The outline of surviving myth is re-recognized in the lives of each generation. It’s an instrument by which people simplify, rationalize and retell social complexities. It’s a means to haul the abstract, the global and the relative into the realm of the concrete, the local and the absolute. It’s a way to lay claim to faith in certain values. If those who attempt to interpret the world do so only through the prism of professional thinkers, and ignore the persistence of myth in everyday thought and speech, the interpretations will be deficient.
This is the importance of the Robin Hood myth. It’s the first and often the only political-economic fable we learn. It’s not a children’s story, although it is childlike. It contains the three essential ingredients of grown-up narrative – love, death and money – without being a love story, a tragedy or a comedy. It doesn’t tell of the founding of a people. It’s not a fairy story or a religious myth; it has no monsters, gods or wizards in it, only human beings. It’s not a parable. In place of a moral, it has a plan of action. What does Robin Hood do? We all know. He takes from the rich to give to the poor.
A change has come over Robin Hood. On the surface, he’s the same: the notion of taking from the rich to give to the poor is as popular as ever. But in the deeper version of his legend, the behavior-shaping myth, he’s become hard to recognize. The storytelling that makes up popular political discourse is crowded with tales of robbery, but the story has been cloven. I can no longer be sure that my Robin Hood is your Robin Hood, or that my rich and poor is your rich and poor, or who is taking and who is giving.
The old Robin Hood, embodiment of the generous outlaw of Sherwood Forest, still occasionally bubbles up, as when the actor-director Sean Penn called Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, head of the world’s biggest supplier of banned narcotics, ‘a Robin Hood-like figure who provided much needed services in the Sinaloa mountains’. This is Robin Hood the ‘noble robber’, in Eric Hobsbawm’s characterization. In the final edition of his much reworked book Bandits, Hobsbawm bids farewell to the type. ‘In a fully capitalist society,’ he writes:
“the conditions in which social banditry on the old model can persist or revive are exceptional. They will remain exceptional, even when there is far more scope for brigandage than for centuries, in a millennium that begins with the weakening or even the disintegration of modern state power, and the general availability of portable, but highly lethal, means of destruction to unofficial groups of armed men. In fact, to no one’s surprise, in most ‘developed countries’ – even in their most traditionalist rural areas – Robin Hood is by now extinct.”
Sinaloa state in Mexico, from where El Chapo carried on his business until his recent recapture by the combined forces of the entertainment world and the Mexican marines, is still fertile ground for belief in the existence of the noble robber in a way present-day Nottinghamshire, or Missouri, or Victoria, once homes to the mythical Robin Hood and the real Jesse James and Ned Kelly, no longer are.
Still, if we move out from Hobsbawm’s focus on the social bandit as actual individual, and consider the entire Robin Hood myth, the ideal remains familiar in our outlaw-free world. The myth requires a great mass of heavily taxed poor people who work terribly hard for little reward. The profits of their labour, and the taxes they pay, go to support a small number of lazy, arrogant rich people who live in big houses, wallow in luxury, and have no need to work. Any attempt to resist, let alone change, this unjust system is crushed by the weight of a vast private-public bureaucracy, encompassing the police, the courts, the prison system, the civil service, large property-owners and banks, all embodied in the ruthless figure of a bureaucrat-aristocrat, personification of the careerist-capitalist elite, the sheriff of Nottingham.
Two figures stand between the sheriff and the poor. One is the absent king. He carries a monarch’s title, but exists only to represent benign authority, order and justice, the kinder, fairer authority that existed before he went away, naively leaving the sheriff to govern in his name and pervert his wishes, the same authority he will restore when he returns. The other is Robin Hood, who defies the system, who stands up for the little people, who levels the playing field. He takes from the rich to give to the poor.
In 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis, a campaign was launched in Britain to get the government to introduce something called the Robin Hood Tax. The idea of the tax is, on the taking side, to discourage the reckless speed with which banks and funds shift vast, destabilizing amounts of money from place to place around the globe, and, on the giving side, to raise money to combat poverty and climate change – all this to be achieved by leveling a tax on every financial transaction. It has been embraced by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and 11 European countries plan to introduce something like it, called the Financial Transaction Tax. Britain will not be one of those countries while the Conservatives are in charge.
The Robin Hood Tax isn’t a bad idea. Introduced by enough wealthy countries, and with enough pressure put on the tax havens they protect, it could be a forerunner to the far more radical global tax on capital proposed by Thomas Piketty as a way to ease the extremes of inequality built into the capitalist system.
The arrival of Piketty’s book promised much to those who don’t accept the market is the answer to all problems, and who value the institutionalization of the Robin Hood principle in the workings of the social state. Its main conclusion was devastating to the populist discourse of the modern right. Drawing from a deep well of data Piketty found that for almost all recorded history, those who are rich enough to be sitting on a pile of cash and assets will get richer just from the returns on their capital at a faster rate than the economy can grow as a whole. In other words, if you don’t start with capital, you can never close the gap with the rich, no matter how hard you work; whereas if you do start with capital, you’ll get richer and richer whether you work or not. Over time this leads to greater and greater inequality. Piketty’s work came as a shock because he showed that the mid-20th century, when the average person could and often did become better off faster than those who lived off the return on their capital, was not some new normal, as many thought, but an aberration, and that, since then, we’ve reverted to the mean.
It’s easy to be distracted from the moderation of Piketty’s thoughts on what individual countries should do by the extreme radicalism of his solution to the problem of inequality: a progressive global tax on wealth. He even comes up with suggested numbers, from 0.1 per cent on fortunes of a million euros to as much as 10 per cent a year on billionaires. But, as he admits, ‘a truly global tax on capital is … a utopian ideal.’ It’s not going to happen.