The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

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Regular readers of Owen Jones’s various newspaper and magazine articles will be aware that there are, in fact, two Owen Joneses. The radical Jones and the responsible Jones. One week the radical Jones can write of his appreciation of the film Pride, making clear his support for the miners in 1984-85 and endorsing the view that “real change always comes from the bottom up”.

Another week the responsible Jones can write praising the Institute for Public Policy Research’s “The Condition of Britain” report, arguing that what the movement really needs are more such reports. He acknowledges that “it is based on a premise of accepting austerity, which some, like myself, reject”.

This is hardly fighting talk. Even worse, he merely regrets that its reactionary proposal of “cutting benefits for young people”, is what Labour chose to spin. What the report actually proposes is a return to the household means test, one of the worst features of 1930s Britain, something which one can only hope radical Jones will fight against when the attempt is made to implement it.

Sometimes the two Joneses contribute to the same article. Back in March, after Bob Crow and Tony Benn died, he wrote a piece for the Guardian on the state of the left that starts off by quoting the Wobbly activist Joe Hill telling people not to waste time mourning but to organise.

By the end of the article he is quite seriously arguing that there are a surprising number of Labour MPs who want the next Labour government to be “transformative” and that the presence of people like this on Miliband’s front bench “gives heart to those wanting a Labour Party with an unmistakeable progressive bent”.

The radical Jones must be aware that Joe Hill would have had nothing but contempt for the Labour politicians whose praises the responsible Jones sings.

The two Joneses can only coexist while Labour is in opposition. Once Labour gets into power and launches its own attacks on the working class, its own version of austerity, a choice will have to be made between resistance and collaboration. Jones will have to take sides. His occasional diatribes against the revolutionary left are provoked because it stands as a reminder that the choice will eventually have to be made.

What does his new book, The Establishment, tell us about which way he will jump? The book displays many of his strengths as a journalist and commentator. The chapter on the Mediaocracy is particularly impressive, although he mysteriously exempts the LibDem-supporting Guardian newspaper from any criticism. Least impressive is his chapter on the police. Here he devotes more pages to the supposed “framing” of Tory minister Andrew Mitchell than he does to the Hillsborough disaster. Almost as disappointing is his chapter on “The Westminster Cartel”.

More generally, the book is full of useful material. But while his indictment of contemporary British society is certainly passionate, his prescriptions fail to measure up to the scale of the crisis he identifies. Jones gives the impression that it all began to go wrong with Thatcherism. The right won the battle of ideas and neoliberalism has dominated British politics ever since. What is needed is for the left to counterattack in the battle of ideas, presumably through the pages of the Guardian and think tanks like Class (“I serve on its advisory board”).

The class struggle has no place in his strategic thinking. Jones certainly supports strikes and grassroots struggles, unequivocally and wholeheartedly, but he doesn’t recognise that this is the decisive terrain where the battle of ideas is fought. In other respects as well the book has to be seen as a retreat. Why call it The Establishment rather than The Ruling Class? This is a political choice that derives from the strategy that Jones has embraced.

To have called the book The Ruling Class would have inevitably led to discussion of the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a classless society. Calling it The Establishment leads down a different road. And he makes this absolutely explicit when he calls for revolution, but not for socialist revolution.

Instead he calls for a “democratic revolution” that will “reclaim by peaceful means the democratic rights and power annexed by the Establishment”. What this seems to amount to is a return to welfare capitalism. Calling it a revolution is positively misleading, but the responsible Jones was presumably aware that with such an impressive account of the crisis being provided his readers would be unimpressed by what amounts to a dose of Labour reformism as the solution. So it is dressed up as something more radical. What the book does not do is prepare its readers for the attacks that any future Miliband government will inevitably make on the working class.

The radical and the responsible Joneses can coexist until then, but a choice will have to be made. The Establishment still leaves us wondering which Jones will be left standing.

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane.