The Establishment by Owen Jones

establishmentWe are faced with an Election in May in which the result is up for grabs, so it seems right to be spending some time scratching beneath the surface of our politics to consider where we want to go as a country. Thus begins a series of reviews of books that speak to the current state of the nation and possible options for a way forward.

Up first is the latest offering from Owen Jones, well known voice of the British left and columnist for the Guardian newspaper. In The Establishment Jones sets out the controlling powers as he sees them, politicians, the media, corporate interests and lobby groups, the police and interestingly the “outriders”, who he describes as the ideas people moving the perception of what can be done.

In many ways there is nothing here that you do not instinctively know from looking at the world around you. How come when the financial crisis was created by an unregulated banking system that was betting heavy on its own greed do we now seem to blaming public spending for our woes? Why are we all getting angry about benefit fraud but have seemingly forgotten about the MP’s expenses scandal, media phone tapping and the all too cosy relationships between leading politicians, media moguls and senior police officers?

This is where Jones, an Oxford University history graduate, comes into his own piecing together the detail of how they “got away with it”. That is not to say that there is any suggestion of an organised conspiracy but rather that it is a shared ideology. The modern establishment that holds sway over us all is a diverse group all espousing the benefits of the free market whilst diverting the state into a support system for its own self-interest.

The phrase that really strikes home is “privatising profit, nationalising risk”. It is this mentality that allows the financial sector to demand a lack of regulation and to refuse to contribute its share through taxation whilst the profits are rolling, but then take a £1.162 trillion bailout from the state when it brings the economy crashing to its knees. It also provides state subsidies to privatised, profit making industries such as rail and energy. It is not about reducing the influence of the state it is about diverting the state’s resources into the hands of the wealthy and powerful.

Where the book perhaps falls down is how to move forward. It acknowledges that public opinion is largely against the governing ideology, most people actually want to see energy, rail and the NHS nationalised not privatised for example, but there is no clear sight of how to galvanise that opinion into a meaningful opposition. Jones takes hope from the despair that was felt by the free market outriders in the 1970’s, who then went on to utterly dominate the 80’s and 90’s to the point where they now seem unassailable, but it doesn’t seem much to rally around.

There is a sense that in the build up to the 2015 general election there is a desire for some change but a large part of the anti-establishment feeling has moved bewildering to UKIP, which is merely an establishment outrider that seeks to drive the country even further down the road of free markets, low taxes and privatisation than the current government dares go for now.

The challenge is how to forge a coherent consensus that can challenge these ideologies and move the window on what is possible. This is the strength of the establishment, it is clear in its shared vision, it has won the ideas argument to the extent that alternatives to the status quo are seen as impossible and it relentlessly drives forward its agenda. It has also weakened and scattered its natural opponents, the unions. It is an urgent challenge that Jones is all too aware of but as yet it is not clear how it can be met.