Ramp Hollow: Taxation and the Enforcement of Capitalism
One thing I realized in reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia is that all of us concerned with the extreme inequality in American life need a better way to talk about taxes. I found the discussion of the tax bill in terms of how individual families across the economic spectrum would be affected misleading. That approach seems to make the way we think about taxes into whether people at the bottom end have their tax burden alleviated, and if so, it is good. Insofar as liberals are willing to defend taxes, they do so by arguing that taxes support government services. The argument against tax cuts then becomes a defense of government on the basis of the services government provides for the poor. When poor people argue against taxes in general, liberals tend to argue that they are arguing against their self-interest. Liberals argue that taxes are not the problem, it is the regressive structure of taxes that puts the burden on the poor and middle-class and shifts the wealth to the rich, as the recently passed tax bill does.
Steven Stoll makes the case in Ramp Hollow that it was the introduction of a tax, specifically of a tax on whiskey that forced the enclosure of the commons in Appalachia and made previously independent mountaineers into people irrevocably tied to and dependent on the national economy and eventually dependent for their sustenance on coal companies. This case suggests that tax when used as a mechanism against those who live off of a commons is a coercive mechanism in the service of enforcing a capitalist economy, where those who might be laborers must work to increase value for capitalists rather than work independently for their own sustenance to the extent they wish to work. Capitalists are willing to pay a tax if the tax changes the relation of the mountaineers to their land, their labor and the national government. Later discussions of the distribution of the tax are incidental to this initial demand that everyone pay the tax, a demand that requires those living off the commons to turn their commodities into value, and thus to monetize what was previously beyond the scope of the national economy. At this stage in late capital, the distribution of the tax contributes to inequality, but knowing the history explains how taxes on rural populations in the early days of the United States were the coercive efforts of the government to enforce one economic system on those who had no need for it, and who received little support from the government in return for it. Read more