what's left

Polls show a spectre is haunting Europe…and much of the rest of the world

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By Stephen Gowans

Just two months before the West celebrated the 20th anniversary of the events that would lead to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a polling organization funded by a tax-exempt trust established by the founder of the Sun Oil company, conducted a poll that showed that Eastern Europeans are decidedly gloomy about their lives under capitalist democracy.

While Western media and politicians spoke glowingly of Eastern Europeans embracing freedom and regular multi-party elections, Russians, Poles, Bulgarians, Ukrainians and other residents of former communist states complained to the Pew pollsters about being worse off today than under communism, about their dissatisfaction with capitalist democracy, and about the transition from communism to capitalism benefiting business owners and politicians, not ordinary people.

The poll revealed that what Eastern Europeans really think about life under capitalism is a far cry from the picture painted by US and British journalists, who, in their celebration of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, mostly presented the events of 1989 to 1991 through the eyes of dissidents and business owners rather than ordinary people. “Our voice, the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism,” remarked Zsuzsanna Clark, who has written a book about her life growing up in communist Hungary, “is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy émigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.” [1]

The poll of 14,760 Eastern Europeans was conducted in August and September in eight countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. [2]

According to the poll, one-half of Eastern Europeans say they’re worse off today than they were under communism. Only one-third say they’re better off. [3]

The chief beneficiaries of the collapse of communism, according to eight of 10, have been business owners. More than 90 percent say politicians have also benefited. But less than one-quarter say ordinary people have reaped any advantage.

Other findings:

• Only one-third of Eastern Europeans believe their country is run for the benefit of all people.

• Only one in three is satisfied with capitalist democracy.

• Only one-quarter believes that most elected officials care what ordinary people think.

The failure of Eastern Europeans to laud their retrogression from full employment and freedom from economic insecurity under communism to high rates of unemployment and the tyranny of the market under capitalism was chalked up to cultural retardation in one New York Times article. “We have created democratic institutions, but we are missing the democratic-political culture to make them effective,” a Bulgarian academic explained. [4]

Rather than being a neutral observer, the Pew Global Attitudes Project is an integral part of a public relations program of imbuing Eastern Europeans with the right culture – a public relations project that has failed miserably.

Funded by the wealth sweated out of oil industry labor by Sun Oil Company founder, Joseph Pew, the Pew Charitable Trust channels money to organizations and individuals that work toward propping up, legitimizing and disseminating capitalist ideology and weakening capitalism’s opponents.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project is part of this wider project. It monitors global attitudes, as an early warning system, to detect growing dissatisfaction with capitalism so that defensive measures can be taken to pre-empt possible challenges to the capitalist state. It also sets benchmarks, to monitor progress in inculcating global populations with attitudes favorable to capitalism.

What is likely to trouble the poll’s sponsors is the continued commitment of Eastern Europeans to the values of solidarity and welfare that characterized communism. Two-thirds of the residents of the former Warsaw Pact countries continue to cleave to one of the defining values of communism: that it’s more important that the state play an active role in guaranteeing that nobody is in need than it is for everyone to be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state.

If the Pew poll points to the tenacity of pro-socialist values in Eastern Europe, a GlobeScan poll conducted in 27 countries, representing 70 percent of the world’s population, shows that most people in the world are social democrats, while a sizeable number are anti-capitalist. [5]

One-half of the world’s population living in areas in which capitalism is the dominant economic system hold social democratic views, believing that capitalism’s problems can be solved through reforms and stricter regulation, while one in five are radicals, believing capitalism is fatally flawed and a new economic system is required. The remainder, 30 percent, hold laissez-faire capitalist views, believing capitalism works well and should not be subject to reforms and government oversight. [6]

GlobeScan is a strategic issues management firm that provides public relations advice to governments and transnational corporations. To survey global attitudes toward capitalism, GlobeScan partnered with the Program on International Policy Attitudes, an organization funded by the Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller and other capitalist foundations, which largely exist to burnish the reputation of capitalism. GlobeScan also does work for the World Bank and World Trade Organization.

The poll found that a clear majority of the world’s population favors policies traditionally associated with socialism, including public ownership of major industries, redistribution of wealth, and an active role for governments in regulating businesses.

According to the poll, 62 percent of adults living in the world’s capitalist areas would like governments to play some role in owning or controlling major industries, while 44 percent believe governments should play an even more active role than they play today.

At the same time, three-quarters want governments to distribute wealth more evenly and 60 percent favor governments being more active in redistributing income.

Seven of 10 of the 29,000 people polled by GlobeScan say governments should play at least as much of a role in regulating businesses as they play today, while 55 percent believe governments should play an even stronger role.

The poll, which sampled opinion in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, revealed that the greatest percentage of radicals is in France, where 43 percent believe capitalism should be replaced by a different system. (Three-quarters of French citizens, according to the Pew poll, believe that government providing for the basic needs of all is more important than ensuring individuals can pursue personal goals without government interference.) By contrast, Japan, Germany and the United States have the smallest percentage of radicals. Only 10 percent in these countries believe capitalism is fatally flawed and needs to be replaced.

On balance, the GlobeScan survey of world opinion shows that in the world’s capitalist areas, a majority remains unwilling to write capitalism off as fatally flawed, but recognizes the system’s problems are severe enough to warrant public ownership, income redistribution and regulatory measures as correctives. While this may appear to be a pessimistic finding to those who favour a clear break with capitalism, public ownership, regulation of enterprises (through central planning) and a sharp reduction in income inequality were central planks of the economic policies of countries that broke decisively with capitalism after 1917 and World War II. Despite a reluctance to reject capitalism entirely, the world’s majority favors decidedly socialist policies.

Taken together, the two polls show that the political attitudes of the world’s population reflect the majority’s position in the world economy as sellers of their own labor, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the labor market and faced by growing economic insecurity. Eastern Europeans recognize that capitalist democracy benefits business owners and politicians, not ordinary people, and that elected officials are not responsive to the majority. They are also dissatisfied with capitalist democracy and believe that life was better under communism. A majority of the world’s population favours a traditional socialist policy of government ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy and calls for governments to play more of a role in distributing wealth evenly, an expression of a commitment to egalitarian values. And while half of the world’s population believes that capitalism’s flaws are remediable, a large majority, 70 percent, recognizes that capitalism is a flawed system.

The polls suggest that most people are socialists, whether they recognize themselves as such, or would use the word to describe their core political values. That they routinely vote for parties of private property is not indicative of the majority’s political orientation. A substantial number of people don’t vote, recognizing, as Eastern Europeans do, that elected officials do not work on behalf of the interests of ordinary people and that the state operates in the interests of business owners. Those who do vote, often vote against parties and policies they don’t want, finding no parties that advocate policies they do want, settling for the lesser evil. Pro-capitalist parties command a virtual monopoly on the resources required to run the marketing campaigns necessary to win elections, meaning they are often the only choice voters are aware of. And many people shy away from parties that advocate anti-capitalist positions for fear that if the parties come to power they will provoke businesses to move elsewhere or curtail investment, thereby touching off an economic crisis, leading to the loss of their jobs.

The polls underscore that the goal for those who advocate a radical solution to capitalism’s problems is to show that the widely-favoured policies of public ownership, income redistribution and tighter regulation, without a wholesale rejection of capitalism, cannot bring about the intended benefits in any lasting way.

The Pew poll also shows that history’s lone top-to-bottom alternative to capitalism, the socialist states of Eastern Europe, were not rejected holus-bolus by the people who lived in them, and that the popular reaction to the successor capitalist regimes does not warrant the celebratory retrospectives on the “fall of the Berlin Wall” and the collapse of communism favoured by the Western media.

Notes

1. Zsuzsanna Clark, “Oppressive and grey? No, growing up under communism was the happiest time of my life,” The Mail on Sunday (UK), October 17, 2009.

2. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Two decades after the Wall’s fall: End of Communism cheered but now with more reservations,” November 2, 2009. http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/267.pdf

3. All figures represent averages weighted by country population.

4. Matthew Brunwasser, “Bulgaria still stuck in trauma of transition,” The New York Times, November 11, 2009.

5. PIPA and GLobeScan, “Wide Dissatisfaction with Capitalism — Twenty Years after Fall of Berlin Wall,” November 9, 2009, http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/bbc2009_berlin_wall/bbc09_berlin_wall_release.pdf

6. All figures represent averages weighted by country population.

Written by what's left

November 15, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Posted in Communism, Socialism

3 Responses

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  1. Most people in Eastern Europe did not really hate socialism. What they hated was the rigid communist ideology and Soviet influence.
    If these EE nations were left to themselves to develop their own versions of socialism/social democracy, these countries would be better off today. Look at the former Yugoslavia. They had a socialist oriented economy that worked without soviet influence and no rigid communist ideology.
    There are clearly valuable benefits to socialism and serious flaws in the capitalist system. What most people want is a sort of socially-orientated market economy such as exists in Belarus today.
    That Americans are mostly pro-capitalist does not say much because Americans (those born and raised in the US) never lived under another system and so do not have the real-life experience in order to make a valid comparison.
    I remember hearing a story about some university students in Eastern Europe being told by a visiting western professor that there is homelessness in western capitalist countries and the negative reactions this elicited from the students. They thought that the professor was some sort of an undercover communist agitator sent to manipulate them.

    Paul

    November 17, 2009 at 2:36 am

  2. First-Worldist pseudo-Marxist Brezhnevite crap. Now i need to hear that China is socialist and I heard everything.

    Maoist

    November 19, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    • Maoist in name and nature it would seem from your previous responder

      markh

      November 22, 2009 at 1:48 pm


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