Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.
As people see their fellow citizens acting in self-defense, these tax-the-rich protests spread to even the most conservative parts of the country. It becomes the most-discussed subject on Twitter. Even right-wing media outlets, sensing a startling effect on the public mood, begin to praise the uprising, and dig up damning facts on the tax dodgers.
Haven’t we been seeing this? And I don’t mean just UK Uncut (#ukuncut on twitter), the subject of this article, but also in Tunisia, Egypt. Places where people stop and say WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN. And then start talking about it among themselves, and then start organizing protests about it. And then start making concrete, focused demands.
We need to do this here. The Tea Party is an absolute joke — it’s the tool of the wealthy to take some steam and pressure off the discontent and focus it where the wealthy would like it to be. Divide and Conquer has a long and ancient history — because it works.
This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?
[…]The new Conservative-led government in Britain is imposing the most extreme cuts to public spending the country has seen since the 1920s. The fees for going to university are set to triple. Children’s hospitals like Great Ormond Street are facing 20 percent cuts in their budgets. In London alone, more than 200,000 people are being forced out of their homes and out of the city as the government takes away their housing subsidies.
Amid all these figures, this group of friends made some startling observations. Here’s one. All the cuts in housing subsidies, driving all those people out of their homes, are part of a package of cuts to the poor, adding up to £7 billion. Yet the magazine Private Eye reported that one company alone—Vodafone, one of Britain’s leading cellphone firms—owed an outstanding bill of £6 billion to the British taxpayers. According to Private Eye, Vodaphone had been refusing to pay for years, claiming that a crucial part of its business ran through a post office box in ultra-low-tax Luxembourg. The last Labour government, for all its many flaws, had insisted it pay up.
I wish I could say that was unusual. But it’s not. I wish I could say that wasn’t happening here. But it is. There’s article after article documenting how corporations are paying absolutely nothing in taxes that they should be. There’s example after example in my state alone where oil companies are exempted from subsidies that they should be paying to the government, the reckless destruction of state workers’ pensions that will “save” nearly nothing, where cuts affect the addition and maintenance of infrastructure necessary for a functioning state — so while the cuts do no good, more are proposed anyway, and the people sink even further into unemployment and the state even further into decay. We know the current deficit is largely due to tax cuts enacted over the last decade — we knew that five years ago. We desperately need to draw the line directly between these tax evaders and our current predicament of tax cuts and economic misery. For some reason in this country we have a huge disconnect between seeing the tax cuts and the consequences of them, between seeing the tax cuts the rich take and the rest of us cannot and drawing attention to the inequality in that. We have to bring that out in the public discourse and stop treating “taxes” like a dirty word.
“What really struck me is that when we explained our reasons, ordinary people walking down Oxford Street were incredibly supportive,” says Alex Miller, a 31-year-old nurse. “People would stop and tell us how they were terrified of losing their homes and their jobs—and when they heard that virtually none of it had to happen if only these massive companies paid their taxes, they were furious. Several people stopped what they were doing, sat down and joined us. I guess it’s at that point that I realized this was going to really take off.”
That first protest grabbed a little media attention—and then the next day, in a different city, three other Vodafone stores were shut down in the northern city of Leeds, by unconnected protests. UK Uncut realized this could be replicated across the country. So the group set up a Twitter account and a website, where members announced there would be a national day of protest the following Saturday. They urged anybody who wanted to organize a protest to e-mail them so it could be added to a Google map. Britain’s most prominent tweeters, such as actor Stephen Fry, joined in.
Everyone else is doing this. We’re behind the curve here, but we have so many similar examples we could point out, start to picket, make a difference. Maybe that’s the problem — there are so many — which do we focus on? But it’s vital that we do so. Time is running out.
UK Uncut organized entirely on Twitter, asking what it should do next and taking votes. There was an embarrassment of potential targets: the National Audit Office found in 2007 that a third of the country’s top 700 corporations paid no tax at all. UK Uncut decided to expose and protest one of the most egregious alleged tax dodgers: Sir Philip Green. He is the ninth-richest man in the country, running some of the leading High Street chain stores, including Topshop, Miss Selfridge and British Home Stores. Although he lives and works in Britain, and his companies all operate on British streets, he avoids British taxes by claiming his income is “really” earned by his wife, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco. In 2005 the BBC calculated that he earned £1.2 billion and paid nothing in taxes—dodging more than £300 million in taxes.
This is exactly what the super and hyper rich do across the world — hide in tax shelters, shuffle their money around, claim that it comes from here or there but not where it might be taxed, and thus escape taxes altogether. How many of us get to play these kind of shell games? Only the super rich can afford the lawyers to do it right and evade the law and the audit procedures of their countries. The story remains the same regardless of the country: the wealthy have the resources to evade taxes — and become even wealthier.
The UK Uncut message was simple: if you want to sell in our country, you pay our taxes. They are the membership fee for a civilized society. Most of the protesters I spoke with had never attended a demonstration before, but were driven to act by the rising unemployment, insecurity and austerity that are being outpaced only by rising rewards for the superrich.
Taxes are the membership fees for a civilized society.
At every protest, a clear and direct line was drawn from tax avoidance to real people’s lives. If they pay their bill, you won’t be forced out of your home. If they pay their bill, your grandmother won’t lose her government support. If they pay their bill, our children’s hospitals won’t be slashed.
The protests began to influence the political debate. Public opinion had already been firmly for pursuing tax dodgers, with 77 percent telling YouGov pollsters there should be a crackdown. But by dramatizing and demonstrating this mood, the protesters forced it onto the agenda—and stripped away Cameron’s claims that there was no alternative to his cuts.
Change the debate. Change it from “how can we implement more and more cuts” to “why is there no money.” Focus the attention on who isn’t doing their share.
The only part of the media that attacked UK Uncut outright was, predictably, Rupert Murdoch’s empire. This isn’t surprising given that his company, News International, is one of the world’s most egregious tax dodgers, contributing almost nothing to the US or UK treasuries.
And here’s an extremely important point, one I’ve made for years. Everytime someone has said to me, “But we’ll drive business away,” I’ve said: “THEY ARE ALREADY GONE.” They have already dodged their taxes. They have already outsourced their labor. They have already shuffled all the pieces out of this country. What the hell else are they going to take out? And here we go:
The tax-evasion defenders also tried to argue that a crackdown would “drive away” corporations, to the detriment of the nation. But the corporations are already, for all intents and purposes, “away.” They pay nothing to Britain. They have relocated everything they can. They can’t, however, physically relocate their British shops to Bangalore. It’s impossible. That remnant can certainly be taxed. What are they going to do?
And here’s a very important point, back to the issue of taxes being membership fees for a civilized society:
After the empirical argument collapsed, a few on the right tried to shift the argument to a moral one. They said that Green “earns all his money on his own,” so why should he have to pay any of it back to the rest of us? I responded on TV and in a blog post by suggesting a small experiment. Let’s take one branch of Topshop, and for twelve months we’ll deny any services funded by collective taxation to that store. When the rubbish piles up, we won’t send garbage men to collect it. When the rat outbreak begins, we won’t send pest control. When they catch a shoplifter, we won’t send the police. When there’s a fire, we won’t send the fire brigade. When suppliers want to get their goods to the store, there may be a problem: we won’t maintain the roads. When the employees get sick, we won’t treat them in the publicly funded hospitals. Then let Philip Green come back and tell us he does it all himself.
Do we want to live in such a world? Even the superrich? No trash pickup, no police, no firefighters, no road infrastructure? We’re hurtling toward it, here in the U.S., with the relentless cuts in infrastructure spending, in social safety nets, in basic city maintenance, in reducing and furloughing state and federal workers. There’s a finite limit to these cuts, and at the end of it, we will have nothing — not a world anyone would want to live in.
One thing that fascinates me about these UK Uncut protests is the current character they have, due to the way the Internet fosters and allows communication. No, the UK Uncut is not a “twitter revolution.” The real point is that the way people think about communication, the way people now communicate, has changed. The way individuals can immediately and accurately connect to thousands of other people, the way individuals can broadcast — themselves, without an intermediary such as the apparatus required for TV or radio broadcast — to a large number of other people with the same concerns and interests. That has changed. And changes in communication structure will naturally result in organizational changes.
There has been an obsessive hunt by the media to discover who UK Uncut “really are.” They assume there must be secretive leaders pulling the strings somewhere. But the more I dug into the movement, the more I realized this is a misunderstanding. The old protest movements were modeled like businesses, with a CEO and a managing board. This protest movement, however, is shaped like a hive of bees, or like Twitter itself. There is no center. There is no leadership. There is just a shared determination not to be bilked, connected by tweets.
This is democracy. This is real democracy, with people participating directly in the discourse and making decisions. This is the sort of thing that mainstream, established governments would do well to learn to work with, to adapt to these changing times of transparency and information. Because this is political wikileaks. This is a world where everyone can be an activist, where everyone can organize protests, and no one person can be singled out. This article recognizes that:
Think of it as an open-source protest, or wikiprotest. It uses Twitter as the basic software, but anyone can then mold the protest. The Western left has been proud of its use of social media and blogging, but all too often this hasn’t amounted to much more than clicktivism. By contrast, these protesters have tried at every turn to create a picture of George Osborne, Cameron’s finance minister, sitting in his office, about to sign off on another big tax break for a rich person, paid for by cuts to the rest of us. Is a big Facebook group going to stop him? No. Is an angry buzz on the blogosphere going to stop him? No. But what these protesters have done—putting all the online energy into the streets and straight into the national conversation—just might.
Taxes are not sacred. They are the membership fees for a civilized society.
I think it’s very important to understand how the right has reframed the questions (see How a lie enters the political bloodstream and Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press), especially over the last twenty years, if we’re going to sit down and challenge these. The crucial advantage we have at this point — if we seize and use it now — is that these spheres of consensus, controversy and deviance are no longer under the exclusive definition of those in mainstream media (or more critically with the money to control the media, a la Murdoch) precisely because of where the Internet now places all of us in the context of public discourse.
The right has been masterful in manipulating these spheres over the last few decades, dragging things that were once in consensus out into legitimate debate (torture is unacceptable), dragging things that were once legitimate debate into consensus (raising taxes is bad), and — perhaps most importantly — preventing things from entering consensus (cigarettes are harmful; climate change is happening). What conservatives have realized is that you shift things between spheres not with clever arguments but with social pressure. They repeat simple messages, loudly and through multiple media, and lean hard on those who question them (“playing the refs”). If they need to get a lie pushed into the sphere of legitimate debate, they relentlessly repeat the lie and accuse anyone who identifies it as such as “biased.” This plays out on a large scale and over the long term — arguments about the proper role of government shift around, for example — but also in dozens of mundane, day-to-day episodes.
Social pressure. All together, now. What have we got? Social media. We can break into this. If we dare. If we summon up the energy and outrage. If we want something better than this.