Pablo San José Defends Tax Resistance from Ricardo Rodríguez’s Critique

, I reported on the Tax Policy Center’s estimates of how many people would be federal income-tax free in the coming years. Yesterday, they released some revised numbers, based, I suppose, on new economic forecasts and refinements to the administration’s budget proposals.

As you can see, the estimate of the percentage of households paying no income tax has jumped quite a bit, particularly for this year. Also it looks as though they are projecting that Obama’s budget will lower this percentage less dramatically than in their earlier estimates:

Tax Units with Zero or Negative Individual Income Tax
Legal Regime
Current Law43.4%
Administration Baseline43.4%
Administration Budget Proposal43.4%

, I shared Ricardo Rodríguez’s critique of tax resistance from Rebelión. Also , Rebelión published a rejoinder from Pablo San José of “Turtle Antimilitarist Group” (translation mine):

In defense of War Tax Resistance

I have read, with some surprise, an article published on the Rebelión website and signed by Ricardo Rodríguez — Critique of Tax Resistance.

In said paper is found a broad (but intended to be detailed) and harsh critique of this political tactic. It is not the first time that people — a priori, and not based on our ideas and practices — have made such fratricidal criticisms, and coincidentally a little conveniently at the time of year during which the campaign is made, and of course Ricardo Rodríguez is not the first person to raise these same arguments.

Although Rodríguez says there exist different ways to do “tax resistance,” as one who has spent years working on this within the Antimilitarist Movement, I will try to defend the particular form which we call “war tax resistance” by responding to the criticisms made.

I will try to summarize in five points the principal criticisms that emerge from Rodríguez’s long paper:

  1. Tax Resistance is elitist and reactionary, inasmuch as it is proposed in one of two formulas: a taxpayer redirects a particular percentage of his taxes, such that one who has more money has “freed himself from paying the Treasury more money,” “the right to object increases in proportion to the wealth of the taxpayer.” That, he indicates, is a “strange notion of economic justice to be promoted by groups on the left.” On the other hand, the most precarious citizens who are not obligated to file, or whose tax return results in “a refund,” etc. become unable to effectively practice it. “Employers, but not the employees” may object, which makes it a privilege and an absurdity insomuch as these elites are not going to be particularly interested in disarmament or in other social improvements.
  2. The redirection of money that is to be done via Tax Resistance does not work toward the pursued goal. The state will not apply this reduction in revenue to the ends proposed by the resisters, but to whatever it finds convenient. And in the present context, this will be most likely to rebound negatively on expenses for social security and not on those for the military, banks, etc. In fact, we could be contributing to worsening conditions of the least advantaged sectors of society.
  3. Following the previous argument is put forward as a possible response that “still, in any case the money will overflow to social necessities, since it is to this type of destination that the resisters redirect,” and he shoots this down with the argument that such a thing represents “a transfer of resources from free, public, universal services to private entities,” to “a private safety net,” to “the charity of good Samaritans” who usurp the right that we have to receive such benefit from the “powers that be.”
  4. The supposed symbolic function of Tax Resistance to serve as a tool to transform consciences is stopped in its tracks. The results of the campaign speak for themselves. Moreover, the campaign is only known thanks to the efforts of its own promoters. The letters sent to the Tax Agency managers, he affirms, are completely lacking in political significance.
  5. The campaign generates an ideology with neoliberal resonance: it proposes that the payment of taxes can be something decided by individuals and not by the collective “necessity” determined by the “state” or by some type of authority that looks out for the common interest. Such a thing is very dangerous as from it could derive the right of each individual to oppose contributing to whatever he is not in agreement with, putting the question of financial contributions to the common good on a somewhat objectively slippery slope (do we accept the right of pro-lifers to object to health spending, or Emilio Botín to social policies?).

I would very much like to talk about the base assumptions underlying these questions in the article from Ricardo Rodríguez, such as the nervousness that freedom understood as an individual right appears to produce in him, his faith — that I deduce from reading between the lines — in the “democratic centralism in the Leninist style” as a model of organizing collective decision-making, his commitment to state institutions as the supreme guarantee of the public good and the ultimate manager of of the rights that they permit, or his antagonism to “Conscientious Objection,” which he ends up fancying as reducing to a species of individual moral scruple, ignoring or wanting to ignore everything about the political, public, and transformative dimensions. However I will not enlarge unnecessarily on this already very extensive response, and I will limit myself to commenting on the arguments related to the topic under debate.

From reading Rodríguez’s text it can be deduced that he does not speak from hearsay and possesses plenty of knowledge with respect to the mechanics of Tax Resistance and of the aspirations pursued by the entities that promote it. However there are evidently also important lacunæ and deficits of focus.

War Tax Resistance, which is the concrete example to which I will refer, is not an end in itself, nor does it intend to detract from antimilitarist work (much less the anti-imperialism of which Rodríguez speaks), nor do those who promote it proclaim it to be the definitive or unimprovable tool.

In fact most of the groups that promote it emerged from and participate in the larger antimilitarist/pacifist movement, working for decades simultaneously on other types of work such as what was, back in the day, Draft Resistance, promotion of a curriculum for peace education, direct action against military installations, counter-propaganda, etc., etc. In reality, it is not even a campaign in and of itself, but is part of the larger work we call “Campaign against Military Spending” and which includes more time, resources, and actions each year.

The immediate and realistic object of this proposal is not to overthrow the military by means of the method of depriving it of financial resources. Rodríguez should not imagine us to be so naïve. We would like that such a thing could be, but for now it suits us to avail ourselves of this gesture — that, as noted, is more symbolic than effective today — in order to amplify our protest, that is against military spending, but also against the institution that is dedicated to this spending, and to its use at the service of certain interests that in the final analysis are those of the capitalist economic system. Yes, Rodríguez, with this work, to your eyes elitist, reactionary, neoliberal, and — why not say it? — counterrevolutionary, “politically infantile” and petit-bourgeois, we try, just like you, to combat and transform the capitalist system.

War Tax Resistance helps very many people every year — fewer than we would like but more than what would be if we were not to put forth the effort — become aware of the fact of the matter of militarism in this society and to learn concrete data concerning its importance and omnipresence, its causes and consequences… and in particular data about the way the public treasury dedicates money to these purposes and not to others.

Rodríguez says (point 1) that tax resistance is elitist and reactionary: “with the most spending power, more money can be diverted…” That is one way of looking at it, but you must know that the how-much-money question is the least important in the campaign. The truth is that we hardly pay attention to the amount of money that is redirected each year. What interests us is the number of resisters. We are just as happy if they have redirected a percentage of their tax, or the particular amount of 84 euros, or half a euro, or… a resistance of three thousand euros (which there is) has no more political value than one of ten cents. Besides being mistaken on this question, it is possible to perform War Tax Resistance, and so we recommend, when your tax return results in a refund, when your tax is zero, or when one does not legally need to file. It is not true that poor and unemployed people cannot participate, in fact they do participate according to most resisters. On the contrary, and as is natural, there isn’t much participation from “the elites.”

With respect to the second argument (point 2), that the state will subtract the money that it fails to collect from the budget for social purposes, it is but the subjective presumption of Rodríguez. In any case, people who make this gesture add force to their communication so that the politicians and the rest of society will be conscious of our desire that this money not be financing armies, armaments, and wars. If such a demand is ignored, the responsibility clearly has to be imputed to those who disobey the popular mandate and not to us, as Rodríguez aims to accuse. And effectively — and this is a question of political strategy — the bureaucracies in service to the System may, as is often the case in other times and areas, ignore the citizens’ desires and demands and act illegitimately, but everything has its limit. I am convinced that in this case the limit is quantitative. If resisters represent a small percentage of the population, they may amount to nothing, but at the moment when they present a significant figure, it will not be so easy to deal with them.

The approaches that I have outlined in point 3 look to me a bit out of place as they seem to reflect a very particular political ideology. There is no time to waste in questioning here the faith of eurocommunists and some Leninist groups in the “Welfare State” and in the “State as guarantor of services, rights, and liberties,” and diametrically opposite, in a Manichean way, is all that is not “State,” conceived of as “privatization, Samaritanism” and other such monsters. It is a point of view that seems to me tendentious and reductionist. To compare solidarity organizations that receive money from War Tax Resistance with capitalist enterprises in search of profits and without social utility, I believe is totally excessive, and to proclaim that such social assistance provided by the state will be better than any alternative, seems the same.

In fourth place, according to my summary, Rodríguez questions the extent of Tax Resistance. Here I must submit to reason. Certainly it is only the efforts of the promoting groups that gives part of society access to the political message that is hoped to transmit. Unfortunately, the mass media tend to ignore the campaign, with some honorable exceptions. Indeed, Rodríguez proposes alternative actions such as gathering before the tax agency doors at the beginning of tax season, actions for that matter — as he acknowledges — we are accustomed to do. Perhaps it is our responsibility that the work of War Tax Resistance has a limited scope. But even if it is a solid argument against it, I don’t believe that this alone can dismiss it. There are struggles that last a long time in bearing fruit; and while they go on with no significant results they come to affect the way many people see things, and, in this case, as I say all the time, this is no more than a part of a larger work, it’s complementary. However, as things are, and to look at it from another point of view: what revolutionary political struggle today is making an end of the System? That would not lead us to come to the conclusion that none of those existing have validity and sense.

Finally, the fifth point of the summary brings us to a disquisition of an ethico-political sort. The principal determinant of the actions of each of us is what: individual conscience or collective agreement? Rodríguez sticks with the second; me with the first. And in fact I believe that the collective agreements must be fabricated, and then applied, by means of the free consent of personal choice and not some type of victory of majorities over minorities. Because being the majority is not synonymous with being right, and because our individual conscience — this concept that appears to have so little credit with Rodríguez — is that which makes us people and not pieces of machinery. Neither do we agree in the value we give to the institution of the State as administrator and arbitrator of rights. That’s why he didn’t issue, for my part, enough skepticism at this time about the possibility of people of different ideologies refusing to pay taxes. In the transformative and revolutionary horizon, which unfortunately for now we are far from as Rodríguez points out, until a society without the State, without accumulation of power or of wealth, in which people can be really free and interact with dignity and justice, it is reasonable to neglect to pay part of or all of the taxes to the actual administration, as it is reasonable not to have a big problem with other people, the way things are, doing the same.

I should not neglect to refer to a couple of inaccuracies in Rodríguez’s text, to wit:

It is to be expected that the Tax Agency will issue its own return and charge us for what we failed to pay. For this eventuality, the promoters of resistance ask us to comfort ourselves until the end with the idea of converting each such letter into a new opportunity to protest

Though Rodríguez appears to not be familiar with it, some years back the opposite was recommended. This is a symbolic political gesture that works in the face of the arousal of the society, it is not masochism or an act of martyrdom. This path of appeal is only recommended with certain conditions, and if it will be used effectively as a means of protest to amplify the denunciation of military spending, knowing full well that the appeal may not technically succeed in a legal sense, except for those relating to fines.

And if once discovered but not charged, this is likely because the debt is so low that the administrative procedures to force payment would cost more, or because, given the growing scarcity of personnel, the Tax Agency offices are concentrating on larger debts.

This argument only applies with respect to tax returns with tax owed, but in the many in which the result is a refund and the Treasury refunds what it has to, then is refunding more via the WTR, how do you explain that?

Finally I strongly call attention to the suggestions that Rodríguez made with his possible alternatives (that are no improvements) to Tax Resistance.

  • On the one hand, he calls out for tax resistance to indirect taxes (the VAT, etc.) in place of the “very revolutionary” — according to Marx and Engels — progressive taxes like the income tax. Indirect taxes, according to Rosa Luxemburg, increase the capability to finance militarism.
  • Also, inconsistent with the previous in my view, he proposes to refuse paying direct taxes in certain cases that he judges to be more legitimate. For example, he cites the refusal of some Americans to pay taxes on such grounds during the Vietnam War. Such a gesture is considered by Rodríguez as “true civil disobedience” while that of War Tax Resistance is entitled “denouncing imperalism and the massive crimes of the system and then merely being satisfied with pilfering small change from the purse.”
  • Finally, a sort of uprising called anti-bank actions à la Enric Durán, represents something like the true way to proceed.

In conclusion:

This criticism doesn’t seem to me very pleasing, and less at this particular time of the year. If Ricardo Rodríguez is a revolutionary activist so conscious of the necessity of overthrowing the capitalist system, why don’t present realities occur to him as more worthy of criticism and denunciation than this? Even assuming he were right in all or in part of his critiques, could War Tax Resistance really present an obstacle so capital as to warrant such an onslaught? And along with the questions, does Ricardo Rodríguez wander so lazily in his revolutionary work that he does not have another thing to aim against than those who, with methods more or less far from his, work for a similar objective?

One is to believe that Ricardo Rodríguez is an active member of one or various revolutionary collectives and that they take themselves seriously at this — than many people promoting War Tax Resistance and who back in the day performed Draft Resistance — in the front of the struggle that he considers more useful and practical. However the current reality, that there are not many struggles going on that appear to be seriously undermining the System, must give us a certain humility and a certain consideration for the work of others. Because it does not seem that the Leninist parties in their various guises are anywhere near the point of winning elections, nor does it appear that any massive anti-bank movement is at the point of achieving a financial collapse.

But, because we believe in humanity and have hope, we continue forward.

In any case, thanks also for the chance to reflect, assess, and take stock of what is involved in this public critique.