Review: The Establishment by Owen Jones

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The Establishment by Owen Jones book coverThe Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (2014) by Owen Jones adds to the number of popular politics books released of late that seek to expose the undemocratic nature of neoliberal capitalism and how the system is failing ordinary people. Following on from his 2011 work Chavs, which explored the ways in which the working class was demonised by everyone from politicians to the press, here Jones sets his sights on an even bigger target: the Establishment. Or, to put it more plainly, the group of people who wield power in Britain today. Examining each group that makes up the modern Establishment, Jones lays out, using interviews, news cuttings, and analysis, how power is kept in the hands of the few.

Jones’s conception of the Establishment moves away from a cosy old boys’ club where members are all old friends and inclined to look out for one another. Now, Jones suggests, the Establishment is formed along ideological lines. Class, background, and connections mean far less than what you believe. So long as you believe in greed (read, free market capitalism, a small state, etc.). The Establishment now features members from all walks of life, connected in a mutually-supportive, self-sustaining network that propagates certain lines that keep the rest of the populace docile and subservient. As much as the new Establishment might be formed along ideological lines, however, it is inescapable that many of its eminent members share a similar, privileged background, which somewhat muddies the waters.

One thing that is striking from the interviews that Jones conducts is that no one appears to believe they are part of the Establishment, not really. Perhaps they are not willing to align themselves with such a toxic concept openly, or, more likely, the whole concept of ‘the Establishment’ is somewhat illusory – a totemic evil that can be blamed, blindly, for much that doesn’t work in society today. Unsurprisingly, as Jones grapples with his own definition, it becomes clear that judging who is part of this network of privilege and how exactly one might define the Establishment is extremely complex.

Side-stepping the issue of how the Establishment is actually defined, it is clear that Jones has a good understanding of where power lies in modern Britain and how this privilege is abused by those that wield the power. Compared to Chavs, here Jones manages to marshal his arguments and supporting evidence into a much better structure, which, while it doesn’t always allow room to make more cutting or innovative points, does make the book easier to digest. Jones starts out by looking at the way think tanks like the Adam Smith institute (“outriders” as he labels them) seek to exert pressure and forward the cause of free market economics, and wipe away the social democratic constraints that hold Britain back from being Great once more. It is these outriders, Jones argues, that help form public opinion on all manner of economic matter. For example, emphasising the role of public spending in the financial collapse of 2008 and underplaying the role of casino banking.

Of course, the media come in for a healthy portion of criticism when it comes to shaping, often using false or greatly distorted information, public opinion. The media is seen to deflect attention and disgust away from members of the Establishment and towards foreigners and the poor, who are made easy scapegoats. Politicians, too, from across the spectrum, come in for criticism – for being too close to the media, for not having the moral fibre to enact social justice as Jones sees it, and far more beyond that. Indeed, Jones highlights a narrowness to the politics currently considered viable, a state of affairs that suits the Establishment. Politicians are now so constrained by the narrowness of acceptable ideologies, he argues, that they are not able to offer the voting public an alternative: it simply isn’t in their interest if they want to be electable, so well has the Establishment done its brainwashing job.

For the most part, Jones’s lines allow for little grey area between right and wrong, but the section on the police teases out some of the complexities of how the modern Establishment operates. On one hand, the police are seen as the enforcers of the Establishment’s rule – frequently discriminating and acting disreputably – while on the other, they are as much at the mercy of the Establishment’s policies as so many other public sector workers (and beyond).

Jones, unsurprisingly, is against privatisation, and, using the bailout of the banks as a prime example, argues that while profit has been privatised, risk has been retained by the state. He is strong on this subject, and reels off a list of examples that support his argument. His point, here, emphasises a general notion that the private sector scrounges off the state far more than benefit claimants, not just in the form of bailouts but by profiting from so much of the publically provided infrastructure and talent that supports companies operating in Britain.

While pinpointing many of the problems facing modern Britain, Jones doesn’t offer any real solutions, but perhaps that is because there aren’t any radical ideas that can completely re-shape the landscape. The best that can be done – and what Jones is doing here – may be to make as many people aware of the state of things as possible and trust that collectively the opinion of the many is able to shape policy in favour of a more equal society that curbs the greed and selfishness that is inherent in human nature.

Jones does, at times, fall into the trap of over-simplifying the argument around certain issues. It is almost an inevitability of writing a popular politics book, but it is something his detractors will be keen to criticise him for. While his argument is not always nuanced, however, it is easy to follow. This is, perhaps, the trade-off: losing some depth to one’s points in favour of writing a readable account that does not put off the casual reader. Those of Jones’s political persuasion will probably learn little here, but will more likely feel vindicated in their opinions, if not a little deflated at the entrenched nature of the Establishment as Jones paints it. Where The Establishment will come into its own is for readers with a burgeoning interest in this breed of politics. It is not the chaotic, spirited call to arms of Russell Brand’s Revolution, but it will likely capture a similar readership, and while it is certainly no brow-furrowing attempt to really dig into the deeper issues of the modern political state, it may well prove an enlightening read for many who have not yet realised the extent to which those at the top control the lives of those below them.

Because Jones is a prominent left-wing thinker the book will be considered a left-wing reading of the modern economic / political Establishment by many, but remove preconceptions and, in fact, there is much in here that will be appreciated across the political spectrum. After all, UKIP are (supposedly) as anti-Establishment as Russell Brand – if both have captured the imagination of so many people, right or left, then a disdain for how those at the top of our society have treated the majority below them cannot be the exclusive domain of any political persuasion. It is unlikely anyone will agree with everything Jones writes here, but his sentiments will be felt by many whether they can bring themselves to side with Jones or not.

Jones is in the precarious position of being remarkably close to many establishment people while criticising much of what they stand for. It's difficult, then, to find a fair opinion of him but I think this makes for a reasonable read and Jones's style has improved since Chavs, which didn't always make his (good) points in the most articulate manner.


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