[This review was written soon after The Establishment was published, but has sat on my desktop ever since. It felt timely to publish it now]
Owen Jones’ recent book provides a detailed and well-researched overview of the ‘Establishment’ in the United Kingdom, and its role in the construction of a deeply unfair, unequal and divided society. Jones explores in great detail the various segments of society which he concludes represent this loose ‘Establishment’, from outriders to the ‘Westminster cartel’, the media to tycoons and ‘tax-dodgers’ and lists their manifold evils. The Establishment makes for a depressing read, but it is hardly a wakeup call, as most of its likely audience are already broadly familiar with the issue.
This does not mean that the detail in which Jones explores the often detestable misbehaviour of our political, intellectual and economic elite is not important, but simply that he is preaching to the converted. His narrative will stir the well-educated middle class who will feel rightly outraged, but who ultimately do not suffer the brunt of the injustice plaguing this country. The many graphic examples Jones provides make ‘Us’ feel closer to those who suffer, but ‘We’ remain all too able to turn our backs on them when push comes to shove. Upon closing the book readers will feel warm and fuzzy at the thought that exposing such an unjust society will finally change things. But many will subsequently go on with their life, partaking in the consumerist orgy responsible for the very plight they feel so strongly about in their leisure time, yet all but rebuke to the darkest corners of their minds when it counts. In this manner the book acts as a therapy session for those who chafe against the social iniquities of the world live in and yet profit very much from it. Others, of course, will continue their daily struggle to turn the social justice Jones advocates into reality. Yet, it is those who dedicate their lives to effect change whom, I would argue, Jones misleads in his book by claiming his vision is radical and his alternative world view anything but a band-aid.
The conservativism of Jones’ anti-establishment message is demonstrated in numerous ways. First, the Establishment is filled with nationalistic pride in ‘our’ glorious achievements such as the NHS, while conveniently ignoring the world around us: social justice is not just a British affair; it will only be achieved through a global response. Jones avoids addressing the fact that all of us need to rethink our privileged situation and give up on much of our comfort if the justice he proclaims to desire is to reach beyond our relatively comfortable shores. Instead, he harks back to past victorious struggles, forgetting that times have changed, forgetting that the context for radical politics is no longer favourable and change would come at a price. The truth hurts; Jones’ prescriptions are painless. No longer are social democratic forces able to rely on the Communist threat to force their governments to assuage workers. No longer is the West able to rely on wealth built on the exploitation of their empires to appease the justified anger of their poor. Even if the UK could turn the clock back and return to its old self, it would only be at the expense of others across the globe. Social justice in a globalised world cannot take place within one country, it must be global. Issues of poverty, education, health, food, water, the environment and so on cannot be left to individual nations to sort out for their own exclusive conception of the people; this risks fuelling nationalist movements and the exploitation of the most vulnerable on this earth. Jones mentions this caveat briefly on p.313, only to revert immediately to an anglo-centric vision of history.
Jones calls for a reform of the current system, tells us to look back at tradition to effect change, and therefore turn to parties and unions to shift the ‘Overton window’ (a much less convincing concept than hegemony which appears only once in the book (p.297)). While the reforms advocated by Jones would certainly be welcome by most on the left, they remain both moderate and naïve. In his 2005 book The Hatred of Democracy, French philosopher Jacques Rancière articulated a series of obvious rules required for a representative system to be democratic: ‘short non-renewable electoral mandates; the elaboration of laws given exclusively to the representatives of the people; the interdiction for civil servants to be representatives, the reduction to the minimum of political campaigns and the strict control of the influence lobbies can have on the electoral process’ (Rancière 2005; 80-81). Yet he was under no illusion that his proposals, no matter how minimal or obvious, would stand a chance, and would in fact be commonly derided as utopian despite their moderation. Despite its very title and apparent subject, Jones’s book fails acknowledge the oligarchic and post-democratic nature of our political system and his blind faith in the radical potential of Parliamentarians and the electoral process as it stands are what make his prescriptions tokenistic resistance in the face of injustice. Too often, the responsibility for the plight of the ‘people’ is placed on individuals or parts of society gone rogue such as the city (pp.262-63), instead of flaws at the heart of the system itself. Jones even takes the German workplace as an example to follow for his ‘democratic revolution’, demonstrating how moderate the change he is advocating for are (p.304-305). The ‘Establishment’ acts as the perfect scapegoat to ignore more deeply seated issues about our democracy. Jones may be standing on the edge of the Overton window, but his presence there only serves to reinforce the hegemonic order by giving the semblance of a contestation of the establishment without ever risking undermining its real basis.
Fourteen years after Colin Crouch’s widely-read evaluation of post-democracy (2004), it is a tribute to the strength of the current hegemony that someone positing himself as one of the most radical writers of the time fails to even reconsider his faith in the political parties to effect real change. Little more than piecemeal reform can come through the present electoral system, it being naive to think a major party would risk its neck by promoting a truly egalitarian platform. Since our parties are unlikely to campaign on such bold programmes which would necessitate drastic sacrifices from its electors, Jones’s prescriptions fall flat, and if anything ensconce us ever deeper in the status quo where each stands on their own and against the rest, albeit to different degrees. While his voice is necessary in the current landscape to denounce the misbehaviour of our oligarchy, it will not be the source of change. A truly radical voice would not stop at the true but limited account given in the book, but explore possibilities beyond the current hegemony – quite frankly, the affairs of Parliament – and thus beyond an essentially unjust system.