On the Imaginary of International Taxation

This blog aims to stimulate the imaginary of international taxation (see: Annex 1) and welcomes any constructive comments or useful illustration. If you are interested in the topic please write an e-mail to antoine.robin@web.de. The author is currently working on a publication on the topic.

»It’s not rocket science. (…) We have got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit.« (Rutger Bregman during a panel on inequality at the Davos World Economic Forum)

The first image that comes to mind when tackling the imaginary of international taxation is the one of the world financial flows, which by the way was the only image that Guy Debord wanted on his book cover »The Society of the Spectacle.« [1] .


This blog focuses on international taxation and more specifically on income tax, which is

  • a financial charge (generally a rate)
  • levied directly on income (business income, interests, royalties, dividends, capital gains, salaries)
  • of an individual or a company/partnership
  • by a political entity
  • in order to fund public expenditures (education, health care system, roads, elderly, energy, water, culture, infrastructures, public safety, etc.).

major international taxation dilemma:

more public funds <> more corporate profits


International Taxation: Introduction

International Taxation (see: Annex 1) should not be left to global consulting firms and national tax authorities. If you care about global environmental issues or global social inequalities, the current most credible solutions are international tax reforms. If you support the financial emancipation of women, you should keep an eye on the taxation of the second salary within a married couple. If you’d rather focus on postcolonialism, the bilateral tax treaties are the best proof of the ongoing domination of the former colonial countries within the law. To a certain extent, social progress/revolt here and elsewhere is dependent on the quality of a tax-financed education system. In our extremely connected, legalized, commercialized world, international tax reforms are indubitably the major tool – like it or not – that can guide the global economy to a greener, brighter future.

In Europe, the tax assessment has been imposed by the public force and has simultaneously financed and strengthened it. Its implementation has been a long and bloody path throughout the last millennium – full of riots, social dissent and death penalties – which sealed the victory of the major European nation-states against regional levels of power and the social classes (peasantry, nobility, bourgeoisie).

The tax assessment is what we endure for a civilized society and is in return a deep constituent of our subjectivity. It represents by far our first allegiance to the state and is the predominant invasion of our privacy, private wealth, money, and assets.

Nowadays, the tax assessment is a pacified one in Europe, with riots here and there (e.g. the gillets jaunes) both proving the rule just mentioned and reminding us of past struggles. Clearly, filing a tax return is not considered these days to be a “true” political moment. People who write books about tax issues have to apologize in the prelude for the insipidity of the topics treated, anticipating mockery and revulsion. Tax is boring! Tax officers are characterless. The only great novel taking place within a tax authority is notable for its deadly philosophical considerations on boredom. [2] Nowadays, tax is boring!

Or maybe it has been made boring, flat, unexciting. Actually, anti-tax liberal thinkers in the rise of the modern state have argued that taxes must be insensitive, sub-threshold. In their minds, tax should not disrupt the financial flows, should not be taken into account. The more taxes affect properties or the eternal economic balance, the more they are sensitive and perceptible. High taxes are sensitive, wrong, an act of spoliation. We must maintain the flows of capital.

To be further investigated:
Marcel Duchamp’ infra-thin should be further investigated. Works like Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968) could help “illustrate” international income flows. “The most powerful things in the world were invisible,” Barry said regarding Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968), which is “a battery-powered transmitter encased in a nondescript metal box [that] sends out waves of energy, filling the gallery space with an invisible, immeasurable, but nonetheless real force.” [3]

See also the books on the imperceptible in the arts (Davila, Jouannai, etc.)

Focusing on tax demands to drive the opposite direction for a while, navigate through those mockeries and revulsions, question insensitivity and pass through legal abstractions (see: Annex 4). But it is worth the journey!

In short, we all have a reason to seize control of tax issues. But how? Should we only talk about tax brackets, exemptions, and credits? Rationality and reason have their limits in the process of convincing, especially in taxes.

»The political terrain of today is largely one of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles. If we are going to fight – and win – we need to know how to navigate this new ground. Not by retreating to a safe space where The Truth is known and Rationality and Reason always win the day, but marching bravely forward into the fantasy lands where the real battles are being fought, guided by our dreams and armed with our imagination.« [4]

Stephen Duncombe

Therefore, this blog goes looking for new materials (especially in the visual arts) that could strengthen the imaginary of international taxation.

Chapter 1
Cognitive mapping of international taxation

International taxation determines which countries can levy taxes on international flows of income. To avoid cold, abstract arguments, advocates of social changes through international taxation have to show the social consequences of aggressive tax competition between the states, massive tax evasion, and unfair bilateral treaties between rich and poor countries. Because international taxation is global, it has to be confronted with something global, something like a social totality.

In this regard, the notion of cognitive mapping introduced by Frederic Jameson [5] at the end of the twentieth century could be of great value, because it aims at (re-)establishing such a social totality. Following Jameson, the possibility of a global social transformation can only emerge if one is equipped with a mapping of a (unrepresentable, imaginary) social totality. Social totality is a prerequisite for any global political thinking. Something like a class consciousness, an awareness of the totality of class relations on a global scale.

For Jameson, one of the uses of the work of art is to teach us something. Cognitively this has to be understood here as »in and of itself the immediate source of profound aesthetic delight.« The aesthetics of cognitive mapping should therefore focus on revealing and instigating a certain »self-consciousness about the social totality« and should function as a tool that enables us to find and eventually control the levers of capitalism, and in doing so, to diminish the powerlessness of the people.

In a way, Thomas Piketty attempted to make a cognitive mapping of contemporary capitalism and tax reforms in his seminal 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He summoned writers such as Balzac and Austen or American television series, but never provided any images to illustrate his points. [6]

In this chapter, I will search for images (visual arts) that could instigate and reveal a certain self-consciousness about the social totality seen as the subject of international taxation. I’m leaning on images rather than literature, because the qualities of this medium are more suited to our goals: images show us what we do not see; they instigate blurriness and bring us a well-needed reservoir of libido into this bureaucratic tax world.

Images of a social totality

The circle is the symbol used in the thinking, the believing and the artistic shaping of the mankind. In different religions, the world and its being emanates from a circular movement. [7]

During the European Middle Ages, some world maps contained human activity such as the Ebstorf Map.

Maps are political. They are weapons used as propaganda by (colonial) powers. The one below is a map produced by Richard Burnett in the early seventeens century called Attack on a crannog, Dungannon and Tullahoge and representing the triumph of the English soldiers over the old Irish Gaelic order. This work could be seen as the counterpart of the value chain in the global transfer pricing process.

The Map of the Tax World (see: Karte des Steuerlandes. Eine farbige Phantasiekarte) is not an artwork, but it has (limited) pedagogic value: [8]

  • It shows us human activity through cities and fields, the taxpayers, a small part of the social totality;
  • The flows and liquidity as a metaphor;
  • It shows a classic representation of the tax paradises as outside, but connected
  • It does not reveal and instigate a »self-consciousness about the social totality« of the taxpayers, nor does it make any link between the tax and the wealth of the people. It does not show us the social consequences of world tax politics, it represents the social world as passive.

“It does not show us the social consequences of world tax politics, it represents the social world as passive. See: https://www.verstege.info/ueber-uns

To be further investigated:
As parts of International Taxation are deeply neocolonialists (some transfer pricing schemes, international tax evasion schemes, principle of the taxation of royalties in the state of the resident who beneficially owns them), wouldn’t it be “cognitive” to draw political maps representing the social consequences of aggressive tax evasion, transfer pricing on the social totality?

Digression on the concept of totality

Few contemporaneous artists approach the concept of totality. It is essentially due to the fact that the Western political philosophy beat up this concept since WWII.

At the beginning of the Cold War, the concept of totality was linked with fascism, Nazism and Communism (Stalinism) in the Western media. Hannah Arendt created the concept of totalitarianism, which will be used (and misused?) to discredit radical political thoughts.

The French theorists carried on this effort: Jean-Francois Lyotard: »Let us wage war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.« [9]

For Michel Foucault, the responsibility toward »the whole of society« would impose »impossible conditions on our actions because this notion functions in a manner that prohibits the actualization, success, and perpetuation of these projects.« And he concludes »›The whole of society‹ is therefore precisely that which should not be considered except as something to be destroyed.« [10]

Do-Ho Suh

Do-Ho Suh is a Korean contemporary artist who created works that can be seen as an attempt to represent the social totality. He described his work Cause & Effect is these words: a »physical realization of existence, suggesting strength in the presence of numerous individuals. The work is an attempt to decipher the boundaries between a single identity and a larger group, and how the two conditions coexist.« [11] In his works, I see a social totality and also the cognitive characteristic (»the immediate source of profound aesthetic delight«). It is an open question whether his works reveal a certain »self-consciousness about the social totality.«

As Cause & Effects refers to the Buddhist concept of a chain of causation, but also to human relations in the Korean language, this work could be seen as the counterpart of the value chain in the global transfer pricing process.

Do-Ho Suh, Cause & Effects (2007), Creative Commons
Top view of agricultural land. Valley of fields and fruit farms with irrigation system
Do-Ho Suh, Floor (1997-2000), Creative Commons
Do-Ho Suh, Screen (2005), Creative Commons

Class consciousness?

We should not search for images of a social class. Not all taxpayers are oppressed by the owners of the means of production. A progressive taxation benefits the poorest, whereas the richest have more possibilities to avoid tax and more easily pay flat tax or VAT.

Nevertheless, tax havens play a role in the social reproduction of the domination, as stated by French sociologists. [12] So, the image below is meaningful in international taxation insofar the top of the mountain is seen as a tax paradise. A tax haven is not the exotic island beside us; it is the top of the hill that captures the sun.

Chapter 2
The liquidity of international taxation

Income flows

International taxation is all about income flows (cash flows). These flows cross the countries and the continents with an extreme speed and intensity. They can be so fast that the tax authorities do not even notice them (as for the Cum Ex Files). Tax rates and tax incentives can intensify or reduce the income flow.

Tax flows

Tax authorities draw off a part of the income in order to build a national or regional budget. This budget will, in turn, create other flows and irrigate other – mostly non-profit – sectors. The subject of international taxation is unequivocally metaphorically liquid. A liquid that can be drawn off, changed of nature, reoriented. But a liquid, still.

The social totality in this context should be a matter that reacts to liquids. Or another liquid.

In this regard, an interactive liquid installation would be an excellent tool in order to explain what is at stake in themes like the transfer pricing or the permanent establishment’s definition and the social consequences of progressive, postcolonial reforms in that matter.


In order to benefit from a better perception in the public opinion, taxation should be based on strong images, myths. In a way, tax revenues make a collectivity fertile, because they give funds for the education, culture, social insurance. They flow in the collectivity, the commons, the public services. They irrigate them.

The river in the mythology and the religion: FERTILITY – FEED HUMANITY – MOTHER – GARDEN OF EDEN – MESSIANIC (water will make the deads return to life in the Jewish tradition) – BLESSING (Christianity) – PURITY (Islam)

Chapter 3

Tax is utopia: future

  • Presupposition of the equality of force.

»Having force, in which we are equal, cannot be proved by demonstrating its objective existence. Equality, as equality of force, is nothing given. Force, in which we are equal, is a presupposition, because it is there for us, we experience and know of it only by performing acts in which it unfolds. Such acts are aesthetic: acts of play, of imagination. (…) In aesthetically transgressing our social existence we experience that we are equal. Political equality is an aesthetic effect. We make ourselves aesthetically equal; aesthetically, we make ourselves equal.«

– Christoph Menke

International taxation is an extremely powerful tool of change. Progressive reforms could allow enveloping countries to levy much more taxes on corporate profits. With more money, the government could implement more ambitious politics regarding the welfare system, agriculture, education, culture, and so on. Felwine Sarr suggests to use the word envelopment instead of development because the latter is a Western portacabin, a Western illusion bringing the Western epistemè with it. Under development, there is imitation, the injunction to adopt certain social structures, mentalities, meanings and values. Whereas envelopment envelops what already exists. [13]


Felwine Sarr suggests to use the word envelopment instead of development because the latter is a Western portacabin, a Western illusion bringing the Western epistemè with it. Under development, there is imitation, the injunction to adopt certain social structures, mentalities, meanings and values. Whereas envelopment envelops what already exists.

Representing envelopment is representing political equality, the presupposition of the equality of force.

But as envelopment is unique and not preconceived, it needs an “active utopia which is aiming at flushing out in the African real the vast spaces of possible et fertilize them” .

Forms of envelopment are given by Bodys Isek Kingelez:

And Rachid Johnson:

Tax is utopia: present

  • Tax photos

The Western collective unconscious has been invaded by emotional photos from poor people aiming at drawing the reader’s attention, causing him/her a stir, arousing empathy. Those people are directly or indirectly begging for help.

Those photos can be seen in the media but they are predominately to be seen in the charity sector. They are aiming at collecting donations. Yet, the logic of charity is fundamentally opposed to the logic of tax. The first one implies the deliberate act of donation whereas the second is a sovereign act from the political collectivity whose resident is the poor people being photographed. The political collectivity decides alone how to distribute the money collected by the taxes. Therefore, the begging has no place in this logic.

Below, we do not see children begging at rich donors but children focusing on learning and deserving the school to be achieved. The lack of public funds – and not always the assumption that the funds have been stolen by high public officials – can be seen as negativity.

Tax is utopia: past

As envelopment has been awaited and fought for, we cannot only see it as a promise, a goal in a distant future. Indeed , “there is a secret appointment between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.” [14]

Isn’t there a weak messianic power in fair international tax reforms? If the part of the permanent establishment’s definition regarding extracting activities is significantly changed, corporations would pay much more taxes to the political entities which own those lands. And the latter could invest the tax revenue in education, the welfare state, security, hygiene, etc.

Behind the rates shouldn’t we ear the claims of the past social and liberation movements?

Therefore, envelopment has to be represented in a “should” past modal form.

Weileder, below, puts envelopment in the “should/could have been there” past modal form.

A fairer international tax system is claimed by the past and haunts the present.



The following conversations may tackle these themes:

  1. Offshore tax havens: a postcolonial approach // Hollywood // psychoanalytical approach
  2. Tax fraud and religious virtues: pictures // are the critics on greed really efficient?
  3. An aesthetic look at international tax evasion or transfer pricing schemes



Annex 1
Brief summary of international taxation

National taxation is horizontal and concerns a taxpayer versus the tax authority a.k.a. the state, whereas international taxation delimits the tax jurisdiction of a country in relation to each other, in other words, it basically stipulates which country can tax cross-border income. International taxation is both extremely opaque and the most powerful tool for social and environmental changes. Therefore, I would like to focus on the international field. If one understands the following basic rules, one could have sufficient knowledge of the field in order to follow the conversation:

  • In particular, individuals and companies are liable to tax.
  • Generally, an individual/company pays taxes on his world income in his or her country of residence (resident taxation). But the individual or company can also pay taxes on income realized in another country (non-resident taxation). In order to prevent the double taxation, countries have signed bilateral tax treaties with many other countries.
  • There are different types of income (business profit, royalties, interest, etc.) that have different tax rates, tax-exempt amounts, reduced rates, etc.
  • Each country levies taxes in order to finance its public authorities, but big corporations and wealthy people search for any way to reduce their tax base and can chose to move to another country for tax reasons. Competition between the states is the main dynamic that underlies and shapes international taxation.

Annex 2
Transfer pricing

Two-thirds of global business transfers are made within a business group. A commodity can be goods, licenses, and services coming from many countries. There can be a long value-added chain until the commodity is bought. Tax specialists from consulting firms and business groups can play with the value of the commodity. They can argue that the commodity is really cheap in the production country (mostly a country where the workforce is cheap – a poor country) and gains a lot of value when it benefits from a license or services coming from a tax haven. In doing so, the business group has a small tax base (because of the small value estimation of the commodity) in the production country (poor country) and a larger tax base in a tax haven where it pays a small amount of tax.

Transfer pricing has a huge impact on the finance of countries with a low workforce. These countries do not receive a fair tax revenue because of the tricks created by “genial” tax specialists.

Annex 3
Permanent establishment’s definition

In tax treaties between countries, the notion of permanent establishment plays a significant role. Each business entity is taxed in the other country if it has created a permanent base in the other country. In the mining sector for instance, the extension of this definition would allow the extraction countries to gain more tax revenue from the extracting companies.

Annex 4
Can the arts go through the two levels of abstraction in international taxation?

International taxation is based on laws (first level of abstraction). The law is general and abstract, stipulates obligations and prohibitions; it codifies reality, classifies it, institutes it by a network of agreed qualifications. [15]

International taxation has mainly legal persons as subjects (second level of abstraction). The legal persons are not human beings. They do not “consent” to taxes as the natural persons do. They cannot be fully identified with the ruled, whom the political philosophy generally opposes to the rulers.

How can we then identify with international tax issues despite those two levels of abstraction? How can we identify with narratives that have an action, but no human being as a character?

Arts are classically opposed to laws (Plato). Arts are useful when it comes to taking a step back from laws (first level of abstraction) because they often show that the real (the implemented legal system in this case) is only a modality of the possible.

In this article and the ongoing conversation, we will try to find ways in the arts to identify with issues involving legal entities (second degree of abstraction).












  1. Jump Up See A. Toscano and J. Kinkle: Cartographies of the Absolute, zero books, Hants, 2015, prologue.
  2. Jump Up See David Foster Wallace: The Pale King.
  3. Jump Up Steven Stern, “The Quick and the Dead,” Frieze 125, September 2009, quoted in https://www.in-terms-of.com/tell-me-what-you-know/
  4. Jump Up Stephen Duncombe: Dream or Nightmare: Reimagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New York, 2019.
  5. Jump Up F. Jameson: “Cognitive Mapping” in Nelson, C./Grossberg, L. [ed]. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois Press 1990, pp. 347–60.
  6. Jump Up A. Toscano: Capital, It Fails Us Now, Historical Materialism 23.1, koninklijke brill, leiden, 2015, pp. 53–69.
  7. Jump Up M. Lurker: Der Kreis als Symbol, Rainer Wunderlich, Tübingen 1981.
  8. Jump Up There are many approximations and incoherences regarding taxation.
  9. Jump Up Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern condition : A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis 1984, p. 82
  10. Jump Up Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, transl. Donald F. Bouchard & Sherry Simon, Ithaca 1977, p. 233.
  11. Jump Up footnote here
  12. Jump Up M. Pinçon-Charlot et M. Pinçon: Tentative d’évasion, fiscale, ed. Zone, 2015.
  13. Jump Up Felwine Sarr: Afrotopia, Paris 2016, p. 22.
  14. Jump Up W. Benjamin: Theses on the Concept of History, Thesis II.
  15. Jump Up F. Ost: Raconter la loi, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2004, prologue.