Skip to main content

How VeryTaxing

photo: David Jones/PA from The Guardian Aug 11th
One grimly humorous moment in the London Riots was video footage by a journalist with a "well-bred" voice chasing along the street after a young girl who was carrying a huge flat-screen TV. Asked why she was doing it she said she was "taking back her taxes". Several people have accused her of hypocrisy since they're pretty sure she doesn't work or pay taxes. But of course in gang-speak "tax" means to steal:

1. Tax
Verb. - To steal.
Noun (Taxer) - Thief 
"im going to tax that guys cash back in a sec"

where'd you get that from
"oh i just taxed it from some old lady"

She was quite literally carrying her taxes home. But the humour gets grimmer still once you recall that the US government has recently been reduced to impotence and near default by a group of Tea Party Republicans who actually share this young girl's attitude to tax - that it's simply theft. (Perhaps Sir Philip Green shares it too, though not in public). It seems the understanding that taxation is the price of civilisation is vanishing from all levels of society. A very modern form of barbarism, the proud result of the neo-liberal project to replace all social solidarity with market values.

David Robins and I caught a whiff of this attitude when we were writing Cool Rules back in 1999:

"Cool is an oppositional attitude, an expression of a belief that the mainstream mores of your society have no legitimacy and do not apply to you."

"Cool has a dangerously ambivalent attitude toward the rule of law and could accommodate to criminal neo-feudalism just as well as it does to consumer capitalism - the uncomfortable truth is that,compared to the excitements of the drug and gun culture, a prosperous, well-ordered society is boring . Fukuyama takes a rather Panglossian approach to such matters - so far as Cool is concerned history isn’t just over, it is the ultimate negative, something that is washed up, finished with, as in ‘Bang! You’re history’."

"Cool may once have been an expression of rebellion but it is surely not any longer. The real question is whether or not it can sustain the key elements, the rule of law and freedom of conscience, that make western democracy the least bad form of government ever invented. The picture is murky and contradictory: on the one hand Cool values personal freedom above all, it hates racism, it is egalitarian and hedonistic in temperament, on the other hand it is fascinated with violence, drugs and criminality, and mesmerised by the sight of naked power. "
More recently Will Davies, on his excellent Potlatch blog, has been developing the concept of the "criminal consumer", a type of individual whose presence is equally discomfiting to politicians of both Left and Right.  (Of course Proudhon was there long before all of us with his "Property is Theft!") 

The digital revolution has been eroding people's respect for property for several decades now because digital goods are weightless and stealing them might deprive their owner of revenue but not of the original article. However there's no indication that anyone has yet discovered a workable formula for living together in large groups without property, law and taxes. I fear the outcome will be a harsh authoritarian crackdown in which those who own much property privately hire the hardest and meanest to keep it out of the hands of the rest of us - dissatisfaction with the current police force (a public good as well as an instrument of control) is palpably spreading.  

POSTSCRIPT: The furore over David Starkey's supposedly "racist" remarks on Newsnight about white kids "becoming black" highlights a real problem for the Left. Starkey was quite correct in his analysis, which was cultural rather than racial. He deprecates gangsta culture, and quite rightly identifies it as a central factor in these riots. This is very inconvenient for liberals, and particularly for some Guardian writers, who have uncritically embraced this culture (which is perhaps the most important contemporary manifestation of the attitude we called Cool). 


Popular posts from this blog

Social Democracy Uber Alles

The outcry over the revoking of Uber's London licence shows that the service it provides is popular, and it's unquestionably a significant, innovative use of new technology to improve transport. On the other hand the outcry from drivers about lack of benefits and job security show that the application of technology is being used (not uncommonly) both to increase exploitation of the labour force and to flout legal regulation designed to protect labour and customers. The outcry of Black Cab drivers against Uber ignores the fact that people flocked to Uber not merely for convenience (though that is considerable) but because Black Cabs had priced themselves out of the market with the last big price hike.

Put all this together and it's clear that all the parties need to get together and find a workable solution, which is highly unlikely to happen because of the vastly different political atmospheres between UK and USA, and a general lack of adult leadership on both sides. I ca…

The Touchy-Feely Inferno

This essay was originally the final, epilogue, chapter of an unpublished book I wrote in 2009. On re-reading it today I was struck that 9 years haven't changed much….

                      _________________ * ________________

“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” [Anton Chekhov]

The incontinent expression of emotion has become a new orthodoxy, not only in popular culture but even in politics. We’re regularly treated nowadays to advertisements that exploit neuroscientific jargon where once they stuck to plain chemistry – they now seek to boost our serotonin levels rather than merely applying lipid microcapsules to our hair. The staple diet of celebrity magazines and soap operas is the ostentatious display of “emotional honesty” and “vulnerability”, people are always now “there for each other”. Hugging is as revealing of the t…

Big Money Rules

I've always been overly fond of irony, even though I also accept Rilke's sage advice in 'Letters To A Young Poet':

Irony: Don't let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of life. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn't be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless.
(Viareggio, April 5th, 1903)

I'm neither young nor a poet, and I'd never actually become ashamed of irony until now. The irony that finally proved too much for me is this - that fate of democracy may now depend upon the best efforts of the US intelligence agencies. They may now be the only institutions capable of arresting (for their own far-from-progressive interests of course) the process described in Diane Ravitch's NYRB …