Anglo’s Rotten Apples versus The Taxpayer: A Most Useful Idiot

This is an extended version of a comment I left on a piece , by Peter Cunningham in today’s Irish Times titled ‘A dark, cruel comedy at the expense of the Irish taxpayer’

Anyone who thinks people in Ireland ‘don’t riot, burn buses or paralyse the infrastructure in their anger’ either has a very short memory or a limited idea of Ireland. The history of the north of Ireland in recent decades offers plenty of examples to disprove the claim. It’s only when you think of Ireland in terms of the 26 counties of the southern state that such things appear convincing.

True enough, the population in the south has been docile by comparison with other periphery countries such as Greece or Spain. But we are talking about different places with different histories, so you shouldn’t expect to see the same thing.

There is no congenital condition affecting people in Ireland. Saying that people in Ireland on the whole are remarkably docile, considering the fact that they have had a humongous debt burden placed on their shoulders, is a bit like saying that people in Britain on the whole are remarkably deferential towards wealth and power considering the fact they live in a hereditary monarchy that glorifies rich people. There’s a paralysing circularity to such conversations.

If Ireland’s ‘sovereign government’ was willing to ‘make a decision that would beggar its people’, as the author puts it, might it not be down to the rather banal situation that the political establishment sees the needs of finance capital, of banks and property developers and associated intermediaries, as ultimately more important than people’s welfare? And, if people are confused about what to do about this, might it not be down to the rather banal situation that Ireland’s media establishment makes it seem as if the priorities of finance capital, of banks and property developers and associated intermediaries, are ultimately more important than people’s welfare, and moreover makes it seem that nearly everyone agrees on this point?

As far as I can see, media coverage of the Anglo Tapes affair is just one more attempt at denying any kind of fundamental problems with the system. It is a system in which the needs of finance capital are paramount, rights are stripped away, and democracy is winnowed down to empty voting ritual and madcap speculations about fantasy political parties who might take the form of a Messiah. The grotesque spectacle of a few especially rotten apples helps to cover that up.

One handy way of maintaining a sense of impotence in the face of abuses as blatant as those of Anglo bosses is to make sure people diagnose the problem with words supplied by the forces that enabled the robbery in the first place.

A good example is the word ‘taxpayer’, which is put to use in this article: ‘A dark, cruel comedy at the expense of the Irish taxpayer’; ‘on to the backs of the Irish taxpayer’.

‘Taxpayer’ is an idiotic term. By idiotic I don’t mean merely stupid, but more importantly, I mean concerned solely with private interest, as per its original Greek meaning.

‘Taxpayer’ is an anti-political term. It reduces politics to a transaction between the taxpayer and the representative, where the only necessary participation in political life by the idiot/taxpayer is the occasional vote. I pay taxes, therefore I am represented. Politics is a service you pay for, not an activity in which you take part. You pay your taxes and elect your politician so you can get on with sending your kid to grind school or watching porn on the internet. ‘Taxpayer’ serves to dislodge politics from any grounding in democratic equality. Instead, the greater your capacity to pay, the greater your entitlement.

‘Taxpayer’ is a way of effacing class differences and antagonisms. It makes it seem as though the act of funneling tens of billions in public money in the direction of wealthy private investors is an act that offends and aggrieves everyone equally, when in fact it improves the possibilities for some people to exploit others, and causes a great deal more misery for poorer people. But the ‘taxpayer’ says: we are all in this together.

The ‘taxpayer’ holds that public things –such as education, health, water, shelter- are only of use to the extent that they deliver a desirable outcome for private, individual ends. The ‘taxpayer’ reduces such things to the status of commodities for individual consumption. The idea that things such as education and health ought to be things to be bought and sold is well embedded in Irish public consciousness. Though it claims to be a democratic state, Ireland subsidises the rich in the provision of private education and health services, and it is currently formalising the status of water as a commodity.

Some people hold that ‘citizen’ is a far better political name than ‘taxpayer’, which is really an anti-political name. I’m inclined to agree. But ‘citizen’ has its problems too, not least the way its use can exclude people who don’t have official status as citizen. At any rate, it is only after a moment of rupture that new names or new ways of naming things can start to take real shape.

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