Bernard-Henri Lévy Headshot

In Praise of Taxes

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Should the French anti-tax protesters known as the Bonnets Rouges be considered members of the right or the left?

Are they just mad as hell, or have they been co-opted?

And if they are being manipulated, then by whom? Have they been Le Penned from the right? Mélenchonized from the left? Both at once? Neither?

Will their revolt, like the eponymous anti-tax rebellion that shook France, and especially Brittany, in the 1670s, be one of those political particle accelerators that from time to time in French history have caused the two extremes of the political spectrum to come together? Or is it merely one of the forms assumed by the great amorphous rage, not of orthodox conservatives but of the unheard and unseen, that is one of the hallmarks of our time?

More important -- because in the end, like it or not, it comes down to this: Brittany being a land of shadow and light, like France as a whole, we have to ask what side of this movement will prevail. Will it be the glorious heritage of the sailors of the Île of Sein, of Douarnenez and Camaret, or the darker legacy of the inventors of the black and white flag that one sees flying over the Red Bonnets' demonstrations? Which tendency will triumph: an anti-republican "autonomism," the roots of which lie partly in the rank compost of the Breton National Party, which prospered under the Occupation, or will it be that Breton pride (shared by France as a whole) exemplified by the voice of Charles-Marie Guillois and the calls to resistance that he broadcast over Radio London?

These are open questions.

I have my own ideas on the subject, based on the fact that in Brittany at critical moments the spirit of resistance -- good sense and resistance, or resistance and good sense -- always carries the day. But, for the time being, the questions remain open.

What is already clear is that the Red Bonnet movement is the catalyst of an anti-tax revolt that extends well beyond Brittany and from which nothing good can be expected.

"Taxation is robbery," we've begun to hear in various quarters.

Taxation, we hear, is nothing but confiscation of personal wealth and effort by a voracious vampire state, a kleptomaniacal state.

Supposedly, without realizing it, we are inventing a new type of regime that is democracy only in name and that should properly be renamed taxocracy.

That theory has its right-wing version: The lazy poor are sponging off the rich.

And its left-wing version: The whole socialist tradition that, in the wake of Proudhon's later works, and particularly his poorly understood and, as a result, too influential Theory of Taxation, pushes hate for the bourgeois state to the point of rejecting anything, including taxation, that helps feed the monster.

Among its other variants are the anarcho-revolutionary (Bakunin saw taxation as a form of "legitimized pillage" akin to feudal pillage, but worse), the anarcho-capitalist (the David Friedmans and Murray Rothbards, relying on an extreme vision of natural rights, argue for a society that is headless, self-instituted, ungoverned), and, recently, the Nietzschean (Peter Sloterdijk's strange little book of a few years back stipulated a society of pure aristocracy in which the entire population would rise to the level of the noble values of the past, allowing society to replace taxation with generosity and compulsory solidarity with gifts freely offered).

In all of these cases, the consequence is the same:

--A clean break with a long tradition born from Roman law, reinforced by vigorous debates within the Catholic church around the notion of the charitable duty of communities, and enshrined, eventually, in the modern idea of the social contract.

--A collapse of the central pillar of social life.

--A decision to dispense with the only means ever found to meet the needs of the sovereign state.

--The dilution of the sovereign state itself, of the sovereign people as defined in the course of several centuries of political thought, in the turbid waters of a society in which man reverts to the man-hunting wolf feared not only by Hobbes but by nearly all modern political thinkers.

What is populism?

It is the plebs, the crowd, standing in for the people.

It is the replacement of the beautiful Greek demos with the laos of the demagogues.

And, in the face of the turbulent mob (turba is a Latin term for the populus run amok), there is the specter of war of man against his neighbor, of every man for himself, which inevitably must fill the void left by the decapitation of the state.

Pray for the government, Levinas said, citing the Pirkei Avot: Without it, men would eat each other alive.

One is tempted to say in echo: Let's pray for taxation. Without it we would have no way to protect the most vulnerable among us, to assist the most needy, and, most important of all, to enshrine in law the principle of responsibility for others.

Paying taxes is a duty -- but it is also a right.

Taxation is human rights -- provided one is willing to place those rights squarely at the heart of politics.

And that is what is so worrisome about the anti-tax rebellion that the provocateurs of despair and social malaise seem to be toying with.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy