Are Workers Brainwashed by Capitalism?

April 1, 2011

If you want to know the truth, you cannot rely on newspapers. We have that on good authority – in fact, on the authority of the more honest newspapers. (The more honest papers are those that are read mainly by capitalists who need reliable information about the world in order to make investment decisions, as opposed to those that are read mainly by workers.)

In a startlingly frank appraisal of the history and practice of the public relations (PR) industry, The Economist (18 December 2010) admits that PR was invented in the early 20th century to counter working-class struggles, and rising popular resentment against capitalism, by getting newspapers and journalists, until then sympathetic to the workers, on the side of the business class. American business was at the time worried by the rise of a new phenomenon: public opinion. The business élite feared this, especially as it was developing in an anti-capitalist direction, and were determined to take control of it and manipulate it for their own ends. PR’s founding father, Edward Bernays, was quite explicit about the aim: ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised opinions and habits of the masses’.

That all this is true, and that the century-long and ongoing pro-capitalist PR campaign was and is a great success, to the extent that there are today no mainstream media outlets that are not pro-capitalist, is pretty much indisputable. This means that, today, newspapers and news programmes (those read and watched by the working class) are not what they appear and claim to be. Their role is not to enlighten and inform, but to mould public opinion so that it reflects the interests of the capitalist class and the state. ‘News’ is propaganda, not genuine journalism.

The truth of this has, however, led to a logical but erroneous conclusion among many radical thinkers – that the working class accepts capitalism because it has been brainwashed into it by clever capitalist PR. The argument can even take a Marxian-sounding form: capitalist society, say some Marxists, maintains and reproduces itself through the dissemination of the ‘ruling ideology’ – i.e., the ideas, beliefs and values of the ruling capitalist class – and its acceptance by the working class. The working class, in accepting these ideas, as they learn them from newspapers and so on, is thereby integrated into capitalism and comes to accept its own subordination. This theory has the added appeal, for Marxists, of seeming to explain something that stands rather in need of explanation in Marxian theory – the failure of the class struggle to materialise into the revolution predicted by Marx.

The argument is compelling but mostly false, as shown in an excellent essay by Conrad Lodziak in the journal Radical Philosophy (‘Dull Compulsion of the Economic: The Dominant Ideology and Social Reproduction.’ No. 49, Summer 1988). The essay, and the empirical data and ethnographic studies it draws upon, is obviously now dated in some respects. But its arguments are still strikingly relevant and persuasive. This article will reprise Lodziak’s argument and briefly consider its implications for socialist politics.

Dull compulsion versus brainwashing

The idea that working-class acceptance of capitalism can be ascribed to the workers’ ‘false consciousness’, Lodziak calls ‘the dominant ideology thesis’, and it is, he says, ‘taken as a self-evident truth amongst a majority of the left’. But is it true? It is, after all, a proposition capable of empirical proof or disproof. Do workers in fact believe and accept the ideas that make up the ‘ruling ideology’? The answer, says Lodziak, is yes – and no.

It is true that most workers accept certain key ideas that are essential to the continuation of capitalism – for example, they accept the justness of ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’, they accept meritocracy (the idea that it’s OK for people to rise above them in the social hierarchy if the rise is based on merit and talent), they accept that most people should get a job or career and strive to ‘get ahead’, and so on. They do not, however, universally accept or agree with other aspects of the ruling ideology, such as property and inheritance rights, principles of capital accumulation and the right to a profit, state neutrality, occupational structure, distribution of incomes, the right to manage, and so on.

At this point, a Marxist might say, OK, the ‘dominant ideology thesis’ is then justified: the working class does accept the most important aspect of the ruling ideology, which is the acceptance of the inevitability of working for wages. But this is not so, says Lodziak. To prove the ‘dominant ideology thesis’, you must show not just that workers accept certain ideas, but that those ideas are sufficiently important to them for them to commit to the ideas and act upon them. And this is where the thesis falls down: ‘the required degree of ideological motivation appears to be absent amongst a majority of the populations of advanced capitalist societies’. Instead, what you find is ‘an absence of belief’: passivity, resignation, bewilderment, confusion, disorientation and marginalisation are all more important in determining working-class actions than so-called ‘false consciousness’. And the explanation for this passivity is easier to find in ‘largely publicly identifiable features of the social environment’ than in ‘some mysterious process of class brainwashing or collective hypnosis’.

The ideas which do dominate working-class thinking tend to be those ‘directly relevant to the practical and immediate demands of the everyday life-world as experienced’ – ideas related to things over which workers do have some control, such as deciding whether to resign and look for a new job, or wait for a promotion; whether to get married, or divorced; how to organise home life and what to do with free time, and so on. Workers’ thinking is, quite understandably and sensibly, focused on finding security, and avoiding insecurity. This is impossible without building relations of dependence and subordination with an employer, the state, or a breadwinner. Workers are materially, not ideologically, subordinated; economic necessity and state coercion are more important than ideology. Workers do what they do because they must – not because they’ve been tricked into thinking it’s a good idea.

This also goes some way to explaining why Marx’s prediction of revolution was premature, and why workers often eschew ‘oppositional’ politics. ‘Workers rightly believe that opposition may lead to redundancies or closures, and that it may be impossible to get another job.’ And the more intolerable the alternatives are, the worse the prospect of unemployment is, the worse pay and conditions workers will be prepared to accept – explaining the present government’s determination to push through punitive benefit reform, even though unemployment is on the rise.

In short, the consciousness of the working class is best understood not in terms of ideology, but in terms of ‘needs-based motivations’. By talking in terms of indoctrination, the left displays an ‘insensitivity to the lived experience’ of the working class.

Political conclusions

We in the World Socialist Party are often accused by our opponents, and even sometimes by our supporters, of not having made any progress in our 100-year history. What the foregoing arguments should have made clear is that it is not within our power to make the kind of progress demanded of us. The working class generally is ideologically indifferent, and accepts capitalism because it must. The only thing that can disrupt this to the advantage of socialists is, says Lodziak, ‘effective oppositional practices inscribed with oppositional viewpoints’ – in other words, the development of the class struggle. We can contribute to the development of this struggle, and we do, but it is not within the power of a small party such as ours to determine its course. The failure of sufficiently large and powerful oppositions to arise is down not to a lack of energy or dedication on the part of socialists, nor the absence of a sufficiently clever socialist advertising campaign, but to the power of economic necessity and state coercion.

This article may seem to have argued itself into a corner. If all this is true, what can be done? The answer may not satisfy socialists who understand the urgent need for radical change, but it is inevitable all the same: we just keep struggling.

Lodziak has three other main concluding points of advice for any socialist opposition. (The commentary that follows the advice is of course ours, not Lodziak’s.)

First, participation in organised politics must be made sufficiently attractive to entice people out of their privatised worlds. This means that the boring treadmill of reformist politics and the ridiculous sectarianism, authoritarianism and leadership-dominated activity of Leninist sects is out. Of course, the Socialist Party has not been wildly successful at attracting people, but it is a commonplace on the left that we have at least managed to be human and charming, make our meetings places of free and open discussion, and our activity the result of freely arrived at decisions and voluntary activity. Our members tend to join and remain members for life; most rival leftist outfits operate a ‘revolving door’ policy.

Second, ‘effective opposition is, amongst other things, always an effective ideological opposition’, which means engaging in a ‘vigorous and continuous ideological contestation in the public sphere, not only in challenging the dominant, but also in the advocacy of oppositional alternatives’. Again, we cannot claim sufficient success in this area, but we have at least taken the challenge seriously, unlike the left generally, which is content to pander to prejudice rather than challenge it, propagate the ruling ideology rather than contest it, and mock the advocacy of alternatives as utopian. Credibility for socialism, says Lodziak, can only come from ‘the relentless public display of commitment to oppositional alternatives, and from the unwillingness of agents of opposition to compromise principles’. Yet again, the Socialist Party, unlike the left, can lay claim to a proud history of doing just that.

Third, we need to demonstrate the relevance of socialism to the needs of the vast majority. Most people will not struggle or even vote for abstract things or ideas, says Lodziak, but will fight to win material benefits to improve the quality of their lives and guarantee the future of their children. This might seem to argue against the Socialist Party’s case. Indeed, we are often accused by our leftwing opponents of doing nothing but try to win support for abstract ideas. This is not true: what we have tried to do is show that many of the material benefits people are fighting for are only possible of realisation in a socialist society. If what you want is a pay rise, then you can join a union. If you want to fill the lonely, empty nights, you can join an evening class or the local darts team. And so on – workers will need no advice from socialists on these counts. But what if you want a full and satisfying life for you and your children – with meaningful and enjoyable work, plenty of free time to spend with your family, friends and loved ones, and to pursue your interests and passions, a life free of stress and anxiety and boredom (if you’re lucky), and of extreme poverty and violence and war and environmental catastrophe (if you’re not)? In that case, you will have to think carefully about what socialists say. What we say is that this is a laudable aim – indeed, our rightful inheritance as human beings – but is impossible to achieve under capitalism.

This is clearly a difficult argument to make, especially to ‘ideologically indifferent’ workers. But we live in interesting times – capitalist crisis is to a large extent making our argument for us, and making it more strongly and reaching more people than we have ever been able to. As the foregoing arguments should have made clear, crisis can have the effect of making workers feel even more insecure and therefore even less likely to become socialist. But it also calls into question the viability of the system, and makes it more obvious than ever that it cannot satisfy our needs as human beings. This crisis has a dual potential: it makes aspects of the socialist case for us, even as it threatens to drive the working class further into the welcoming arms of capitalist domination and exploitation. Which way it goes is down at least in part to what socialists and workers think and do over the next decade. Our work as socialists is therefore more urgent than ever

STUART WATKINS

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