Three years on from the release of his first book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones is now a well-known journalist and activist. Ed Taylor of the Sheffield Marxists reviews Jones’ latest book, The Establishment: And how they get away with it, in which the author examines the personalities and interests of those in Westminster, The City, and the media.
It seems a little strange to think that when Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class was released in 2011, its author was then relatively unheard of. Three years down the line and you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that Owen Jones is the media’s go-to-guy for left-wing opinions. As well as being a columnist for The Guardian, he can often be spotted on television, making appearances on shows spanning from BBC Question Time to The Alan Titchmarsh Show. He is also an activist however, being a key figure in the People’s Assembly movement and the think tank CLASS, as well as regularly speaking at various public events.
It is against this backdrop that his second book The Establishment: And how they get away with it is published. Those who’ve read Jones’ previous work will find themselves in familiar territory with The Establishment. There are elements of many of his articles here, and even segments of Chavs, which are re-addressed. That said, the book still has a character of its own.
The revolving door of the ruling class
As the title suggests, it is focused on the establishment, referring to “powerful groups that need to protect their position” and that “manage democracy to make sure it does not threaten their own interests“. Over the course of the book, Jones dissects various sections of ‘the Establishment’ such as the police, the media, Westminster etc. He points to the numerous crimes and hypocrisies of these institutions, and also highlights how there is a revolving door between them for the individuals who are members of the Establishment – i.e. the bourgeoisie.
What makes The Establishment an enjoyable read is its habit of describing precisely the people and places that Jones gathers his quotes from. In the book he has lunches in posh restaurants, meetings in financial buildings etc. It’s in these locations where he meets various bourgeois characters whose appearance and personas are described, not always, but often, in a scathing manner. Although this is presumably to give readers a taste of what the world of the Establishment is like, it is not always politically relevant. Nevertheless, the book’s humour lies in comments about individuals’ faux perma-tan’s and the like.
The cesspool of Westminster politics
There are darker moments to these interviews however. Jones obviously has a knack of getting his interviewees to be honest in their views with him. The lid is quite often lifted during these conversations on the cesspool that is the capitalist mind-set. The opening page kicks off with an absolute blinder from Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes), who states that he’s “not that keen on democracy” and later claims to be “standing up for the plutocrats of the world”.
Also harrowing are the accounts of some of the victims in the book. Details of how women have been “raped by the state” by unwittingly entering relationships with undercover policemen, as well as tragic stories of those who have died within days of being declared fit to work by ATOS, are enough to make hairs stand on edge and bring blood to the boil.
Where is the working class?
It is on these levels that The Establishment is strongest in its impact. However there are some political flaws.
The opening section focuses on what Jones refers to as ‘outriders’, i.e. think tanks, university departments, newspaper columns, etc. These promote views which are not mainstream to start with, but become so after the ‘outriders’ shift the debate. Staines’ Guido Fawkes blog is used as an example, as is the Adam Smith Institute. He also names Friedrich Hayek as a historically key ‘outrider’. If this is understood correctly, Owen Jones is arguing that it is because of such groups shifting the debate to their parameters that we have the current ‘neo-liberal’ consensus.
There is a problem with this idea – and it’s a problem which rears its head at various points in the book. Ironically for a publication critiquing the bourgeoisie, it often seems to be trapped in a bourgeois mind-set.
To be clear, many of Jones’ critics have accused him of being a member of the Establishment and therefore a hypocrite; but whether he is or isn’t doesn’t really matter. Either way, there is a lack of discussion or even acknowledgment of the working class as a force in society. The Establishment makes the assumption that everything happens from the top down.
For example, Jones talks about the Murdoch press is as if it decides who wins elections. True, its influence is dangerously large. But let us look at one example, such as the failure of the Labour Party under Kinnock to win in 1992. Which is more likely to have had a deep effect on the consciousness of the workers? A Sun front page published the day before the election as part of a media campaign against Kinnock; or the fact that the Labour leader had a history of failing to represent the workers, completely selling the miners down the river during 84/85 strike? Jones doesn’t discuss the latter and seems to be suggesting the former.
Idealistic view of history
In the conclusion of the book, Owen Jones calls for a ‘democratic revolution’ which he defines as “reclaim(ing) by peaceful means the democratic rights and power annexed by the Establishment”. He argues that to do this, the left must win a battle over ideas and shift the terms of debate via the use of think-tanks and such like, as the right-wing ‘outriders’ did in the 1970/80’s.
This is a idealistic and utopian view of historical change. The ideas of the right-wing ‘outriders’, as Jones says himself, served the interests of the Establishment. More importantly, they reflected the needs of world capitalism at the time. To reduce politics and history to just a battle of ideas is false. What is referred to as neo-liberalism was just the logic of capitalism after the end of the post-war boom, when the first generalised crisis of capitalism occurred in 1973-74. Living standards for workers had to be driven down in order to restore the profits of the capitalists. Capitalism could not grant the concessions to workers in the same way it had been doing previous to the crisis.
Jones’ ‘outriders’ may well have been influential in this process, but it has to be understood that they were pushing at an open door in a way that left-wing ‘outriders’ will never be able to.
Reform or revolution?
Parallels can be drawn between that crisis and the one we find ourselves in today. Astonishingly, Jones fails to draw the comparison about capitalism in crisis, and blames the current austerity in Britain on the continued “intellectual energy” and “dynamism” of the ‘outriders’.
Owen Jones’ political conclusions reek of reformism, arguing for changes within the parameters of capitalism. Although it isn’t spelled out in such a way, the book seems to be suggesting that the left should work within the Establishment in order to win an ideological battle and then give more democratic rights to the workers.
What is really required is for the working class to bring about a revolution themselves – one which can overthrow capitalism and give workers genuine democratic control over the running of society. Only a revolutionary movement of workers and youth can truly eradicate the Establishment.
As a book, The Establishment is well written, informative and emotive. As a political argument,its lack of any faith in the power of the working class to change society causes it to fall short of providing a genuine solution for the problems facing ordinary people in this period of capitalist crisis.