Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Subservient Citizens and Anarchist Calisthenics

I have a deep and abiding admiration for James C. Scott, the author of Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed.  He is a political science professor at Yale in the U.S.   I have not read all of his book yet but those I have read are in my top ten all time best reads.  These are books that make me wish I were still at university and had fellow students to and professors to talk with about his ideas which can't really be captured by any ideological framework.  He has a rather unique perspective and while there is something there for everyone to love or hate, I can guarantee that his works will stir your gray matter in delicious ways.

The full title of the first book of his I ever read is Seeing Like a State:  How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed.  In that book I was introduced the to the idea of "legibility."  States can't properly control/help people or property until they are revealed and identified in some unique way.  Once upon a time this was a much more difficult task than it is today since there weren't things like a census or accurate maps or even surnames (family names).   These things had to be invented.  In 1686, for example, the Marquis de Vauban had to make a pitch to the French King for the implementation of an annual census. "Would it not," he said, "be a great satisfaction to the king to know at every designated moment every year the number of his subjects, in total and by region, with all the resources, wealth and poverty of each place..."

This was certainly to the benefit of the king but what about the people?  Was there any benefit to them?  No.  It simply made it easier for the regime to tax them.

If we fast forward to the present day we can see that the problem of "legibility" still exists.  Emigrants leave a country and become "illegible" (hidden) to the home country.  Depending on where they land they can live in a space where they are governed by one state (one they have chosen) but are effectively not governed by the country they left and whose citizenship they hold.  Today France does not have a completely accurate accounting of her citizens living in other countries and clearly they feel the need to correct this.  French citizens living abroad are encouraged to register and there have been studies to get some idea of who they are, what they are doing and so on.  In exchange the French have offered incentives to their "domestic abroad" to reveal themselves.  They have direct representation in the national parliament, for example.

FATCA and all schemes for the automatic exchange of financial information between countries are another way that states can make their citizens abroad "legible" to the home country. Where it is too onerous to actually count them, and states are dissatisfied with the results of voluntary compliance, this will yield data that makes it much easier to control them from afar.  Just as the Marquis de Vauban tempted the French king, so are modern nation-states intrigued at the idea that they can get the information they want without having to bargain for it or relying on the goodwill of people.  However captivating this idea is to national governments, most citizens living outside their home countries are very suspicious of these effort and rightfully so.  There is no benefit to them whatsoever and once revealed, they will almost certainly become targets for other purposes like taxation or the exertion of sovereignty (forced compliance with home country laws) over their persons living outside the national territory.  That is the root of people's resistance to such schemes.

Yesterday I picked up Scott's latest book,  Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play and I read late into the evening. Like all of Scott's books it's full of interesting ideas but unlike his other works it's more of a conversation where he pulls out his thoughts (he calls them "fragments")  provoked by what he calls the "anarchist squint."

"What I am to show,"  he says, "is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle."

The fruit of this is a book of many interesting ideas.  I won't even attempt to cover them all here (and I certainly wouldn't want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering his works for yourself) but here are one or two I offer to you in the hope that you find them entertaining and perhaps even useful.

Subservient citizens:  People were subjects long before they were citizens.  But unlike subjects, we are not born citizens with all the rights and responsibilities associated with that individual status.  Rather, with every generation citizens must be made and it is a long process.  The message that we receive as we grow up is that we should aspire to be loyal but independent thinkers capable of expressing our wants and desires and translating all this into active responsible participation in the political life of the nation.  What Scott points out, however, is that we are influenced by institutions other than the government:  family, business, banks, school, hospitals or clinics.  We live most of our lives in those institutions,  many of which are not particularly democratic.  Some even bear a horrific resemblance to a  "regime of low-level terror."  They are hierarchical and often authoritarian.  Who has not had the experience of working for a company or a boss where the regimentation and control methods make one feel like a serf - no autonomy, independence or even a chance to express one's views about the work environment.  In some ways we are still "subjects" and we live our lives in institutions that demand servitude, not independent thinking.  Scott asks a very simple question about what this all means for democracy:
The implications of a life lived largely in subservience for the quality of citizenship in a democracy are also ominous.  Is it reasonable to expect someone whose waking life is almost completely lived in subservience and who has acquired the habits of survival and self-preservation in such settings to suddenly become, in a town meeting, a courageous, independent-thinking, risk-taking model of individual sovereignty?  How does one move directly from what is often a dictatorship at work to the practice of democratic citizenship in the civic sphere?
I think he's definitely on to something here.  It takes a very strong personality to overcome the conditioning we get that steers us toward obedience.   However rebellious we think our adolescents are, the truth is that most do show up at school and sit there for hours when they don't particularly enjoy it and can think of many other pleasing ways of spending their time.  We may hate our jobs but we still show up, pander to or avoid the boss we despise and don't leave until we think it's safe.  Most of us obey the laws without thinking about them though it might cross our minds once in a blue moon that a particular law is rather idiotic.   We grumble about local politicians but we rarely stir ourselves to fight against them.  We accept without question that we are citizens of a particular state and the vast majority of us really don't know what that really means or can envision a life without any citizenship at all.  There is an international consensus among nations that everyone must have a citizenship.  In fact most countries refuse to allow a citizen to renounce unless he has another citizenship.  If not, he cannot sever his ties to that state.  The reason for this is ostensibly protection for the citizens involved but one cannot ignore that it also serves states' interests.  A person who is stateless by choice becomes, to a certain extent, "illegible" and something of a wild card since he does not recognize the quasi-permanent sovereignty of any nation over his person.  That is a state of affairs that most governments find unacceptable.

Anarchist Calisthenics:  One antidote for this unconscious obedience of ours is to practice disobedience.  In a short speech he prepared in German, he said this:
One day you will be called to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality.  Everything will depend on it.  You have to be ready.  How are you going to prepare for the day when it really matters?  You have to 'stay in shape' so that when the big day comes you will be ready.  What you need is 'anarchist calisthenics.'  Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it's just jaywalking.  Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable.  That way you'll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you'll be ready.
Now many of you having read that quotation are having a strong reaction to it.  I would ask you to check your gut.  What are you feeling?  I know that what I feel is fear.  I might get in all kinds of trouble if I did that.  I could be fined, jailed, or yelled at and embarrassed publicly.  Consider that reaction carefully.  Am I obeying the laws because I think they are right and just and I had a hand in making them through my elected representatives?  Or am I obeying the laws because I'm afraid of what might happen if I break them and I'm caught?  Clearly, it's the latter and if that isn't a cause for fear, I don't know what is.  Because this is not the reaction of a free-thinking, independent, confident citizen (or legal resident).  It's the reaction of a "captive subject" which means that I am already in prison - the prison of my own mind and of my habits of obedience and subservience in the face of authority.

Scott is not asking that we go out and blindly disobey the law.  What he's saying is that we need to question even the very small and innocuous laws so that when something very important comes along that is clearly an injustice or a very bad, poorly written law that we have the right mental muscles to do something about it.

Scott believes that no major reform occurs through the existing system which is not limited to government.  Trade unions, NGO's, non-profit-organizations, special interest groups and the like are usually powerless to do more than make small gains except when people move ahead of them and force drastic change.  Here are two methods Scott talks about that people use that are outside of the official public political process:  public defiance like riots, looting and huge demonstrations that are not really led by anyone but are angry and disorganized voices raised in sufficient numbers to make everyone very nervous;  and secret defiance that he calls "infrapolitics."  Where public defiance is too dangerous and the possibility of retribution too great, anonymous guerilla-like methods can be used: lying, desertion, poaching, sabotage, and flight.  A good example of this is something called the "work to rule."   Almost any system can be shut down or production reduced to a snail's pace if people just apply every single rule (however counter-productive and stupid) to even the smallest and least important of their activities.  This is obedience carried to the point where it becomes an act of resistance.  You want blind obedience?  Fine.  We are going to obey all of the rules and the system is going to crash under the weight.  Scott says:
In many cases these forms of de facto self-help flourish and are sustained by deeply held collective opinions about conscription, unjust wars, and rights to land and nature that cannot safely be ventured openly.  And yet the accumulation of thousands or even millions of such petty acts can have massive effects on warfare, land rights, taxes and property relations.  The large-mesh net political scientists and most historians use to troll for political activity utterly miss the fact that most subordinate classes have historically not had the luxury of open political organization.  This has not prevented them from working microscopically, cooperatively, complicitly and massively at political change from below.
Scott calls these the "weapons of the weak" and he thinks that they can be very effective. "One need not have an actual conspiracy," he says, "to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy."    Governments have fallen, laws have been revised (or made), and states have been forced by this form of private collective insubordination to concede "spaces of disobedience" where a law exists but a tacit agreement has been made between the people and the authorities to not enforce it or obey it.

Going back to our previous example of emigrants, one can see that there was such an agreement in the past between home countries and their citizens living outside the national territory.  What laws existed concerning taxation and control over their activities were pretty toothless.  So a "zone of disobedience" was ceded by most nation-states and that includes the U.S.  The American citizenship-based taxation regime has existed since the 19th century but it was not enforceable and so a tacit agreement existed between the U.S. government and her citizens abroad which I think I can sum up like this:  We, Americans abroad, leave the country and live elsewhere and we don't ask for anything or make demands of the home country government while we are outside of U.S. territory.  In exchange, the home country government leaves us alone and doesn't make any demands on us other than acquiring and using a U.S. passport to enter the territory."  Most other nation-states did something very similar since it really wasn't practical to try and exert sovereignty over one's absent citizens.

That was the status quo for the past 150+ years.  What is happening today is that the U.S. government, motivated by budget deficits, is trying to take that ceded territory back.  It wants those citizens abroad to be "legible" and they are not willing to rely on incentives, voluntary compliance or to conduct negotiations in order to get that space back.  That is why I call this the "Diaspora Tax War of 2012/2013."

One problem (among many others) for those who would resist this are "habits of obedience."  Some are simply looking for a way to comply.  Many are afraid to protest too loudly or publicly lest their heads be lopped off after they have stuck out their necks.  It is a testimony to how strongly Americans abroad feel about the U.S. government's efforts that we are now seeing people getting braver, shedding their anonymity, and beginning to organize, write letters, lobby and the like.

Last comments.

For those of you who are members of other diasporas (not Americans), I understand that you might feel rather disinterested in the whole business.  I think that is very short-sighted.  Your governments are watching what the U.S. government is doing.  If the Americans succeed in getting that territory back by abrogating this tacit agreement between her diaspora and the home country government, it is very likely that we will see other governments (perhaps yours) trying to do the same thing.  It's worth keeping an eye on.

For Americans abroad may I suggest a close reading of Scott's work. Let's not have any illusions here - we are weak.  Most of us don't have a lot of money and can't buy votes in the U.S.;  we don't have direct representation in Congress and often we can't even get lawmakers to listen or answer our mail; homelanders are not aware of our plight and even when they are, they are not particularly receptive to putting it on the national agenda;  and it's not practical for us to descend on Washington, D.C. to demonstrate in front of Congress or the White House.

But that does not mean that we are without options.  One is to join an organization like ACA, AARO or a FAWCO club.  Another is to read what Scott has to say and contemplate whether or not there is something in his arsenal of "weapons of the weak" that we could use to good effect.

Think about it.  And while you are thinking it over, consider the words of Frank Herbert:  "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration..."


rhodriwilliams said...

Hi Victoria,

Thanks as always for a wonderfully thought-provoking post. I will put Scott on my reading list, he clearly has a nice way of dis-obfuscating modern life.

One thing I would like to take up though. I think you might describe the ‘tacit agreement’ between states such as the US and their citizens abroad in a way that doesn’t quite do justice to the latter. Here is your description:

“We, Americans abroad, leave the country and live elsewhere and we don't ask for anything or make demands of the home country government while we are outside of U.S. territory. In exchange, the home country government leaves us alone and doesn't make any demands on us other than acquiring and using a U.S. passport to enter the territory." Most other nation-states did something very similar since it really wasn't practical to try and exert sovereignty over one's absent citizens.”

I think the key point I would add is that (1) we as citizens abroad are obliged to make ourselves legible to our country of residence (after all the earned income deduction applies in principle only upon compliance with one’s tax obligations in one’s state of residence); and (2) that this means that we are in fact legible, at least on a case by case basis, in states that have established cooperation on taxation issues with the US. And to be honest, that makes us legible as anyone who never left the country. I can be audited just as easily in Sweden, in effect, as in Arkansas, FATCA or no FATCA.

I think this point also helps to demonstrate that the net loss to the US of neither ‘reading’ nor taxing its citizens abroad was offset by a corresponding gain, namely the benefits of being able to freely ‘read’ (and tax) all the non-citizens living in the US. So in this sense, it is hardly is if the US was making a big concession that it now needs to claw back. And citizens living outside their country of citizenship were certainly not exploiting the system in any way unless they failed to pay taxes in their residence state.

The funny thing is that the US strategy to make its citizens abroad hyper-legible is not bringing any clear gains to anyone. If the point was to engage in flat-out double taxation (I keep paying in Sweden but also break off another ten percent and send it to Washington), that would be one thing. Objectionable because no one else in the world has to do it (but the Eritreans) but straightforward and suited to the purpose of raising extra revenues during hard times.

Instead, the US has chosen, in effect, to conduct a semi-audit on all of us, every year, in perpetuity. So they blimp up the IRS with yet further pencil-pushers, displace a lot of the cost onto foreign banks (which seek to dump these costs, in turn, by denying services to US citizens abroad), and hope to recoup some of the losses through a dishonest and terrifying campaign of automatically applying the maximum penalty for failures to comply with previously dormant and virtually unknown reporting requirements.

Now if that is not a theme-song for some anarchist calisthenics, I don’t know what is.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Rhodri, Thank you for a wonderful comment. Oh please do read Scott's work - based on what I know of your interests I think you would really enjoy his ideas.

I see your point - we are, indeed, "legible" to our countries of residence. And, yes, there are mechanisms already in place, like tax treaties, so that information can be exchanged if a government is sufficiently motivated to do so.

But some things get in the way of making that easy for home countries.

Take, for instance, unique taxpayer identifiers. Necessary in a country where many people may share the same name. In the US there is the Social Security number and in France you find the same thing. The two systems have nothing to do with each other. To my knowledge the French government doesn't even know my American number and I'm sure the US government hasn't got a clue what my French one is and could care less.

Not so easy to come up a system that would tie the two together - either link them in some way or come up with a common system. Why not an international taxpayer identification number? Sounds like way too much trouble and not realistic right now. So they are looking for other methods. If the tax treaties and current level of information exchange really were satisfactory, they wouldn't be bothering to come up with a Plan B.

That's my take on it. What do you think?

Tim said...

The fundamental problem is the US Congress basically for decades has refused to help other countries collect taxes through the help of the IRS other than through the most rudimentary ways. In fact some like Allison Christians have argues that earlier and older tax treaties back in the 1940s and 1950s compelled countries including the US to provide greater assistance to each other. By the 1970s and tax treaties because more standardized many of the provisions requiring explicit assistance between countries were stripped out. Automatic Exchange of Information and Assistance in Collection are nothing new.

Where perhaps the tax treaty model have fallen behind is in capital gains tax. Historically tax information exchange has been centered around FDAP income not cap gains. So while most countries with cap gains tax require domestic reporting by stockbrokers etc of cap gains historically this has not extended to non residents held accounts.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, thanks for providing a bit more context around this.

Do you know why the provisions for explicit assistance were stripped out?

Tim said...

Back in the late 1940s the Treasury negotiated a bunch a tax treaties(like 7 or 8) that allowed the IRS to collect taxes on behalf of foreign governments. They were all basically rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with instructions to Treasury to generally avoid Assistance in Collection provisions in tax treaties and if necessary assistance in collection should not apply to US citizens(hence the reciprocal treatment in Canada). Thus even fifty years later Assistance in Collection provisions in US tax treaties are very rare and when they do exist the do not allow for the collection of foreign taxes upon US citizens.