“The Establishment: And how they get away with it” by Owen Jones

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In his follow-up to 2012’s Chavs, The Establishment sees Owen Jones perform an incisive dissection of what he terms Britain’s ‘Establishment’. His findings are deeply alarming, as he unveils a nauseating image of a Britain in a state of decomposition on its deathbed, the hungry, gleeful worms of the elite revelling in a State that is on its knees. By the end of this book, Jones is forced to declare that this Establishment “has curtailed and trimmed British democracy, ensuring Britain is a country rigged in favour of a tiny, self-aggrandizing elite. And until that changes, democracy is Britain will be imperilled” (p.193). Yet perhaps the most admirable section of this provocative book is its conclusion; here, Jones takes a break from detailing the gross injustices eating away at the heart of Britain to propose sensible and practical steps for positive social change. Weeks before Russell Brand’s infamously titled publication, the author suggests what we need is a ‘democratic revolution’—a peaceful movement that will offer a more equal spread of wealth across the UK which would improve the lives of the 99%. Jones’ is a welcome voice which vehemently speaks the truth and is far more in tune than the figures of the elite he criticises in The Establishment.

It is safe to say that Jones has a lot of bones to pick in this book, some of which are continued from his previous book. Despite being a passionate voice, he does not just pick up the forceps and dive in wherever his anger will take him; The Establishment is instead a controlled operation split up into eight defined categories or topics of discussion. It starts with a nuanced and informative detailing of the background of British politics in the 20th century. Here, the author outlines how this period saw a dramatic shift from what was for Jones the socialist heyday of the 1970s through to the free market capitalism that took the reins and continues to hold them fiercely today. How did this come about? The key, according to Jones, lies with a change in ideology and the influence of think-tanks. The Mount Pèlerin society which met in Austria in 1947 is claimed as the origin, and their ideology is demonstrated to have quite incredibly snowballed through to the 21st century, wiping out the powers of the trade unions and other such groups which represented the voice of the working classes and once rivalled the ideas of the right.

After this comprehensive run-down of 20th century British politics, Jones moves logically on to the current political scene. Jones works from the premise that a politician should be a democratically elected representative of a community whose needs and wants he/she should voice and fight for. Instead, becoming a politician seems, for the most part, to have become a career path for the elite to enhance their wealth and power. According to the book, 35 per cent of politicians are privately educated, compared with just seven per cent of the general population. Is this, then, an authentic, representative slice of Britain? Jones showcases the incredible extravagance of certain politicians, extravagance that has found its way into the headlines in recent times and is sadly becoming quite the norm in British politics.

Jones then moves to explore the relationship of politics and the media, and how these two supposedly distinct spheres in fact impinge heavily on one another. In this third chapter, Jones describes the heavily and hideously intertwined spheres of the media and politics, and how both serve to prod each other onto ever greater climes of power and wealth. The Murdoch empire inevitably bears the brunt of the criticism. The close association of Rupert Murdoch and his cronies to New Labour is notorious and exposing the hideous crimes of his gang is rather like feeding candy to a baby for Jones. What is more illuminating is the number of politicians who, after having served their time in the political limelight, wind up in highly paid jobs in top corporations which are alarmingly closely linked with the politician’s former governmental role. According to Jones, these links reveal how politicians fail to successfully represent their constituencies in Parliament and instead only seek to address the prodigal desires of free market corporations and the individual politicians themselves.

It is a similar story for the police. Generally perceived by society as a benevolent, impartial force that serves the local community, Jones instead shows the police to be something quite different indeed. I myself had rarely questioned the status of the police before reading this book, and the injustices that Jones outlines in The Establishment I found to be deeply worrying and at times utterly repulsive. From the behaviour of the police at the infamous Hillsborough disaster and during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, to stories of crooked cops killing an elderly journalist and then using their power and lies to cover it up, to sickening stories of undercover policemen entering false relationships with supposed enemies of the state—and even going as far to having children with these women—with the sole intention of drawing out apparently necessary information. How did things end up like this? Jones points to the mid-70s and Thatcher’s rise in government. The so-called Iron Lady knew that she needed a force that would cater for and carry out her interests, and so she bought the loyalty of the police with large pay rises. This intelligent tactic was admired and reused by later governments, and this period appears to have seen the death of a fair police force that existed to provide justice and protection for local communities.

The book then reverts back to themes from Jones’ previous publication, Chavs, to consider the highly mediatised idea of those who ‘sponge off the state’. According to right-wing media, there are a large number of people—largely immigrants, of course—who live in the UK without any intention of working and who instead cost the taxpayer millions of pounds each and every year. These people, or so the argument goes, typically have a large clan of children to bring in more money and live in luxurious houses that the typical wage earner can only dream of living in. This is a farcical argument, and Jones demonstrates that if anybody is sponging off the government, it is instead large corporations and banks. The obvious example is the astonishing behaviour of the banks prior to the 2008 crash and the need for taxpayers to fork out billions upon billions of pounds to stabilise an industry of money-thirsty creatures whose incredible behaviour has not changed to this day. There is also the case of those many entrepreneurs and business owners who go out of their way to avoid paying tax, most of whom call upon the ‘expertise’ of the Big Four accountancy firms (Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG). I say ‘expertise’ because, as Jones reveals, these firms are actually called upon to write tax laws because of their knowledge of the market, and so they are essentially helping their clients find loopholes in laws that they themselves have written. Jones describes the cases of individuals such as Sir Philip Green, the owner of Topshop and several other top high-street chains, who, on taking a £1.2 billion dividend in 2005, poured his cash into his wife’s Monaco-based account and diligently denied the taxpayer an astonishing £285 million worth of taxes. The bottom line is that while young, intelligent and desperate people are demonised for claiming £50 per week to be able to simply get by, the fact is that HMRC are denied billions of pounds every year that would enable the state to invest and provide the country with better infrastructure and crucially more jobs.

In the final two chapters, Jones firstly tackles the mind-boggling mentalities that rule the roost in the City of London, what he calls “rampant dog-eat-dog individualism”, and the relationship of Britain to both the US and the EU.  He is able to enlighten readers once more on the heavy involvement of politicians who frequently act in defence of their friends in the City, allowing them to cuddle huge bonuses during the good times and avoid responsibility during worse times by footing the bill with the taxpayer. The image we receive of the UK in relation to the US is rather like one of an obedient puppy who waddles around behind its ally ready to go and ‘fetch’ whenever told to do so. The EU, instead, seems to be a riddle for the free market ideologues of the UK, an organisation that puts boundaries and limits in place that constrain and frustrate those across the different realms of The Establishment. Is it any wonder, then, that a right-wing, anti-Europe party is washing across the UK and the Conservatives are offering a referendum on Europe in their next campaign?

If all of the above sounds like socialist propaganda spouted from the mouth of an over-zealous labourite, I would still urge you to read this book. If anything, it offers another perspective of modern Britain that challenges the ideas and policies that today govern British life. We must always remain sceptical and challenge those at the top, and this book certainly does that. What is beyond doubt is that there is a whole generation of people disillusioned with politics and the options available to them. This is a book that, if anything, underlines the necessity for change, evolution and development in British society and it should be taken seriously.

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The Establishment is published by Allen Lane (Penguin) and is available for £15.99.

Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) is also worth a follow on Twitter.

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Owen Jones at the Blackie, Liverpool, 15/05/2014

 

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Sat alongside Liverpool’s impressive Chinatown Gate is the looming figure of the Blackie, a former Congregational chapel besmirched with over a century’s inner-city smoke and grime, giving the building its blackened façade and its playful name. Now serving as a cultural arts community centre, the venue played the perfect host to an evening of socio-political discussion sprung from Owen Jones’ ‘Rebel Rant’, a headline act of Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall Festival. The rant meandered through an array of themes and concerns, and the discussion which ensued demonstrated the extent to which Jones engaged his audience in his appeal for solidarity amongst the working classes for the hope of social change.

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Jones, a self-proclaimed socialist and columnist for the Guardian, rose to prominence after the 2011 publication of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, described as ‘a work of passion, sympathy and moral grace’ by the New York Times who considered the book one of the top ten non-fiction publications of 2011. He has since featured in numerous televised political debates on programmes such as the BBC’s Newsnight or Daily Politics as a spokesperson for the political left. Jones set his ‘Rebel Rant’ in motion by evoking the rich British heritage of a working class who fought for social change, beginning with examples from as far back as the 14th century and stretching through to modern Britain with examples of working class heroes who in some cases went as far as to die in their struggle for positive social change in Britain, such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Reminding his audience of such examples, Jones laid down his theme that positive social change—whether it be improved working conditions, increasing the minimum wage, female emancipation, the abolition of slavery—is never gifted by a generous elite of officials at the top, but rather it is something which is battled for, through protest, the voicing of discontent and sometimes through blood, but it is always something which comes from below, from the working classes. A message which doubtlessly coursed through the minds of his audience as he proceeded to discuss the problems which afflict our contemporary society.

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Over quarter of a million people relying on food banks to feed their families, while energy companies hold millions to ransom over ever-inflating energy prices, their bosses stuffing their pockets with profits while families count pennies deciding whether they can afford to heat their home or feed their children. Incessant job cutbacks leaving 27 million Europeans without work and economic growth at a standstill while monstropolous corporations such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks exploit tax havens to avoid contributing to the economies of countries whose people which put billions of pounds in their pockets every year. The institution that Brits are most proud of, the NHS, being threatened by privatization and thus the potential that another set of already-wealthy businessmen might stick their fingers in our pockets and clear us of our hard-earned wages on the back of something as indispensable and essential as healthcare. Relying on politicians for social change, the same politicians who themselves avoid tax and use the taxpayers money to fund unnecessary second homes and extravagant expenses. Governments tapping into the phones of political leaders to watch over their every move yet people such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange being condemned as criminals for exposing the corruption taking place in the dark recesses of the political world. Five million Brits on housing waiting lists while house prices continue to rocket up 10% a year. A national media which targets minority, often immigrant, communities and uses them as scapegoats to every problem that the United Kingdom faces and leaving the working classes fighting amongst themselves and believing that if we got out of the EU, put a cap on immigration all our problems would magically evaporate, and amidst all this fighting the people on top sit contentedly licking their cream. The same national media which also demonizes users of social benefits, a system established to support those put out of and unable to find work, but despite huge job losses, mass unemployment, the UK in billions of pounds of debt, the people who use this system are nonetheless branded as ‘lazy’ ‘scroungers’ who ‘sponge’ off tax-payer’s money, draining the country of its supposed unbounding riches. And it cannot be a coincidence that this demonization takes place during a time when job centre employees, who Jones claims to have interviewed himself, are pushed to cut individual’s benefits for the slightest and most inane reasons (turning up 2 minutes late, not being able to go to the job centre because you are out job-hunting) as each job centre battles against each other to save the most money and earn its branch a presumably minor reward. Rule, Britannia! These are all things we are aware of on some level, that we have read about in newspapers and been repudiated by. But Jones was able to frame all these different elements to give a startling and rather nauseating image of a Britain on its knees, and when juxtaposed with his evocation of a truly Great Britain whose working classes fought for social change, this image become suddenly deeply saddening.

 

But Jones stressed to the packed Blackie crowd that this wasn’t simply an event organised for people to come together, vent their frustrations and become nostalgic about a distant, ‘lost’ Britain. Together, as it always has been and always will be, the working classes can achieve change, because that change never does come from the top, but always comes from a battle-cry from the bottom. His was a message of solidarity, of organisation and being active in the face of the crises faced by Brits today. But not only Brits. Recalling a time when he visited Portugal in 2011, Jones pointed out that riots in that country took place within a week or two of the London anti-cuts protests of that year and that the demonstrations in both countries were calling for virtually the same things. Many of the issues we face today are international and must be addressed on that scale. How? Jones referred to the power of social media to engage and communicate, reminding his audience that social networks have the power to make revolution possible as shown by the example of Egypt and other African countries during the Arab Spring. Indeed Jones himself followed this event by jetting off to Barcelona and Madrid where the Spanish translation of his book has took off and clearly sympathises with the millions of unemployed Spanish struggling make a living and even survive in a country suffering from economic disaster.

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Jones’ almost-listing of the multitude of problems faced by Europeans and indeed people all over the work may be deemed by his detractors as simply a means of inciting anger and his rather basic, idealistic response of solidarity and protest might be deemed inane and futile. After all, only four years ago thousands of students reacted to governmental intentions of hiking up prices in further education by demonstrating in London. The reaction of the government? To turn a blind eye, gleefully imagine the extra-revenue and increase Universities fees threefold. Is it then any wonder that there seems to be a generation of apathetic voters (or non-voters) who feel futile to creating significant change, who distrust politicians and have little or no optimism for their future? But Jones demonstrated that change can be provoked by the working classes, by the people who fight for their rights and what they believe in. And so if change is to happen, it will only be achieved through solidarity, organisation and demonstration. In a democracy, this is our right and it is this right that gives us optimism and hope for the future. Plus, as Jones puts it, the British working classes ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’—an empowering image and message which certainly resonated deeply with his applauding audience.

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 The Writing on the Wall Festival continues tonight (21/05) with Spy in the Camp at the Bluecoat withPhil Scraton, Rob Evans and Janet Alder discussing deceit and betrayal by the police, unmasking espionage, phone-hacking and privacy violation.

It will then continue until the end of May. For the full listings of events, please click here.

Owen Jones will release his second book, The Establishment and How They Get Away With It comes out in September. To pre-order, please click here.

And finally thanks for reading!