Millions of people will vote Conservative in this week’s general election.
Some will be the filthy rich, supporting the party that best represents their interests. Many more will be from the middle classes.
But ever since working class people won the vote, something like 20 percent of workers have voted for the Tories. Why do they vote for a party that so clearly and consistently attacks their interests?
The revolutionary Karl Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas... the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
On one level this is simply because they have more money to spread their ideas.
This translates into more glossy leaflets, more campaign staff, more phone calls – and the thousands of Tory billboards that blight our streets.
There is the daily propaganda for the Conservatives by the Tory press barons.
But the ideas of people who control a society also become that society’s “common sense”. Most people accept ideas that are used to prop up capitalism – such as that competition is part of human nature.
In the early 20th century Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, expanded this into his theory of “hegemony”.
He said that institutions like schools, churches and the family act as a “transmission belt” for ruling class ideas.
So, for example, the idea that our rulers are “our betters” is drilled into us at school.
We are trained to believe “experts” like Bank of England banker Mervyn King, who is calling for tough “austerity” cuts to public spending.
The obvious answer to the crisis – tax the rich – is almost invisible in mainstream debate, because such people would never suggest it.
Even most people who accept some socialist ideas, also accept that changes have to be made within the framework of the current system.
The Labour Party tradition argues that the system could be run more in the interests of ordinary people, but still accepts many of the common sense arguments that the rich put forward. They say we are all in it together and there is a national interest shared by rich and poor alike.
When ordinary people do get a look in, it is because it suits the agenda of the powerful.
For example, look at the way the press leapt on remarks by Rochdale voter Gillian Duffy to Gordon Brown.
More generally, the right wing media cuts with the grain of capitalist society by picking on the poor and vulnerable instead of the rich and powerful.
It perpetuates the worst prejudices in society every day – trying to stir up racism and divide us from our own neighbours.
It then “reports” on “public opinion” it has helped to feed, creating a right wing echo chamber that dominates political discussion and helps the Tories.
If that was the whole story, though, then surely all workers would vote for right wing parties?
How can there be space for any criticism to exist, whether from a newspaper like Socialist Worker or even the Mirror? Why did the Sun stop supporting the Tories and back Tony Blair?
In fact more workers support Labour than the Tories.
And luckily, workers’ ideas do not simply reflect what the ruling class wants us to think.
People’s opinions are shaped by their experience. For much of the time, the world of competition that the rich and the capitalist media promote does seem common sense to most people.
But their experience also shows another side to life. Workers realise that they are only listened to if they organise collectively.
We all hold many ideas at once – and those ideas will often contradict one another.
There is a constant battle of ideas not just in society, but inside every person’s head.
That’s why it is possible for someone to accept the idea that immigrants cause society’s problems because they’ve read that in the press, but exclude all those they actually know, because their individual experience shows that the stereotype doesn’t fit them.
Workers who vote Tory will still be faced with the choice of whether to fight cuts or not.
The divisions forced on us mean there are usually a minority of scabs and a minority of revolutionaries in the working class.
But every strike, protest and act of resistance can start to shift people’s ideas.
Also in the What Socialists Say series:
» What is the role of the police in capitalist society?
» Why is the media on the bosses’ side?
» From people’s power to workers’ power
» Just who are the Liberal Democrats?
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