In 2016, YouGov polled almost 4,000 British adults and asked them “Would you describe yourself as a capitalist, a socialist or neither?” Across the board, the majority of the respondents replied “neither”. However, the second highest percentage in this poll came back as reading “socialist”. This trend was particularly prominent in the younger age groups. Among 18-24-year-olds, only 14 per cent of respondents identified openly as “capitalists”.
In the UK, we have a generation of young people who have ambivalent to negative feelings about capitalism. But in a world in which capitalism has provided so much, how has this happened?
The answer is simple. Consider the word “capitalism”. It conjures images of corporate excess, moral decadence and cold-hearted materialism. The reason we associate these ideas with capitalism is that they have been hardwired into us by the media, by academia, and by prominent politicians. Unconsciously, we tend to see “capitalism” as the tool of the ruling elite to reap immense profits at the expense of “the rest of us”. This is despite the fact that throughout Britain’s history, capitalism has been the system that has benefitted the entrepreneur in the village more than the lord of the manor.
But crucially, the reason why this word has been associated with off-putting opulence is due to the aftermath of the financial crisis. Under Gordon Brown, the British government injected £850 billion of taxpayers’ money into failing banks, after their investments went sour in the subprime shock. This exercise in crony corporatism came from a party that, back then, claimed to be business friendly and pro-capitalism. After the crisis, as bankers continued to receive their bonuses funded by the taxpayer, and as the nation went into austerity, young people’s perception of “capitalism” came to be of the negative persuasion we now hear from the left.
The current Labour Party knows how to weaponise this perception. Reading through some of Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches, you can easily see his negative view of capitalism: a system that is rapacious, exploitative, dark and ruthless.
But does it have to be this way? Absolutely not. Liz Truss best expressed the resistance to Corbyn’s socialism in the Telegraph: “The under-30s are the risk-takers, inventors and free-thinkers, with unprecedented freedom to start a business, broadcast their views to the world, or travel anywhere they like at the push of a button.” And, as Ms Truss alluded to, these online and offline entrepreneurs are, whether they know it or not, capitalists in the purest sense.
But if we are to reach out to that audience, we have to make a conscious effort to demonstrate our support for the free market, rather than primarily using the term “capitalism”. Language is important, and if we are going to persuade people, we must first ensure they will give us the time of day.
Because, after all, young people value freedom, as we all should. But by speaking about the free market, we also convey our ethos better: we believe that the free and voluntary exchange of goods and services creates prosperity. The idea that we should let people deal with each other without the need for excessive government interference. The idea that you should keep more of the money you earn, and that regulations won’t act as barriers to progress. These are very simple ideas that most people can relate to.
Indeed, we have to appeal to young people’s explorative nature. Stereotypes surrounding avocado and quinoa consumption are rampant but, after all, these stereotypes exist for a reason. For example, the wonder of free trade means that we don’t have to settle for foods foisted upon us by protectionist policies – foods we may not even be particularly fond of. We can instead reach out across every corner of the globe, trading with the best different countries have to offer.
It is far easier to approach the battle between capitalism and socialism by appealing to the individual’s yearning for freedom. Young people might not be enamoured with the term “capitalism”, and given the negative connotations they hear everywhere, they can hardly be blamed. So, how do we stop young people from turning socialist? Yes, make the big arguments, but stop using the word “capitalism”. Instead, fire up their faith in freedom.