Irrespective of where you stand politically, Owen Jones’ second book, The Establishment, will make you angry. If you are right wing, you’ll no doubt feel defensive, you’ll seek to undermine Jones by talking about the activist groups he is a part of, by saying he lacks understanding of human interaction, by talking about how young he is (as Philip Hensher tries to do in his review), doing just about everything except read the book and react to the points he raises. The negative reaction to The Establishment seems to rest on a premise of look at the silly man. Jones addresses this fact a number of times in the books, talking about how in the 70s the outriders of the free market were themselves talked of in the same ways (and that is perhaps the first thing to remember: the establishment of the modern Establishment occurred in our lifetimes – it is not the unassailable edifice that the Establishment would have you believe). But we were talking about anger weren’t we? If you are even slightly left of centre (as, it would seem, the majority of the British public are – time and again, Owen cites ways in which the public, ‘even Tory voters’, would like certain things – the renationalisation of the energy industry, for instance – to happen that the Government, Labour, Conservative, whomever, refuse to consider), The Establishment will make you angry for other reasons (and depressed and powerless and overwhelmed and shocked and – and – and).
The aim of the book is to ‘strip bare’ the British Establishment and Jones does this, chapter by chapter, looking at the ways in which politicians, the media, the police, big business, the City and the extremely wealthy work things to their own advantage. Again and again, we are treated to glimpses of the revolving door that exists between all of these worlds – politicians working with big business to introduce laws that benefit them and strip workers of rights only to then leave Government to join the Boards of said businesses, financial auditors seconded to Government to draft laws that they then exploit when they return to said financial auditors, from right wing think tanks to Government to the BBC. On and on it goes. In Philip Hensher’s review, he attempts to belittle this aspect of the book – so people know each other, he says, so people have known each other since birth and help each other. What’s the matter with that? The matter with that is, of course, that these people who are busy knowing each other and helping each other are doing so to the detriment of everyone else. And it’s a problem that is becoming worse because where originally politicians were seduced by big business for the Party donations, politicians are now seduced by big business because they want the lifestyle. So politicians – already paid three times more than the median wage in the UK – think they are underpaid (with Labour thinking they are about 10K underpaid and Tories, unsurprisingly, thinking they are about 30K underpaid).
The book is a grand refutation, a holler, a halloo, about the versions of events that we are presented with. So, for example, we all know that the global financial crash of 2007 was created by the wrecklessness of financial businesses. We all know it came about as a result of the lack of regulation – regulation that had been unpicked by Governments, themselves in the pocket of big business (big business providing the largest donations to political parties in order to get what they want). At the same time, we have all seen – over the course of the last seven years – this version of events dismissed (financial markets remain unregulated) in favour of a story that says it’s the public sector that needs to be curtailed. This palimpsest covers a basic truth: the financial markets played fast and loose and the British taxpayer picked up the bill to the tune of trillions of pounds. The ongoing privatisation (best seen in the current dismantling of the NHS by the coalition government) continues this process – with business picking up profits and the taxpayer carrying all the risk.
Again and again (and it’s depressing, genuinely, to see the different stories telling the same old story) we see the ways in which the Establishment sees off attack, the Government, business and media launching full frontal assaults on anything and anyone that attempts to propagate a different version of events. You see it in the ways in which Government and media propelled us into war with Iraq. You see it in the ways that Government, big business and media let loose a blitzkrieg on the YES vote in Scottish independence – an avalanche of bullying and misinformation, all of the leading political figures of the day united like the pigs and the men around the table at the end of Animal Farm (and AGAIN Jones makes hay pointing out the fact that once upon a time political parties disagreed with one another, on major issues rather than nuances). And what do we see within days of the NO vote’s victory: Cameron attempting to rush through legislation to stop it ever happening again. One lesson you can take away from The Establishment is this: if the Establishment are united on something being a bad thing, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s probably a good thing.
Imagine if we had a political party that was saying this stuff. Imagine if we had genuine debate in the media about why what the Government isn’t interested in what the people want (remember a few months ago when Osborne and Cameron went to Europe to fight the cap on banker’s bonuses – imagine if they were going to bat for the rest of us). There are solutions, Jones suggests, ways in which we can wrest back power (the tumult of the Scottish independence vote suggests the same thing – 97% of voters stepping up fills these fuckers with horror). The solutions don’t quite offset the horror of the book. But you have to hope. You have to cast your mind back to the start of the book, to the story of the outriders of the present system who were themselves once viewed with incredulity. It hasn’t quite always been this way. Let’s hope that change is possible.
Any Cop?: It’s a sturdy, rigorous read, and a powerful and necessary book.