1920s >> 1922 >> no-209-january-1922

Why Taxes Do Not Concern The Workers

One of the most effective election stunts with which capitalist agents have gulled the workers in recent years is, perhaps, Government extravagance. Not only against the Executive Government is the epithet “wasters” levelled, but against those in office on every district and urban council. County and borough council elections have, for years, been contested chiefly on this issue. Progressives and Labour candidates contended for reforms, more often than not proving that such reforms would benefit property owners, while the Moderates, or so-called Municipal Reformers, claimed that the ratepayers would be ruined or impoverished.

The anti-waste campaign being carried on to-day by a section of the Capitalist press is no different in essence from other campaigns directed against governments since the days of Pitt, or, to go far back into the past, the resistance of Roman and Grecian taxpayers to government extortion. Ancient and modern are alike, the protest of property owners against the payment of taxes levied on the property they own, for the purpose of making their ownership secure. Every property owner recognises the need for government, but general agreement between them ends there. Some argue that a government should confine its activities to the preservation of order within its territory and the prevention of aggression from abroad, thus keeping taxation at a minimum. Others believe that the government should not only do this, but should take cognisance of every social change, introduce reforms and legislation to meet the altered conditions, and generally to supervise the whole field of industry in order to smooth over apparent crises and preserve the system against anarchy or revolution.

Between these two groups exist many shades of opinion ; and sections of property owners are continually forming new parties around particular interests to obtain political control, in order to shift the burden of taxation from their own shoulders on to the shoulders of other property owners. The land owners, the kings of finance, the factory lords, the railway, mining and shipping magnates quarrel among themselves over the incidence of taxation, and the petty capitalists, led by “cheap money” cranks and others, quarrel with them all, though quite hopelessly. Their quarrel is hopeless because they are being slowly but surely squeezed out of industry by the big concerns. The financial monarchs control the Press and educate the voters to their point of view, the struggling petty capitalist whines about the bitter injustice, and tries to enlist the sympathy of the workers. But little capitalists are as much capitalists in essence as big ones. They are all property owners. All of them possess shares, big or small, in the land or other means of production, and if the workers side with the petty capitalists, placing in their hands the reins of power, the latter would merely use that power to improve their own position as far as possible, first by pushing taxation from their shoulders, secondly by endeavouring to hinder the growth of big businesses and combines, and thirdly by encouraging the smaller concerns.

It is easily seen from this that each section or party stands for its own interests; the thing that distinguishes them from each other is the nature or extent of their property. The fact that they own property, further, distinguishes them from the workers, who own none and, consequently, can have no interest in common with either section or party. Moreover, without workers to operate the machinery of production there could be no wealth for property owners to quarrel about, or from which taxes could be paid. The workers produce the wealth, the capitalists, big and little, own it between them, and with a portion of it maintain the necessary government forces to protect their ownership and enjoyment of the remainder.

In the days of Greece and Rome no one pretended that the slaves paid taxes, though they produced practically all the wealth of those societies. Why should the modern slave imagine that he does? Examine the worker’s social status in the two epochs. The Roman slave was forced to work for the master who bought him, and in return was supplied with the necessaries of life according to the standards of the time. The wage-slave is forced to work for the master who buys his labour-power at a price which seldom insures to him more than the bare necessaries of life. The labour market is nearly always overstocked with the various forms of labour-power, with the result that competition for jobs is fierce and labour-power cheap. The tendency all the time is for wages to fall to the lowest level that will sustain life. The wealth produced by the Roman slave belonged to his master. The wealth produced by the wage-slave belongs to his masters. The Roman slave could not pay taxes because he had nothing to pay with. The wage-slave can only pay taxes if the amount of the tax is first added to his wages. In other words, if the necessaries of life are taxed the same effect is produced as a rise in prices, and wages must be raised in order to preserve the standard of living. On the other hand, when prices fall for any reason whatsoever, wages are forced down by the masters. So much is the modern slaves’ wages controlled by the rise and fall of prices that sliding scales have become general in many industries by which the workers’ standard of living is evenly maintained by the adjustment of wages according to prices.

Thus in two widely separated epochs those who produce the wealth of society possess all the characteristics of slavery in common. In each period they do not own property; are forced to work for a master and receive in return barely sufficient to enable them to live in accordance with prevailing standards and reproduce their kind. On the face of things it would seem preposterous to suggest that the workers in either period could be taxed. If anything was taken from the slave of antiquity he would deteriorate. If anything is taken from the modern worker his efficiency must suffer. The only way to make the worker a taxpayer is to give him more in wages than it costs him to live ; but if this were done and the general height of wages raised for that purpose, it is quite obvious that the worker’s position would not have been changed. In the same way, if the taxes imposed on the various articles consumed by the workers were taken off, prices and the cost of living would fall; the workers could live more cheaply and the price of their commodity, labour-power, would fall.

The fundamental difference between the workers of the two periods is that the chattel slave was himself a commodity to be bought and sold, while the wage-slave is assumed to be free, and the sole owner of his labour-power or energy. Given certain conditions such, for instance, as existed in the earliest days of capitalism, this difference would be of real benefit to the workers; but the development of capitalist industry makes it ever more difficult for the worker to sell his labour-power and, consequently, places him more completely at the mercy of the masters, both as regards his standard of living and his working conditions.

The modern worker is compelled to be more efficient and attentive to his work than the ancient. The conditions of the labour market make him more completely a slave, chain him more effectively to his task than any previous system of slavery has ever done. With all their physical aids to compulsion, the masters of Ancient Rome and Greece never had such slaves as the modern capitalist class have, yet the modern slave denies his slavery, because he is the sole owner of his energy. He forgets that he is compelled to sell it to some master, or masters, in order to live, and that when he does sell it he works at their bidding and for their profit while he remains in poverty. Many well-meaning people complain bitterly of the injustice of taxing the necessaries of life consumed by the workers. It is evident that they have not studied the situation, if our reasoning is correct. It is perfectly true that the workers are plundered, but not by taxation. It is true that the capitalist class, with all their agents and flunkies, live on the backs of the workers, but not by means of taxes extorted from them either directly or indirectly. The capitalists and their agents encourage the workers in the belief that they pay taxes for two reasons : to enlist their support in capitalist sectional and party squabbles and to hide from the workers the fact that they are enslaved and plundered in the workshops and factories.

There is one difference, however, between the ancient and modern slaves that, up till now, we have not taken into consideration. To-day the slave has a political status. He votes his masters, or their agents, into power. They in their turn are compelled to solicit his vote, to obtain his sanction to govern, because the workers are in a majority over the masters. This being the case, it is easy to see that once the workers realise that anti-waste candidates are capitalist candidates, seeking power for their own ends, and that questions of waste or taxation are purely capitalist questions ; they can themselves organise and exercise their voting power purely in working-class interests as opposed to all sections and parties of the capitalist class.

This is the first step towards the emancipation of the working class and the establishment of a system of society where the means of wealth production will be owned in common and democratically controlled by the whole of the people. By educated, conscious and organised action the workers of the world will thus break up the last, most tfficient, and brutal form of slavery that has ever flourished, and replace it with a system where production will be arranged according to the needs of all. Where no class will rule because classes will cease to exist, and where the producers of wealth will neither be chattels bought and sold nor the owners of labour-power which they must sell in order to live, but free men and women associating and organising to satisfy their needs with the least possible expenditure of effort, that they may have leisure for the enjoyment of a fuller life.

F. Foan