At the beginning of July two openly pro-capitalist think tanks – the Tory-leaning Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) and the free-marketeer Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) – published the results of polls they had carried out on people’s opinion of capitalism. Both indicated that many people don’t think much of it.
The one for the CPS was compiled by US pollster, Frank Luntz:
‘ …Dr Frank Luntz is testing public opinion in Britain to find an alternative to ‘capitalism’, after 170 years of use, because he fears it is becoming a bad word ( … ) Capitalism itself is already a “bad word” in the US and is fast becoming so in the UK too. “It’s one of the key things I am trying to figure out: Does this country need an alternative to the word capitalism? I think it does”’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 June).
In the event, he didn’t come up with an alternative, merely noting that ‘voters are almost as fed up with business as with politicians – presenting a huge challenge for supporters of capitalism and enterprise’. Those polled were asked to choose from a list four ‘words and phrases they thought of first when thinking about British companies’. The two most chosen were ‘Profits before People’ (47 percent) and ‘They put shareholders first, not ordinary people’ (44 percent). It is not clear why Luntz felt that these factually correct and easily verifiable statements represent a challenge to supporters of capitalism. Normally, its supporters are prepared to defend both as the best way of organising the production and distribution of wealth.
While the CPS poll was concerned with people’s attitude to ‘capitalism’ the IEA one was more concerned with their attitude to ‘socialism’. A representative sample of those aged between 16 and 34 were presented with a number of statements and asked whether they agreed with them or not, without the option of ‘don’t know’. 67 percent said ‘they would like to live in a socialist economic system’ and 75 percent agreed that ‘socialism is a good idea, but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done’. 78 percent blamed ‘capitalism for Britain’s housing crisis’ and 75 percent agreed ‘that climate change is a specifically capitalist problem’.
What are we to make of these results? Opinion polls are worth what they are worth and as Tory Lord Finklestein pointed out in his comments on the CPS one, ‘You can’t just ask consumers, and indeed voters, what motivates them, and trust what you get back’ (Times, 7 July). Those questioned are only being asked to give a fleeting opinion that commits them to nothing. And the questions can be framed to get the answer the pollster wants.
In these two particular polls, ‘capitalism’ was not defined. The tacit assumption of those who drew up the questionnaires (though not necessarily of those who answered the questions) was that capitalism meant production for profit by private capitalist enterprises. Capitalism is certainly a system of production for profit – in fact, the ‘Profit System’ might be the alternative name for it that Luntz is looking for – but ‘private enterprise’ is only one form of this. Capitalism can also take the form of state enterprises producing for the market with a view to profit. In both cases, the profit arises from the unpaid, surplus labour of the wage workers who are employed, whether by a private or a state enterprise, to produce what is to be sold.
The IEA didn’t define ‘socialism’ either, but the question about socialism ‘having failed in the past’ indicates that they think it is what existed in Russia – or, their current favourite, Venezuela. The concept of state capitalism is ruled out, even though the author of its report, Kristian Niemietz, had referred, in a previous report, to this concept and specifically to us:
‘… There are exceptions to this, such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain. They are not, and as far as I know, never were, apologists of Soviet-style socialism, which they describe as ‘state capitalism’. They are among the few socialists who have at least some idea of what they mean by ‘real’ socialism. They use that term to describe a hypothetical system in which working-class people own and control the economy’s productive resources directly, not via the state; a system in which public ownership is not mediated through a government bureaucracy’ (iea.org.uk/has-real-socialism-never-been-tried/).
Once again, it cannot be assumed that those who answered the question meant the same as those who asked it. Had the question been ‘Would you like to live in an economic system where all industries are state-owned?’ the result would have been very different. On the other hand, had the question been ‘Would you like to live in a system where the means of production are commonly owned and democratically controlled and the principle of from each according to ability, to each according to need applied?’ the result could well have been the same. But this wouldn’t mean that those answering ‘yes’ thought that such a system was achievable, only that it was desirable.
In an 80-page booklet analysing the results, Left Turn Ahead? Surveying attitudes of young people towards capitalism and socialism, Niemietz was more realistic as to what this meant:
‘The rejection of capitalism may never have huge real-world consequences. “We should ditch capitalism, and try a socialist alternative” may well be the political equivalent of “One day, I will learn a foreign language, run a marathon, and write a novel”. It may be an idea that is popular as an abstract aspiration, but less so as a concrete action plan’ (p.17).
Unfortunately, this is fair comment.
However, there will be some significance that, amongst younger people today, capitalism has become a ‘bad word’:
‘Young people associate “socialism” predominantly with positive terms, such as “workers”, “public”, “equal” and “fair”. (…) Capitalism, meanwhile, is predominantly associated with terms such as “exploitative”, “unfair”, “the rich” and “corporations”’ (p.7)
That can’t be a bad thing.