Thursday, June 16, 2011

The taxpayer

One of the advantages of CiF is that in the comments section you get to see the shibboleths of reaction condensed, vocalised, lyricised, even screamed in block capitals and exclamation points. One of the talking points that always come up whenever you discuss public sector workers is "the taxpayer". The sovereign taxpayer. The over-burdened, pushed-beyond-the-point-of-reason taxpayer, to be precise. It goes roughly like this:

You public sector workers always have your hand out. You get better pay than the rest of us, and you have generous gold-plated pensions. When anyone tries to take the slightest of your privileges away, you throw your toys out of the pram and go on strike. But I am not prepared to pay for your perky lifestyle any more. What we can't afford, you can't have. The taxpayer subsidises you to 100%, and the taxpayer isn't going to go on supporting your selfish, I'm-alright-jack lifestyles. A bit of hardship would do you lazy jobsworths some good. Market discipline. Let's see you and your red friends get by like the rest of us, uncoddled by the state and your friends in the meeja-hideen... (etc etc).

You think I'm exaggerating, don't you? Well, the point is how "the taxpayer" is invoked here as a relevant political category. You'll notice that, implicit in this is a suggestion that there are people who aren't taxpayers. But public sector workers pay taxes, not only on their income but on consumption. In fact, there is no one who doesn't pay taxes. The unemployed pay tax. Children pay tax. Prisoners pay tax. Even the homeless pay tax. To speak of "the taxpayer" is in this sense meaningless, since it includes everyone. And self-evidently, not everyone shares the political attitudes expressed by "the taxpayer" above. The question of what "the taxpayer" is willing to pay for is a political question, depending on who the taxpayer is, and what other social categories and classes s/he identifies as. But implicit in this is the idea that the taxpayer is supporting a public sector which is purely parasitic. Public sector workers are "subsidised" by "the taxpayer"; as if, in addition to not paying taxes, they add no value to the economy. "The taxpayer" is thus, by definition, always over-taxed (even if there are quite a few who are under-taxed). The subject-position expressed in this figure of "the taxpayer" is that of a lower middle class trader, shopkeeper or white van man, anxious to hold on to his wad and not pay for anything he isn't getting.

ps: It occurs to me that I've missed the most obvious point here. It's not just the penny-pinching petty bourgeoisie that "the taxpayer" identifies with. The whole point is that you're supposed to think of yourself as the employer in this situation. You're being asked to identify with the bosses.