How to Build a Progressive Tea Party
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.
Polly Toynbee is one of Britain’s most influential columnists: imagine Maureen Dowd with principles instead of snark. Toynbee attended the London protests and was manhandled out of Topshop by security guards. She reported later that the protests were being watched very nervously on Downing Street. “It is no coincidence that the government immediately hurried out a ‘clampdown’ on tax avoidance, collecting £2 billion,” she tells me, “or that [its coalition partners] the Liberal Democrats suddenly remembered this was one of their big commitments. Of course, that sum is only a drop in the ocean. But this really was a jolt to the political system. It was hugely important.”
But perhaps the most striking response was from the right. One of Britain’s most famous businessmen, Duncan Bannatyne, came out in support of the protests, declaring, “We need to rebel against tax dodgers…as Government won’t.” The Financial Times conceded that “the protesters have a point” but then grumbled about them. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail, Britain’s most right-wing newspaper, became one of the movement’s most sympathetic allies. The editors could see that their Middle England readers were outraged to be paying more taxes than the superrich. So they ran their own exposé on Philip Green’s tax affairs, along with straightforward and detailed reporting of the protests.
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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. His tabloid the Sun accused UK Uncut of being a “group of up to 30,000 anarchists” scheming “to bring misery to millions of Christmas shoppers,” with plans to “set off stink bombs, leave mouldy cheese in clothes and rack up huge sales at tills and then refuse to pay.” After one of the people named in the article reported the Sun to the Press Complaints Commission, the newspaper was forced to retract the article by removing it from its website.
But these smear jobs were the best the right could muster. Conservatives ran into hiding, with almost nobody prepared to defend tax avoiders. Only a few stray voices emerged: ultraconservative blogger Tim Montgomerie, regarded as highly influential with Cameron; and Labour MP Tom Harris, our equivalent of a Blue Dog Democrat. They argued that tax avoidance is legal and therefore fine. The protesters responded that they were obviously arguing for a change in the law.
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?
Besides, the right’s claim that enforcing fair taxes drives away the rich was recently tested—and proved wrong. Toward the end of the last Labour government, officials increased the top tax rate to 50 percent. (This is still far short of the 90 percent levied on US taxpayers by President Eisenhower, during the biggest boom in American history.) Conservatives predicted disaster: London Mayor Boris Johnson said it would reduce the city to a ghost town as bankers fled to Switzerland. Yet after the taxes rose, the number of rich people applying for visas to leave Britain for Switzerland actually fell by 7 percent.
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.
The last argument of the defenders has been to say it’s impossible to do anything about tax havens, so we’ll just have to accept them. But this is false. After the 9/11 attacks, the world—under US pressure—passed virtually universal laws to freeze Al Qaeda–related accounts and so prevent them from stashing or accessing money from tax havens. Where there is political will, they can be brought to heel rapidly. In the early 1960s Monaco was refusing to hand over details of French tax dodgers to the French authorities. President Charles de Gaulle surrounded the country with tanks and cut off its water supply until it relented. On a more prosaic level, many countries have integrated into their law something called a General Anti-Avoidance Principle, which stipulates that any act contrary to the spirit of the nation’s tax laws is illegal. It slams shut most loopholes overnight.
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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. Every decision made by UK Uncut is open and driven by the will of its participants. Alongside many people who had never protested, activists from across the spectrum have poured into the movement, from the students occupying their universities to protest the massive hike in fees, to antipoverty groups like War on Want, to trade unions. Indeed, even the trade union at Britain’s IRS came out in support, with ordinary tax collectors rebelling against their bosses for letting the rich wriggle out of taxes.
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. And by creating a media buzz, it draws in people from far beyond the tech-savvy Twitterverse, with older activist groups—from trade unions to charities—clamoring to join.
As one UK Uncut participant, Becky Anadeche, explains, “So many campaigns rely on the premise that the less you ask somebody to do, the more likely they are to do it. This campaign has proved the opposite. People who have never even been on a protest before have been organizing them.”
British liberals and left-wingers have been holding marches and protests for years and been roundly ignored. So why did UK Uncut suddenly gain such traction? Alex Higgins, another protester, explains, “It’s because we broke the frame that people expect protest to be confined to. Suddenly, protesters were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be—they were not in the predictable place where they are tolerated and regarded as harmless by the authorities. If UK Uncut had just consisted of a march on Whitehall [where government departments are located], where we listened to a few speakers and went home, nobody would have heard of it. But this time we went somewhere unanticipated. We disrupted something they really value: trade.” A wave of bankers’ bonuses is due to be announced in February, and it would be surprising if UK Uncut did not respond with a similar program of direct action.
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Can this model be transferred to the United States? Remember that a few months ago, Brits were as pessimistic about the possibility of a left-wing rival to the Tea Party as Americans are now. Of course, there are differences in political culture and tax law structure and enforcement, but there are also strong parallels. In the United States the same three crucial factors that created UK Uncut are in place. First, at the state level, Americans are facing severe budget cuts, causing the recession to worsen. Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman says state governors are acting like “50 Herbert Hoovers…slashing spending in a time of recession, often at the expense both of their most vulnerable constituents and of the nation’s economic future.”
Second, most of these cuts could be prevented simply by requiring superrich individuals and corporations to pay their taxes. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) calculated in 2008 that eighty-three of the 100 biggest US corporations hide fortunes in tax havens. And even without these shelters, the rich have been virtually exempted from taxes across America. Billionaire Warren Buffet recently conducted a straw poll in his office and found he paid a lower proportion of his income in taxes than anybody else there—and considerably less than his secretary. Indeed, tax expert Nicholas Shaxson says that in many ways “America itself is a tax haven for many rich people.” WikiLeaks is poised to release the details of a whole raft of corporations and banks using tax havens in the Cayman Islands, laying out the dodging for all to see.
And third, public opinion is firmly behind going after the rich and corporations. A poll in January for 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair asked Americans which policy they would choose to reduce the deficit. By far the most popular, chosen by 61 percent of respondents, was to increase taxes on the rich. The next most popular, chosen by 20 percent, was to cut military spending. Other polls bear this out.
So Americans are facing the same cuts as the Brits. They are being ripped off by corporations and rich people just like the Brits. And they are as angry as the Brits. “All it takes,” says Tom Philips, “is for a few people to do what we did in that pub that night and light the touch paper.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to go after tax havens. He pointed out that one building in the Cayman Islands claims to house 12,000 corporations, and said: “That’s either the biggest building or the biggest tax scam on record.” He promised he would “pay for every dime” of his spending and tax cut proposals “by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens.”
Yet in office he hasn’t done this. In 2009 Congress passed the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act, which shuffled a few inches forward but still doesn’t even require the automatic exchange of information from tax havens that EU law requires as a matter of right. So if a rich person opens a tax account in the Cayman Islands and hides his money there, the IRS isn’t told and doesn’t know. Yes, President Obama’s deficit commission made a few passing noises about closing tax loopholes, but the bulk of its recommendations and energy focused on going after benefits for the poor and middle class, like Social Security.
What should US Uncut target? “It’s important to go after brand names that exist in every city in America,” says Tom Purley, a UK Uncut participant. “The key to our success was that it was so easily replicated. People could do it anywhere. It took something that seems like a remote issue and connected it to a place they see every day.” Most of the companies that engage in the worst tax avoidance in the United States are Big Pharma and financial companies, which don’t have stores. But the GAO also named a number of major brands that are exploiting tax havens. They include Apple, Bank of America, Best Buy, ExxonMobil, FedEx (whose president, Frederick Smith, was named by Obama as the businessman he most admires), Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Safeway and Target. That’s a wealth of potential targets.
American citizens should ask themselves: I work hard and pay my taxes, so why don’t the richest people and the corporations? Why should I pick up the entire tab for keeping the nation running? Why should the people who can afford the most pay the least? If you’re happy with that situation, you can stay at home and leave the protesting to the Tea Party. For the rest, there’s an alternative. For too long, progressive Americans have been lulled into inactivity by Obama’s soaring promises, which come to little. As writer Rebecca Solnit says, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky…. Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.” UK Uncut has just shown Americans how to express real hope—and build a left-wing Tea Party.
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