Skip to Content

What is the public's opinion?

In the vicious world of capitalist competition, opinion polling finds a
vital and profitable niche not for the laudable purpose of discerning
or complying with the public interest but with the manipulation of
public opinion in the interest of profit.

As in all previous stages of human social development, today wealth is produced and can only be produced by the application of human labour power to the resources of nature. Capitalism complicates the process of wealth production by the separation of these two productive essentials; a relatively small minority of human beings claim a right to the ownership of nature’s resources, which are effectively the means of life of the whole of humanity, while the great majority are obliged to sell their physical and mental abilities to these owners. The wealth that results from this combination of resources and labour power becomes the property of the owners who give those who have expended their labour power tokens which are called wages with which they can purchase the part of the vast aggregation of wealth they have created. That is the basic nature of capitalism. However, in effect it is much more convoluted and wasteful than this might suggest. In today’s world all the goods and services needed by people are produced mainly in the form of commodities against the background of their real or imagined use value. But the shareholders who own the enterprises that produce these goods and services and the usually richly-rewarded directors who organise the enterprises are not philanthropists concerned with the public good. Their interest is not primarily the use value of the commodities they produce; it is the exchange value of those commodities; the price for which they are bought and which contains, in normal circumstances, that surplus beyond the cost of production (including the cost of sale) which enriches the shareholders and allows for continued economic viability. So the kernel of this complex and extremely wasteful exercise is profit which is yielded only when purchasers are persuaded to buy specific goods or services from among the competing suppliers. It is important for capitalist enterprises to ascertain public attitudes either to adopt their products or prices to prevailing modes or to influence change in those attitudes by product design, price or advertising. Politics and public opinion In the last British General Election, the Labour and Tory parties spent some £18 million each and the Liberal Democrats spent £4.3 million. These large sums were additional to what might be called their ’constant capital’ in the form of existing organisation, publicly-funded offices, salaries and equipment; vast sums that must surely conflict with the notion of ‘free’ elections. These amounts are being dwarfed by the massive sums currently being invested in the US primaries, where the two candidates for the role of capitalism’s political office manager are being selected. In contradistinction to the nonsense about ‘spreading democracy’ in areas deemed of consequence to US interests, the American variety of that system reveals a monumentally expensive and cynical exercise between two politically indistinguishable groups concerned with sculpting politics in the general interests of capital. As in Britain and the rest of the developed world, other aspiring politicians, denied real public exposure by a pensioned media, will be permitted to enter the hustings to make up the numbers and reinforce the fiction that the public are offered a fair and informed choice. Obviously Public Opinion in both politics and commerce is of considerable importance; but it is politically innocuous in that it never questions the fundamental way in which the needs and requirements of the human family are organised. Politicians, the business fraternity, clerics and journalists may criticise some aspect or aspects of the system: show a preference for making some adjustment in planning or administration or suggest a different political or economic strategy but always within the framework of the existing social system. Such people may display courage, energy and enthusiasm in campaigning for a cause but always they do so on the assumption that there is no alternative to the present order of things; that the old political and economic fundamentals of capitalism are as inevitable as the seasons; that they have always existed and that there is no other way of running society.

Dominant ideas
Karl Marx made the obvious point that the ideas that dominate in society are those of its ruling class. It doesn’t follow that in our present society the majority of people like capitalism. On the contrary, the mere want or dire poverty of capitalism, the frightening destruction of the biosphere, the increasing disparity of wealth between rich and poor, the permanent threat of war, violence and crime, these things are too pronounced, too close to the lives of the people to escape being the daily staples of news and public concern.

The point was well made by a contributor to the World Socialist Movement’s website (WSM_FORUM@yahoogroups.com) who quoted a University of Michigan opinion poll showing that some two-thirds of Americans believe government is being “run by big interests looking out for themselves”.

We do not need an opinion poll to confirm this finding; ask those you work with or the people in the pub or in the club. It is no secret that a small minority of people are millionaires and billionaires or that such people do not actively participate in producing goods and services. Unfortunately, despite claiming that they live in a democratic society, most people’s reaction to their own condemnation of the system is likely to be something like. “Yes, it’s true but, unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about it!”

In the past
Capitalism’s great historic mission has been to make the production of wealth social; socialists want to make the distribution of wealth social. To achiever its purpose the bourgeoisie overthrew feudal society and its aristocracy by means of violent revolution. To do that, to get the political control of that combination of labour power and the resources of nature, they had to contest and overcome the prevailing public opinion.

A stalwart of the, then, prevailing public opinion was the church. It proclaimed that the power of kings to rule was ordained by God. In turn this ordinance of Divine Right was reciprocated by loyalty from king to church. Power under the monarch was organised by patents of vast estates to men who were favoured by the monarch for service to the crown and who paid tribute and pledged loyalty to the crown. This aristocracy of lords and titled personages in turn granted servitude to the poor and dispossessed serfs who, in return for working their landlords estates and being available for military service, were afforded the privilege of a portion of land on which to provide habitation and subsistence for themselves and their families.

As the medieval merchants, the burghers of the towns, grew more affluent and nascent technological developments created the basis of greater productive unit’s for the employment of labour the middle class, the bourgeoisie, challenged the aristocracy for political power in order that it could legislate political conditions conducive to its interests. The public opinion that underpinned feudalism had to be changed including the theological dictums of the church which upheld the power base of the king and the aristocracy and condemned such practices as usury, as banking was an important function in the new fledgling capitalism.

So Europe saw the birth of Protestantism and ‘religious’ wars that concealed the profane interests of the opposing owning classes. The victory of capitalism over its archaic rival was assured; it represented a progressive social development, in fact an idea whose time had come and it was ultimately irresistible.

Public opinion today
Today capitalism reigns supreme throughout the world not because the majority support it but simply because the majority accept it and they accept it because they know of no alternative to it. Socialists offer a clear, practical and rational alternative but as yet the socialist movement is small and unfortunately the broad Left, whatever its intentions, has not only created massive confusion among our class but in claiming state capitalism as its goal, these ersatz socialists have created a mass consciousness of the cure being worse than the disease.
 
This notion of the immutability of capitalism is the bulwark that defends that system and the ruling class and their political hirelings are not slow to use lies and scare tactics in defence of their system. The millionaires and billionaires do not invest their millions and billions in the electronic and print media to inform the working class about the cause of their problems; these are valuable instruments in fashioning contemporary public opinion. The media will find space for acres of nonsense: a man who bites a dog, a Prince of whose mother, the Head of the Anglican Church, advised him to go killing in Afghanistan, the lunacies of celebrities. . . Effectively, what we call ‘news’ is part of the conditioning process of capitalism.

The fare served up by political journalists is simply the current vicissitudes of capitalism; the vices and virtues, as they or their masters see them, of the inevitabilities of the system. Rarely are they equipped with a knowledge of the socialist alternative and even if they were and wished to advise the public it is unlikely that their material would pass muster with the concealed editors – the shareholders.
 
Socialism is not a palliative for the ills of capitalism; those ills are endemic to the system and they have defied the best plans and the best intentions of the wise and the well-intentioned right across the political spectrum. Uniquely socialists do not suggest that they have the answer to either the system or any the system’s problems; in fact we argue that they are not problems, they are inevitable aspects of capitalism; that instead of voting to change the politicians who run the system we should be voting for representatives mandated to abolish capitalism and establish socialism.

Still, whether they like what is happening or not, the media must deal with what are deemed newsworthy situations They must report the presence of 200,000 people demonstrating in Trafalgar Square about the war in Iraq. The case for socialism, too, will become ‘news’ when 200,000 people are demonstrating not against a particular war but against the system that causes wars and the multiplicity of social evils of which the Left make separate causes.

The socialist objective
The public opinion that socialists want to promote is one that encourages the public to consider the case for socialism and ultimately to use the limping democracy afforded by capitalism to abolish that system and establish socialism.

Socialism will mean that all the instruments of production and distribution will be taken into the common ownership of society as a whole and will be used solely to produce the goods and services needed by the human family. The axiom: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their need” will become the general principle underpinning the production and distribution of wealth. The wages and money system, so wantonly wasteful of most human activity today, will become redundant; people will no longer be stratified by class divisions; the nexus between property and crime will be broken and the vested interests that promote armaments and wars and a frightening threat to the entire biosphere will cease to exist.

The nature of the socialist case determines the means by which it will be achieved. Socialism from its inception will need the voluntary co-operation of its citizens. The mass of people will no longer be anonymous wage slaves. Those who opt for socialism must know the life-changing benefits to be derived from the new system; equally, they must be clearly aware of their individual obligations to that system.

That is what socialism is about; it is not a quick-fix; it involves clarifying the meaning of socialism and shattering the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism and that cannot be done by claims that we can patch-up the system with piece-meal reforms.
That is something we would ask out fellow-workers on the Left to consider.

RICHARD MONTAGUE