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Surveys: Police Critics are not Anti-Capitalists

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

By James Ron and Doug Guthrie

After protests swept through Kenosha, Wisconsin, we thought it was worth asking: Do supporters of Black Lives Matter (BLM) seek more than police restructuring? Do they actually want to replace the capitalist system with something else more akin to socialism? This is a meme out there, but the facts belie the meme of the moment.

“Black Lives Matter” has become a civil justice Rorschach test today. For some, its hate-signaling leftist, antifa ideology. For others, it’s an aggressive effort to destroy the very principles the United States was founded upon: freedom, democracy and capitalism. Even Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and President Trump’s personal attorney, has gotten into the name calling, describing the protests as a Marxist plot.

There is some logic to the question of what’s behind BLM, as many of the fires set during demonstrations in Kenosha and elsewhere have targeted businesses and commercial buildings. In response, some corporations, including Apple, Target and Walmart, temporarily shut down their stores this spring. Is the call to “defund the police” really shorthand for “end capitalism?”

To answer this question, we reviewed survey evidence from roughly 13,000 respondents in the United States and around the world. The data suggest that, on average, police critics in this country and elsewhere are in fact not opposed to business. Here and in other countries, the respondents who told us they mistrusted the police the most were also more likely to trust international and local businesses alike. Across the world, support for business goes hand in hand with skepticism towards police.

This finding undermines claims by conservatives in the U.S. and abroad that BLM supporters were also anti-capitalists who are supportive of the broader post-2008 movement for socioeconomic reform, which was promoted by Occupy, Bernie Sanders and others.

BLM was not easy to pigeonhole on the right-left economic spectrum, however. While right-wing critics bemoaned BLM’s supposed anti-capitalist tendencies, critics on the far left seemed anxious that BLM was not turning decisively enough in their direction. The Socialist Appeal, for example, published an “appeal to Black Lives Matter activists” asking them to realize that, “[T]he reason racism is systemic is precisely because it is woven into the fabric of our socioeconomic system: capitalism.” Dissent Magazine, another left-wing venue, wrote that Bernie Sanders and his supporters “must develop a deeper analysis of the racialized nature of U.S. capitalism.”

The BLM leadership has tread very carefully on economic issues. Although BLM co-founder Patrisse Collors readily acknowledged that she and her colleagues were “trained Marxists,” the group’s official website speaks only of “imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness,” dismantling “patriarchal practice” and disrupting “the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.” Dismantling capitalism, nationalizing private enterprise or freeing consumers from the grip of advertiser-promoted false consciousness, where they cannot recognize the injustice of the situation, are nowhere on the agenda.

According to one recent survey, 50 percent of registered U.S. voters support the movement, a dramatic increase from before George Floyd’s killing. Are these new BLM supporters also aligned with America’s anti-capitalist left as conservatives fear? And what about their supporters elsewhere in the world?

To learn how potential BLM supporters feel about the institutions of capitalism, we re-examined our existing cross-national survey data, which were completed as part of the Human Rights Perception Polls organized by James Ron, PhD.  These nationally representative polls in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and the U.S., and sub-national surveys in Lagos, Mumbai, Rabat and Casablanca took place from 2012 to 2018, and include almost 13,000 adults.

To determine respondents’ underlying attitudes toward the police, we asked, “Please tell us how much trust you have in the following institutions, groups or persons,” including “the police.” To determine attitudes toward business, we asked about trust in “multinational” and “local” corporations. Our statistical models controlled for age, gender, income, education, place of residence (urban/rural) and individual propensity to trust.

The data clearly show that in all areas surveyed, the more respondents were skeptical of the police, the more they trusted international and domestic business. Indeed, maximum mistrust in the police yielded anywhere from 10 percent to 90 percent more trust in business than minimum police mistrust, controlling for a wide range of other factors. Respondents who mistrust the police most, of course, are also those most likely to support BLM.

Among respondents from multiple countries and world regions, less trust in the police was reliably and significantly correlated with more trust in business.

What these findings mean is that today, there are at least two major “leftist” social movements worldwide. One, nourished by the ideas of democratic socialism and socioeconomic justice, attacks economic inequality in the U.S. and abroad, and seeks to reform the basic structures of our economic system. Some adherents of this movement may also be opposed to capitalist business.

The other social movement is deeply critical of the police and of racism in its ranks. It wants police to stop using excessive violence, and wants racial justice to be hardwired into the way in which governments enforce the rule of law.

Some police skeptics may also be critical of capitalism, but our data show that the two movements are distinct phenomena. Regardless of what the founders of BLM believe, their supporters here and abroad show little sign of intense anti-capitalist sentiment. Instead, our data suggest BLM in the U.S. and elsewhere are attracting the support of people who see business as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Violent policing and socioeconomic injustice are real problems to be addressed. For now, however, we find no evidence that the movements protesting these two social ills are coalescing into a single uber movement.

James Ron, PhD, is lead author of Taking Root: Human Rights and Public Opinion in the Global South. Doug Guthrie, PhD, is Professor of Global Management and Executive Director of Thunderbird Global at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University and is founder of On Global Leadership.

This piece was first published on September 14, 2020, with the thought leadership platform, On Global Leadership. 

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