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A Tax Haven in a Heartless World: On Melinda Cooper’s “Counterrevolution”

Why should taxpayers fund schools that violate their own values, the Moms for Liberty wonder? A new book traces how this kind of thinking about public spending came to be.

In Cooper’s treatment, debates over taxation were always indirect expressions of “anxieties around the racial and sexual politics of redistribution,” at once playing on and exacerbating divisions between property owners and the “nonpropertied poor.” What regressive taxation enabled at a national level is a fundamentally new regime of accumulation—one organized not around measurable growth in industrial production or wage levels but instead by asset price appreciation and capital gains. In fact, the decline in capitalist productivity is what has enjoined people to secure conditions favorable to the appreciation of their own assets, and to work against a variety of profligate enemies ostensibly leeching off their hard work and taking what they haven’t earned. The result has been a willful dismantling of the relatively generous public-spending regime that came into being in the boom years after World War II, and that expanded yet further after militant labor, feminist, and anti-racist movements fought exclusions from existing welfare provision and from a living wage. In other words, the gains that were made within these movements were not defeated by rhetoric alone: they simply could not be maintained when economic conditions changed in a way that favored instead the steady erosion of direct public-sector spending and the rise of an “asset-based democracy.”

Cooper’s argument adds to a considerable literature on neoliberalism that studies declining union membership, the diminishing labor share of income, spreading underemployment and contingent work, and deficits that continue to grow despite austerity-era spending levels. What is unique here is her extensive work on the moralization of taxation via the nuclear family, which concentrates wealth in ways that parallel and subtend the privatization of care. Cooper argues that private family wealth has become the preferred form in the United States, supported by a tax regime that is “so regressive it must be considered an instrument of wealth generation in the hands of the rich.” Indeed, the US has witnessed a “resurgence of dynastic wealth” that Cooper suggests is the clearest symptom of the success of the regressive counterrevolution.