Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Inequality and the battle of ideas

Posted by Left Luggage on June 25, 2009

Tuesday’s report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on public attitudes to inequality shed some light on the state of the battle of ideas that is underway between Right and Left.

The headline findings might be taken to support the suggestion that there is negligible support for the world view and policy proposals of the Left. This was certainly the conclusion of the Guardian, which chose to concentrate on the fact that 69% of respondents said they believed that there were plenty of opportunities for economic advancement, for those willing to take them. Other findings that many on the Left might find depressing include the widespread assumption that benefit claimants will not go on to make a positive contribution to society (p25) and the fatalistic attitude that inequalities are “inevitable in a market economy” (p47).

All of this underlines the challenges faced by the Left in attempting to convince the public of their position. David Osler made this point in a post on the JRF report:

All of this represents a major problem for any left that is actually interested in expanding it base. Capitalism – and the inequality it creates – continue to enjoy moral legitimacy in the eyes of an overwhelming majority.

While the unfolding recession has generated popular outrage aimed against those at the apex of the banking system, clearly general purpose ‘tax the rich’ fat cat-bashing will most of the time have little purchase.

I’m not suggesting any retreat whatsoever from the underlying principles involved. No socialism worthy of the name can be anything but redistributive in nature. But we need to come up with a more effective way of selling the message to the public, and sooner rather than later at that.

If we look at the report in a little more detail, however, we might find more reasons to be hopeful than either The Guardian or Osler. It is certainly true that the report found high levels of support for the concept of “fair inequality” – that differences in wealth were justified as long as those who had more deserved their wealth. There was only minority support, the report found, for “abstract notions of equality” (p43).

But we shouldn’t make the jump, as Osler does, to concluding that capitalism has “moral legitimacy” in the eyes of the public. In fact, the report found a great deal of anger directed towards the “super rich”, with footballers (96%), bankers (87%) and lawyers (70%) thought to be massively overpaid. Remarkably (given the opposition of the Conservative Party as well several widely read newspapers), 80% of respondents said they supported Labour’s tax rise for those earning over £150,000, with only 5% opposed to the measure. Nearly two thirds agreed with the statement that “The Government should take action through tax and benefits to reduce the gap in incomes between the richest and the poorest” (p36). A significant minority (39%) expressed support for a maximum wage, while a massive majority (81%) favoured an increase in the minimum wage (p37).

How is it possible to square negative attitudes towards benefit claimants and ambivalance about “abstract” arguments for economic equality with anger about the rich and support for a more progressive tax system? The authors of the report found that peoples’ objections to both the “super-wealthy” and “welfare scroungers” were overwhelmingly based on the perception that neither contributed or sacrificed enough to deserve the rewards they were seen to get (p19).

The report found widespread and vehement opposition to the “traditional free market vision” that overall increases in material wealth justify a decrease in overall quality of life (p45). The majority of respondents were prepared to embrace all manner of egalitarian measures – not for their own sake, but because they were seen as creating a more cohesive society built on better values than those that underpin neoliberal capitalism (p46).

Liberals like the JRF and The Guardian presumably saw the report’s findings as negative because they unearthed little evidence of sympathetic attitudes to “the poor”. People seemed far more concerned about the gap between the “middle” (where most respondents subjectively positioned themselves) and the “top” than they were about the gap between the top and the bottom (p12). There was nevertheless a great deal of support for measures to help those on low incomes who were in work, and an even greater amount of support for carers with children (p37).

These attitudes again seem to be motivated by perceptions of which groups are “hard working” and “deserving” of financial reward (needless to say, participants always place themselves in this category). This suggests that socialists would be better advised to argue for remuneration in accordance with sacrifice and contribution than to make appeals, such the Leon Kuhn poster used by the Left List at the last London elections, to “help the poor”, .

It is in a sense reassuring that people seem to see capitalism as damaging to the whole of society, rather than just those at the “bottom”. Far from seeing capitalism as “morally legitimate”, people seem to object strongly to the values of a system that distributes unfair financial rewards and destroys social solidarity. There seems to be a “gap in the market” for socialists to offer an alternative value system to that underpinning the current system.

The perception that “anyone can make it if they try hard enough” is problematic for those trying to highlight structural inequalities, but this should not imply an assumption that society is “fair”. 55% agreed with the statement “Many people are disadvantaged because of their background, and have to work much harder than others of equal basic talent to overcome the obstacles they face” (p24). Insistence that individuals can overcome disadvantage is very different from a denial that disadvantage exists. Socialists should have no objection to arguing that Britain is not fair, but that hard work and sacrifice can reap rewards. As a teacher, I stress to my students that they have to work harder than middle class students if they want to achieve success.

Of course, politics is not solely about ideas; organisation is also crucial. Groups who are rooted in working class communities can convince people of the value of their beliefs through action, as well as through the force of argument. It is also true that socialists are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to ideological warfare, given the array of forces ranged against us.

Nevertheless, it is crucial for us to develop “counter-ideologies” in opposition to the dominant belief systems. Ideologies are only likely to be successful if they pin themselves on existing commonsense notions. The report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that, despite the absence of socialist ideas in mainstream media and politics, people intuitively support ideas such as rewarding those who make sacrifices for others. We should take encouragement from studies like this, but should be prepared to adapt the language we speak when it conflicts with widely held notions.

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2 Responses to “Inequality and the battle of ideas”

  1. […] 25, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork A recent survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has sparked comment on a few blogs. It investigated what a sample of the public felt about economic inequality in […]

  2. […] Rowntree Foundation on attitudes towards tackling economic inequality (at Directionless Bones, Left Luggage, Sunder Katwala on CiF, Don Paskini at Liberal Conspiracy, and David Osler). Quoting Alderson at […]

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