Thursday 15 April 2021

The Lobotomised Taxpayer

All it took was one scrape, and the whole corrupt Tory edifice comes into public view. And the more one digs, the more we find. Corruption sits on top of more corruption. There's nothing other than Tory corruption all the way down. Apocryphally, Labour were supposed to be the ones who had difficulties with money while the Tories got their knickers in a twist about sex. These days, modern Conservatives prefer engorging the figures on their bank balance than accumulating notches on the bedpost.

Scandals of a public procurement character inevitably raise the grinning ghoul of "taxpayers' money" to underline how out of order and egregious the wrongdoing is. After all, it's our money Tory ministers, top civil servants, and their mates are filling their champagne baths with. Here's Angela Rayner using that exact framing. And, ugh, this place has fallen into the same rhetorical trap on occasion too. But it is a phrase the left shouldn't just avoid, but purge from its own agitation and critique its use in everyday politics.

Hold on, isn't this a bit ultra? After all, it does have some power doesn't it? We are all taxpayers to some degree, and so while the Tories - especially our old friend Thatcher - used this as an ideological battering ram (among other things) against social security and state industry, it's a double-edged sword that hands a useful rhetorical weapon over to the Tories' opponents. When deserving recipients are denied money and the likes of Akshata Murthy, Dishy Rishi's billionaire wife sccops up a hundred grand to cover her gym business's furlough bill, then the Tories are setting themselves up for a whole load of political pain. Except, in practice, it has done no such thing. The Conservatives have been in power for 11 years and the wasteful ends to which state money have been put are legion, and yet seldom can one find a taxpayer sweaty about corporate subsidies, dosh splashed on Downing Street press rooms, or wallpapering the flat above Number 10. Perhaps it's not as neutral a weapon as one might think.

How is the taxpayer constructed within the political imaginary? It is a location, if not a subject position, that is purely atomised save the contributions it is compelled to make to the state. Tax is written in the pay slip, it's worked out on the self-assessment forms, it comes on the statement from the council and automatically deducted from one's accounts. It appears extractive. There is nothing reaching out, no other points of connection to anything except the state, a strict sort of verticality lending itself to just two political possibilities: a desire to see the compulsory levy come down, or an entitled view over how their money is spent by councils and governments. View is perhaps the wrong word. Gut feeling is better.

Thatcher's genius lay in reconstituting the permitted political units of her assault on British society along a series of linked but formally independent micro or partial subjectivities - the owner-occupier, the small shareholder, the consumer and, of course, the taxpayer and all, coincidentally, are defined by their relationship to money. None contain within them codes for comprehensive critique nor the impulse to solidarity, except in one sense: the negative sense. In the case of the taxpayer, Thatcher's efforts were aimed at promoting the reduction of the tax bill as the defining criterion of public service, and constructing an electorate for whom saving a few quid here and there matters more than decently funded and functional public services. Actively aided my the most powerful opinion-forming machines in the land and her accelerated break up of working class communities, the atomised taxpayer were pointed to their neighbours, the family down the road, the guys thrown out of work, the single mums, the travellers, a whole pantheon of the undeserving poor in other words and told they were paying for them, their fecklessness and failures, and their laziness and layabout lifestyles. This was your money, and they were taking the piss with what you had earned. As such, the taxpayer position is one easily manipulated by a government and its media allies.

Therefore, the "taxpayer" is fundamentally conservative and conservatising. During their time in office, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's governments were adept at playing the game too. Who can forget John Prescott telling his audience that refuse collectors should not have to pay for the tuition of university students? This is why it cannot be wielded for progressive purposes, despite the countless attempts at doing so. Constituting a taxpayer consciousness requires images and figurs that resonate with everyday life. Travellers, which have been in this government's sights from the beginning, work because not only are they "alien", they are perceived to not be taxpayers themselves, make a mess, disturb "taxpayers" wherever they show up, and everyone has an experience or a story to tell. This is more visceral and real, any scapegoat is more visceral and real than abstract ideas about rich people taking more money than their due. The partialised, lobotomised taxpayer might not like it, but its social approximation is so distant to induce a mild dissatisfaction than red hot steaming resentment.

"The taxpayer" is an entirely right wing construct, is only successfully manipulated by right wing politics, and is inseparable from Thatcher's framing of government spending as a household budget. It's not just the wrong way of looking at politics, it's their way of looking at politics. Our class interests lie in multiplying points of contact and building solidarities along them: privileging the taxpayer, whether by right or (nominally) left wing politicians is a fundamental barrier to that.

Image Credit


TowerBridge said...

I find your argument persuasive. To go a little further, though, how would we then describe the waste of money, e.g. on nuclear warheads. Would it be just a waste of money?
A waste of state money, a waste of society's money? A waste of societal resource (which could encompass time).
I suppose it could be a bit more patriotic in that we could say this is UK assets? If we used that kind of language, "shared assets" perhaps we then could describe how thatcher and successive governments have given those shared assets, like water, energy and transport to their mates.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

I agree with your argument. There is a further macroeconomic argument that tax is not about paying for anything, but a)about controlling the amount of money available for spending, and hence control inflation, and b) about giving the currency value. You have to pay tax in £s, so you need £s. The government doesn't tax to pay - it can simply instruct the BoE to create the money (as we have seen throughout this crisis). It doesn't have to borrow either, that is a convention that allows it to act as a safe repository for excess money. The issue is not about whose money it is, but how is that money best used. But, the key is that money is a proxy for resources - including technology, labour, materials, expertise. If we use Y amount of resource on one aim, there is X-Y resource left for other things. Ultimately, it's the finite limit of real resources, not the essentially unlimited amount of a virtual proxy (money) that makes us have to choose between how we "spend". So the focus should always be on what sort of society do we want, and then how best to direct resources (using money) to achieve that. The reason that those who control the information flow and manipulate opinion do not talk about this, is because the type of society they want (and have) is starkly different from what most people, if they were allowed to think seriously about it, would wish for.

Playwright said...

Is it not the case that our NI contributions, which used to be put into the NHS, are now used by this regime to pay off its never-ending deficit? So we are being cheated of our natural wish to support the NHS with our earnings.

PurplePete said...

'The hard-suffering tax payer'

This lot like together with the hard-suffering mortgage payer, the struggling small business man/shop keeper and the frustrated commuter are the original snowflake/woke generation.

Victimology, gorn mad, I say!

Kamo said...

You're right; everyone does have experience of Traveller incursions, even people who don’t care about politics have a visceral awareness of their council spending thousands literally cleaning up human shit from local parks and commons, when the people who leave the mess aren’t seen to be paying their way in the first place. It’s very hard to generate genuine popular opposition to even the most draconian measures tackling such behaviour. It’s also easier to ‘other’ those who choose to ‘other’ themselves; which is a particular issue with non-travelling Travellers, who don’t follow a transient lifestyle but still may prefer to live on permanent sites (the very concept of such formalised segregation of living space would be explosive in the case of other ethnic groups).