We are witnessing a profound crisis of legitimacy and moral decomposition of the entire capitalist system. Former US President Donald Trump’s latest legal drama is just one more in a ceaseless succession of establishment scandals, blunders and internecine disputes at all levels. From parliament, to the police, to the press, to religious institutions – every pillar of bourgeois rule is rotting from the inside out. Why is this happening, why now, and what does it mean for the class struggle?
In the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class had centuries to construct an intricate state and ideological machinery to manage its affairs. When times are good, the machine runs relatively smoothly. There is always a grimy underbelly of corruption and internal wrangling for personal power within capitalist institutions. In periods of stability, this is easier to conceal, and the masses are more-or-less content to go along with the show, or ignore politics altogether.
But the contradictions of capitalism always reassert themselves. In reference to the crisis of the interwar period, Trotsky writes in Their Morals and Ours (1938):
“The economic life of mankind landed in an impasse. The class antagonisms became sharp and naked. The safety valves of democracy began to explode one after the other. The elementary moral precepts seemed even more fragile than the democratic institutions and reformist illusions. Mendacity, slander, bribery, venality, coercion, murder grew to unprecedented dimensions.”
These words could have been written today. The most clearly short-sighted and venal layers of the ruling class and their representatives have been thrown to the surface, scrabbling for power and personal prestige amongst themselves, doing further damage to an already ailing system.
In light of endless elite scandals drifting to the surface – including the billionaires and politicians named in child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘little black book’; the shameless hoarding and fraud exposed in the Panama and Pandora Papers; and much more besides – the moral rot of the upper crust is impossible to ignore.
The masses are seeing their rulers for what they really are, and they don’t like what they see. The 2022 World Values Survey found participants from the UK and USA (respectively) had “not very much confidence” or “none at all” in: Churches (56.2 and 45.7 percent), the Press (85.7 and 69.7 percent), the Government (74.9 and 65.7 percent), Elections (45.2 and 59.7 percent), Major Companies (59.2 and 67.5 percent) and Banks (44.2 and 54.7 percent).
The 2023 Edelman Global Trust index, which measures public faith in various institutions, found that just 37 and 45 percent of UK and US-based respondents trust their government. Meanwhile, the same study found respondents worldwide regarded “the Rich and Powerful” to be the most “divisive” force in society. What this all points to is a growing hostility to the capitalist class and the institutions that prop up their rule.
Britain is undergoing a profound crisis of trust in capitalist institutions: the sum total of many years of accumulated establishment scandals, sleaze and corruption. This coincides with a special crisis of British capitalism, which is on track to be the worst-performing G7 economy in 2023, with national debt exceeding 100 percent of GDP for the first time in 62 years. As the Observer writes:
“The 1940s and 50s are often seen as a golden era for democracy, when Britain and its allies triumphed against fascism before the postwar consensus powered the formation of the welfare state and National Health Service. In those days we had a nation broadly content with itself and its values, and almost completely unquestioning of its system of government. Ever since then – as we show today there has been a gradual decline in trust in politicians, to the point where today it is close to non-existent, raising profound questions about the health and future workability of our entire democratic system.”
The degeneration of the British capitalist class into speculative gamblers – having sold off the family silver through privatisation and underinvestment in industry – has also pushed a gang of self-interested charlatans to the political forefront. Brexit was spearheaded by these opportunist upstarts, who remain at war with a more ‘serious’ wing representing the interests of big business and the City.
Boris Johnson prorogued parliament, throwing democratic conventions out the window / Image: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency, Flickr
Before the 2019 election, Boris Johnson prorogued parliament, throwing democratic conventions out the window in an attempt to force a hard Brexit deal through a deadlocked Commons. His scandal-ridden tenure as prime minister was ended by an establishment coup, followed shortly by the removal of his equally disastrous successor Liz Truss.
After going through two prime ministers in three months, the British capitalists were forced to expose their whole ‘democratic’ system as a sham by imposing a ‘safe pair of hands’ (Rishi Sunak) without an electoral mandate from either the country or his party. What this reveals is a shocking weakness, disunity and lack of self-confidence on the part of the ruling class.
Battles within the Tories are being dragged continually into the open. Facing a Privileges Committee report which concluded that he lied about holding illegal parties at the prime minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street, during a 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Johnson resigned from Parliament (though not before rewarding a clutch of allies with peerages). He then immediately branded the Privileges Committee a “kangaroo court” and a “political assassination”. Sunak didn’t even dare to whip his party to vote on confirming the Privilege Committee’s report, nor did he turn up to vote himself, for fear of an explosive civil war with Johnson’s allies.
Much ink was spilled in the press about Johnson’s “shameful legacy”, while Blairite Labour MPs wagged their fingers. Never mind that these ladies and gentlemen colluded to help Johnson to power in the first place when the left-reformist Jeremy Corbyn was the alternative. It’s telling that the ruling class could find nobody better than a known liar and braggart to neutralise the Corbyn movement. Having pushed Johnson and his supporters forward, they are left with the task of cleaning the muck this rabble has left all over their institutions.
But Johnson and his clique are not an isolated case. Westminster is rife with seedy, corrupt and criminal liars. For instance, a probe last year found that more than 50 MPs are facing allegations of sexual misconduct, across all parties. Meanwhile, the most opportunistic wing of the Tory Party, like Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Conservative Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson, accuse the ‘mainstream’ Tories of being too soft, and indulge in vicious ‘culture war’ attacks on migrants, LGBT people, and other oppressed layers in order to curry favour with the most-backward elements in society.
The longstanding decline of British capitalism has failed to provide the masses a dignified existence. Lacking any real solutions, the ruling class is hopelessly divided about how to proceed. And on top of that, it does not benefit from reliable representatives to navigate these stormy seas. On the contrary, the conditions of confusion and decay favour the advancement of rank careerists and petty demagogues. They don’t care about the legitimacy of the system as a whole but only their own personal advancement, and publicly tear strips off one another while shamelessly abusing their privileges. All of this helps to turn a bad situation into an even-worse one.
Understandably, the public are fed up with unedifying spectacle. A report by the Office of National Statistics found that only 35 percent of the UK population trust their national government.
Fire, fury and senile decay
The situation is no better across the Atlantic. After the ‘Fire and Fury’ of the Donald Trump presidency, there were some illusions that Joe Biden would restore a modicum of decorum to Washington. Such hopes have been dashed.
Trump is a megalomaniacal careerist with no qualms about dragging the entire legitimacy of bourgeois democracy through the mud for personal gain / Image: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons
Biden’s presidency began with the storming of Capitol Hill by a mob of reactionary Trump supporters. Since then, social polarisation and distrust of the government have remained high, while the deep crisis of US capitalism has put the brakes on various promises made during Biden’s election run.
With inflation biting and life getting worse by the day, Biden’s doddering, befuddled public appearances have done little to restore confidence in his regime. He has also repeatedly assisted his opponents (not that the Republicans have any solutions either). For instance: attempting to strike a deal with the US Department of Justice will spare his son Hunter from jail time, in exchange for pleading guilty to three federal crimes to resolve tax and firearm charges, provoking howls of corruption and favouritism.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, just 38.6 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, and 56.3 percent disapprove. And according to Newsweek, 40 percent of the public still believe the 2020 election was “stolen”.
Far from disappearing, Trump has exploited his (to date) three indictments on various federal charges (from mishandling classified documents to attempting to overturn the 2020 election result) to accuse Biden, as well as special prosecutor at the Department of Justice Jack Smith, of conspiring to prevent him from re-running in 2024.
Like Johnson, Trump is a megalomaniacal careerist with no qualms about dragging the entire legitimacy of bourgeois democracy through the mud for personal gain. The bourgeois liberals play directly into his hands by using state institutions like the FBI and courts against him, reinforcing his persona as an enemy of the ‘establishment’.
His most recent indictment coincided with a 13-point boost to his support amongst Republican voters, and saw him reach level pegging in national polls with the incumbent. The less-stupid bourgeois know this is happening, but seem incapable of helping themselves. As the Washington Post recently wrote:
“You have probably heard many times by now that this is unique, that no former president has faced one, much less more than one criminal indictment. Perhaps, back before this seemingly inevitable state of affairs came to pass, you also assumed that these indictments might at long last disrupt Trump’s as-yet-undisruptable political support. That even if he weathered other crises and scandals, surely an indictment might incur real political damage.
“So far, the story of the Republican nominating contest is that, if there has been any effect at all, it has been to boost Trump’s position.”
Every attack by the ruling class on Trump via its institutions only bolsters Trump’s support in the eyes of millions of Americans for whom these institutions are utterly discredited. Indeed, all pillars of the US establishment are regarded with growing contempt. A Gallup poll found that confidence in 14 major institutions (The Presidency, the Supreme Court, Senate and Congress, etc.) averaged 27 percent, the lowest point since 1979.
These institutions fight each other to the advantage of one or other wing of the US bourgeoisie, but at the expense of the whole. During his Presidency, Trump openly clashed with the intelligence services. The Supreme Court (stuffed with justices from the Republican Right) has waged open war with the Democratic executive, ruling against abortion rights, affirmative action, LGBT free speech and student debt relief. Any lingering illusions of SCOTUS being a ‘neutral’ arbiter of justice have been demolished.
The sum of all this can be measured in polling data. The Pew Research Centre found that 24 percent of Americans said they could trust the government at least most of the time in 2022, down from 73 percent in 1958, and 55 percent in 2001. The entire edifice of American democracy itself is being battered by the irresponsible squabbling in Washington.
The core problem bedevilling the establishment is that bourgeois politicians are forced by the crisis of capitalism to carry out attacks on the working class, which undermines their popularity. This is further compounded by the arrogance of bourgeois leaders, whose belief in their divine right to rule further inflames the mood in society. We have seen this play out recently in France over the question of pension reform.
Emmanuel Macron is the epitome of bourgeois arrogance / Image: Remi Jouan, Wikimedia Commons
President Emmanuel Macron is the epitome of bourgeois arrogance. He also heads a weak government, lacking a majority in the Assembly, meaning he was forced to employ article 49.3 of the French Constitution to ram through a bill to raise the retirement age by two years without a vote. This threw petrol on the flames of a mass strike and protest movement that was already reaching insurrectionary proportions
Despite achieving his immediate goal, thanks to the weakness of the trade union bureaucrats and political left, Macron’s personal popularity has sunk to the lowest level since the gilets jaunes protests in 2018-9, at 28 percent. He haughtily brushed this off, stating: “between short-term opinion polls and the broader interest of the nation, I choose (the latter).”
And at the same time, he warned that: “the mob, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives.”
The people have been shown that their votes are worthless, their opinions are deemed meaningless, and if they enter the path of struggle they will be met with batons and tear gas. So what are they to do?
All of this has amounted to a situation where the masses regard the Fifth Republic and its president with deserved derision. This mood is not limited to France. Everywhere, people are having their democratic illusions, built up over many decades, carelessly shattered. Ultimately, the political cost to the bourgeoisie will outweigh the benefit of any individual political victory.
Cloak and dagger
Capitalism’s armed bodies of men have historically enjoyed general approval from the masses, helped along by ceaseless propaganda in the media, films and television depicting police as “the good guys”. But events are taking their toll.
The murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in 2021 was just one in a long line of cop killings of black men in the United States, and the protest wave it provoked saw the highest participation of any such movement in US history. In France, we need only point to the mass rioting that erupted just weeks ago after the shooting of a French-Algerian teenager to see that the same mood towards the police is developing there. And in Britain, the last few years have revealed a sewer of abuse and corruption at the very heart of policing.
The Met in particular has been revealed as a cesspit, harbouring notorious rapists and murderers like David Carrick and Wayne Couzens. The 2023 Casey Report deemed the Met “institutionally racist, sexist, and homophobic”, and “not fit for purpose”. Shortly before its publication, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick retired in disgrace, leaving behind her a litany of allegations of mismanagement, corruption and Tory Party collusion. Unsurprisingly, confidence in the Met collapsed from 70 percent in 2016 to 45 percent in 2022.
Incredibly, former head of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), Michael Lockwood, who occupied this post until December last year, has been charged with raping an underage girl in the 1980s. So while the police offer a safe haven for rapists and murderers, even the ‘independent’ body charged with guarding against police misconduct was led by a man now accused of heinous sex offences. Who will watch the watchmen?
Declining support for the police is a particularly acute problem for the ruling class / Image: Socialist Appeal
Declining support for the police is a particularly acute problem for the ruling class, who anticipate intensified class struggle in the future, hence the Tories’ renewed attack on civil liberties with a series of bills to increase police powers. They will not be able to rely on public compliance to the same extent as in the past.
Other sections of the state’s armed bodies have also had their reputations shaken. Various disastrous military adventures, and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, have diminished support for the US military.
Pew reports that the share of Americans who express “great confidence” in the military to “act in the public’s best interests” has fallen 14 points since November 2020, from 39 percent to 25 percent. Even among Republicans (who are typically staunchly pro-Army), approval for the military fell from 81 to 71 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to Gallup. This reflects and feeds into a lack of public enthusiasm for war, which constrains US imperialism from imposing its will on the world stage.
The police and armed forces are not the only esteemed institutions coming under fire. The reputation of the British Royal Family has suffered from a slew of scandals in recent years – not least the public disgrace of Prince Andrew, following evidence of liaisons with Jeffrey Epstein, (a Met investigation into which was mysteriously dropped). The continuing spat between Prince Harry and his family has also been an embarrassing debacle for the Windsors.
A poll conducted by the National Centre for Social Research on the approach to King Charles III’s coronation found that just 29 percent of Britons think the monarchy is “very important”: the lowest proportion on record, down from 35 percent just since 2022. Amongst 18-34-year-olds, the figure was just 12 percent. This attitude was reflected in the short-lived effect of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, which after a week or two of enforced ‘national mourning’ was largely forgotten.
Having their (very human) baggage dragged into the public eye is wrecking the aloof, mystical character of the monarchy, blunting the institution’s potential as a rallying point for reaction in the event of a revolutionary upsurge.
Additionally, years of accumulated crimes and corruption have diminished the moral authority of religious institutions. While the Catholic Church is infamous for abuse scandals, it isn’t the only offender. It was recently announced that the Archbishop’s Council, the leading body of the Church of England, had sacked the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) set up to monitor how the Church deals with abuse. The outgoing ISB complained the Church had interfered with its work to the point that it could not function.
It is hardly surprising that, for the first time ever, a minority of British people regard themselves as Christian, at 46.2 percent in 2021, representing a 13-percentage point drop in a decade. Even in the USA, a traditionally quite religious country, where the Christian lobby represents a powerful political force, piety is on the slide. The number of Americans who identify as Christian has declined by six percentage points since 2017 (according to Gallup).
Lies, propaganda and culture wars
The media’s role as a propaganda arm for different factions of the ruling class is becoming increasingly evident. A handful of reactionary billionaires control the biggest traditional and new media platforms. These tycoons shape the media landscape to their liking, ensuring an endless stream of bile is directed against workers and the left while capitalist interests are defended.
They also benefit from close ties to the political elite. Rupert Murdoch’s latest annual garden party assembled a who’s-who of the Westminster establishment, including Sunak, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan – clearly showing the right-wing Labour leadership’s establishment credentials.
There is also a revolving door between the media and the halls of power. Boris Johnson has a column in the right-wing Daily Mail. Former Tory chancellor and austerity architect George Osbourne was editor of the Evening Standard, for example.
The media’s role as a propaganda arm for different factions of the ruling class is becoming increasingly evident / Image: Socialist Appeal
Not only overtly partisan, privately-owned platforms like Fox News, but ‘impartial’ state bodies like the BBC are increasingly revealing their allegiance to the political establishment.
In a telling example this April, former Director Chairman Richard Sharp was forced to resign after it turned out he co-signed an £800,000 loan for none other than Boris Johnson. On a number of occasions, the BBC has bowed to pressure by the Tory right to suppress perceived criticism, while no such standards constrain attacks on left-wingers and striking workers. Not to mention decades of concealing seedy behaviour by big stars, put in the spotlight by the recent furore around news presenter Huw Edwards, who is alleged by the equally rotten Sun newspaper to have paid a five-figure sum for sexual images of a 17 year old.
In the past, the masses would have largely accepted the news carried in their preferred paper or news programme as good coin. These days, people are convinced they are being lied to. In 2003, 80 percent of British people trusted the BBC to tell the truth. Today, the number has collapsed to 38 percent. Just 34 percent of Americans trusting the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly”, a near record-low according to Gallup.
As we have commented before, the absence of a clear, class-based explanation from the left has opened the field for reactionary rags and petty demagogues to exploit justified scepticism by peddling conspiracy theories, lies and reactionary chauvinism. The only purpose of this rubbish is to distract people from the real source of society’s ills: crisis-ridden capitalism.
A particularly contrived recent example saw the right-wing Telegraph claiming that teachers at Rye College in Essex were allowing schoolchildren to “self-identify as cats… horses, dinosaurs and even moons”, in a bizarre dog-whistle attack on transgender people. The furore even prompted an official letter to Ofsted from Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, demanding an inspection of the school. It is a testament to the dysfunction of capitalism and its organs that such obvious bunk is served up as a distraction from the parlous state of society.
The liberal wing of the establishment, for its part, understands nothing; and in any case is too discredited to defend itself. Moreover, it ends up peddling conspiracy theories of its own: such as ceaselessly blaming its own waning popularity on Russian interference, the nefarious influence of social media, or inexplicable mass hysteria. In an article for the Guardian on the rise of conspiracy theories, one such liberal pundit writes:
“On a bad day, it feels like our politics now consists of a centre once again full of dull technocrats, with, on either side, wild cultures of prejudice and paranoia, which add to the apparently growing number of voices claiming that the mundane business of democracy is nothing but a sham.”
The problem is that the author is talking about Britain: a country where the Prime Minister was appointed in a palace coup at the urging of the markets; where both the main parties have a consensus on carrying out austerity and attacks on workers; and where the media and police have demonstrably colluded with the government out of mutual interest. The “mundane business of democracy” is a sham! Nobody trusts a word they are told, and nobody is presenting an alternative.
We are living through a period in which the elementary moral, ideological and democratic principles of society are coming away at the seams. The rich are richer than ever, while the rest of us have seldom had it worse. The political leaders of the capitalist class fight like cats in a sack. Formerly sacred institutions reek of abuse and corruption. Public broadcasters and respected newspapers in so-called ‘free countries’ scarcely conceal their role as establishment propaganda.
Meanwhile, attacks on the working class continue to ratchet up the polarisation and tension in society. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, has just written a book called The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. As a more far-sighted representative of the ruling class, he has at least some conception of the situation facing the capitalists in coming years. He writes:
“Today, as in the early 20th century, we see huge shifts in global power, economic crises and the erosion of fragile democracies… the world is in a ‘democratic recession’. How close might it be to a democratic depression, in which democracy is subverted even in states where it was long thought robust? Market capitalism, too, has lost its ability to generate widely shared rises in prosperity in many countries…
“Today’s liberal democracies are the most successful societies in human history, in terms of prosperity, freedom and the welfare of their peoples. But they are also fragile. Resting on consent, they require legitimacy. Among the most important sources of legitimacy is widely shared prosperity. A big part of the reason for the erosion of trust in elites has accordingly been a long-term relative economic decline of significant parts of the working and middle classes, worsened by economic shocks, notably the global financial crisis.”
This is quite right – but the capitalists have no solution. While crises never follow an unbroken downward line, there will be no return to general prosperity, nor will the legitimacy of capitalist institutions be restored.
A significant section of the masses are beginning to understand that the institutions of bourgeois order are not fit for purpose. They cannot be reformed, but must be overthrown.
The justified disgust felt by the masses towards the old order must be channelled towards the task of building a new and better society. The bureaucrats and quislings of the capitalists at the head of the reformist organisations will be increasingly exposed and swept away by the rising tide of class struggle in the next period.
As the class lines in society sharpen, we communists must declare an unrelenting class war on capitalism and all its institutions.