Wednesday, 29 December 2010

UK Uncut: Rough Music for the Twitter Generation?

In a much lauded article on Open Democracy the other week, Alan Finlayson claimed that the demonstrations against Topshop and Vodafone by pro-deficit campaigners "UK Uncut" represented "something of immense philosophical significance" that put "ethics and ideology... once more at the forefront of political contest in Britain". Unable to see the difference between the illegal and the immoral, he went on, the political and media mainstream had failed to appreciate the challenge represented by the new movement. And he produced this stirring paragraph to support his case:

Consider for a moment the real implications of the proposition that no act can justly be criticized unless it is against the law. The implication is that law is a full and total expression of moral values. Only totalitarians think that. Everybody else recognises that, while certainly informed by morality, the function of the law is to provide a framework within which civil society can function and can debate the rights and wrongs of actions. And it would be a cold and brittle society that relied on the law for the expression and support of all values, and that could not tolerate citizens sorting things out between themselves. Just as in sport we recognize that something can be within the rules yet still condemned as unsporting, so too most people recognize that behaviour can be wrong even when it isn’t actually illegal.

This is clearly true. Indeed, one of the most objectionable features of the previous government was its progressive erosion of this distinction. Not only did it have a regrettable tendency to ban things it disapproved of, it legislated away discretion by laying down ever-tighter frameworks, ever more prescriptive targets, ever more invasive bureaucracies, until it often seemed as though an action's moral value could only be judged by its conformity to a set of remotely decreed criteria. Some of the results became notorious. When mistakes by Haringey social services department led to the avoidable death of Baby Peter, for example, its director insisted that proper procedures had been followed; but if social workers had spent less time "following procedures" and more looking after the people whose lives depended on them the tragedy might have been averted. Or there is the misanthropic doctrine inherent in the various "safeguarding" policies that only people who have passed through extensive and expensive bureaucratic checks can be trusted not to be paedophiles.

But the target of Uncut's demos has not been the appropriation of morality by the state (or indeed by the law) but rather something like its opposite. The stores which activists have picketed were singled out for their alleged tax-avoidance. This isn't the only, or even the most obvious, moral ground on which they might have been impugned. What about Arcadia's reliance on cheap labour in the third world? Or the various environmental crimes of which many large companies might be held guilty? Or the cosy arrangements that corporations make with tyrannical governments? Or even, more old-fashionedly, low wages at home? What is so morally objectionable about tax-avoidance?

Tax isn't a form of charitable giving. Your taxes don't just fund schools, hospitals, subsidised university places and all the other things Lefties love. They also fund the (arguably illegal) wars they march against, and the police whose truncheons left Alfie Meadows fighting for his life. If paying tax were self-evidently virtuous then the government might today be providing opportunities for shoppers to donate their loose change to the Treasury rather than to "charity", or perhaps rejigging ATM machines to ask bank customers "Would you like an additional VAT charge to be added to your account?" Taxation is, in fact, expropriation pure and simple. It is money demanded with menaces: the very definition of robbery. That it is legally sanctioned, socially accepted, necessary for the state to function and, at least in some measure, spent on worthwhile projects should not alter this basic fact. Even the Mafia provides a social service (and of course "protection") to its clientelle. Most people don't pay taxes because they want to, but because they have to. Corporations are no different.

The most obvious difference between personal and corporate tax-avoidance is that we all benefit from the latter, in the form of lower prices and more jobs.

UK Uncut's concentration on the lack of social "responsibility" shown by businesses who want to minimise their tax liabilities strikes me as rather priggish. Finlayson tries to link the demos with radical campaigns of the past - the Suffragettes, the American Civil Rights movement and so on - that directly challenged "persons and institutions in society at large that sought to marginalize and contain minorities". But public shaming of this type actually has rather more disreputable roots.

In many English villages there was a tradition known as "rough music". If a resident had offended against the suffocating norms of rural life - typically a local woman who had begun an irregular sexual liaison - the neighbours would gather night after night under her window banging pots and pans. People would blow horns and shout insults. Effigies of the guilty parties would be paraded through the streets and then burnt. Eventually they would be forced to leave. Rough music was anarchic, democratic (or at least demotic), legally dubious and, at least in appearance, had the spontaneity and anti-authoritarianism of a popular revolt. But the message was resolutely reactionary and conformist.

UK Uncut's demonstrators share rough music's self-righteousness and have equally "conservative" aims - shoring up a threatened social model based on high state spending in which the highest expression of morality consists in handing over your money to the government. Finlayson maintains that the new movement bypasses, even renders irrelevant, conventional politics: "Parliament is not the central and not the only power in the nation. Imagining that it was, was one of the most fundamental errors made by New Labour and its sympathisers." More can be achieved, he argues, by targeting individual transgressors, whether multinational corporations or "greedy bankers". Yet by choosing tax-avoidance as its Big Issue, the group expresses an abiding and paradoxical attachment to the conventional political institutions, a belief that if the state is no longer central then at least it should be, that its irrelevance is something to be regretted, because the best way to restore balance to politics and to society is to make sure that politicians get More Of Our Money.