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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Renewing Trust in a World on the Brink

Daniel J Edelman and Associates is the world’s largest public relations firm, by revenue. Like all PR firms, Edelman peddles its services to corporations, institutions, and individuals to burnish their commercial or public image. 

Indirectly, a good image will help generate more interest, more business, and, most importantly, more profits.

Edelman understands that the vital link between image and profits is the trust of the public. They are in a business that sells trust to their clients.

One of their marketing tools is the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, an international poll that purports to show potential customers the elements that inspire trust in various institutions (or, conversely, elements that diminish the trustworthiness of institutions). 

Now trust is an elusive, subjective concept, but for institutions embedded in the capitalist system appearances are as good as the real thing. 

Though the annual Trust Barometer is not meant as a political instrument, its findings often carry political import. For example, the 2020 “global trust-index,” a poll conducted worldwide between October 19 and November 18 of 2019, shows trust in key institutions-- NGOs, Business, Government, and Media-- declining in the US, firmly placing the US among the countries in the “distrusting” category. Perhaps surprisingly to the obsessive China-bashers now dominating the leadership of the two parties, the country scoring highest on the trust-index is China (PRC). There, unlike the US, Japan, Germany, Spain, UK, France, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, Australia, and Russia, those surveyed have trust, increasing trust, in their institutions, a fact hard to square with the media-generated picture of undemocratic repression.

On questions of inequality, the Edelman trust index divides the population into two categories: the masses (85%) and the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie (euphemistically and arrogantly, Edelman calls the upper classes the “informed public”). Not surprisingly, global elites are more trusting of their institutions on the matter of income inequality as opposed to the rest of us, by 14 index points. 

Here again, of all countries, the PRC shows the most trust that its institutions address inequality, though there is a large gap between the trust of the most well off and well-educated and the masses.

On the other hand, the masses in the US, its NATO allies, Japan, and Russia distrust their institutions on questions of inequality.

Globally, Edelman finds that elites trust 3 of the 4 key institutions: NGOs, Business, and the Media, but not Government. Certainly, this should be no surprise since the institutions serve the elites, but elites express an anti-government stance to justify tax cuts and privatization. The masses, on the other hand do not trust any of the key institutions surveyed by the PR firm (see below for a radical shift since the coronavirus).

Edelman finds that income inequality affects trust more than economic growth. That is, the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us weighs more heavily upon trust in institutions than in the past or with other factors.

Most developed countries, including the US, are pessimistic about economic prospects; and even more “worry about people like me losing the respect and dignity I once enjoyed in this country.” This result goes some way toward explaining the appeal of “Make America Great Again” and its counterparts outside the US.

Fifty-six percent of respondents agreed that “Capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world.” 

Seventy-seven per cent of respondents expressed a “sense of injustice” and seventy-six per cent had a “desire for change.” Only 18% agree that the system is “working for me.”

Two-thirds of those surveyed agreed with the statement: “I do not have confidence that our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.” Is it any wonder that people are searching for leaders outside of the mainstream?

Trust After Covid?

To its credit, the Edelman firm took another look at trust after the global pandemic struck this winter and spring. The new conclusions were striking.

“[T]he public is relying on government to protect them in a manner not seen since World War II. Trust in government is not only up by double digits in six of 11 markets surveyed, it is the only institution trusted by the mass population (62 percent).”

“[R]espondents want government out front in all areas of the pandemic response: to provide economic relief (86 percent), to get the country back to normal (79 percent), to contain Covid-19 (73 percent), and to inform the public (72 percent).”

“The Spring Update shows that 67 percent of respondents believe that those with less education, less money and fewer resources are bearing a disproportionate burden of the suffering, risk of illness and need to sacrifice in the pandemic…”

“This pandemic has made me realize how big the gap in this country is between the rich and the working class, and something must be done to more fairly distribute our country’s wealth and prosperity.”
64% of respondents agree.

“Only 38 percent believe business is doing well or very well at putting people before profits.”

“Only 39 percent believe business is doing well or very well at protecting their employees' financial wellbeing and safeguarding their jobs.”

When the future of a public relations firm so inextricably tied to the fate of capitalism arrives at these dire conclusions, one can be certain that the conclusions are not twisted or spun to put lipstick on the capitalist pig. Indeed, the fact that one of the top cheerleaders for capital reports that over half of its respondents believe that global capitalism “does more harm than good” means that there is a ready audience for the message of socialism. The spring pandemic and the coincident economic collapse have only amplified the dissatisfaction with capitalism and the potential for a socialist resurgence.

We are in the first act of a global revolution; the objective conditions for radical change-- mass dissatisfaction, exploding inequality and immiseration, desperation-- are present and only intensifying. As in the early stages of other revolutionary moments, the subjective conditions are backward and undeveloped. Cynicism, nostalgia, reformist illusions, and utopianism have yet to give way to a united sentiment for radical change. Neither a scientific, nor historically grounded vision of socialism has taken deep root in the masses. There is every reason to believe that it will.

But the opportunity is not guaranteed. If it is not seized by a coherent, revitalized, and mature socialist movement, others will seize it, with unhappy outcomes. That is one of the many tragic lessons of the last century.

Greg Godels

Monday, May 11, 2020

A Better World is Possible

Capitalism is an amazingly resilient system. This is not meant as praise, but as an observation that Marxists have made again and again since Marx and Engels first foresaw capitalism’s demise. 

Its resilience lies not in its delivering the public goods, but in its ability to convince a critical mass of people that it does deliver and, when faced with an existential crisis, to stop at nothing to save the reign of capital. 

Of course earlier socio-economic systems had long runs as well. But it is a fool’s errand and decidedly un-Marxist to call the date of the “final” crisis. Unfortunately, far too many have foolishly made that call-- I have the books on my bookshelves to prove it.

What Marxists can do is check the pulse of the capitalist system, take an x-ray, and make a cautious diagnosis. I think everyone-- Marxist and non-Marxist alike-- would agree that today the system is ill, indeed, critically ill. Global capitalism is breathing heavily, and struggling to get out of bed. Maybe it’s because of the coronavirus, maybe it’s also from some serious pre-existing conditions.

Metaphor aside for a moment, capitalism is, at this time, declining rapidly. The usual numbers-- unemployment, GDP, investment, manufacturing activity, trade, etc.-- are all trending in ways unseen at least since the Great Depression. 

What is the prognosis?

The pollyannas of the capitalist class-- most capitalists, economists, politicians-- speak of a quick recovery. They see the crisis as beginning and ending with the rise and fall of Covid-19 infections. Once the coronavirus is conquered, they say, the global economy will pick itself up and, in time, continue briskly marching forward. This should, and does, sound like whistling past the graveyard. 

Liberals and social democrats-- the social-work left-- understand that great human damage is occurring; their sympathy for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the crisis’s victims is genuine and heartfelt; and they sense an opportunity to reform. However, for them, reform must accomplish two-- I would argue, contradictory-- tasks simultaneously: restore and repair the capitalist system and repair and restore the carnage inflicted upon people by this crisis. 

Sure, the respectable left rails against capitalism-- crony capitalism, disaster capitalism, pandemic capitalism, gender capitalism, Trump capitalism, “cancerous form of capitalism” (Michael Moore) or neo-liberal capitalism. But they don’t really mean capitalism itself. Rather, they reject what they consider aberrant capitalism, bad capitalism, capitalism off its otherwise benign rails. Instead, they desire a good capitalism: “human-centered capitalism” (Brookings), “accountable capitalism” (Elizabeth Warren), “capitalism for everyone” (Center for American Progress), “post-capitalism” (the science-fiction capitalism imagined by many academic leftists), or a host of other capitalisms tailored to the supposed greater good. 

The unstated truth is that the soft left, the reformist left does not connect the social ills of growing inequality, wealth concentration, increasing poverty, declining life expectancy, and social dysfunction directly to the intrinsic mechanism of capitalism. They believe that, with some tinkering, they can make the insatiable drive for profit, for accumulation, take a backseat to human needs.

It is an odd view; for centuries, through capitalism’s birth, growth, and maturation, this reformist program has not come close to any lasting success.

In the twenty-first century, with three devastating, life-crushing economic crises in twenty years, that prospect appears even dimmer.

Many in the US are entirely focused on the forthcoming Presidential election campaign. Do they think that the two-party electoral system-- finely honed over many decades to repel even moderate reformism-- will produce solutions equal to the tasks of this era? For young people, it is hopefully a learning experience; for older people, confidence in a favorable outcome is a disappointing measure of their cynicism, not their maturity. Could anyone believe that either Donald Trump or Joseph Biden (now joined with the execrable Laurence Summers) is able to tackle, for the good of the people, an economy now in free fall?

In the past, the reformist left relied upon the labor union hierarchies, the center-left political parties, and issue-oriented activist networks. But today, these groups are more and more compromised. The center-left parties are thoroughly “bourgeoisified”; corporate ownership-- once a dirty, little secret-- is now apparent to all. 

The labor union leadership has exchanged class confrontation for partnership with capital; in some embarrassing cases, they have mounted a stiffer defense of capitalism than the corporations, notably when attacking “foreign” competitors.

And far too many issue-groups have drunk from the poisoned chalice of foundation money. Understandably, there are desperate needs for funding, especially for a resource-starved left, but foundation money is a stealth assault on independent action.

The way forward lies in unleashing the potential of working people, freeing them from the institutional fetters imposed by bankrupt political parties, an ossified labor leadership, and ineffective NGOs.

While it is a daunting task, organizing the millions of unemployed workers promises to break from the inadequate tactics of the recent past. It was the Communist-led unemployment councils that sparked the peoples’ movement in The Great Depression. The marches on state capitals and Washington DC, the confrontation with assistance agencies and evicting officials, and relentless agitation pressed the authorities to reluctantly consider remedies to widespread human misery. Contrary to the “great man” mythology ascribed to Franklin Roosevelt, it was the militant action of the unemployed and other workers that constructed the popular base for New Deal reforms. Without that base demanding more, Roosevelt would have retreated. This time, even greater victories are possible.

Encouraging signs are rising that workers are seeking a new militancy to combat the ravages of capitalism. There is a thirst-- expressed especially among younger workers-- for new ways to organize and direct the anger emerging from the failures of the system to protect and support workers faced with a deadly virus. The callousness of many capitalist leaders toward the safety of health care workers, the rush to return enterprises to profit making despite endangering workers, and the failures to promptly and efficiently provide the resources necessary to combat and treat the virus have exposed the inhumanity of capitalism. Amazon workers, gig workers, the precariat, and other unorganized workers, now more than ever, see the need for collective action. Danger and idleness are great teachers.

Those with the lowest paying jobs, women, Blacks, and Latinos have been hit the hardest by the layoffs and are the most neglected by the politicians and those pretending to represent labor. Like in the era of the Great Depression, a resurgent, militant, and independent labor movement must appeal to those left out. Whether the movement follows the pattern established by the 1930s industrial movement, the CIO, or takes another form, it must not be shackled with moderation and class pacification. The objective need is there, the conditions are ripe; all that is needed is the will. 

As in the thirties, there is mass confusion, unfocused anger, nihilism. The divisions grow in number and grow deeper. The danger of the right coopting righteous indignation increases. Already, Trump and his international counterparts have exploited the frustration of the masses and the impotency of the center-left. 

The antidote to the appeal of the right is not hand-wringing or fear-mongering, but countering with alternatives. Communists in the thirties countered Father Coughlin, the Black Legions, and the many crackpots and demagogues with the power of organization and the inspiration of militant ideas. 

In the thirties, where a catalyst seized the initiative-- even a small catalyst like the US Communist Party-- working people were able to unite and force change on an obstinate ruling class. They were able to find their strength and a vision of a better world. Once recognized, the potential of working people knows no bounds. We must work to foster that recognition.

Our fight is not for unemployment insurance or social security. Those fights have been won, though the ruling class has chipped away at these gains from the day they were secured. Hopefully, our fight is for more, for everything, for socialism!

Greg Godels