Owen Jones’s book on how the elite maintains its franchise on power is a valuable exposé of greed, corruption and mendacity, says Andrew Murray
The Establishment and how they get away with it
by Owen Jones
(Allen Lane, £16.99)
The elite in Britain is — or ought to be — in deep disgrace. It has celebrated its new post-cold war, end-of-history franchise on power by launching illegal and mendacious wars, piloting the economy to an epochal crash, bugging phones and fiddling expenses. It has done its best to obfuscate and cover much of this up, unsuccessfully.
Really, aristocrats have gone to the guillotine for less. Yet, paradoxically, not only have the ruling class not been overthrown but few on the left even explicitly call for such a thing to happen. Consequently, all the problems outlined above are scheduled to be resolved at the expense of their victims rather than their perpetrators.
So Owen Jones’s new book is timely. It is a companion to his celebrated Chavs, a review of how the working class is (mis)represented in contemporary culture and the book which set him on the path to media ubiquity.
There is a great deal to like in The Establishment and How They Get Away With It, notwithstanding the grammatical infelicity in the title — we only have one Establishment, thank God.
Jones canters through the main centres of power in Britain today such as the politicians, media, police, the City and think tanks — and shows, mainly by means of revealing interview with protagonists, how they are all bound together by a neoliberal ideology which few dare challenge.
He tells his story well, which is no surprise to anyone who reads his columns or who has heard him speak — he is indefatigable on the campaign trail against austerity and injustice. Almost every wrong committed by the elite is rehearsed, enough to make the mildest reader boil with anger.
The prose knits together exemplary research on the sins of the 21st-century bourgeoisie and its greed, corruption, mendacity, tax-fiddling and more, laid bare in some detail. New Labour is not spared.
And yet there is a conceptual flaw.
The Establishment is not a neoliberal conspiracy. Neoliberalism has been the name given to its successful class struggle programme in recent decades.
Nor is all, or even most, of the ruling class neoliberal. I doubt if the Queen is, nor much of the judiciary unexamined by Jones. For some reason — age, most likely — when I visualise the Establishment and wonder why it has stayed in the saddle throughout my life, I picture Michael Heseltine.
He is not a neoliberal at all but a brilliant exponent of that patrician managerialism which has proved astonishingly effective for the preservation of social hierarchy in Britain.
The Establishment was not born in 1979. While Jones rightly details the racism of the police in neoliberal Britain, bad as this certainly is, it was even worse in the years of the social-democratic consensus.
Likewise, a corrupt political media was not the invention of Rupert Murdoch. He has certainly advocated a new Labour vote far more often than Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere did in the heyday of the Tory press.
Truth is, we have a very deep-rooted ruling class — not an Establishment — atop us and it is a class too canny to put all its ideological eggs in one basket. Neoliberalism will pass, albeit not without a fight.
The power and property of the ruling class will remain, as long as we let it. The challenge is to reconstitute the working-class movement as a social alternative to the power of the propertied.
What comes next? Jones urges a democratic revolution in his concluding chapter. Every single one of his demands such as tackling tax avoidance or changing anti-union laws would change Britain for the better and are worth fighting for.
But they would still leave the Establishment intact, if somewhat reconfigured.
Only the shadow of the guillotine really puts the wind up them.
Andrew Murray is a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
This appears in the Monday 6 October Morning Star