‘The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It’ reviewed by Paul Blackledge

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

Allen Lane, London, 2014. 368pp., £16.99 hb
ISBN 9781846147197

Reviewed by Paul Blackledge

About the reviewer

Paul Blackledge is professor of political theory and UCU Branch Secretary at Leeds Beckett …


Owen Jones’s 2011 bestseller Chavs (reviewed 2012) deservedly earned him respect across the left. It was not merely a powerful demolition of the “demonization of the working class” within contemporary political discourse; it also put forward a more positive case for a renewed left-wing politics rooted within the working class. Of course there were limitations with Jones’s proposals – the unease with which he grappled with the relationship between oppression, identity and war on the one hand, and the “bread and butter” issues he suggested constituted real class politics on the other, illuminated weaknesses with the simplistic variant of Marxism informing his analysis. Nonetheless, Chavs was a very welcome counter to the assault on the working class, and it both contributed to and fitted with the renewed feeling of confidence on the British left between the student riots of 2010 and the mass public sector strikes of 2011.

If the subsequent capitulation of the bulk of the union leadership to the coalition government’s “Heads of Agreement” in December 2011 scuppered what had been up to that point a rising social movement, a corollary of this surrender was that the parameters of political debate (prior to the recent Yes campaign in Scotland) were once again narrowed down to a discussion about what kind of austerity “they” would impose on “us”.

Jones’s follow up to Chavs, The Establishment, is an attempt to dissect the “them” that have gained most both from the demonization of the working class and from the cuts to wages and the welfare state that this demonization has helped legitimise. Its core consists of a set of powerful essays on how the rich reproduce their wealth and power at our expense. To this end, Jones borrows his book’s title from Henry Fairlie’s famous 1955 Spectator essay in which he argued that the Establishment is a set of well connected individuals, bound by ties of solidarity formed in the elite public schools and universities and reproduced through the social “season”. Jones extends this argument to claim that the Establishment is made up of “powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote. The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to “manage” democracy, to make sure it does not threaten their own interests” (4). More substantially, he suggests that Fairlie glossed over the fact that the Establishment has a common mentality rooted in common economic interests. And because the economy is in a constant process of change, the Establishment too is “in a state of perpetual flux” (9).

Expanding on this point, Jones explores the “outriders” who won over the Establishment to neoliberalism in a long drawn out battle of ideas going back to the formation of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947. At Mont Pèlerin, Hayek and his co-thinkers chose to play the long game; waiting to seize any opportunity offered by some future crisis to radically transform public policy. And this is precisely what Jones says they did when crisis came in the 1970s: from this point onwards the new right, with Thatcher as their standard bearer, set about reshaping public policy in the image of their free-market utopia.

Clearly there is a strong element of truth to this story, and Jones rehearses it well. Unfortunately, it is also an inadequate account of the rise of neoliberalism. Jones is, of course, right to challenge narratives that attempt to naturalise free markets: he makes it clear that neoliberalism was and remains a political project. Nonetheless, his excessively political and far too brief account of the moment of transition to neoliberalism doesn’t begin to rise to the level of explaining how the new right was able to win hegemony in the 1970s (26-7). Despite its profound intellectual limits, neoliberalism’s great strength in the 1970s was its offer of a rational capitalist response to economic crisis. The problem with Jones’s model of the transition to neoliberalism is that its logic implies that the left should ape the neoliberal strategy of orientating towards winning governmental office – indeed he suggests that the left needs a socialist equivalent of the Mont Pèlerin Society (43). Jones doesn’t actually fall into this trap – he dismisses the claim that “Britain is ruled by `bad’ people, and that if they were replaced by `good’ people, then the problems facing democracy would be solved” (14). But because he fails to recognise the rational core of the neoliberal response to the crisis of capitalism, he doesn’t explain how the neoliberals were able to use the state to their ends in a way that would be precluded for a left government.  

For instance, he suggests that the “outriders” who won the battle of ideas in the 1970s and who have since kept fighting to maintain their intellectual hegemony succeeded in shifting the parameters of what is considered politically possible (44-5). There is clearly more than an element of truth to this claim, but it somewhat inverts the relationship between subject and predicate. It is much more important that the neoliberal arguments fitted with the needs of capital at a moment when the old Keynesian methods were shown no longer to work (indeed were shown never to have worked) as capitalism evolved away from the form that had at least partially fitted with Keynesian ideology between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Interestingly in his search for a strategic answer to the problems facing the left, Jones does gesture towards Marx by suggesting that Fairlie’s account of the Establishment mirrors Marx and Engels’s description of “capitalist governments as a `committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, or a sort of technocratic front for heads of big business” (9). This is a problematic claim not least because Marx and Engels said something slightly different: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. This formulation suggests that socialist strategy must include a model of the state rather than merely government as a capitalist form.

Tragically, the dominant way socialist critics of capitalism have adjusted to the reality that states are capitalist institutions over the last century and more has been to naturalise the capitalist parameters of the politically possible. This was done by and large by politicians kidding themselves about state neutrality in a way that smuggled a set of very un-neutral assumptions about the limits of “realistic” politics into their day-to-day activities. If the pivotal moment of this process was the capitulation of the Second International to imperialism in 1914, this tendency has been repeated on innumerable occasions since.

In this context Jones’s call for a “democratic revolution” is all well and good (295). But because democracy can mean all things to all people it is incumbent upon him to explain what is wrong with our existing democratic institutions. He is right to recognise a contradiction between capitalism and democracy, but because he doesn’t explore the modern state as a capitalist form he fails to address the ways in which states are part of this problem not part of the solution. This blinds him to the fact that, though socialists can and should use parliamentary elections and representation for propaganda and agitational purposes, one of the key weaknesses with the twentieth-century left was its failure to recognise that socialist change cannot come through parliament because parliament is embedded within the state which is itself a constituent part of capitalist social relations. Rosa Luxemburg was right when she argued that “with the entry of a socialist into the government and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister”. The beginnings of an explanation for why this is so can be found in Marx and Engels’s oeuvre if we look beyond the Manifesto. Elsewhere they suggested that the state form is required by capitalist social relations: at a minimum modern states are required to reproduce labour power, to regulate capitalist competition (through the rule of law and the provision of a stable currency), and to protect (by military and financial means) their local firms against threats from foreign competitors. They also pointed out that the relationship between states and capital evolves over time.

For instance, welfare states emerged as an aspect of a broader process of state intervention that was initially underpinned by imperialist competition and eventually justified (in Keynesian terms) as a necessary corrective to economic crisis. Neoliberalism, by contrast, emerged out of the failure of state intervention to prevent crises in a context marked by increased economic integration and internationalisation of capital. If Clement Attlee’s politics fitted with the earlier period, Tony Blair’s fitted with the latter. It is not that Attlee was a good man whilst Blair was a bad one; it is rather that in essence (the detail of particular policies could always change) they did what they thought was in the interests of capital (as overdetermined by the balance of class forces) at specific historical conjunctures. This didn’t involve doing away with state intervention in the neoliberal period – Jones is right to point to the fact that “British capitalism is completely dependent on the largesse of the state” and that the supposed free market “cherished by the Establishment is based on a fantasy” (169; 178-9). It did, however, involve framing questions about what could be achieved by government against a naturalised capitalist context – this is why it is important, by contrast with recent attempts amongst left reformists to mythologize Attlee’s record in office, to remember that he sent in troops against striking workers on 18 separate occasions between 1945 and 1951 whilst spending money on building a nuclear bomb without the knowledge either of parliament or most of his cabinet colleagues.

It undoubtedly reflects an important truth about British society that both Attlee and Blair were privately educated Oxford graduates. But this fact doesn’t begin to explain the structural relations between Labourism, the state, and capital. Similarly, Jones’s informative overview of what he calls the “Westminster cartel” – the way (a few honourable exceptions aside) an increasingly rich and corrupt set of MPs play the system – is a useful reminder of just how unrepresentative the vast bulk of our representatives in parliament are. Nonetheless, this chapter doesn’t rise above the kind of propaganda that is an important staple of any half-decent socialist newspaper. It is not that this kind of propaganda is unimportant – it isn’t, and once again Jones tells a good story – it’s just that in the end it is a bit superficial.

Superficial isn’t necessarily wrong, and Jones’s book certainly includes many useful facts about how the rich avoid tax on the one hand and benefit from being the real scroungers on handouts from the state on the other. The chapter on the media is similarly useful – Jones is particularly good on the right-wing bias at the BBC, though he is less good, as a number of reviewers of his book have pointed out, about The Guardian’s Establishment views over which he silently slips. This weakness is reinforced in his analysis of the police in which a fine discussion of their role at Hillsborough and during the Miners’ Strike is fatally undermined by his comment that, despite these problem areas, he accepts that the police also “keep citizens safe, deter and pursue criminals who would inflict misery, terror and humiliation on others” ( 125).

This reproduction of one aspect of the myth of state neutrality isn’t a minor matter; it highlights the profound limits to Jones’s “democratic revolution”: the state will stay, and at best we’ll get workers’ reps on company boards and “democratic public ownership of key utilities” (304-5). Unfortunately, none of this will do away with capitalism or the evils that it underpins. In a sense a key problem with Jones’s book is its title: to describe the ruling class as the Establishment can be useful shorthand but it also lends itself to a shallow account of the problems with our society. Unfortunately, this is the case with The Establishment: Jones provides very useful ammunition for left-wing activists aiming to criticise the hypocrisy of those at the top of society, but we need to look elsewhere for a strategy adequate to the task of getting rid of the system they preside over – Jones might not like it, but Lenin’s break with reformism remains as pertinent today as it was in 1914.

4 October 2014

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