On Saturday, a flashmob of students, left-wingers, greens and newspaper columnists alarmed the 14-year-old girls buying chunky jewelery by storming Topshop in London to brand Green a "tax dodger." They sang "We are the tax enforcement society!" They chased pretend Philip Greens around the railings of girlish gear while shouting, "You owe the tax office 285million!" They encouraged the bemused-looking teen shoppers to join the protest, because if Green paid the tax he has allegedly dodged, it would "cover the tuition fees of 32,000 students or the salaries of 20,000 NHS nurses."
Teenage fashionistas of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your skinny jeans!
So it's come to this, has it? The radical British left's solution to the economic crisis is to create "an army of citizen volunteers" determined to make wealthy tax avoiders pay? As a snapshot of where left-wing thinking is, this is about as high-def as it gets. It suggests that in this era of economic crisis, an even more profound problem than actual poverty is the utter poverty of ideas amongst that section of society which once upon a time was the most ambitious and future-oriented of all -- the left.
The agitational accountants who forced Topshop to close are part of a group called UK Uncut, an anti-cuts direct-action outfit which, alongside the student protests against tuition fees, is speedily becoming the focus of the radical left's economic protesting against the Lib-Cons. It explicitly presents itself as the flip side of the government's war on "welfare scroungers." It is attracting veteran lefties and angry students as well as gushing praise from columnists and Channel 4 News (a "more eloquent and informed group of demonstrators would be hard to come across," said the ever-impartial Alex Thomson).
It's a fearless campaign group, to be sure. After sticking it to The Man at Topshop (well, The Girls, to be more precise), the protesters stormed two more of Green's retail outlets: British Home Stores and Dorothy Perkins. Yes, the famous knick-knack store and a clothes shop for larger women, beloved of housewives and mums-to-be. Apparently they're all complicit in Green's tax-dodging antics, these "mummified, grim-faced shoppers," as one journalist who supports UK Uncut describes them, who, robot-like, are doing "their duty to the market." UK Uncut wants to lead "the consuming classes to mutiny," which is just a fancy way of saying that it wants to shake awake these unenlightened, Stepford-like shoppers.
All over Britain on Saturday, brave warriors against the Philip Green
rotten retail machine forced his stores to close. In Brighton,
activists in T-shirts saying, "Tax Dodger" super-glued their hands to the
windows of Topshop. (If Green's fashion buyers have any gumption,
they'll put "Tax Dodger" T-shirts on sale in Topshop pronto.) The reason
they're targeting Green
is because the massive retail firm he runs -- the Arcadia Group -- is not
actually owned by him. It's owned by his wife, who conveniently lives
in Monaco. Which means she doesn't pay taxes in Britain on Arcadia's
very handsome earnings. The protesters are also targeting Vodafone,
which apparently has been "fighting tooth and nail" over the past 10
years to avoid paying the British government $6 billion in taxes. The
message of their campaign seems to be that very wealthy businessmen do
dodgy things in their pursuit of company and personal profit.
UK Uncut seems seriously to believe that doing the dirty work of Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs by storming shops and chanting "PAY YOUR TAXES!" could reverse the recession. "If the corporations were paying all of their taxes and not putting them in offshore accounts," says one spokesperson, "then we wouldn't have such a massive problem with our deficit." So never mind the atrophying over the past 40 years of real economic activity in Britain; never mind the way in which playing the financial markets consequently took the place of reinvesting in production; never mind that the current crop of political leaders has neither the nerve nor the know-how to kick-start economic productivity. No, apparently it is because Mrs Green likes to eat truffles while being fanned by hunks in Monaco (probably) that Britain is in turmoil.
The emergence of these supposedly radical drum-beating tax inspectors reveals much about what it means to be left today. First, it shows how utterly cut off left-wing activists are from everyday people. Most normal people don't like tax inspectors. Watch any game show and you'll notice that if a contestant says "tax inspector" when Chris Tarrant/Noel Edmonds/Whoever asks him what he does for a living, the audience will boo. Yet left-wing activists either know or care so little about public feeling that they'll happily hang signs around their necks saying "TAX INSPECTOR" and present themselves as a punkish wing of Her Majesty's vast tax-collecting bureaucracy.
Second, it reveals how small-minded the left has become. There was a time when the focus of the left was on demanding the creation of more -- more stuff, wealth, homes, comfort. "Socialism means plenty for all," said Sylvia Pankhurst. "We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume." In implacable contrast, today's demand that fat cats pay their taxes, or take pay cuts, or overcome their addiction to big bonuses so that the money saved can be used to balance the deficit suggests the left now sees wealth as a fixed thing, a fundamentally unchangeable entity, which can only be shifted here or there depending on where it's needed most. Let's put it in nurses' pay packets, they say, instead of Philip Green's ar*e pocket.
Their plea for Green to hand over the millions he allegedly owes really speaks to their dearth of historic vision and social daring; to their view of people, and of themselves, not as the potential over-turners of social conditions and pursuers of a "great production," but as the passive recipients of the limited amount of stuff that already exists. Older left-leaning campaigns that focused on the rich were at least more radical than this, their aim being to appropriate rich people's land and wealth or to kill/eat the rich, rather than beg their accountants to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, like sheepish Jesuses.
And third, the rise of radical tax inspection signifies an important shift that has taken place in left-wing thinking in recent years. A shift from focusing on the social to focusing on the individual. A shift from understanding the problems that face humanity as social ones to conceiving of them as spin-offs of individual decadence and immorality. What used to mark out the principled left was its conviction that major problems like downturn, unemployment, poverty and inequality were fundamentally social in nature rather than being caused by sin or laziness or over-breeding. Today, however, utterly incapable of approaching or explaining the economic crisis as a social phenomenon, left-wing activists instead treat it as a product of individual gluttony and licentiousness, whether those individuals are lap-dance-loving City-wide boys or Fred Goodwin or Philip Green. The singular fury visited upon Green is probably in direct proportion to the left's inability to put forward social explanations or answers to the recession. Their bizarre beef with Green and his allegedly dead-eyed shoppers is a sad stand-in for political depth and social outlook.
This is not the socialism of fools, since at least it isn't Green's Jewishness that riles the army of beanie-hatted tax inspectors storming his stores. But it's definitely the socialism of tools. (Tool. Slang. A cretin. Characterised by low intelligence and/or self-esteem.)