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Capitalism, Though Seen Very Negatively, Not Held Accountable for Problems of Daily Life

Translated Tuesday 25 February 2014, by Gene Zbikowski

In the context of an economic crisis that has grown since fall 2008, the French perception of capitalism rests, first of all, on a major paradox.

By François Miquet-Marty, president of the Viavoice research institute

In the context of an economic crisis that has grown since fall 2008, the French perception of capitalism rests, above all, on a major paradox. Whereas the social crisis (and not solely the economic and financial crises) has grown significantly, the anti-capitalist forces have not gained the upper hand.

While the Left Front obtained a good result (11%) in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, since then the anti-capitalist political movements and trade unions do not seem to have made progress.

A first hypothesis consists in thinking that capitalism is widely accepted in French society and that the anti-capitalist forces have come up against an impenetrable wall of adherence to the dominant economic system.

This first hypothesis is false. In all the opinion polls done in the course of the past ten years, capitalism suffers from a negative image among a very large majority of those polled. In 2009, 69% of the French stated that they had a “bad image” of capitalism (March 2009 Viavoice poll done for the ACFCI). In 2013, 80% of the French thought that capitalism “works poorly” (January 2013 IFOP poll for La Croix newspaper).

How is one to understand the limits of political and trade union anti-capitalism, although an unprecedented social crisis prevails and a majority see capitalism negatively? A first series of explanations, which are fundamental but not determinant, is due to the way capitalism is perceived. In the first place, the foremost perceptions of capitalism include positive elements. The French indicate, first of all, “the freedom to undertake and to create” (66%), followed, negatively, by “the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number” (45%) (October 2005 LH2 poll for Libération newspaper).

In the second place, hypotheses of an “exit from capitalism” are associated with the idea of high cost. The alternative is not perceived. What is more, a majority of French people think they are losing social status (Viavoice studies from 2002 to 2012) and the fear of being downgraded socially incites them more to preserve what they have rather than accept taking risks.

Finally, the factors for hope in dissidence are weak because very different votes have led the French to think that nothing will make it possible to improve the situation of voters, and because social movements have proved to be ineffective (the 2010 “reform” of retirement) and because media discussion does not support hope in dissidence.

This cluster of explanatory elements is essential, but it does not really account for either the specificity of present-day perceptions of capitalism, or the opinions that thwart a greater affirmation of anti-capitalist forces.

My thesis consists in considering that, very often, capitalism is not held accountable for the problems of daily life that low-income people encounter. In other words, even though capitalism feeds negative thoughts, it is hard for it to be truly made responsible for social suffering. There are not many links between capitalism and practical experience.

In the framework of the research work that I conducted (Les Nouvelles Passions Françaises, published by Michalon in 2013), I met people from every social background. Of course, a rare few attributed their problems to the very big bosses, whose wealth is held in the form of capital. But most incriminated a category that is both moral and individual, the “bastards.”

A “bastard” is a person who puts his personal interest ahead of the interest of society: a little boss who ups his income a lot, and not that of his workers, a job-seeking neighbor who does not take the necessary steps to get a job, whereas his unemployment benefits are financed by those who work, a teacher suspected of absenteeism while he lives on public monies, a foreigner who comes to France to take advantage of the social benefits, and so on.

Thus capitalism is partly released from its responsibilities in these daily experiences which make it possible to give a meaning to society. Of course, capitalism is blamed when a big corporation lays people off, or does not back its workers (ArcelorMittal). Then the big corporations and their capitalist managers are stigmatized. But usually, the dominant scenario is that of a critique of the big capitalists for social inequalities, for the gap in wealth between them and the majority of the population. But their responsibility for the social suffering that people personally experience goes by the board.

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