Irish Left Review · The Household Charge – How They Failed to Shape Our Perspectives


Still Writing Out the Resistance: The Irish Times and the Household Charge

Critical Media Review on the Irish Times continued  de-politicisation of the household tax controversy.

In a previous article critical media review looked at the framing of the household charge controversy in the Irish Times and Irish Independent concluding that much of the coverage has  written out the anti household tax campaign. In doing so they have effectively written out political discussion and debate focusing on either technical issues or mistakes of the Government. Today in the Irish Times a rather bizarre piece completely omitting any political considerations continues this theme.  The piece begins with:

DESPITE BEING imposed by a Government with healthy polling figures, at a time when every Irish citizen is aware of the financial challenges facing the State, almost half of all Irish householders have avoided paying the €100 household charge to date.

A number of issues here: primarily the authors conceive of politics as the game of polling, and presumably if polls are up all is well in the world. Politics presumably does not go beyond this representation of representation and certainly should be kept off the streets. Secondly they seem to have a complete unawareness of the financial position of much of the Irish working and middle classes. At the same time they also omit the wider political implications of the boycott.Thirdly and  most incredibly the authors state:

Without any large-scale protests, a near majority quietly and almost peacefully failed to pay a tax. Even in the worst days of the 1980s, this level of tax avoidance was unthinkable.

We can only surmise that the (now slightly embarrassed?) authors wrote the article before last Saturday’s large demonstration at the Labour Party conference in Galway; a protest which ended with 1,000 protesters breaking through police lines. For  the first time in the Republic of Ireland pepper spray was used by the Police (cue media bias on protester violence here).

He obviously didn’t get the ‘no protests have happened’ memo

However they must have written the article since the large scale protest outside the Fine Gael conference, and the literally hundreds of local campaign meetings and protests involving tens of thousands over the last few months. The anti household tax campaign has been the biggest national political campaign in the Irish Republic for decades. This lack of political awareness is especially poor given that the article was written by academics specialising in regulation and governance in one of Ireland’s most prominent universities.

We can only  speculate that they are either political novices or have chosen to omit the campaign for ideological reasons. The fact that they use the term ‘tax avoidance‘ rather than the term ‘boycott‘ would certainly betray an ideological bent. However that is not to say it is impossible for one to be both ideologically bent and politically unaware at the same time.

The large scale protest that didn’t happen outside the FG conference

But the bizarre elements of the article only begins. The authors ask:

Why the massive failure to comply? Are we witnessing a disaffected public flexing its combined “muscle” in response to a Government imposing more and more austerity measures on the average family?

And answers:

Lessons from regulatory governance – the study of what makes people choose to follow or break rules – suggest otherwise.

And now begins the entire de-politicising of the entire issue. The authors offer a number of reasons why people have not paid, in doing so the authors offer absolutely no evidence of any kind, relying on what can only be described as pop-academic suggestions.  Firstly they tell us of an experiment by ‘behavioural’ economists:

 Seeing other people “get away with murder” can create a “coalition of the unwilling”. Behavioural economists have conducted experiments where individuals work together to win cash prizes. Participants could work together to build a bigger pot to divide, or free load on the work of others. In these simulated games they showed that most people are willing to go to great lengths to see cheaters punished – even to the point of giving up their own winnings just to make sure another person doesn’t get away with more than their share.

And then jump immediately to the conclusion:

People preferred to join those not paying the household charge than to see others get away without paying it.

Behavioural psychology is in itself quite controversial and in no way universally accepted but even leaving this aside; the idea that some individuals (most likely students)  taking part in simulated games to win cash prizes, somehow equates to people suffering in the fifth year of austerity measures, (while watching the wealthy being bailed out and become wealthier) is quite frankly ridiculous and has no scientific validity. They also betray an extremely narrow conception of why people don’t pay. It is not people acting collectively or even individually in protest (or  being unable to afford the charge)  but not paying  so as to ‘not see others got away with it’.  Collective solidarity seems to be anathema to this line of thinking.

Second, be transparent about your figures – but do it afterwards. Being told that you’re the last person on your street not to pay the charge is very powerful, but knowing you’re the first doesn’t rush you. Everyone knows there is strength in numbers, and the Government kept telling us how big those numbers were. If you are going to give constant updates about your figures, you had better hope they are on your side.

A certain hint of authoritarian and propagandistic thinking here. Surely not in the paper of record?

Third, social pressure matters. While many people pay their taxes because they think it is a patriotic duty or they wish to contribute to the State, others do so because of the social stigma attached to non-payment. The Revenue Commissioners figured this out a long time ago and started publishing lists of tax avoiders in newspapers.

Hearing your neighbours gossiping about your dirty laundry can be much more effective than a fine. By failing to make a strong case for why the charge was necessary, the Government failed to bring this social pressure to bear.

This is entirely consistent with the ‘dole scrounger’ line of thinking. Or better known as blaming the victim. The article certainly is starting to betray an authoritarian line now, which continues with:

Finally, a threat needs to be credible. When it was a week before the deadline and three out of four people hadn’t registered for the charge it was possible to believe that non-payers would not really be punished.

After writing an article dripping in bias they offer a little faux-objectivity:

Whether the household charge is a good idea or not  it’s clear that the Government really didn’t give it the best chance for success.

Finally they finish with their entire position and the reason for the article:

While it’s important that people are taxed at fair levels, the response to the household charge shows that it’s equally important that money is collected in a way that makes people confident that everyone will pay their fair share and if they don’t that they’ll be punished for it. To mistake technical weaknesses for mass revolt would also be an example of policy failure.

Let’s repeat that last line to make sure we get it:

 To mistake technical weaknesses for mass revolt would also be an example of policy failure.

Now repeat after me:  There is no opposition, there is no political resistance, there is no opposition, there is no political resistance, there is no opposition….

Writing out the Resistance – The Media and the Household Tax

The Hollywood depiction of the Vietnam war, even critical depictions, have some  key frames: that of an unpopular war at home, a vicious and cynical American army,  corrupt politicians, bad leadership from generals and even an effective popular anti-war movement back home. What is missing from the Hollywood depiction however is the Vietnamese people themselves; they remain ‘the other’, a passive entity that have little or nothing to do with the outcome of the war.  The war, rather than being won by the Vietnamese, is  lost by the Americans. This broadly imperialist framing removes all agency from the Vietnamese people who can’t be conceived to have the ability to defeat America on their own merits.

I can’t help being reminded of this framing during the last number of weeks with the media coverage of the controversial household charge. In the media coverage the organised opposition to the charge has been effectively ignored. The reason for the non compliance of the charge has not been due to a well organised national popular campaign but rather to the ‘mistakes’ of a bullying Minister Phil Hogan, a ‘confused’ population who don’t understand how to pay, bad communications by the government, bad administration by the state, and cynical opportunism by some TDs.

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