Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

Picking the Right Target…but Missing the Mythical Mark

Myths provide a useful way for explaining complex concepts without needing to present a mountain of research. Most myths succeed – or fail – by playing upon a mixture of ethical and emotional values and weaving these into some manner of raucous tale where the moral of the story generally winds up being more important than any specific part of the legend. While mention of “myth” may make some think first and foremost of pantheons of dead gods living atop Mt. Olympus or feasting in Valhalla, the truth is that every era is defined by a well stocked mythos.

Thus, in contemporary times, all kinds of myths are on display if one chooses to look for them: mythical body images smile from billboards and magazine covers, the myth of the sainted founding fathers waves from every flag pole, the myth of the “free market” commands its own section in the newspaper, the myths of technology hum in our pockets and our homes, and so forth. For every group it seems that there is an acceptable mythology and it is in the clash of these not-strictly-reality-based views that problems can frequently arise (see: the myth of Ronald Reagan vs the myth of FDR), yet holding on to certain myths provides not just a cast of stock characters and a smattering of pop-culture tropes, it provides a way of explaining reality. In a world dominated by seemingly unassailable myths about market forces it is hardly surprising that some would find succor in the band of a mythical marauder.

Robin Hood is one of history’s most irrepressible avenging rapscallions, he of the band of “merry men” striking out from Sherwood Forest who perform some variation of appropriating the goods of the well-to-do and distributing these to those who have not. While Robin Hood may have roots in fifteenth century ballads (and may or may not be related tangentially to a real individual) his legend has been wound through centuries of tales and pop-cultural manifestations. Alternately a brigand, a cast-out noble, romantic hero, royalist, or avenging specter, the specifics of the tale have changed greatly, yet – at least in the American imagination – the name still conjures up some sense of a righter of economic wrongs (though the most recent of the Robin Hood films seemed – rather brashly – to rid Robin of this economic legacy).

Thus, it is hardly surprising that Robin Hood should see his name and trademark jaunty cap affixed to a campaign seeking economic justice, namely: The Robin Hood Tax. The allure of the Robin Hood Tax  (RHT) is that one need not hear much more than its title to have a pretty good idea as to what the tax represents; however, to put in the actual terms employed by the folks agitating for the RHT (as is noted on the “How It Works” section of their website):

“The big idea behind the Robin Hood Tax is to generate hundreds of billions of dollars…This small tax of less than ½ of 1% on Wall Street transactions can generate hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the US alone.”

The basic idea behind the tax (to reiterate) is to introduce a very small transaction tax that will siphon off less than a penny on the dollar for the types of high volume computerized transactions that occur in the financial sector in the thousands every day. The RHT campaign paints the tax as a form of economic justice, a way of demanding that Wall Street pay its fair share, a method to ensure that the financial markets help ease some of the woe they have sown, and a route to constructing a more stable economic future that aims to more equitably share the balance of taxes in society.

There is much in the idea of the Robin Hood Tax that is extremely appealing, and it is always thrilling to see the mythical avengers of old reborn for the class conflict of today; however, there is simultaneously something about the Robin Hood Tax that is very underwhelming. A trifling transaction tax of “less than ½ of 1% on Wall Street transactions,” to this the name of Robin Hood is affixed? That dry scoff is not coming from the Wall Street financiers but from the shadows lurking in Sherwood. Indeed, while the Robin Hood Tax has succeeded admirably in choosing an appropriate target, when the arrow is loosed from the bow it nevertheless misses the mark. The problem is less in the program’s ambition than in the avatar they are picking.

Firstly, by selecting the character of Robin Hood the supporters of the RHT are from the outset competing in the very archery competition set up solely for the purposes of ensnaring them. For what is it that Robin Hood is known for having done? He (along with his merry band) stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The problem with this is that it immediately allows opponents of the RHT (the rich along with those who already consider all taxes to be “theft”) to cast the RHT not as sound economic policy, or a more equitable method of taxation, but as a clear example of “stealing” from and “giving to.” While supporters of the RHT might attempt to parry this thrust of steel, the fact remains that critics of the RHT need only keep beating upon the name “Robin Hood” to portray the whole plan as some forest-footed tomfoolery that seeks to steal from the rich. While an astute economically minded individual would surely be able to point out that the “rich” have obtained much of their wealth by gaming the system and bilking the laboring classes (for economic analysis check out Robert Reich and Richard Wolff), the fact remains that invoking Robin Hood in an argument about tax policy hurts the case of those invoking Robin Hood more than it hurts the case of those in the employ of Mammon, or the Sherriff of Nottingham, whichever.

Secondly, and more importantly, tying the name and legacy of Robin Hood to a tax of “less than ½ of 1% on Wall Street transactions” does a grave disservice to a mighty mythical figure, and seems to actually undercut some of the radical potential invested in the figure. Granted, mythical figures are such that all can quibble over whether or not something does or does not represent a true expression of that character’s legacy, but turning a moral marauder into a tax seems rather…well…off. From a perspective of the history of radical activities it should be quite clear that Robin Hood (and similar characters) act in the spirit of the old activist slogan “direct action gets the goods,” a saying which should be counterbalanced with the less often heard slogan “action that requires legislative approval gets muddled up in the political system and nothing comes of it.” The purpose of characters like Robin Hood is precisely that they function outside of the standard realms of power and decisions, the actions of these avengers stand in for opposition and activity that take place beyond the corrupted borders of a failed political system. Thus Robin Hood and his merry men are not a tax, but representatives of a call for economic justice that recognizes that those who have historically done all of the “taking” cannot be expected to turn around and “give.”

The need for such legendary figures is largely attested to by their numbers throughout history, indeed there’s a pretty good affinity group to be made up simply of such specters. The historian Peter Linebaugh recognized this mythical import, writing:

“Such mythological figures…open the gates to history from below. English history is replete with them—Robin Hood, Piers Ploughman, Lady Skimmington, Captain Swing for example—and so is Irish history especially in this period (1811-12) when Captain Knockabout or Captain Rock joined Ned Ludd as anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” (Linebaugh, 10)

Beyond England in the 1800s cultural history continues to conjure up new “avenging avatars” periodically. After all, is not the character V from Alan Moore and Dave Lloyd’s V for Vendetta whose visage has been taken up by the organization “anonymous” (and in a way by Occupy groups) not another of these “anonymous, avenging avatars?” The spirit of these characters is essential for moments wherein the approved of channels of political change have completely broken down – they are not taxes or bills, but proof that taxes and bills have failed, hence a spirit is needed that will deliver the “justice that was otherwise denied.” These legendary figures provide activists with a retinue of symbols and mythical might the use of which allows them to bolster their actions through an appeal to a historic tradition of struggling masses.

Not to be dismissive, but as decent an idea as a transaction tax is – which is more mythical, Robin Hood? or the idea that such a bill could make it into law through the US political system? A tax is not what “Robin Hood, Piers Ploughman, Lady Skimmington, Captain Swing” or General Ned Ludd call for, it is what is eventually called for by those reacting in fear to the specter of these figures haunting the land and the discourse.

The Robin Hood Tax needs to change its name, really. While the group behind the RHT should use the image of Robin not for anything related to the tax but for other activist purposes – Robin Hood could be organizing skill shares, opening kitchens and community spaces, or medic trainings, or any of a range of other direct actions while the transaction tax needs to find a better mythical figure to draft into service.

Luckily, there is a perfect one out there.

The Robin Hood Tax should be renamed the Gordon Gekko Tax, really.

For Gordon Gekko (the character from the film Wall Street) acts as a perfect mythical avatar for everything crooked, immoral, and mindlessly greedy that defines our financial systems. If the Robin Hood Tax succeeds by immediately conjuring up the image of that green clad fighter for justice than the Gordon Gekko Tax conjures up the image of that green chasing fraudster synonymous with Wall Street and thus immediately reminding those hearing it precisely why that true den of thieves needs to be taxed. By naming the tax for Gordon Gekko it will also put Wall Street’s courtiers on the defensive – forcing them to defend Gekko instead of giving them the opportunity to go after Robin. After all, if the aim is to get at the likes of the modern day (and non-mythical) Gordon Gekko’s it is much better to name him, and to thereby remind one and all exactly where the transaction tax paints its bull’s-eye.

A transaction tax should be just one of the many arrows in the activist’s quiver, and while it is certainly a useful idea, such “of the system” plans are not the works of mythical avengers but last ditch attempts to keep these agitated specters at bay. The “myth” at work in the transaction tax is the myth that in the US there is still a functioning political system. Small, if worthwhile, reforms like a transaction tax are attempts to obtain justice through the system whereas the pantheon of populist picaros stand for the pursuit of justice when there is no other recourse.

Though the lords of finance and capital may wail and cry “class war” at the specter of a transaction tax, make no mistake, it is not actually a transaction tax named after Robin Hood they fear…but that the true avatars of this avenger’s army may reemerge from the deep of Sherwood Forest.

The name Gordon Gekko should be affixed to the transaction tax, but the name Robin Hood should be affixed upon our hearts.

On Related Topics

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

In Which Country Do You Dream?

The Left! For…um….

Works Cited

Linebaugh, Peter. Ned Ludd & Queen Mab. PM Press, 2012.



About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

One comment on “Picking the Right Target…but Missing the Mythical Mark

  1. Pingback: Trading Sledgehammers for Pillows: the curious case of Reform Luddism | LibrarianShipwreck

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