Saturday, 15 February 2014

Buying Votes

Tom Perkins, the US billionaire who recently claimed that attacks on the rich were akin to the Nazis' persecution of the Jews, has now suggested that the "rich should get more votes", or so says the The Daily Telegraph. The note of caution does not reflect my scepticism that he said this, but cynicism about the agenda of the newspaper. Despite the headline, Perkins is actually arguing that the poor should get fewer votes, which is not quite the same thing but still consistent with the implication that votes are commodities that can be bought (if not resold). The bonus for rich guys like himself is incidental. This provocative reform turns out to be a reactionary lament: "Thomas Jefferson, at the beginning of this country thought to vote you had to be a landowner. That didn’t last and the vote was given to everyone. But the basic idea was you had to be a taxpayer or a person of property to vote. That went by the board".

This is another sighting of the "no representation without taxation" meme, which the Torygraph has a particularly soft spot for, but this time with deliberately obnoxious top-notes to confuse and distract the inevitable trolls - like truffle oil drizzled on dodgy scrambled eggs. Perkins has become the poster-boy / laughing-stock for the trending topic of "the demonisation of the rich". I don't think the extensive media coverage is a conscious attempt to distract from the hegemonic trend, which is the relentless demonisation of the poor, so much as a revelling in the perverse and ironic (like the apocryphal Bullingdon Club initiation of burning a £50 note in front of a tramp). The wider UK context is the failure of austerity to produce a self-sustaining recovery and the consequent likelihood that taxes will have to increase after 2015 to avoid the implosion of some public services (Cameron's panicked insistence that "money is no object" for flood relief is a tacit admission of this).

The problem is that 30 years of neoliberal reform have produced a top-heavy economy in which the scope to spread tax increases across the population has been reduced. The reality of fiscal exchanges is that most people are net beneficiaries when total tax is offset by total benefits, and the crossover point has been moving up the population distribution over the last three decades as inequality has grown and tax receipts have become correspondingly more dependent on the rich. The share of tax paid by the top 1% of earners increased from 11% in 1979 to 28% in 2012, and is predicted to hit 30% this year, according to the IFS. This has been spun on the right as evidence that we should coddle the rich: for fear that higher rates of tax may scare them away. Behind this lurks the suggestion that as wealth is virtue, a willingness to contribute a greater quantum of income tax should be publicly applauded (even if your marginal total tax rate is lower than that of a homeless alcoholic, who must pay VAT and excise on the booze that dominates his expenditure).

The changing composition of the tax cohorts over recent years has seen millions "taken out of tax altogether" through increased personal allowances, while more middle-earners have found themselves crossing the top-rate threshold as that falls relative to average income. The cohort that pays only basic rate income tax is shrinking, pointing towards a stark tripartite system of a "tax-free" lower class (ignoring the disproportionate burden of VAT etc), a resentfully anti-welfare middle class (who get the lion's share of welfare), and a privileged and disengaged upper class (who routinely avoid tax). In this light, Tom Perkins' comments are not so extreme. He isn't seriously proposing that you should get an extra vote for every million you have in assets, but that the middle class should focus on disenfranchising the irresponsible poor (who, conservative prejudice insists, will always vote themselves "largesse out the public treasury") rather than expropriating the rich. This is therefore a critique of democracy.

The harsh reality of this challenge is ignored by centrists and progressives who continue to agonise over questions such as "Is Parliament hopelessly out of date?", as if the old dear just needed a makeover. According to Katie Ghose, Chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society: "The vote should be given to 16- and 17-year-olds, electoral registration should be seamless and we need a fairer voting system at all levels of government, as well as an elected House of Lords. Politics should be reclaimed as a public service, with a majority aiming to hold public office in their lifetime. Change like that requires not being squeamish about bringing politics into the classroom at the earliest opportunity".

What does "seamless" mean? Why an elected House of Lords, as opposed to simple abolition? Why should a majority hold public office? The latter implies rotation or sortition, in order to be practical, which would be an effective way of preventing new political blocs gaining traction. "Bringing politics into the classroom" is a classic manoeuvre of totalitarianism, which echoes the success that clerical conservatives had bringing religion into it. The transitive verb "bring" implies that politics (legitimate politics) must be injected and cannot arise spontaneously from within. It is clearly not the same as "letting schoolkids take control". The progressive agenda reveals its authoritarian instincts.

The atrophy of popular, participatory politics (i.e. the decline in party membership and voter turnout since the 1950s) is a stylised fact that ignores any evidence to the contrary, such as temporary flowerings of participation or alternative, non-traditional modes of debate and protest. It also tends to ignore the structural and cultural imperatives of different eras: "one of the drivers of membership [in the 1950s] seemed to be the thrill of the cut and thrust of debate within the party ... people would join for entertainment as much as conviction. Parties were part of a cultural bricolage of strong institutions – church, factory, union and so forth – that helped provide identity and give people a sense of place in the world". The assumption that the mass of electors have lost interest (rather than been turned away by cliques and careerists) looks suspiciously like an elite consensus that democracy is ailing and requires "reform" to prevent the rise of demagoguery and the "wrong sort".

You can hear this angst behind a lot of the commentary on UKIP. The failure of the Kippers to break the mould in the recent Wythenshawe by-election was predictable, but this hasn't stopped many insisting that they remain as big a threat to Labour as they do to the Conservatives. This is just wishful thinking, not unlike the centrist excitement that marked the foundation of the SDP (their threat to the Tories was ultimately negligible). Thirty years later the members of the "plague on both their houses" tendency have got Nick Clegg in government and are so disappointed they find Nigel Farage's claim to have "been on benders" longer than the curtailed by-election campaign both horrifying and strangely thrilling.

The popular disillusion with voting, and the indulgence of court jesters like Russell Brand, does not indicate that democracy is "sick", as if failing from within (i.e. the people's fault), but that an otherwise robust democracy is under attack from without. If you are denied an effective choice, which is the modus operandi of neoliberalism, it is perfectly reasonable to lack interest in voting. That doesn't mean that you don't care, or wouldn't relish the opportunity to influence a decisive contest. Ultimately, we are not as far from the farce of democracy seen in Russia (where votes are already highly commodified) as we would like. While Tom Perkins may not be persuasive in his desire to abolish universal suffrage, the fundamental cause of the rich - to deny democracy power over property - remains in good health.

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