Party of the Uncertain

"If there were a party of those who aren't sure they're right, I'd belong to it." Albert Camus

Tax Resistance and Symbolic Protest

On Friday, I attended the monthly session called “Clarification of Thought” at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker.  The chairs were arranged to face one side of this rather humble living room, the setting was intimate, and the people welcoming.  That night’s event was titled “Taxes for Peace, Not War”, a presentation and discussion about tax resistance.  The presenter, Jack Payden-Travers, spoke about the possibilities of tax resistance and the various forms it may take.  In paying taxes, one not only pays for roads, schools, and social services, but one also funds and enables a large military machine.  By paying taxes one funds hegemonic violence and the proliferation of weaponry (nuclear and otherwise), wars and the preparations for war.  Our taxes is the life blood of state-sanctioned operations of violence and domination.  For those of us who consider ourselves pacifists, and for any person with any ethical concerns, our direct participation in such operations in the payment of taxes should give rise to reconsider our responsibility.

In a refusal to support armed forces, much less the state, some intentionally live below a taxable income.  Payden-Travers acknowledged this tactic, but spent much time discussing other avenues and degrees of tax resistance.  There are some who refuse to pay the percentageof their taxes equivalent to the percentage of state funds put toward the armed forces, there are some who withhold varying portions (even just a few dollars), and others submit letters of protest along with their filed taxes.  Even in the smaller acts of withholding small portions or submitting an accompanying letter, Payden-Travers reminded us that we should not underestimate the importance of “symbolic protest” which he likened to the refusal to burn incense to Caesar.

Michael R. Walli (63), Megan Rice, SHCJ (82), Greg Boertje-Obed, (57), succeeded in a disarmament action at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear facility.

Michael R. Walli (63), Megan Rice, SHCJ (82), Greg Boertje-Obed, (57), succeeded in a disarmament action at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear facility.

Even though I’m uncertain about the use of the word “symbolic” (as though it is somehow opposed to real, efficacious) protest, I was happy to be reminded of the importance of such seemingly insignificant gestures of resistance.  These gestures of resistance make visible what tends to operate invisibly, or rather, it makes profane that which operates as sacred–in this case, the state.  The state uses symbols, narratives, and rituals in order to sustain the smooth and imperceptible working of its war operations.  In this sense, even the smallest disruption brought about by symbolic resistance (or as “countersymbols”) weakens the myths by making them known and therefore questionable.  Large or small, countersymbols keep consciousness and the demand for further resistance active by virtue of the disruption it produces. Whether the protests are forms of property destruction, such as found in the Plowshares Movement, or marches against ongoing military actions, I believe the power of the resistance as countersymbolic give them much of their power and make them a resource for future resistance.


3 comments on “Tax Resistance and Symbolic Protest

  1. katrinkavs
    March 19, 2013

    Agreed. And one of the challenges, as with any other form of resistance, is how to keep from being overwhelmed by the feeling that nothing will change, and/or that you’re fighting battles that can’t be won. I suppose the key is staying in *meaningful* touch with others trying to achieve the same goals– if for no other reason than being reminded of the fact that you’re not completely crazy. Were there any thoughts on this in the session?

  2. katrinkavs
    March 19, 2013

    Been thinking about this while reading Frederic Jameson, who mentions Kenneth Burke’s differentiation between a “symbolic *act*, a real form of praxis in the symbolic realm… [and] a merely *symbolic* act, an attempt to act in a realm in which action is impossible and does not exist as such.” (“The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism and Land Speculation,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, p. 183) Looks as if he goes into more in-depth discussion on the concepts in “Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act,” available here: Any thoughts?

  3. Ruth Benn
    March 20, 2013

    Nice thoughtful piece that I’d like to use in our print newsletter. Hope that is ok. Will site the website but do you want an author name on it? Thanks! Ruth Benn,

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