What could be more revealing about the current state of world capitalism than the reaction of the Irish government to the EU ruling that Apple must pay US$14.5 billion in back taxes? Did they rejoice at the infrastructure, education and improved services this money could offer? Did they hell.
The order from Brussels was that Apple had essentially evaded tax by headquartering itself in Ireland and then establishing a floating, non-territorial head office. Ireland prides itself on its low company tax rate — 12.5%. But even that was too much for Apple, which paid a mere 1% tax rate on profits in 2003, down to a minuscule 0.005% in 2014 — essentially no tax at all.
The Irish government was so happy to have this flagship company and its pseudo-headquarters that it would have paid Apple to be there — which, given use of services and general protection of the state, it more or less did. This attempt to make the company give Ireland money forced Finance Minister Michael Noonan to “defend the integrity of our tax system”. Noonan said it was an attack on Irish sovereignty. The dialogue could have been straight out of Myles na Gopaleen.
That is, of course, a bit bloody rich. The Irish Republic has been one of the most diligent European citizens since joining the EEC in 1973, and expressed that all the louder following Brexit. Apple’s move, and that of numerous other companies, is classic shell-game stuff — use the single-market and borderless mobility of the EU to turn 400 million people into a customer base. Then, for tax purposes, retreat back to the one economy in it that has both the advanced structures of northern Europe and the fiscal crisis of southern Europe, and exploit that contradiction. The scrambling defensiveness of the Irish government in Apple’s favour shows how far to the bottom we have raced — companies can get away with no tax, just for “providing jobs”.
But the really important thing is … well, it’s not many jobs. This is not a government trying to keep a car manufacturer or some such. Ireland’s gain from Apple is a mix of through-put, high-end jobs and the dim hope that its presence there, however vestigial, maintains their status as a technology hub. Remember the Celtic Tiger? Pickled now, on the shelf in a Chinese herbalist’s shop. No doubt there are those in the Irish government who might have wondered if there’s a better way to power an economy than feeding off the scraps of the last boom. But if there is, they haven’t found it, and so this attack on their stopgap — being a grey, damp Cayman Islands for megacorps — threw them into a panic.
The absurdity of the whole case is doubled when one sees how much cash Apple has on hand: more than US$200 billion (however, it’s also carrying about $90 billion in debt). The company is selling crack in a crack house, magic phone charms to a now-dependent market. Indeed, they’ve found the ultimate hook — they sell you the same product six or seven — or 18? 19? — times over, and just change the number on the case.
Apple employs 6000 people in Ireland. No small number, but they are essentially subsidised by Irish taxpayers. And the number of Western employees that go into producing that is derisory, compared to workers in places like China’s Foxconn factory — and the Foxconn factory is today the world’s largest producer, and buyer, of work robots. Even before high capitalism has completed its arc in China, the next stage is being moved onto.
In the West, we are moving further still. The check-out chaps and chicks are gone from the supermarket; fast-food joints will follow very soon. The best magazine to read for a taste of the future is a US title, Nation’s Restaurant News. It is, of course, all about franchises, not individual restaurants. These days half its content is comparing robots and automated ordering systems. The sector is the largest single employer of unskilled labour in the West. One suspects that they are holding back on automation — as a sector — because even they fear the effect of the collective hollowing-out of the bottom end of the job market. And as retail, too, goes ever more online, the darkstore replaces the superstore. Everything about retail — going somewhere to get something, getting someone to get it for you — now feels just that little bit archaic.
The corporations selling online are thus simultaneously gaining huge turnover (sometimes, not always, with profit), even as they steadily undermine the conditions for getting it in the future. It is not the wealth imbalance between capital and society that is the problem — that was worse in the past. It is that capital and the notion of mass employment are coming to a parting of the ways. That also means a change in what capital is. Thus, even in something like a simple tax imbroglio, we can see the lineaments of a post-capitalist possibility, one occurring at the very heart of the capitalist process itself.
The plain fact is that if large sections of the baseline economy become substantially employment free, the state will have to enforce real, global tax regimes, in order to take the money it needs to revive demand — most likely through a guaranteed minimum income scheme. This is very clearly not a la-la land problem of the distant future, but one heading towards us at speed.
[Rundle: true innovation would undermine capitalism — all else is just rent-seeking]
It’s complementary to the last five years of failed recovery, during which trillions of dollars of quantitative easing were pumped into the world economy to no great effect other than to create a global property bubble. Now, for the first time, the whole of the West, teetering on 0.25% interest rates, is heading towards negative interest rates — charging banks, passed onto savings-holding customers, a penalty fee for not lending out their money.
Individual conglomerates and banks resist both taxing for reinvestment and forced mobilisation of capital — and, in doing so, embed the contradiction deeper. That is, historically, what the state is for — as the board of management of capital, it can impose a general order and thus assure firms that they are not being disadvantaged. But what happens when there is not only no bounded territorial state, but no place whatsoever? When the firm claims that its head office is purely conceptual? What if it shifted half its holdings into bitcoins?
The pure and total capitalism that the libertarians dream of would be upon us — and its utterly chaotic character would soon be revealed. The EU’s insistence on making a state levy taxes it doesn’t actually want to is not socialist in the least. It is a re-assertion of the ordoliberal managed capitalism that has always been its deep mission (the lunatic neoliberal dimension that it visited upon Greece may have abated somewhat). All good fun and games, and a lot more to come. This is the new normal — and very, very revealing.