What would governments do if suddenly a large proportion of people decide to stop paying taxes? If the proportion of people is large enough, governments cannot attempt to prosecute these people or suspend their use of public services. That would be counterproductive and probably lead to protracted and sometimes violent social unrest. Governments would likely be forced to attempt to negotiate new social contracts with people, which would inevitably cause prolonged political chaos. This has happened sporadically in corners of the world. However, we are talking here about a global systemic movement simultaneously affecting many developing and developed nations, and via social media, fast replicating across the world. We are actually getting closer to that scenario. This would be 1968 on steroids and governments, for the first time in this century, will start feeling wary of their own people.
Governments exist for many reasons. Most of the world’s population has grown accustomed to the idea that a democratically elected government offers the best alternative to lead a country. Even in countries with poor democratic structures, or the absence of them, the aspiration exists to have capable authorities leading nations towards greener and safer pastures. Since 2011, when South Sudan became its newest member, the United Nations comprises 193 states. This is our working universe: at least 193 states and some 8 billion people.
The defense of the national domain is paramount. However, equally important is for governments to correct economic or social imbalances when they emerge. In the 21st century, marked by profound and deepening inequalities and mushrooming hate threads, this latter prerogative is something that many governments have somehow assumed is only a part-time or superfluous duty. Leaving market forces to correct these imbalances is the mantra and excuse of many of the affected governments. As the global economy evolved into a system in which one per cent of the population have critical bearings over the economic wellbeing of the remaining ninety-nine percent, however, market solipsism has become outdated thinking. Somewhere along the journey leading to this situation it stopped making sense that so few people should control so many, including by default many governments or elected politicians. This is not socialist thinking, neither a healthy market economy, but predatory profiteering or subsistence thraldom that needs to be curtailed (ideally by governments). In the words of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, during the 2020 Mandela lecture:
“Fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all. The fiction that unpaid care work is not work, the delusion that we live in a post-racist world, the myth that we are all in the same boat.”New York, 18 July 2020
How big is the inequality problem? Research by Oxfam (‘Reward Work, Not Wealth’, briefing paper 2018) shows that a decade after the financial crisis of 2008 the richest one percent continued to own more wealth than the whole of the rest of humanity, with the world’s population of (US$) billionaires growing to 2,043 by 2018. According to Credit Suisse, the world’s richest people saw their share of the global wealth increase from about 42.5% in 2008 to 50.1% in 2017. During the financial crisis governments bailed out the financial sector, which partly contributed for the super-rich to increase their wealth while the rest of the population saw their income dwindle, who ultimately paid for the bailout. The billionaire class continues to see their financial assets grow with every world crisis, a situation corroborated during the Covid-19 pandemic and likely to repeat once more during the current global inflation crisis.
In this race to the top of the wealth ladder, a less explored phenomenon is that concerning CEOs securing ever growing multi-million pay packages at the expense of less favourable conditions for their workforces, which ultimately contribute to their excessive wages. Likewise, the heads of public companies compete for larger and often unjustifiably high wages (typically low hundred-thousands), while public sector workers see their wages typically adjusted below inflation rates. The current global inflationary crisis, initiated BEFORE the war in Ukraine, has brought into sharper focus this issue. Does it seem right that many middle-class families now need to rely on charities or food banks to make ends meet or that the destitute are beyond salvation even in G8 countries? Ordinary people are therefore asking themselves simple but critical questions such as what the point is of voting or having government, or what the point is of paying taxes.
The 2022 Freedom in the World annual report recorded ’16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom’, with established democracies being ‘harmed from within by illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power.’ Indeed, a flipside of the retreat of democracy phenomenon is precisely that people are losing faith in their own governments because democratically elected politicians have systematically failed to address the growing inequality problem. The situation is only likely to get worse once the effect of droughts and flooding in many parts of the world in 2022 filter down and cause a further increase in food prices in 2023, as well as the wider effects of the conflict in Ukraine, which is likely to go on for years. Thus, the statistical argument by the IMF (imf.org/en/Topics/Inequality/) that ‘global income inequality first stabilized and then started to rapidly decline over the last three decades’ simply does not ring true to the majority of the population. In contrast, findings of the Paris School of Economics’ World Inequality Report 2022 reiterate that ‘the share of income presently captured by the poorest half of the world’s people is about half what it was in 1820, before the great divergence between Western countries and their colonies.’
The scenario of millions or billions of people across the world one day stopping paying taxes (or other significant public money contributions) in protest is not far-fetched anymore. In particular, this is because profound inequality (be that regarding income or broader social disadvantages) has become a more entrenched and generalised malaise. Ask ordinary people in, for example, the United Kingdom or any OECD country what they think about the spiralling cost of energy or basic goods as well as the never-ending attacks on their shrinking income?
When we superimpose this scenario onto the consequences of climate change observed in 2022 and the effects of irregular migration flows, it seems that humanity has crossed a threshold for which we are simply not prepared. There are not enough security personnel (public or private) to contain widespread social unrest. Against the backdrop of the longer historical trajectory, just like earthquakes, a new global revolution is overdue. Movements such as ‘Enough Is Enough’ and ‘Don’t Pay UK’ as well as recent uprising in many parts of the Global South might be just the prelude to a super-charged impetus for social and political change everywhere. Are you ready for a global revolution?
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