Special thanks to Mac Liman, who really pushed my thinking on this and also was a superb and frequent editor.
One of the first questions we always get asked on the tax team is: why should we fight for higher taxes to go into government funding when the US government is so terrible?
After being introduced to left politics through the largest protests against war and empire in the world’s history, and years of fighting against imprisonment and policing alongside people who have been deeply impacted by that violence, I will not feign to tell you that the government is never our enemy. But I wanted to take a minute to write about what it means to sit in a particular political tension: knowing that the US government has and continues to do a tremendous amount of harm, and believing that we still need to fight like hell for the parts of it that redistribute wealth and strengthen our ability to build up resilient and resistant community.
So I want to ask myself – and the rest of us – a different question. A question more like: How can we move from an understanding that government is bad and we shouldn’t fund it, into an understanding that the parts of the government that are designed to hurt people are bad, and parts of the government that are designed to support people are deeply flawed, but can help us build power toward the world we want?
Those of us who are under 35 grew up in the wake of the violent government crackdown on the Left, where the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), which sought to disrupt, divide, and repress liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, cleared the way for the rise of the Right by harassing, traumatizing, locking up and assassinating a generation of progressive and revolutionary grassroots leaders.
In our own lifetimes, we witnessed the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars, a prison population that topped 2.3 million, and an increased focus on policing, surveillance and detention of communities of color both at home and abroad. We were born into a time when both the Right and Left wing proclaimed that government is the enemy of the people and our freedom, and we continue to have plentiful evidence to believe it.
But what happens when we take a closer look?
From the Right, we were told all government (and therefore all taxes) were bad by the people who were actually working to make rich people richer, build up all of the militarized parts of the government–the parts that make war both domestically and internationally–and suck the life out of the programs, services and infrastructure that actually help us build stronger, healthier communities.
In short, this was the ideology of neoliberalism, a political and economic doctrine and practice that began in the early 1970s and successfully sought to reduce, end, or block regulation of business (like environmental and consumer protections, or trade barriers); to reduce taxes on the rich; to dramatically shrink and/or privatize public social programs and services; and to increase criminalization, state repression and militarization.
Fundamentally, this political project has made it harder for poor and working people globally to survive capitalism. The Right’s “all-government-is-bad” rhetoric, and the resulting decrease in government revenue from tax cuts on the wealthy didn’t get us any less war, prisons, or cops. In fact, it got us more of those things. It also got us shittier roads and bridges, fewer library hours, larger class sizes with fewer books, less healthcare and affordable housing, more personal debt, less living wage jobs, more environmental destruction, and the highest level of wealth inequality the world has ever seen. Internationally, this looked like structural adjustment programs and austerity budgets that led to massive displacement of people from their home countries in the Global South because they can no longer survive economically, and an accompanying militarization of borders, increasing immigrant detention, and rising white nationalism in the US and Europe.
From the Left, the critique of government was more complicated as communities of color and poor communities were simultaneously abandoned by the beneficial parts of government and oppressed by the harmful parts. Many sought to build alternative institutions that could provide for people’s real needs while building community strength, knowing they would be limited in their size and scope. Others continued to fight to stop cuts to and/or expand social programs and services that could serve as a baseline for survival to give them a stronger base to fight from, knowing that having basic needs for housing, income, food, and healthcare met helps people participate more easily in organizing for structural change.
During this period of social program cutbacks, we also saw the rise of what many now call the non-profit industrial complex: a shift in focus from building grassroots power by organizing for systemic change into scrambling to fill the enormous gaps in people’s basic needs by hiring “professionals” to provide depoliticized services.
This is part of why I deeply believe that raising taxes on the rich provides us way more political possibilities than we have now. If the government were providing for more of our needs, more people could focus their energy on organizing. Less people would be afraid to take risks because of tremendous personal debt. We could shift away from being on the defensive.
Many Resource Generation members would rather redistribute their personal resources to organizations that are building power in poor and working class communities and communities of color than have it redistributed for the government. I fully support that. And I’d like to encourage us, as a community to think about giving away enough money away that we wouldn’t be eligible for taxes on the rich! Give it to the organizations that foundations won’t fund. Give it to the organizations that are fighting against those repressive forces of the state both at home and abroad, or fighting for a much larger portion of our government spending to go into meeting real human needs. Give it to grassroots organizing.
AND, while we are doing that, fight for taxes on the rest of rich people, most of whom have no interest in redistributing their wealth. I think taxes are the only way we have right now to enact wealth redistribution to scale, and to do it in a way that is not just based on the whims, good intentions, or guilt of rich people. I think we need to fight for mandatory wealth redistribution through taxes, and redistribute power so rich people aren’t the only ones deciding where money goes.
Because while spending cuts decimated already underfunded social programs and jobs, many of us with the most privilege, Left and Right, were taught to simply hold on to our own money and opt out of the public good. We have been taught to take public programs, services, and infrastructure for granted because our families can afford quality private healthcare, private education, private childcare, private housing, and private transportation. We can afford to live far away from neighborhoods that have the highest levels of environmental pollution, or the fewest options for healthy food. But we still use public services and infrastructure, and we still have a disproportionate influence on government as the role of money, lobbying and social connections remain powerful voices in politics.
When I think about what our government money currently goes toward and how to change that, I also think about how most of the money that rich people hold is benefitting death and destruction while it “sits” in private bank accounts and investments. It’s invested in all of the companies that are profiting from resource extraction, pollution of poor communities and communities of color, war, prisons, policing, surveillance, immigration detention, and extreme exploitation of the global workforce. And we don’t get to really make demands on that because by nature, corporations are primarily motivated by making profit.
If the money is transferred into the public domain, some of it will still go to those practices, and some of it will go to things we actually want. The point is, we get to join the fight about where it goes. We get to put demands on our government and help build power to realize them. We get fight for actual democratic government. We get to help make it so that the communities leading struggles for better and bigger social programs, working toward universal healthcare, universal housing, universal education, and a planet and economy we can all thrive in aren’t encouraged to fight each other for crumbs.
And if we are successful, we also get to stop worrying about how much of our wealth is enough to survive, because we can trust that our own and our family members’ health needs will be met, that we will age with support and care, that we and everyone else will be able to afford well-maintained housing and food that doesn’t poison us. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
What do you think? What does it mean for us to sit in this tension together: that the parts of the government that are designed to hurt people do a lot of harm, and the parts of the government that are designed to support people are deeply flawed, but can help us build power toward the world we want? What should it look like to let that tension propel our work forward, rather than get paralyzed by it?
Great piece Lev. thank you for laying it out in all its historically contingent contradictions and compelling us to think harder about what the government is and how tax justice fits within it. And the continual challenge is how to build movements that grow the power of evermore people so we have the confidence that winning one thing is a step to the next.
Your post reminded me of these lines by the great working-class historian E.P. Thompson: “We must, at every point, see both —the surge forward and the containment, the public sector and its subordination to the private, the strength of trade unions and their parasitism upon capitalist growth, the welfare services and their poor relation status. The countervailing powers are there, and the equilibrium (which is an equilibrium within capitalism) is precarious. It could be tipped back towards authoritarianism. But it could also be heaved forward, by popular pressures of great intensity, to the point where the powers of democracy cease to be countervailing and become the active dynamic of society in their own right.” (New Left Review, 1960)
Many thanks for this thoughtful piece on the contradiction between advocating for increased taxes on the wealthy and the reality of a government that would likely spend the additional revenue in ways that are largely harmful to most people and the planet. Acknowledging the complexity of this contradiction — rather than burying it as so many advocates for progressive taxation do — is a critical step in building an accurate narrative about how and for whom our economic and political structures and processes work. I will do my part in encouraging the folks in the fight for tax justice with whom we work to read and discuss this piece.
One small critical comment: the author says “I think taxes are the only way we have right now to enact wealth redistribution to scale, and to do it in a way that is not just based on the whims, good intentions, or guilt of rich people.” Spending decisions are another way to enact wealth distribution to scale. For many decades, folks in various peace movements have advocated for substantial cuts in military spending. In Massachusetts, where I live, voters in 91 cities and towns overwhelmingly (by a 3:1 margin) supported a ballot initiative called Budget for All. A key part of this resolution was to “redirect military spending to these domestic needs by reducing the military budget, ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing U.S. troops home safely now.” Shifting existing revenue away from enriching the military industrial complex and instead building infrastructure (schools, public transportation, affordable housing, renewable energy production, etc.) is less direct but just as effective in redistributing wealth equitably.