Review: ‘The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It’

kamsandhu —  October 7, 2014 — 1 Comment

“He is our generation’s Orwell and we must cherish him” is Russell Brand’s somewhat hyperbolic assessment of Owen Jones.  

I must admit that as an Orwell fan I find that a stretch of imagination – even if it is meant in the lighthearted, throwaway sense that Brand peppers the world with.

What is true to say is that Jones is a thoroughly decent human being and a capable political story teller.

Image: Independent

Image: Independent

“The Establishment” is a useful contemporary account of the ruling elite of the UK, with a clear narrative, bags of stats, and some interesting characters that even the most battle hardened leftie will find moving and curious by turns.

He has invited the derision of both the right and the left (though it might be overstating Ian Bone’s petulant stuntism by Class War as relevant), which at least shows the prominence he holds in the modern British political imagination.

There are flaws with the book, stemming from a political naivety that may be expected from someone trying to save the Labour Party from within, and occasionally from a style of writing that has been formed in the age of internet commentary.

Nonetheless it is, by and large, a compelling read, and necessary reading for anyone wanting to understand the makeup of an elite that runs the UK – and the affects they are having on all of our lives.

In the introduction Owen quickly dismisses certain aspects of ‘The Establishment’ as not hugely relevant, whilst pointing out what power they still have – the aristocracy, the church, the royal family all get this treatment.

Did you know over half of all rural land is owned by 35,000 aristocrats?  Or that the UK is one of only two states to appoint members of the state religion (the Church of England) directly into the legislature – the other being Iran?

No? Well these are the kind of stats you are spattered with in the introduction before OJ really finds his feet.

****

The chapter on ‘The Outriders’ is actually probably the most original piece in the book and the one I will devote most attention to. Whilst it is not particularly emotionally moving, it is fundamental to the rest of the book.

‘The Outriders’ are the political theorists who made the politics of individualism and greed – the politics of neoliberal economics – attractive, first to policy makers, and then the public at large.

The portraits of these semi psychopathic fundamentalists is OJ at his best.

The humanity of these people and their ideas makes them interesting subjects, and it is curious to see what motivated them to flood academia and policy making with their radical economic theory.

It is not necessarily greed – though as OJ points out their ideas and the desires of the avaricious naturally coincide – but it seems to be a misty eyed delusion, a nostalgia for the laissez faire imperialism of Victorian Britain and a need to rebel.

If anything I wish there had been more of the glimpses you get of these people, but OJ feels the need to pepper you with stats and then jump from character to character – almost as if aware that attention spans in the age of Facebook cannot handle an in-depth anthropological analysis.

It is a worthy consideration all the same, and points the left in a direction that they have not populated at all since the Fabian society became reformist – the arena of think-tanks.  Anyone who follows the New Economics Foundation will be aware of their utility, yet so much theorising is done by bedroom critics, rather than funded foundations.

Having said this, the chapter whiffs of nostalgia for the post war settlement, and refers back to the glory of consensus of Keynesianism as the ultimate elite consensus.  This is problematic for many reasons that we will return to later.

The following chapters patter through the fertile grounds of ‘The Westminster Cartel’, ‘Mediaocracy’, ‘The Boys in Blue’, ‘Tycoons and Tax Dodgers’ and so on with relative aplomb.

Given the wealth of scandals surrounding each element he is examining, there is a certain restlessness in his coverage.  We are assaulted with stats, a story, and then more evidence of the inherent corruption inherent in these institutions, before moving on.

The speed with which he goes over these subjects does not stop you from planning a violent coup in your head once or twice each chapter, as he moves you to rage by merely presenting the facts of a particular instance of venality or violence associated with these great institutions of ‘The Establishment’.

I was certainly moved by the chapter titled ‘Scrounging off the State’, comparing corporate scrounging with the so called scrounging of people on disability benefits, out of work and so on.  I was incandescently enraged by the mere fact that 1,100 people rated capable to work died in the first 8 months of the ATOS Work Assessment scheme.

If you are not ready to smash a few nearby objects after reading some of the stories associated with this then you should probably check your own pulse.

Image: Zero Hedge

Image: Zero Hedge

This chapter also does a really good run down of the arms industry, something that many modern commentators pass over.

By contrast the chapter on the City Of London and the US hold of UK policymaking, seem almost sanitized in comparison.  You are almost expecting Wolf Of Wall street insights into a grubby world of coked up crazies, or a ‘Thick Of It’ parody of children writing US policy.

Maybe because they have been done so well already OJ merely leaves us with the information that gives us insights into how we illegally invaded another country, and indebted our nation in perpetuity without a serious question being raised in the media or across the political elite.

Owen Jones is no great political theorist though, and this reveals itself in three key areas.

  • Nostalgia

There is a sentimental nostalgia for the post war settlement and Trade Unions, with no critical analysis of how that came about.  It is true that, economically, fortunes for the majority of British people rose during this period.

It is also true that the crises that made this settlement look shaky – and eventually collapse – were not in fact Trade Union greed, but the dropping of the gold standard, the OPEC oil embargo and other external factors.

Trade Unions were not the sole reason for this settlement originally though, and this is what he hints at.

There was the struggle of a lot of ordinary people within those Unions, a large and effective Communist party in the 20’s and 30’s – and prior to that, Anarcho Syndicalists leading up to and just after the First World War.  These were the people with radical ideas, determination and agency – and it was the, largely conservative, Labour party and Unions that reacted to them.  They didn’t lead them.

Also this settlement was possible due to the wealth of Britain’s large (though deteriorating) empire, and due to fear around Communism.  The working classes had to be bought off after the first world war – and the US was willing to fund that if we couldn’t (just as they spent third of their CIA budget on keeping the communists out of power in Italy).

Finally, his Nostalgia is problematic when imagining solutions to the problems we as a society face – we need to create a new way forward, not be misty eyed about a past that was never as perfect as you would like to paint it.

This post war settlement was still one created and controlled by an elite. It deprived many of fundamental freedoms, was still deeply unequal, patronising and fatally flawed.  It was obsessed with work, and the working man, producing things that were not needed in support of a largely patriarchal, homophobic, racist and controlled society.  The idea of a good elite is a dangerous one.

  • No reference to other authors

OJ does not explicitly cite any particular structural analysis, which short-changes the reader.

Whilst his ‘Mediaocracy’ chapter is really insightful, it clearly is based on the useful ideas of Chomsky and Herman’s Propaganda Model, which would have been an handy underpinning for the chapter.

The entire book may be a modern re-writing of aspects of Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony, and the chapter on privatisation could have referenced Monbiot’s Captive state.

This is not just being picky.  It is fine to borrow and re-write ideas without referencing them in general contexts – like in the telling of a story – but it denies people the opportunity to read further and to understand the broader implications of the criticisms.

OJ also fails here to take the useful lessons these analyses provided to show a deeper structural inequity at the root of the system.

Whilst he shows an Establishment enthralled to a particular political creed, he fails to recognise the structural forces for this.  It is as if the City of London is some historical peculiarity, or the strength of corporatism is merely the result of a misguided ideology.

They are, of course, the product of system which materially supports the primacy of profit, of private property (i.e. property you can make money off) and the naked force of the state (the repressive, ‘core’ elements of the state- the police, judicial system, etc).

This is a system that rewards greed, naturally creates monopolies of power (whether through the state, or through large companies) and will always be rigged in favour of the haves over the have-nots.

  • A poorly thought out way forward

Because of this lack of fundamental criticism OJ’s final chapter is a tad disappointing.  Essentially he proposes a series of policies that would make Britain a fairer society.  Things like capital controls, oversight of the police, more protection for Unions, more accountability, control over tax avoidance and so on.

These are reasonable enough demands, but are doomed to failure because of their moderation, they are neither one thing nor the other.

They are not hugely inspiring, and are symptomatic of a technocratic Labour Party that has lost the ability for grand ideas (though his proposals are considerably more radical than any Labour will ever propose).  Yet despite being moderate they are never going to be implemented in a capitalist system, especially in this period of late capitalism.

The period that allowed these kinds of concessions to be won has long passed.  The ‘A nation state’ has no real control over it’s own economy.

We are unlikely to see a period where a state will ever be able to control it’s own economy again – and as such making these kind of demands is unrealistic.  We live in age of corporate global capitalism where (and the right are correct about this) money can just move.

We saw this with Scotland, and we cannot be making demands of a state that is both completely opposed to, and completely incapable of, giving us what we want.

We do have to fight to keep what concessions we have from the state, whilst creating our own alternatives. We can create banks, and buildings, and energy supplies and medical services, and all the rest ourselves.  It has been done before and it is being done now.

To come up with a wish list that is both implausible and uninspiring is Owen’s greatest flaw.

Regardless of all of this criticism I would highly recommend this book to any and all who are interested in contemporary Britain.  It is a nearly comprehensive account of the litany of offences that constitute our ‘Great’ nation’s actions in recent years, written by a decent, engaging and determined author.

Thomas Barlow

kamsandhu

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