Leona Helmsley, who was fabulously wealthy from real estate, famously told her maid: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” Helmsley was imprisoned for tax evasion, but the principle that only the little people should pay taxes is pretty much conventional wisdom now. Witness how governments, the Irish government included, mount stout defences of keeping corporation taxes down, and make it a matter of national pride to do so, while at the same time cutting public services and ramping up indirect taxes: it is time the little people paid their share.
We are not accustomed to thinking of hospital ward closures or increased class sizes or discontinued bus routes as taxes, but that is what they are in effect: to get what you need, you must pay more, either through fees to private providers, or through simply shouldering the burden yourself.
What would Leona Helmsley have made of Console, the suicide charity? Forget about the present scandal for a moment, and just think about the work that it does. The organisation depends on volunteer labour. People giving of their time, without pay, to help people in situations of crisis. At the very same time they are helping people, however, they are also relieving others of the obligation to do anything. They are relieving others of the additional tax burden (how easily the idea of tax as a ‘burden’ comes to mind) of having to fund proper public services and facilities so that these needs might be addressed properly and systematically. Whilst big names might make donations or put in appearances or act as patrons to signal that it is all in a good cause, the task of keeping things running is very much a matter for the little people: the fundraisers, the volunteers, the donors. Leona would approve.
Eduardo Galeano once said that he didn’t believe in charity because it was vertical and humiliating, whereas solidarity was horizontal. But it isn’t so simple when it comes to charitable organisations. Much fundraising and volunteering work does happen along horizontal lines, on the understanding that you’re doing something for someone like you, not someone beneath you. The problem is that all this work is then appropriated in the service of a greater good that treats exploitation and domination as the natural order. Here, mutual aid is not the alternative or the antidote to neoliberal capitalism, but its necessary complement. Think Brian Cowen’s call for a “meitheal mentality” when his government was poised to introduce huge cuts to public spending in order to pay off private banking debts. Or David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.
What’s more, fundraising and volunteering is vigorously encouraged by private firms, whereas mobilising on matters of social rights is seen to cause conflict and disorder. Moustache growing, pyjama days, sponsored head-shaving: approach your HR department because you want to raise money for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, and there’s a good chance you’ll be given every encouragement. It’s fun, it builds teams, it gives the company a nice image. The same encouragement is unlikely to be forthcoming if you say you want everyone to dress in black to protest cuts to health services.
On top of that, paying charities to provide what ought to be public services keeps those pesky unions at bay. You never know when they might demand more for the people they serve, so it’s far better to deal with people who will take what they will get and shut up.
When the Console scandal hit the headlines, one of the chief angles of concern was how this would affect other charities, and whether public donations would fall as a consequence. Radio presenter Ryan Tubridy pleaded with listeners to continue to keep charities in their thoughts. It would be a cold day in hell, of course, before he or any other high-profile RTÉ presenter would use the airwaves to plead with the government not to make cuts to health or education budgets. Some weeks earlier, Tubridy had used the same spot to lavish praise on Rory McIlroy for donating the beastly sum of €666,000 in Irish Open winnings to charity. McIlroy is worth over €300m. Generally, the public is not scandalised that athletes earn such astronomical sums of money. Nor for that matter do they care much when they avoid paying taxes: McIlroy’s fellow golfer Padraig Harrington received little opprobrium, if any, for being named in the Panama Papers. If only it were just billionaire real estate tycoons who believed taxes were for the little people. (Incidentally, Harrington helped launch one of Console’s helplines back in 2009).
The individual appointed to take over at Console following the Paul Kelly scandal -in which the suicide charity founder feathered a lavish nest with both public money and private charitable donations- is David Hall, a man who runs a private ambulance company. This appointment is hardly the act of a body whose primary concern is the violation of the rights of people to receive proper medical attention in times of crisis. The primary concern here, rather, is to ensure the standards of financial probity expected of any private firm.
Kelly -who is clearly a slimeball sociopath- is the object of character analyses in the press that portray him as an anomalous and strange individual. However, as noted here, there is rather less concern with just how it was that so many among the great and good were willing to believe his story, or how the various state institutions were willing to throw so much money at him. What if Kelly in fact reflected back an image that they themselves wished to see? Perhaps there is a desire for some sort of living proof that private enterprise plus charity plus a compassionate countenance is still better than social rights, still the only solution to social catastrophes brought about by neoliberal orthodoxy and the emaciation of welfare states, and, deep down, still the best answer to the threat from the red menace and the godless hordes.