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Popular capitalism, unpopular socialism

Never mind popular capitalism for a minute; let’s talk a bit about unpopular socialism first. Some readers might be surprised to read that proposition as the opening line of a blog post by a lifelong lefty. But in Britain at least, the truth is support for socialism of any stripe is so low it barely registers in opinion polls.

Even more to the point, socialism remains a dirty word even though aspects of capitalism are being questioned to a degree not witnessed for decades. But note the use of the word ‘aspects’ here. Whatever the popular disgust at bankers’ bonuses, the system itself is not widely questioned.

The vast bulk of the population do not buy into the Marxist analysis that the minority class at the top of society sustains itself by the exploitation of the labour power of the majority.

They accept that current economic arrangements are at bottom essentially just, even if they have strangely gone awry in the last few years. They see nothing wrong that a bit of deft regulation will not fix.

The myth that the rich have accumulated wealth largely by their own entrepreneurial efforts goes largely unchallenged. That’s why so many people fantasise about the day they will appear on Dragons’ Den.

Yet even the limited criticisms that have emerged have reached such a pitch that the nostrums of Hayek and Friedman are no longer seen as the uncontroversial axiomatic starting point for all serious political and economic debate. Supporters of the market are being forced to set out their stall, to use an appropriate turn of phrase.

Witness the current debates on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times, for instance. Another clear pointer is the speech David Cameron delivered on the topic of popular capitalism yesterday, in which he reiterates his belief in free enterprise as the best way forward for society.

The problem for us is that doubts no longer usually translate into support for the policies we propose. Even the Occupy movement has not on the whole adopted common ownership of the means of production as one of its goals. As the famous banner once put it, this milieu simply wants to transform capitalism into ‘something nicer’ instead.

Given that we are living through a period when the notion that capitalism is in crisis is demonstrably correct, and not just an overheated rhetorical claim in badly written Trot rags, it is worth asking why UK opinion is not rapidly moving left.

For socialists who long ago came to the conclusion that the market deserves to be transcended, it is often hard to understand why conclusions so intuitively obvious are not more widely shared.

While some leftwing groups have grown in recent years, there is nothing that can be called a mass influx. All Marxist organisations are much reduced in numbers compared to the 1980s. That is even true of those of them that routinely exaggerate their membership figures.

From the derisory results obtained in elections to the circulation figures of the main publications, what is plain is that the left is in a worse state than at any point in my lifetime.

The explanations are many varied. Some socialists insist that there is widespread support for our basic values, but that our case is subjected to media blackout. Yet this is no more true than it was in the past, when the existing socialist movement got off the ground, and few efforts are made to exploit the avenues that are open to us. We haven’t even got a meaningful internet presence, for instance.

Others point instead to notions of false consciousness, and believe that austerity and mass unemployment will banish reformist illusions, perhaps assisted by revolutions in other countries.

We may only be a couple of years away from the big time, when the bulk of the working class will be won over to a revolutionary party that inexplicably only has two dozen members right now. It has to be said that the historical precedents on this one aren’t great.

I’m not even claiming to have the answers on this one. But it is clear that the other side is doing everything it can to secure a base for its ideology. We should at least be debating how we can do the same for ours.

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