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new internationalist
issue 231 - May 1992

To all N.I. Readers

War Tax: Symptom of a Violent Society

Since 1983 I have refused to pay that part of my income tax that is used by the Australian government to finance its military spending. There are three main reasons.

First, ten years of peace research has convinced me that the popular notion that war is a conflict between nation-states is a misconception. War is the direct result of national elites using military violence to defend elite power, corporate profit and personal privilege. Spending on weapons and warfare - which now exceeds $2 billion globally each day - only benefits powerful vested interests; it does not address the security needs of ordinary people. Moreover, it adversely affects the possibilities for dealing creatively with conflict in the international system.

Second, my conscientious objection to military spending is the result of my personal experience. This includes three months spent working with a Community Aid Abroad refugee health team. This team worked in a refugee camp in the Sudan at the height of the Ethiopian war and famine in 1985. In this camp of 20,000 people, at least five people died every day from hunger-related diseases. Military spending diverts resources from where they are needed most.

I also spent one month in Iraq as a member of the Gulf Peace Team during the outbreak of the Gulf War. For two weeks I witnessed the incredible human suffering and ecological damage wrought by weapons paid for with military taxes. Despite claims to the contrary, it is clear to me that you cannot resolve conflict by killing people.

Third, my conscientious objection reflects my commitment to nonviolence as a way of life. It is my deeply held conviction that all life is sacred. To kill another living being, or to pay through my taxes to do so, is to kill a part of myself and to destroy a part of the magic of the universe.

Evidence suggests that the Earth and its species are under siege. Every day, 40,000 people in Africa, Asia and Latin America die because they do not have enough to eat. Every day, 20 square kilometres of global rainforest is destroyed. Every day, we store another 20 tonnes of nuclear waste. Every day, we drive 50-100 species of life to extinction. In addition, the patriarchal culture which drives militarism denies basic human rights to women, indigenous peoples, the elderly, children, the disabled and those who are homeless and in poverty.

Existing institutions are grossly inadequate for dealing with this crisis. National governments continue to act within outdated parameters; they are agents of the past which subvert the struggle for a just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable future. We need fundamental change at the personal and societal levels.

One of the main reasons for my commitment to nonviolence and feminism is that they identify the importance of personal behaviour as a locus for change. There is little point doing the hard work 'out there' if you are not willing to do the more difficult work 'in here'. Overt violence and silent exploitation, wheher the result of personal or state behaviour, have the same effect. Moreover, as Mahatma Gandhi - the greatest exponent of nonviolence - stressed repeatedly, only powerful individuals are effective agents of change. In his view, a powerful individual is someone who has 'power over oneself'. He stressed ongoing review of personal values and attitudes and continuing modification of personal behaviour.

In the past I have encouraged people to work for peace, social justice, development and environmental harmony in nonviolent ways of their own choosing. However, I have now decided to make five specific suggestions intended to undermine the structural and cultural roots of violence in our society. If you wish to support what I am doing, adopting these suggestions is a powerful way of doing so.

First, I ask all men to examine the ways in which they benefit by living in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is a system of structures which oppresses and exploits women and which legitimises the use of violence against women. I ask all men to work conscientiously to change their own attitudes, language and behaviour in order to eliminate their personal oppression and exploitation of women.

Second, I ask all non-Aboriginal people to acknowledge Aboriginal sovereignty in Australia and to Pay the Rent for their use of Aboriginal land. The Australian continent. was invaded and occupied. This violent occupation and illegal dispossession continues. Reconciliation can only occur when non-Aboriginal Australians acknowledge the historical truth and demonstrate their willingness to work with the legal owners of this land. Rent (1% of income) can be paid to any local Aboriginal organisation or to any of the grassroots organisations listed below.

Third, I ask everyone to become a vegetarian. The consumption of meat exploits the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as the environment. It exploits people by diverting vast quantities of resources (including land, fossil fuels, water and food grains) into meat production for the 'rich' world while denying cheaply produced foods to the people of the 'poor' world. It exploits non-human species by treating them as objects for human use. And it exploits the environments by causing forest clearance (for sheep and cattle grazing) and soil degradation.

Fourth, I ask everyone to plant their own vegetable garden, to organise or participate in a community garden, or to buy organically grown food from a local food cooperative. This will increase the degree of your economic self-reliance. The global economic system called capitalism, and its offshoot socialism, are grossly inadequate economic systems which are not designed to satisfy the needs of ordinary people. Capitalism works by concentrating wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people while increasing the number of people who are excluded from the mainstream economy. The answer to our economic problems has nothing to do with changing the rules of the game; for example, through government intervention to modify the excesses of capitalism. The only long-term solution, no matter how difficult, is to invent a new type of global economy which facilitates self- reliance, cooperation, decentralisation and ecologically sustainable development. We can be a part of this process by making changes in our own lives and in our own communities.

Fifth, I ask everyone to refuse to vote in federal and state elections and to express their political commitment in more creative ways. The structures of parliamentary government are neither truly representative nor genuinely accountable. They are part of a political framework that is totally inadequate for dealing with existing social, economic and environmental problems. Conventional politics is primarily concerned with preserving existing organisations and personal privileges; it is not concerned with satisfying the needs of ordinary people. In order to tackle our problems we must create new political and economic structures.

If these explanations are not entirely convincing, I am sure that some reading, reflection and discussion will help to clarify their importance. The violence of military spending and war itself are logical extensions of the violence and structural exploitation built into our society. If we are willing to ignore this exploitation which occurs when society is functioning normally, then we have failed to understand the main purpose of military violence: to defend these structures of exploitation as a source of power, profit and privilege for narrow vested interests. By making changes in our own lives, we can act personally to undermine the main types of global exploitation.

Unfortunately, this is not enough. There is a great deal of work to be done before a truly nonviolent society comes into being. While I am anxious that more people get actively involved in nonviolent struggles directed against violent state and corporate structures, I recognise that this is more likely to occur when people feel powerful. Empowered individuals are the fundamental link in the chain of nonviolent struggle. By thinking through the suggestions made above, and by committing yourself to act on them, you will increase your personal power to act in other ways.

Robert J. Burrowes

Robert Burrowes, who has a longstanding commitment to justice and peace, was due to face legal proceedings in the Australian Federal Court over this issue on 22 April.

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New Internationalist issue 231 magazine cover This article is from the May 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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