Radical Honesty to Boost a Tax Resistance Campaign

This may seem a little out-there, but I’d like you to consider radical honesty as a tactic with potential to augment a tax resistance campaign.

Radical honesty at its most extreme means abjuring subterfuge — conducting your campaign in the open, in plain sight, without trying to take your opponent by surprise through trickery, and without trying to influence people by “spin” and lopsided propaganda. But it also means studiously refusing to participate in the dishonesty by which your opponent holds on to power and deceives those who give in to it.

Radical honesty has several potential advantages:

  1. It provides a stark moral contrast between your campaign and whatever institution you are opposing.

    In The Story of Bardoli, Mahadev Desai described how this played out in the Bardoli tax strike:

    …a regular propaganda of mendacity was resorted to [by the Government]. The Government’s way and the people’s way presented a striking study in contrasts. On one side there were secrecy, underhand dealings, falsehood, even sharp practice; on the other there were straight and manly speech, and straight action in broad daylight.

    This contrast can make your campaign more appealing to potential resisters and to by-standers, and can increase the morale of the resisters in your campaign.
  2. Tyranny thrives on mutual dishonesty, and honesty threatens it.

    The way people signal their loyalty to the tyrant is to participate in the lie. When everybody around you is participating in the lie, it feels like everyone is loyal to the tyrant. Vaclav Havel wrote of this:

    Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

    But people may start to refuse:

    Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.

    Tolstoy went even further, and claimed that radical honesty was itself enough to topple governments:

    No feats of heroism are needed to achieve the greatest and most important changes in the existence of humanity; neither the armament of millions of soldiers, nor the construction of new roads and machines, nor the arrangement of exhibitions, nor the organization of workmen’s unions, nor revolutions, not barricades, nor explosions, nor the perfection of aërial navigation; but a change in public opinion.

    And to accomplish this change no exertions of the mind are needed, nor the refutation of anything in existence, nor the invention of any extraordinary novelty; it is only needful that we should not succumb to the erroneous, already defunct, public opinion of the past, which governments have induced artificially; it is only needful that each individual should say what he really feels or thinks, or at least that he should not say what he does not think.

    And if only a small body of the people were to do so at once, of their own accord, outworn public opinion would fall off us of itself, and a new, living, real opinion would assert itself. And when public opinion should thus have changed without the slightest effort, the internal condition of men’s lives which so torments them would change likewise of its own accord.

    One is ashamed to say how little is needed for all men to be delivered from those calamities which now oppress them; it is only needful not to lie.

  3. Honesty keeps the campaign on the straight-and-narrow.

    In a tax resistance campaign, as in any activist campaign, there are frequently temptations to take short-cuts. Rather than winning a victory after a tough and uncertain struggle, you can declare victory early and hope to capitalize on the morale boost. Rather than doing something practical that takes a lot of thankless hours, you can do something quick and symbolic that “makes a powerful statement.” Rather than fighting for goals that are worth achieving, you can choose goals that are more achievable. Radical honesty gets you in the habit of avoiding temptations like these.
  4. Honesty is itself a good thing worth contributing to.

    If you conduct your campaign in a radically honest way, you contribute to a cultural atmosphere of trust and straightforward communication. In this way, even if you do not succeed in the other goals of your tax resistance campaign, you still may have some residual positive effect.
  5. Honesty means there’s a lot of things you no longer have to worry about.

    For instance, you don’t have to keep your stories straight, you don’t have to worry about leaks of information that might cast doubt on your credibility, you don’t have to be so concerned with information security, and you don’t have to worry about spies and informers in your midst who might blab your secrets to the authorities. This leaves you free to spend your energy and attention playing offense instead of defense.

Tolstoy’s quotes come from his essay Patriotism and Christianity, and Vaclav Havel’s from The Power of the Powerless. Another good essay on this theme is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Not To Live By Falsehood.

I recently read Claire Wolfe’s new book: Rats! Your guide to protecting yourself against snitches, informers, informants, agents provocateurs, narcs, finks, and similar vermin. In it, she gives some advice that she’s gleaned from her research and from an army of helpful and knowledgeable people — ranging from former law enforcement to attorneys to defendants and interrogatees.

I think it makes for good food for thought, and some of the advice would be very useful to people who haven’t already been hammered with it (e.g. if arrested in the U.S., you do have the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present during questioning, and you’d be a fool not to insist on taking advantage of both of those rights). But I also found the book to be disappointing in being often a collection of on-the-one-hand / on-the-other-hand stories. This, I think, is not so much a weakness of the book as a reflection on the difficulty of the subject matter — there is no silver bullet here.

The closest thing to a silver bullet is one that Wolfe never mentions — the radical honesty I wrote about above. A movement like Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign in India defused the danger of snitches and narcs by conducting all of its lawbreaking and conspiring in the open: they would announce “I am going to be breaking such-and-such a law on such-and-such a date in such-and-such a place.” Snitches and narcs had nothing particularly meaty to rat them out about that they weren’t already shouting from the rooftops. (Of course they might still be vulnerable to agents provocateurs, or to people trying to analyze their communications networks in order to disrupt them, or people trying to sow discord, or people hoping to turn key movement members by means of blackmail, or any number of other harmful infiltration strategies — so this, too, is no silver bullet.)

After Gandhi learned about some infiltration by government agents in Indian independence work, he wrote:

This desire for secrecy has bred cowardice amongst us and has made us dissemble our speech. The best and the quickest way of getting rid of this corroding and degrading Secret Service is for us to make a final effort to think everything aloud, have no privileged conversation with any soul on earth and to cease to fear the spy. We must ignore his presence and treat everyone as a friend entitled to know all our thoughts and plans. I know that I have achieved most satisfactory results from evolving the boldest of my plans in broad daylight. I have never lost a minute’s peace for having detectives by my side. The public may not know that I have been shadowed throughout my stay in India. That has not only not worried me but I have even taken friendly services from these gentlemen: many have apologized for having to shadow me. As a rule, what I have spoken in their presence has already been published to the world. The result is that now I do not even notice the presence of these men and I do not know that the Government is much the wiser for having watched my movements through its secret agency.

Such an approach might not work for all varieties of campaigns and actions, but I think for many of them, it might be worth asking “what would we do even if we knew the authorities were watching us and one of us was an informer” rather than guessing “what should we do, since we hope the authorities aren’t watching us and none of us is an informer.” The alternative, of always looking over your shoulder and suspecting everyone you work with, as Wolfe’s book sometimes seems to recommend, seems more a recipe for paralysis.