The Taxpayer as Mythical (Yet Exploited) Hero

(Via) This post from Richard Seymour is something I have been thinking about for a while regarding the importance of language as issue-framing:

“The point is how “the taxpayer” is invoked here as a relevant political category. You’ll notice that, implicit in this is a suggestion that there are people who aren’t taxpayers. But public sector workers pay taxes, not only on their income but on consumption. In fact, there is no one who doesn’t pay taxes. The unemployed pay tax. Children pay tax. Prisoners pay tax. Even the homeless pay tax. To speak of “the taxpayer” is in this sense meaningless, since it includes everyone. And self-evidently, not everyone shares the political attitudes expressed by “the taxpayer” above. The question of what “the taxpayer” is willing to pay for is a political question, depending on who the taxpayer is, and what other social categories and classes s/he identifies as. But implicit in this is the idea that the taxpayer is supporting a public sector which is purely parasitic. Public sector workers are “subsidised” by “the taxpayer”; as if, in addition to not paying taxes, they add no value to the economy. “The taxpayer” is thus, by definition, always over-taxed (even if there are quite a few who are under-taxed). The subject-position expressed in this figure of “the taxpayer” is that of a lower middle class trader, shopkeeper or white van man, anxious to hold on to his wad and not pay for anything he isn’t getting.”

He writes from a British perspective but a lot of it applies to the US context as well. There is, of course, the “divide-and-conquer” aspect of using the taxpayer against any category that the writer wants to other and dehumanize: the immigrants, the welfare recipients, public workers (especially teachers but NOT police officers, mind you), irrespective of the fact that they pay taxes as well.

In the US, then, the taxpayer is the mirror image of a variety of others seen as parasitic upon his productive capacities. Indeed, the taxpayer is understood to be a middle-aged, self-made, small-business owning white man, who takes care of his family, asks for nothing, takes nothing out of the system but contributes to it vastly and is exploited instead of receiving the respect that he thinks he deserves.

This is, of course, a mythical animal. As Seymour notes, everyone is a taxpayer in one way or another. But more than that, everyone benefits from government action and everyone takes from the system, even the so-called sovereign citizens who use public roads to drive their pick-up truck before a shootout with police.

And it is an important myth to maintain for the right-wing: that the parasitic categories produce nothing, contribute nothing, but take a lot out of the system (the definition of the parasite) while the taxpayer. It is a gendered and racialized category. This mythical creature also operates in a mythical society where corporate power is irrelevant, the only economic contribution is of the small business / merchant kind in a Walmart-free world and the government is dedicated to sucking the good guys dry for the benefit of the parasites.

A lot of people believe in this mythical creature (a lot of politicians prop up its mythical existence), with very real consequences. Lance Mannion calls them the Cheapskates:

“These are the people who are convinced they are paying out way more in taxes than they really are. You can break it down for them on paper, show them they aren’t shelling out what they thought, and they’ll see it, agree you’re right, reluctantly, and start whining that what they are paying is too much.

Push them on it, ask them how they expect the government to do what it needs to do without spending the money it spends and they always have the same answer. Waste. The government’s wasting their money. You can’t trust politicians to spend money wisely.

But, really, they don’t want the government to spend anything. They think it should all come to them for free. The water should flow from their tap, the cops and the firefigthers should come when they’re called, the schools should teach their kids, the plows clear their roads and the crews come out to repair them for free.

Deep down they believe that they are the only people who pay taxes and they hate the unfairness of it.

You hear them talk like this all the time. Suggest the goverment provide free well child visits to the doctor for poor women and they’ll scream bloody murder.

“I don’t want my tax dollars spent on some welfare cheat’s too lazy to go out and get themself a job!”

You can say, Fine, let’s use my tax dollars to do it. Your tax dollars can buy the army a new tank.

Of course they have an exaggerated idea of how much they are paying in taxes anyway and probably think they are buying the army three or four tanks a year already. So your breath’s wasted. You aren’t paying taxes. They are. Only them. You don’t even exist to them. What’s real to them is themselves and their money.

Other people’s money is real to them in a strange, psychotic way. They feel it is theirs too. If Donald Trump makes another million today, they feel they made a million today too. If the government gets in the way of a deal, and Trump has to go off and find another way to make a million tomorrow, they feel like they were the ones who lost the million.”

And for them, all the social troubles come from below them on the social ladder, which is why they don’t usually mind criminal justice costs but they do mind costs for early education and healthcare for children. These guys are easy to spot. They’re the ones putting “taxpayer” in their Twitter bio and Facebook profile, as if they were the only ones. It is worn as a label that is supposed to give them special authority to speak on issues.

As a mythical creature, though, the Taxpayer has well fulfilled its right-wing function (as has “politically correct”) of allowing a relatively privileged category of the population to present itself as oppressed and crushed and rightfully resentful. The Taxpayer has had his mythically hard-earned money redistributed downwards (rather then upwards, as is the reality).

The Taxpayer is in control of all the circumstances of his life through sheer sense of responsibility. It is irresponsible people who get sick, lose their jobs, have children at the wrong time with the wrong people, lose their homes. Therefore, the Taxpayer does not owe anyone and yet is forced into uneasy relationships with people who not only do not have his strong sense of value but that he is forced to support while his money goes to things he disapproves of (something which should never happen, EVER) and any outside interference upon his life is necessarily illegitimate.

Of course, the Taxpayer, as mythical construct, can only work with the scaffolding of other myths regarding the American society: that there is no longer any discrimination and therefore no privilege either. Therefore, everyone has the same opportunities and the Taxpayer is the one who played the game right and is being punished for it.

Now, one should not be fooled, the Taxpayer as mythical construct may seem like an inclusive category but it is a convenient cover for white, middle-class, Christian men seen as only legitimate economic and political actors.

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