Who will stop them?
- The Establishment and How They Get Away with It by Owen Jones
Allen Lane, 335 pp, £16.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 84614 719 7
Part of what makes Owen Jones such a phenomenally successful figure by left-of-Labour standards is his ability to be several things at once. He is both insider, reporting back to ‘us’ about what ‘they’ think, and outsider, as shocked and angry about it as ‘we’ might be. He was brought up in Sheffield, Falkirk and Stockport and speaks in a sharp Mancunian accent, but he is also an Oxford graduate, with all the connections that can entail. He has Westminster experience as a parliamentary researcher, but to John McDonnell; his parents were Militant activists and his politics are rooted in a Trotskyist version of Labourism, yet he has managed to force a neoliberal Labour establishment to take him seriously. His opinions would be ridiculed as those of a ‘dinosaur’ if they came from a Peter Taaffe or Alan Woods, but he is inoculated against such criticism by his youth and avoidance of jargon. In many respects, he is the best thing to happen to the non-compromised, non-New Labour left in the mainstream media in decades: he makes ideas that are customarily patronised or dismissed seem plausible and attractive, and does so on primetime television. In this, he’s true to the entryist spirit of the 1980s radical left, but has no cadre behind him, bar several similarly populist figures whose leftism is usually somewhat softer. As a media personality, he’s unusual and interesting. As a writer, however, he can be frustratingly unreflective: it’s as though he’s worried that to question his own position would detract from the force of his arguments. His writing – for better and worse – often reads like a manifesto for a party that hasn’t yet formed.
The Establishment is a natural extension of Jones’s first book, Chavs (2012): this one, as a wag put it, is about ‘haves’. Both are entryist books of a sort, using mainstream language to talk about the things that the mainstream won’t talk about. The problem is that this language isn’t neutral. Chavs used a stereotype to talk about something else entirely: it wasn’t so much about what this ridiculed group was, whether it really existed and what the ridicule meant, as it was about the British working class and how it had been progressively disempowered and de-emancipated, first by the Conservatives, and then more decisively by New Labour. The Establishment, too, starts from a stereotype (the phrase was first used in its common modern sense by Henry Fairlie in the 1950s to denote the aristos who covered for Burgess and Maclean), this time to talk about the way the British ruling class has gone about disempowering the working class, to its own spectacular enrichment.
In both cases, Jones quickly and rightly dismisses the stereotype before moving on, but the stereotype has a habit of butting its way back in, and in both cases that’s because of Jones’s deafness to the appeal that the ruling class has directed towards a section of the working class since 1979: the promise of a rearranged, if in no way fairer, set of criteria for admission to the ruling class, and a carefully targeted neo-Victorian discourse of class differentiation. Chavs acknowledges but doesn’t explore the fact that the success of the term ‘chav’, and the screw-the-person-immediately-below-me rhetoric that comes with it, owes much to the old differentiation within the working class between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. Jones misses the power of what the blogger Alex Williams has defined as ‘negative solidarity’ inside a demoralised, struggling and stratified proletariat. A blunt example: in the 1990s, when my father was working shifts as a sheet-metal worker, he loved to watch Harry Enfield, particularly the characters Wayne and Waynetta Slob, classic caricatures of welfare-dependent, indolent proto-‘chavs’. A Militant activist like Jones’s father, he wouldn’t have called them ‘undeserving’, he would have called them the ‘lumpen-proletariat’. That isn’t to say he was right or wrong in doing so, only that the working class is much less united than Jones would like to believe. He has, no doubt, identified a real and horrible phenomenon with real and horrible political effects, but it is useful, in trying to explain that elusive ‘and how they get away with it’, to recognise that the working class is divided against itself.
Yet what was exciting about Chavs was exactly that absence of ambiguity: it said the working class had been first disempowered and then ridiculed – and it had. The lack of nuance was a political strength. ‘What the Tories are doing,’ Jones wrote, ‘is placing the chav myth at the heart of British politics, so as to entrench the idea that there are entire communities around Britain crawling with feckless, delinquent, violent and sexually debauched no-hopers. Middle England on the one hand and the chavs on the other.’ This was ‘taken to its logical conclusion’, he claimed, by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, in a report suggesting that Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford were ‘beyond revival’ and that their residents should be moved south. Jones was absolutely right: the targets are well chosen, the cause is just, the point is made. But again the nagging voice asks whether something isn’t being left out. For Jones, formed by Central Scotland, Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Oxford and Westminster, the working-class Tories that any working-class southerner or midlander will have encountered tend not to feature.
As culture is merely the pretext for a political argument, Chavs doesn’t actually say much about its ostensible subject. In The Establishment, Jones makes himself a lot of work by having endlessly to point out that he isn’t talking – as Fairlie was – about a tightly knit group of upper-class people who know and cover for each other. It isn’t surprising that after the success of Chavs, he has stuck to the formula, but the new book has some weaknesses as a result. In Chavs, Jones managed to draw senior Labour figures like Neil Kinnock and Hazel Blears into saying the most appalling things, surely because they didn’t really imagine the young comrade in front of them was going to do much with the material – some Verso book read by a couple of thousand of the converted, perhaps. So Blears in 2011 sneers at the very concept of local government – she and other Blairites wouldn’t trust them ‘to wash the pots, let alone run a community’ – and then admits that ‘we should have done a lot, lot more,’ because she had ‘16,000 on the waiting list’ for social housing in her Salford constituency.
Now in 2014, the likes of Peter Hain pick their words carefully, while such interlocutors as the blogger Paul Staines (‘Guido Fawkes’), aware of the rules of the game, knowingly play the pantomime villain. Early on, Jones mounts a pre-emptive defence against an accusation he knows is coming. When David Aaronovitch smarmily remarks, one Oxbridge-educated staff journalist to another, ‘here we are, having our elite discussion,’ Jones tells the reader: ‘Some will claim that I am, myself, a member of the establishment. But it is not someone’s background, or their education, or even whether they have a public platform or a degree of influence, that defines whether they are part of the establishment. It is about power and mentality.’ Power, yes, but in invoking ‘mentality’ he’s being naive or slippery – a member of the ruling class is a member of the ruling class, whether they’re a socialist or not. Mentality doesn’t change an economic relation. Actually, what makes Jones interesting is his intimacy with members of the ruling class. It means he can convey information to those who are not.
So what is the establishment, then, if it isn’t the cliques described when the term was coined in the 1950s? It is, in fact, Jones’s term for neoliberalism, defined here as an extreme free-market, anti-welfare state doctrine disseminated first through think tanks like Friedrich Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society and later, in the UK, through Madsen Pirie’s Adam Smith Institute, and adopted as policy by Thatcher from the mid-1970s onwards. He persists in using the term ‘establishment’ mainly as a way of shaming neoliberals who like to present themselves as in some way ‘anti-establishment’. Although he rightly ridicules the ‘anti-establishment’ credentials of such figures as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and Guido Fawkes, he acknowledges that this is an establishment that has had experience of not being the establishment, although it has always drawn most (though, crucially, not all) of its membership from the ruling class. It ‘is made up – as it has always been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote’. These groups are ‘amassing wealth and aggressively annexing power in a way that has no precedent in modern times. After all, there is nothing to stop it.’
Much of the book is taken up analysing these groups: the ‘outriders’, the think tanks and thinkers who float extreme versions of establishment ideas, so that the establishment itself can then adopt slightly less extreme variants on them in order to appear ‘moderate’; the ‘Westminster cartel’, a Parliament that works as a revolving door for business; the ‘mediaocracy’, through which it conveys its ideas; the police, the banks, the military; and the state which enables and enforces it all. Some of these are explored in a lot less detail than others. Jones devotes his best efforts to describing the formation and propagation of neoliberalism, beginning with the two decades after the Second World War, a time when to be a neoliberal economist in a university was as peculiar as being a passionate socialist in Westminster is today. But those aspects of the neoliberal settlement that long predate 1979 are rather sketchily integrated into the whole.
On the post-1979 ‘establishment’ Jones is very strong indeed. The outriders are given their full significance in providing the ideas needed by the ruling class in the crisis of the 1970s, and in sustaining it ever since. From the mandarin Mont Pelerin Society to the would-be demotic Taxpayers’ Alliance, Jones tells us who these people are, who they were talking to, who found them useful and, importantly, who gave them money. ‘To be an outrider in modern Britain,’ he argues, ‘is to wield considerable power: the backing of corporate interests, an incestuous relationship with the political establishment and strong connections to journalists.’ What links organisations like the Taxpayers’ Alliance, consciously elite paper-writers like Policy Exchange and such Blairite equivalents as Demos or the Institute for Public Policy Research is lavish funding from big business. The IPPR, for instance, can hardly be described as a ‘left’ alternative to the right-wing think tanks when its ‘big funders include the tax-avoiding multinational Google; Capita, a private company that makes money by taking over public assets; and energy companies such as EDF Energy and E:ON UK.’ Attempts to counter the outriders’ media presence by forming real left equivalents like the New Economics Foundation or Class, a union-funded think tank which Jones helped set up, have been hampered by a lack of business backing and the organisations’ own unwillingness to speak the establishment’s language.
After the unofficial legislators of the think tanks, Jones moves on to the official legislators in Parliament. Many on the far left see him as an incorrigible Labourist, but much of the energy of this book is expended in ferocious criticism of the last few Labour governments. Jones has sharp words for Blairites who have recently rediscovered some of their radicalism: Angela Eagle and Margaret Hodge, for example, now comfortably far enough from power safely to denounce the tax-dodgers and newspaper barons they would have bowed before five years ago. Jones attempts to understand why the Labour Party became so drastically conformist in its politics, and comes to the conclusion that, although unmoved by neoliberalism as an ideology, it was quite comfortable with it as a means of lining pockets.
Jones has a mischievous liking for naming names, and is fond of juxtapositions:
Liam Byrne, formerly Duncan Smith’s opposite number, once declared that ‘Labour is the party of hard-workers, not free-riders. The clue is in the name … the Party of workers, not shirkers.’ Byrne rented an apartment in County Hall overlooking the Thames, costing £2400 a month, courtesy of the taxpayer, and once claimed £400 of public money for food in a single month, quite legitimately in each case.
Another example, more drastic, from the Conservatives: ‘Richard Benyon is Britain’s wealthiest parliamentarian, worth around £110 million. Despite having … applauded the government for “reforming Labour’s something for nothing welfare culture”, Benyon is paid £120,000 a year through housing benefit.’ What makes Jones such a good popular polemicist is this ability to juxtapose public pronouncement and public fact in a way that drills these associations into the brain. Although much of the material on the expenses scandal is familiar, he makes good rhetorical use of it for the left, seeing it as a consequence of the expectations formed by MPs when they mix with the better-off outriders and bankers. New Labour is reduced, not wholly unconvincingly, to a party on the make. ‘The ideological zeal displayed by the likes of Madsen Pirie was now shared by politicians of all parties,’ Jones writes. ‘A new shared mentality had been forged. But this mentality was not all about conviction and belief. MPs had been offered a personal and highly profitable stake in the new order.’ This suggests a distinction between neoliberalism as an ideology understood by its original advocates and a vulgar neoliberalism sold to the public by politicians who didn’t understand or care for its original premises, bar the simple exhortation to money-making and marketisation.
Jones sees a glaring contradiction and hypocrisy in neoliberalism’s simultaneous rejection of the state (sclerotic, bureaucratic, unable to ‘wash the pots’, let alone build houses) and embrace of the state (for bailouts, for ‘security’ and for violent action where necessary). ‘Despite shades of moderation and radicalism, the British establishment’s governing ideology is consistent. The state is a bad thing, and gets in the way of entrepreneurial flair. Free markets are responsible for growth and progress. Businesspeople are the real wealth creators.’ This, as Philip Mirowski and Richard Seymour among others have recently argued, was a ‘contradiction’ that didn’t trouble Hayek and his colleagues one iota: it was always part of the totality of their theory.[*] However, it was not and is not how neoliberalism is sold to the British or American public, and The Establishment is at its strongest when it is detailing how vulgar neoliberalism works in practice.
In a chapter on privatisation and its cousin the Private Finance Initiative (an ‘accounting con’ developed under Major and expanded under Blair), Jones reminds us that in 2013 ‘state spending on the railways was six times higher in real terms than when they were privatised.’ Jones finds an unexpected ally in the then defence secretary, Philip Hammond, who tells him about the embarrassing episode when G4S proved unable to deliver on its contract to provide security for the Olympics in 2012. The state was forced to step in, and 3500 soldiers were mobilised. Outsourcers such as G4S have a ‘cost envelope’, Hammond explains, which has to be delivered ‘incredibly leanly’, whereas public bodies ask simply: ‘What’s the job that needs to be done? OK, we’ll do it.’ If such an intervention is still possible in the heavily state-sponsored world of ‘defence’, it is less so in the ‘welfare’ part of the welfare state. Jones traces the emergence of Atos, A4e and their like – the now ubiquitous private contractors which are paid handsomely by the state to reduce benefit claims in order, supposedly, to save money for the state – from their origin in the first major tranche of NHS cuts at the turn of the 1990s. Jones talks to Allyson Pollock, professor of public health research at Queen Mary, who notes that the first outsourcing at care homes like the later notorious Southern Cross went largely unnoticed ‘because it affected the most vulnerable people, those who had no voice, like elderly people, psycho-geriatric people, and those with learning difficulties.’ More recently, outsourcing has come to affect practically the entire benefits system – except pensions, needless to say.
Part of the power of Jones’s polemic comes through his use of statistics – when he finds the Daily Telegraph describing the 50 per cent tax rate as ‘a savage and pointless attack on Middle England’, he notes that, unlike its owners, only a tiny percentage of Telegraph readers would actually have to pay it – but elsewhere it comes from his insider-outsider status, his ability to slip from one class to another, from the accounts of workers who have had to accept zero-hours contracts to the views of Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, who claims that in a market system bad bosses will just drive workers to find good ones: ‘Walker apparently labours under the delusion that millions of workers are spoilt for choice about where they can work.’ In his chapter on the City of London, he begins with stories of the unbailed-out. ‘Brian’ had his benefits cut for four weeks because he hadn’t put his job search online as well as on paper: ‘The whole process for me seemed geared toward making you feel ashamed,’ he says. Jones marshals figures on the increasing use of sanctions to stop benefits on such flimsy grounds, which usually result in claimants having no income for a month or longer: ‘860,000 people were sanctioned between June 2012 and June 2013, a jump of 360,000 from a year earlier … nearly a third of homeless people on Jobseeker’s Allowance have been sanctioned … nearly a million people have received aid from food banks … over half of Trussell Trust food bank users were dependent on handouts because of cuts or sanctions to their benefits.’ When he gets to the banks, he discusses Libor-fixing in an interview with Ha Joon-Chang: ‘If some poor people had tried to fix their welfare payments in that sort of way,’ Chang says, ‘they’d have all ended up in jail.’
The material on the media and on the police is much weaker. Jones writes as if the police had no record of violence and harassment until Thatcher hiked their pay and made them her battering ram in 1979. The use of 1979 as a caesura is useful in talking about neoliberalism, but not when making an argument about the British ruling class in general, where the false division between eras leads Jones into a Spirit of ’45 misty-eyedness. It may not have become glaringly evident that the police were an arm of the new ‘establishment’ until the 1980s, but the riots of 1981 had much deeper roots; the Special Patrol Group doesn’t feature in Jones’s discussion of police brutality, and ‘sus’ is mentioned only as a precursor to its more recent incarnation as stop and search. The material on Orgreave, on Hillsborough, on kettling, on Ian Tomlinson, and on the Met’s Stasi-esque moles is decent but stale. His treatment of the media, too, fails to reach past the familiar: Leveson, the frightening and absurd Paul Dacre etc. He does, though, mount an attack on the sacred BBC, which he sees as every bit as culpable as the Murdoch press for the limiting and trivialising of public debate. When the Health and Social Care Bill was
being pushed through Parliament in 2012, it received very little coverage. When it finally passed into law, news bulletins declared ‘Bill Which Gives Powers to GPs Passes’ – a government spin on the legislation strongly disputed by organisations representing NHS workers, including the British Medical Association that represents GPs themselves … As the government transformed a popularly loved national institution without seeking consent first, the BBC acted like its press office.
It’s striking that in Jones’s potted biographies and anecdotal descriptions of outriders and City boys, they have backgrounds most unlike those of, say, David Cameron and George Osborne. This begins right at the start, with Madsen Pirie himself: ‘no child of the elite’, we are told, raised in Cleethorpes by a grandmother who made fishing nets at home for a living. Steve Varley, chairman of Ernst and Young, spent his childhood in a terraced house in Bury: ‘Smiley, down-to-earth, he easily passes the “bloke you’d like to have a pint with” test.’ Jones’s mole in the City, ‘Darren’, made his way to London when the Big Bang of the mid-1980s opened up the Square Mile to someone ‘bored with working in a TV shop in his native Southampton’. It is very rare for Jones to find a member of the establishment admitting to their privilege; one of them is Martha Lane Fox, who has no compunction about admitting she had lots of luck, connections and money. Jones’s explanation is that ‘this new establishment was not bound together by personal backgrounds’ after the Big Bang, ‘but by a shared way of thinking’. It wouldn’t have damaged his wider argument if he had worked into it the fact that this establishment, although it presided over a decline in social mobility, was more open to individual members of the working class, particularly in the 1980s.
Jones acknowledges that the new establishment emerged from a (perhaps only partly serious) critique of a previous establishment – Pirie et al against the Tory ‘wets’ and the Labour centrists. But although we’re briefly told about the ‘barrow boys’ in the City, we don’t find out how their existence affected the binding of one class to the interests of another, if it did. Opinion poll statistics on tax rises and the renationalisation of utilities, have led Jones to believe that neoliberalism has ‘never won the hearts and minds’ of the British public. Yet it’s clear from polling about attitudes towards those on benefits that hearts and minds are well and truly under control. Thatcher claimed, notoriously, that ‘economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul.’ Jones doesn’t take this seriously, though his own evidence – the fact that these monstrous injustices have continued unchecked by a public not ‘won over’ by them – contradicts him. Had Jones given more thought to the way the ruling class manages to perpetuate itself, his argument might not have changed, but it would surely have darkened considerably; and perhaps his book would have been less useful as the manifesto it evidently wants to be, as it is not wise for a politician to tell his constituency that the mess they’re in is partly their own fault.
Jones concludes with a call for a ‘democratic revolution’: ‘The status quo,’ he argues, ‘may be treated as common sense now, but future generations will surely look back with a mixture of astonishment and contempt at how British society is currently organised.’ Most startling to our descendants will be that ‘this was passed off as normal, as entirely rational and defensible,’ and that ‘institutions run by the elite’ had ‘considerable success’ in redirecting ‘people’s anger to those at the very bottom of society’. I hope he’s right, and that it’s just churlish of me to suggest that house prices bound people to this grotesque society as much as fear, repression and disinformation.
The Labour Party is hardly going to decide suddenly to stand against the establishment. Jones knows this, yet is also aware that the sectarianism to its left means a concerted fight is unlikely to come from that direction either. His solution, of which this book forms a central part, is to become an outrider himself, in order to ‘win the battle of ideas’, laying the groundwork for the harder political battle to come. The impasse reached by the Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, he concludes, presented the perfect opportunity for the outriders of the right, who were waiting with ready-made solutions and a highly developed critique. Jones hopes that the iniquities of neoliberalism today will produce a similar effect, and that the left will be ready with its response. Yet the New Economics Foundation can’t compete with Policy Exchange, and Class hasn’t managed one fiftieth of the column inches filled by the Taxpayers’ Alliance. The reason is there in Jones’s own chapter on the ‘Mediaocracy’: an ‘establishment’ media which will by and large report only views with which it already agrees, although it is perfectly willing to give a platform to Jones and his like to start ratings-generating arguments on television. The web spun by the neoliberal ruling class as depicted in this book is so extensive and so difficult to escape that only one group, ‘the people’, emerges relatively unscathed and apparently able to think and act outside of its confines. Jones aims to speak directly to them, while hoping that they exist.
[*] Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made by Richard Seymour (Pluto, 208 pp., £12, March, 978 0 7453 3328 1); Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown by Philip Mirowski (Verso, 384 pp., £12.99, April, 978 1 7816 8302 6).