ISBN 978-1-846-14719-7. “The Establishment – and how they get away with it” by Owen Jones was published by Allen Lane/Penguin in 2014. It is still hard to believe that someone as accomplished and driven as Owen is still so young. You could easily entertain this as the work of a man three time his age. It is telling his voice can be heard so distinctly these days simply because there are so few voices like his from the left politics. If we had a healthy and active pluralistic debate you would barely be able to hear his voice. What happened to the lucid voice of the left? Even if you don’t agree with a leftist view of the world (we mainly do not) it is a damning indictment of our democracy that so few such voices are left to be heard. And it is this fact that Jones has chosen to write about in this his follow-up to the equally impressive “Chavs” (2011). It is a cold hard fact that we all know about the establishment: when Jones wrote the title as “…and how they get away with it” that we all know exactly what “IT” is. Or do we?
Although we are not great subscribers to a leftist view we still immensely enjoyed this book. Jones is on top form and the irony is that we find ourselves enjoying so much of what he writes. Much like George Monbiot it doesn’t matter about whether or not you agree with the details – you just really appreciate that someone that smart is given a platform to supply such thought-provoking positions. There were times in “The Establishment” when I thought I had nailed down exactly the thing that I didn’t like about it – only to have Jones write something that completely undermined my thesis. So it is important to realise that although he waxes lyrical about the rights or Trade Unions throughout the book you may be pleasantly surprised to see the books conclusion is NOT to return to some socialist utopia of the 1970s. Even Jones admits the world has moved on. His preferred solutions are very modern and very much worth the price of the book alone. The rest of it deals with Jones listing the origins, foundation and many crimes of the Establishment.
He kicks off with the foundations of the modern neo-liberalism in the post war years when it ran as a minor counter-current against the prevailing wisdom of Keynesianism. The post war settlement of big state and big unions was so accepted as normal at the time of Bretton Woods that to question it was absurd. It took many years and dozens of well funded right-wing think tanks for the views of this minority to prevail. After the fall of the Bretton Woods agreement prevail they did. Since Thatcher and Reagan swept to power we have seen a complete reversal of roles. Now the left are fully in retreat and their views are treated as absurd. To question “free markets” is to question reality as most people now see it. Jones argues that this triumph of the right was manufactured by a system where the needs of the new establishment coincided well with those who were well funded. Once the paradigm shifted it became a ratchet effect of more and more extreme measures as each new “normal” becomes superseded by a new, more extreme, paradigm. The right-wing think-tanks
“..convinced that their prescriptions are for the good of society as a whole. But their beliefs do coincide with the interests of wealthy private and corporate interests, ensuring an extraordinarily effective marriage of convenience.”
The modern establishment is very much a construct of the crisis in democracy. In the interwar years the establishment meant the landed classes and aristocracy. However universal suffrage denuded their power and lead to extreme results: Communism in the east, Fascism in the west and everything in between. After two savage world wars the post-war economy kicked in as an agreement between labour and capital to share the spoils. It was a vastly successful experiment only undone by the economic misfortunes & mishaps of the 1970s. Today the establishment has promoted its own needs by waging a very effective war against democracy:
“As the well-connected right wing blogger and columnist Paul Staines puts it approvingly: ‘We’ve had nearly a century of universal suffrage now, and what happens is capital finds ways of protecting itself from – you know – the voters.’ “
Very few people now vote since all the major political parties are now indistinguishable. Uniformity is now locked in by the discipline of the market. With each turn of the screw we lost our sovereignty to the global market. It was quite an achievement to get voters to so consistently vote against the very solutions that they proclaim to be wishing for in poll after poll.
“…politicians and big business demonstrated just how far out of touch they were with the British public opinion. [..] An earlier YouGov poll revealed that nearly six out of ten Britons advocated a new 75 per cent tax band for those earning £1 million or more, a position even four out of ten Tory voters supported. Neo-liberal dogma might be treated as received wisdom in Britain’s citadels of power. But out in the streets and communities of the country, the key tenets of the Establishment were regarded as fringe, marginal opinion. [..] ..the ideas of the Establishment are unchallengeable. The argument goes like this: a departure from its political tenets would provoke the wrath of big business and capital, who would then flee the country and bring the economy grinding to a halt.”
This was a victory of propaganda system built around the language of “freedom” that worked so well in the cold war but curiously now seems so locked into the system that it still works. As Orwell wrote so succinctly in “Nineteen-eighty-four” “Freedom is slavery” or, in our case, freedom is a thing we use to justify the removal of genuine choice. It is freedom only for the Establishment, not for you and me.
This new establishment set up shop in the corridors of power where Jones supplies many examples of how politicians & the civil service have become completely out of touch with the everyday realities of normal people.
“..a junior minister in the Blair government suggested imposing rent controls as a solution to the ever-growing amount of tax-payers’ money being spent on housing benefit, increasingly lining the pockets of landlords. [..] ..the response from civil servants [..] told ‘loftily’ that [the] proposal ‘would be against the Human Rights Acts’ “
At the time of writing the British Government again ignored overwhelming public support for wind power and disapproval of fracking by pulling subsidies for the former whilst promoting the latter. All because the Establishment remains pay-rolled by Oil & Gas profits. The renewables industry has yet to enter the Establishment.
“This view is so widely accepted by the Establishment that those who even mildly call it into question are regarded as political eccentrics. And yet the whole ideology of free-market capitalism is based on a con: British capitalism is completely dependent on the largesse of the state. What’s more, the Establishment’s free-market ideology is often little more than a front for placing public assets in private hands at the expense of society.”
Jones spoke to Douglas Carswell – self-styled “libertarian” Conservative MP who agrees that such state-capitalism is a corruption of what earlier idealists planned:
“…we’re still up against an arrogant effete elite who hoard power and leech and parasite off the rest of us. I suspect a lot of the problems started to arise – and it pains me to say this because I am an ardent Thatcherite – in the 1980s. a lot of what happened was a very good thing in the sense that it advanced the free market, but an awful lot of what we created, presuming that is was going to be the free market, turned out to be anything but.”
He goes on to use words like “oligarchy” and “corporate cronyism”. The views of Carswell closely echo our own views on the matter. Although we have become more convinced over recent years of the many ways markets fail us there is much in what Carswell says that hits home. It is possible to believe in free markets and capitalism yet still be horrified by the mutant version we created. Sadly the likes of Carswell appear to be the minority in Westminster where now, largely the professional politician is in charge.
A new culture of “I’m worth it” was installed whereby success and riches was down to the individual alone. Such a culture assumed that Human Rights only extended to landlords and not the homeless nor the taxpayer. Hence no amount of extreme wealth or inequality would ever be enough. There was simply nothing wrong with extreme inequality because the loser didn’t deserve anything because it was their fault that they were poor. The social contract was over and the new elite no longer felt any obligation to the society that gave them their opportunities in the first place. The contribution of society became invisible. Society became somebody else’s problem.
The Westminster elite of professional politicians are kept in place through the endless propaganda transmitted by an every loyal media who fall over themselves to be the voice-piece of power.
“This is how the establishment polices the borders of acceptable political opinion. If establishment figures actually debated arguments that departed from Britain’s political consensus on their own merits, such views would be legitimized as respectable perspectives, however contentious.”
There is no alternative to the establishment system because we are not aware of alternatives. Other views are excluded from the debate and any mention of such alternatives meets a chorus of disapproval to discredit them. Hence our politicians and our media work together to form the boundaries of what is acceptable. And what is not. It is no conspiracy to say that we are taught to hate the blameless. When newspapers could be scrutinising unaccountable power they prefer to demonise people guilty of no crime. Quoting a former journalist at the Daily Star we learn that the journalist:
“..would come into the newsroom and be asked to write a piece about ‘Muslims doing X, Y and Z. You’d look at the facts and go, “they didn’t actually do that though, did they?” ”
“..there was a pattern to such coverage. ‘Someone is always to blame for our social ills, and to me it stops you really questioning what the real causes of a lot of social ills are. you can just go, “Well it’s all the bloody immigrants, or it’s all the bloody Muslims.” They stop you questioning, “Well, is it really?” When actually, those readers should have more fundamental issues with the whole system we live in.’ ”
A “..poll found that 29 per cent of people think more taxpayers’ money goes on Jobseeker’s Allowance than on pensions: in fact, the government spends fifteen times more on pensions than it does on benefits. Yet those who were best informed about the true figures are far less likely to support cuts to social security..”
Jones goes as far as describing this as the “airbrushing out” of reality. Examples are not hard to find. At the time I was writing this review the BBC poll (below) was circling the internet:
What was novel was that the Green Party was on 8% of the vote when the poll was conducted. Evidence if it ever was needed of how the Establishment simply moves the frame of reference to present a picture they are comfortable with. Voting preferences for a non-Establishment party is beyond the realms of acceptable political reporting – even for the BBC. The BBC later described this as a “mistake” but we wonder if it would have been so easy for them to forget to include UKIP? This (writes Jones)
“..is a natural consequence of shared Establishment mentalities”
Jones goes further and accuses the police force of being an instrument of a hard-line establishment. He goes onto more familiar territory when he levels his cross hairs on the phenomena of “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor” where private corporations rely not upon the free market but, instead the largesse of government. Our leaders are pouring public money into the private coffers of corporations out of some misplaced dogma that suggests it is more efficient to spend the money that way. This section is a short update on Monbiot’s “Captive State” argument and is there area that I find most appealing as it show how our government works so hard to subvert genuinely free markets. This is an area where it is so easy to demonstrate the gap between dogma and reality that you can only conclude that the reality must reflect a form of corruption. We are not alone and Jones manages to find some right-wing Libertarians who agree that the state is intervening massively in the market in order to shift vast volumes of tax payers’ money into private pockets with little or no return on the investment.
Jones then moves onto dissect the culture of tax avoidance before stealing a look at how the City of London’s Financial Markets took over the economy.
“Many big companies reject the state – even though they depend on it – they resent having to fund it. They believe their contributions are already too generous, and that the state should be grateful simply that they employ people.”
I find this troublesome because, in some respects, these companies are quite correct. It is NOT that they are NOT contributing when they engage in economic activity. They are – hence the strength of the argument of the libertarians. However Jones hits back by pointing out just how much these companies depend upon the state sector for everything from roads to an educated workforce. in the end there is not a “right” or wrong” answer. It is ideological. However there is little doubt that such large tax avoiders would feel hard done by if they had to trade their tax commitments for road tolls, private health insurance and the costs of educating their workforce from the age of 5 to 25.
“..it is clear that the business elite simply does not regard corporation tax as a legitimate demand.”
In a democracy legitimacy comes through the ballot box. The problem with crony-capitalism is that the public is not voting for massive corporate tax cuts. The Establishment only grants “legitimacy” to corporate citizens. What we have witnessed is a cultural shift in big business where the maintenance of the market place and their right to profit becomes somebody else’s problem. Any challenge to this assumption is met with “near-hysteria” (as Jones puts it) fuelled by a “deep sense of entitlement and triumphalism“.
“In no sense could Britain’s modern economic system be described as ‘popular capitalism’, dominated by small-time entrepreneurs, shareholders and property owners.”
“…unemployed people have no lobbyists at the heart of power; no political party is dependent on them for funding; they have no army or prominent think tanks [..] to leap to their defence.”
Regarding the power of the City it is a useful reminder that British Manufacturing STILL, after all these years, STILL pays more tax than the Financial Services industry. The simple fact is that the City is physically close to Parliament and there is a revolving door between its institutions and both the civil service and politicians. This has lead to a self reinforcing culture of entitlement that has damaged the economy in the interests of short term private profits for a vanishingly small minority.
“..the financial sector is a threat to British democracy. Governments have surrendered their economic powers”
The final chapter delivers Jones verdict on the misplaced paranoia of the right against all things European which is in direct contrast to the way they embrace all things North American without question. We learn that the establishment is quite conflicted over Europe: half feel it is the last stronghold of socialism undermining the dominance of the British Establishment whilst the other half see it as a bulwark of the establishment able to roll out establishment-values abroad. Certainly it is both – you chose what to believe in depending upon which examples you wish to see and which you wish to ignore. That decision is based upon racism and racism alone. There is no other rationale behind it. In 2011 when David Cameron vetoed an EU Treaty dealing with the crisis in the Eurozone he was lauded in the mainstream media for his “bulldog” spirit
“This ‘Bulldog spirit’, however, was summoned to defend the interests of the City; these interests were conflated with those of the nation as a whole. [..] Patriotism was used to rally support behind the interests of the wealthy and powerful.”
From proposed caps on Bankers’ bonuses to a financial transactions tax to curbs on hedge funds the British Government has leapt to the defence of the City without a backward glance at the needs of the nation. At each turn then wrapped the flag around themselves and aligned the wishes of the British people with those of hated Eurocrats so they could put the needs of the Establishment first. The needs of voters are not legitimate and the public natural inclinations are belittled as being some form of wishy-washy European socialism. We are told that what is good for the City is good for Britain.
Jones calls his conclusions a “Democratic Revolution”. Russell Brand gets headline on the front of the book with his claim that Jones is “our generation’s Orwell”. I might stop short of that as there nothing necessarily so profound yet in Jone’s writing (however, give it a few years). The likes of Medialens have also been less than excited by this enfant terrible of the left as they accuse him of being too close to mainstream establishment media outlets. However we have to keep in mind that Medialens do delight in trolling anyone who do not match their politically correct criteria. They target the liberal media the most. Hence a good ravaging by them is probably an indication that Jones is on the right track. Radical but not too subversive. A Goldilocks zone where few sit these days, a place where they can be ignored by the establishment and savaged by the radical left.
The Establishment represents an attack upon democracy and the failure of our democracy
“…there is an absence of a strong popular movement attempting to deflect people’s anger at their plight upwards.”
“…it can be seen as a damning indictment of the Labour Party, as well as radical opponents of the Establishment. Having failed to tap into growing discontent and disillusionment, they have allowed the vacuum to be filled by right-wing populism instead.”
It is tempting to say that Jones ignores the Green party but he does quote Green MP Caroline Lucas at length. She said people aren’t angry..
“..they were just so ground down by it all. It was like they’d lost the will to fight.. [..] ..people are giving up.”
Not everyone has given up. Whilst downplaying the role of the Greens he is upbeat about such protest movements as UKUncut and the Occupy movement. Likewise you will not find top-down statism as a simplistic remedy from Jones. There will be no return to the 1970s. His recommendations are modest but so beyond the current framing of the debate they are not even on the table for discussion. His recommended measures are hardly revolutionary as he picks a few successful policies from other European nations that have successfully curbed the power of the Establishment. He pushes for a brave state able to nurture new industries such as that desperately needed in the field of renewable energy production. We need new industries to “end the addiction to finance“.
I personally have come a long way since my days as a Conservative student in the early 1990s. It has become a useful exercise for to free my mind of dogma and to embrace policy that really works in the face of overwhelming evidence of what fails. I wished Thatcherism had really worked. I wished the idealism had borne fruit. It did not. I see nothing in what Jones is writing here that is remotely controversial. He has hit the nail well on the head. We have a crisis of democracy and we need new and better ideas if we are not engage in some ugly death spiral into an economic despair where most of us end up as serfs. We can no longer pretend that this is a fate for other people no more than a good German could ignore the fate of the Jews in 1934. Yet we are ignoring it. We allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep by an Establishment media happy to tell us that WE are to blame OR foreigners are to blame.
For the truth we need only look-up. In this book Owen Jones has done us another great service is talking about a topic that is such voodoo in polite society. In “Chavs” he dissected the modern politics of class. In “The Establishment” he has told us why such class divisions are nurtured and to whom they serve. If we wish to return to some measure of genuine free market idealism that accomodate the limits of markets then we should heed the wise words of this young man. Recommended.