Life and Taxes
Here is George Monbiot, on possibly the most scandalous domestic story of the year (which, in the age of the ConDems, is really saying something). Please read this. In a sane country, this issue would trigger an Egypt-style revolt. It’s essentially a government conspiracy to help massive corporations and banks (you remember how helpful they’ve been to the world in recent years?) defraud the country of perhaps unprecedentedly vast amounts of money. It may even amount to the effective abolition of taxation upon the wealthiest organisations in society.
Here’s a sample:
At the moment tax law ensures that companies based here, with branches in other countries, don’t get taxed twice on the same money. They have to pay only the difference between our rate and that of the other country. If, for example, Dirty Oil plc pays 10% corporation tax on its profits in Oblivia, then shifts the money over here, it should pay a further 18% in the UK, to match our rate of 28%. But under the new proposals, companies will pay nothing at all in this country on money made by their foreign branches.
Foreign means anywhere. If these proposals go ahead, the UK will be only the second country in the world to allow money that has passed through tax havens to remain untaxed when it gets here. The other is Switzerland. The exemption applies solely to “large and medium companies”: it is not available for smaller firms. The government says it expects “large financial services companies to make the greatest use of the exemption regime”. The main beneficiaries, in other words, will be the banks.
But that’s not the end of it. While big business will be exempt from tax on its foreign branch earnings, it will, amazingly, still be able to claim the expense of funding its foreign branches against tax it pays in the UK. No other country does this. The new measures will, as we already know, accompany a rapid reduction in the official rate of corporation tax: from 28% to 24% by 2014. This, a Treasury minister has boasted, will be the lowest rate “of any major western economy”. By the time this government is done, we’ll be lucky if the banks and corporations pay anything at all.
Now, being an utter nerd, there’s always a little bit of my brain at the back (not as little or as far back as it should be) that is thinking about some film or TV series or book with monsters in it.
I simply cannot help thinking about ‘The Sun Makers’ when I read this. One of the most hilarious myths in Who fan culture is that ‘Sun Makers’ is a right-wing allegory about the horrors of the big state and punitive taxation. This is to misunderstand the story but also, more important, it is to buy into one of the centrepieces of reactionary ideological bullshit pervading our culture: the idea that conservative politics is about the liberty of the individual while socialist politics is about the power of the state.
The truth is, conservatism needs the state. It loves the state. The core of conservatism is the ideological commitment to using the state to further the direct interests of big capital. Conservatism understands, even if many so-called socialists don’t, that the state is theirs. It’s an emanation from the capitalist system. Law, order, the courts, the police, the government… they’re there to protect private property, to guard the people who own it all from the people who own relatively nothing. It’s an apparatus of force and coercion, built to enforce the dominance of the people who own and control the means of production.
Liberals and professional Labourists are eager enough to use the state to enforce the rule of the capitalists, to promote the interests of business, etc. But conservatism sees this as its sacred mission… and, since the age of neoliberalism was ushered into practice by Pinochet and Reagan and Thatcher, they see it as the very least they can do. Conservatives now, and our own government is an example par excellence, wants to wage all-out class war on behalf of the very biggest and the very richest. They are engaged in smash and grab policies, designed to sell off everything that isn’t nailed down… and then prize up the nails.
In ‘The Sun Makers’, Robert Holmes is not just satirising “the UK tax system”, as fan guidebooks usually inform us. He’s satirisng the symbiotic link between the state and big business. Yes, the Collector’s personal guard are called the “Inner Retinue” (which sounds a bit like “Inland Revenue”… thus implying that the Vat man is a bit of a brutal thug, geddit???) and there are are corridors called the P45, etc. But all this occurs under the absolute domination of an organisation called “The Company”, run by a guy in a pinstriped suit, who is clearly doing this for the profits. Where do the profits come from? From the ludicrously exorbitant taxes (i.e. “breathing tax”) paid by the population to the Gatherer, who is the ultimate state official but is grovellingly subservient to his corporate master. So, the state gathers and the Company collects. Really, how much clearer could this possibly be?
It’s sometimes objected that the society in the story is more like a Stalinist dictatorship… because it’s got torture chambers, prison camps, a news service that broadcasts government propaganda and lots of bureaucrats. Well, the capitalist world has torture chambers, prison camps, utterlysubservientnews and bureaucrats aplenty. (Our leaders are currently trying to lever a torturer into power in Egypt who’s been complicit with them in rendition flights, all in the name of stability.) Indeed, corporations themselves function on bureaucracy, misinformation, propaganda and absolutist pyramidal power structures. They are themselves command economies. Many of them are now bigger, in terms of GDP, that some nation states. And then there’s the fact that Nazi Germany was a capitalist country (albeit one with heavy state involvement). And then we have endless examples of capitalists being more than happy to do lucrative business with brutal, repressive regimes… IBM in Nazi Germany, Murdoch in China, etc.
Neoliberalism uses the state as a way of distributing largesse from the poor and from ordinary working people to the rich and the corporations. That’s our current government’s project. One way of doing this is through taxation. Put very crudely, you raise taxes on the ordinary schmoes and lower them for the rich, or simply fail to collect them. Meanwhile, the government splurges money on protecting the interests of banks and big business, with bail outs from the treasury when they totter, or by selling off the public sector to them at knockdown prices and then continuing to use taxpayer money to prop things up when business ruins them.
This is what has happened in ‘The Sun Makers’. The Company has, effectively, bought out the government… or merged with it to the point where they have become one… though, of course, the Collector reveals their intention to simply leave the humans in the lurch once they’ve made as much profit out of them as they can. They artificial suns will run down without Company maintenance and the humans will die. “We’re all in it togther” in a nutshell. In the meantime, the humans work to provide the Company with surplus. They work in factories and foundries (obviously making stuff, which must then be sold on the intergalactic market) and, if they get sent to the Correction Centre for defying the Company, they end up working for free… a bit like the denizens of America’s system of privatised slave gulags stuffed with the (mostly black) poor.
Of course tax is unfair and places a burden on ‘the little guy’, restricting her or his freedom. But don’t join the Tea Party in protest. The problem is in capitalism itself, particularly now in its neoliberal phase. Regressive taxation is an inherent part of the capitalist state, and the capitalist state is now (more than ever before) being consciously turned into a system for providing the very richest, most powerful, least accountable private tyrannies on Earth with staggering largesse, all at the expense of you and me. And our kids. And our forests and climate and public services. At the expense of the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, the depressed, the women who’ve been raped or are trapped in abusive marriages. At the expense of the drudges, the guys who work their lives away and, in the end, haven’t saved enough to pay for a decent funeral. ‘The Sun Makers’ realises this. Perhaps Holmes was looking at New York City or Chile. Who knows.
I wish more people outside fandom were familiar with this story (why is it one of the few Tom Baker stories still not out on DVD?). It really is, despite its jokiness and shlockiness, quite a powerful diagnosis of where we are and where we’re headed. It’s not “anti-tax”, it’s anti regressive taxation, taxation that leaves the Company untouched while filling its coffers with the fruits of the labour of the many. It’s against the state that stifles individual liberty, not by failing to reward enterprise and initiative, but by forcing people to pay through the nose for the privilege of not starving to death because no corporation will stoop to buying their labour. It’s against a system that can build mini-suns but can’t (or won’t) give working people a decent standard of living. It’s against a system that asks you to “Praise the Company!” as though its a deity or a force of nature. It’s implicitly against Cameron and his band of zealous market fundie class warriors.
The problem with tax is not that it hinders wealth creation by punishing those whose dynamism breeds success. (Is any theory in human history now more discredited than “the trickle down effect”?) The problem with tax is that it constitutes a system of exploitation within a system of exploitation. It nickels and dimes everybody who isn’t vastly wealthy in order to fund states that then feed the rich who sit with their mouths open like baby birds in a nest. And the rich are usually rich in the first place on the profits from industry (i.e. value created by workers) or from speculation with hallucinatory money that exists only in financial markets. You can’t reform that away. Ed Labour, if it gets in, will just be a slightly kinder version of the same thing. Surely, nobody can doubt this… what with Tony Blair still poncing around the globe, spending his blood money and backing New Labour suits like Ed’s brother?
In other words, the way to tackle the outrageous business going on in that Monbiot article is not tut about this bunch in government and try to curb them (though I don’t discourage you from doing so). We need to take a leaf out of Citizen Cordo’s book. Let’s not jump. Let’s have a jelly baby instead. And then lets remember that, as the Doctor says, “human beings always have to fight for their freedom” and we have “only our claims” to lose.