and try to appeal to their unfairness - to wail about the greater good of the group, about how useful public services are, and how useful unions are. All true but all rational arguments, not gut feelings. To fight extreme neo-liberalism you need your own gut feeling ideas.

Here are three I reckon might be worth a shot. Using these or other words, but in a way that is powerful and smart, rather than pleading.

1. You always pay.

2. Somebody always pulls the strings.

3. Everything is Individuals.

You always pay

Tax is political poison pretty much anywhere you go in the world. It's not difficult to make people upset about taking money from them, so the tax-haters have an easy time of it. But people know there's no such thing as a free lunch, so if you want to make inroads against neo-liberalism, it seems a pretty simple thing to say to people "if you want things, you'll have to pay for them one way or the other - if the government doesn't provide it through your taxes, then you'll pay somebody else for them." You always pay.

Somebody always pulls the strings

Another easy sell is to paint government as this vast, intrusive force in peoples' lives, threatening their liberty and restricting their freedom. To counter this it shouldn't be too challenging to point out that in all of the areas of our lives where government isn't strictly in charge, somebody else is. Might be a company, or an individual, or a church, or whatever. Power is in families, board rooms and companies as well as in government. So the question is, do people want somebody in charge they have at least some say in electing or choosing, or not? Having nobody in charge isn't an option. Think of their privatised health insurance, or power companies, or schools. They know they swapped control by government to control by somebody else, a somebody else that nearly always is even less open to them than the government they replaced.

Everything is Individuals

Probably the foundation of most neo-liberal belief is the idea that the individual is all that really exists. There's a begrudging acceptance that occasionally government and other institutions are useful, for example to organise defence or even their own work (think tanks, for example), but those are necessary evils. And the most extreme neo-liberals eschew even those, preferring to keep a gun under the bed, together with the cash. The counter-message needed here is one that shows that every grouping of people is itself, as Tarde showed and nobody realised (even today), still just individuals. They allow a certain amount of compromise, some small part of them and their assets and interests, to go towards this grouping. Normally not much. It's individuals all the way up and down. Anything else is mysticism, 'emergent properties' and other silliness. Plenty of scope here to use concrete everyday examples to counter the nasty neo-classical fairy tales about evil big monsters and poor downtrodden individuals. Everybody knows somebody who works for some larger grouping, like a corporation, or government. They know they're still just individuals, as is everybody they work with.

(In other words the focus on the individual is correct, in neo-liberalism, but the model of the individual is wrong. By making the individual opposed to organisation/groups, all neo-liberal ideas end up achieving is entrenching existing arrangements and groupings.)

For now those opposed to neo-liberalism are stuck in 'whinge' mode. They're stuck in the neo-liberal frame, everything they say is some response to a neo-liberal idea, which means the neo-liberals own the pitch. Until they have equally powerful simple and visceral ideas of their own, that's where things will remain.


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