Reviewing Owen Jones' new book, The Establishment, Carl Packman finds that what changes the British Establishment of today is merely the means with which they contain dissent
Reviewing Owen Jones’ new book, The Establishment, Carl Packman finds that what distinguishes the British Establishment of today is the means with which they contain dissent
I can’t remember now under what circumstances, but I found out about a year and a half ago that Owen Jones was going to be taking on the Establishment in his next book. I remember thinking to myself that this didn’t make it any clearer as to what this would actually entail.
Indeed Chavs, Jones’ first book, ran this risk as well. What is a Chav? Who is a Chav? It has a contested meaning and very few people would willingly identify with it. But the Establishment, on the other hand, you might assume that would be easy to work out; those who belong to the Establishment ought to be easy to identify.
As Jones points out this is hardly the case, which speaks all the more to their crafty ways. When I thought about it, as I did also when reading Jeremy Paxman’s 1991 book Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain, and Robert Peston’s similarly titled volume, I assumed the Establishment was a kind of old boys club, posh, landowning. But perhaps I was wrong. Don’t these guys enjoy less power now? Not because of some leftist coup that overthrew it, but because of the function neoliberalism plays which is a little hostile to “old moneyed” guys with outdated methods for making money / gaining power.
After all, if all your friends went to the same posh school, dine at the same posh restaurants, and played golf on the same posh courses, how was capitalism ever going to be innovative enough to make money now that the Empire is dead? Thatcher realised this.
Simply defined, the Establishment is still a powerful network, of course, but maybe neoliberalism poses its own challenge to moribund forms of power. After all neoliberalism follows the money, whereas the Establishment that I was thinking of just helped out their mates to get rich. Where neoliberalism has to some degree put up the pretence of pluralism, and the free-market individualist lie that ‘anybody can make it’, or the philosophy of “Because I’m worth it”, as Jones explores, the old Establishment didn’t think some people were worth it – they thought they were worthless and treated them as such.
Interesting to think, neoliberalism is a practice contrary to what is conjoured up when we might think of the Establishment, or at least what I thought. In modern Britain where neoliberal socio-economics is forced to co-exist with stale old forms of political hierarchies, we have a system that contains unnaccountable power networks with the peculiar fallacy that anyone can enter into them. Something has changed, the Overton Window has shifted as it were, but we are left with a system in place that is no more appealing.
Other reviews of this book will almost certainly focus on one accusation: that Jones, a lefty, simply sees what he wants to in the Establishment: the bogeymen and women who work on behalf of capital and the right wing elite. Indeed already, watching Channel 4 news recently, I saw one commentator level this accusation addressing Jones by saying something along the lines of: “your critique is very telling, you simply see in this power network the people you don’t like”.
Another feature we can come to expect is one I will very quickly tire of, as I’m sure Jones himself will: “is Owen Jones surely not himself part of the Establishment he so readily distrusts and dislikes?”
Writing in the Times on Saturday, after passing comment on Jones’ family history and his sexuality (relevant?), Daniel Johnson asks whether Jones is any “less of an establishment figure than the centre-right “outriders” he pillories in this book?”
This sits within a problem that Jones deals with already in the book. He says early on ‘Some will claim that I am, myself, a member of the Establishment.’ This is also a key feature of the British Establishment today, and one which I think is the crucial mistake of the Right about “leftist sentiment” within so-called Establishment thinking.
It stems from the following: as Jones points out journalists such as Peter Hitchens or Melanie Phillips feel themselves as outside of the Establishment, as does often the publications they write for, but this is because they feel the Establishment now represents the cultural left. Political correctness, anti-Judeo-Christian values, WOMEN(!!), these are a collection of hippy fantasies made flesh, and they represent the mainstream, right?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But lets not confuse this as leftism within the Establishment. This is pure managerialism. There’s a pink pound, money to be made from ethnicity, multiculturalism itself can be a money spinner, women leadership is a good thing, more colour in the boardroom etc etc. While these might be looked upon as sops to egalitarianism, so close to the heart of us leftists, they principally fall within the logic of neoliberalism: they follow the money! And the people making this money are also the very chaps who sit in the power networks of the Establishment today.
The people have changed, but the ideology of the Establishment remains: unaccountable power ensues.
People will, and already have, criticised Jones for writing a book they think speaks to the status quo rather than the Establishment proper. But I disagree with them. Instead I found that the way the Establishment ‘gets away with it’, is by learning the lessons of neoliberalism and managing to contain dissent, rather than being nonchalant or inattentive to it as the Establishment of days gone by were.
You may think Owen Jones is a self-hating Establishment media figure. But it is actually a testament to the power of the Establishment that it doesn’t need to shut down his dissenting views, or feel particularly threatened by his books. I guarantee Establishment figures will read and enjoy this book. I, too, guanrantee that Establishment publications will find people to heap praise on this book.
Their power extends further, far further, than just being a battle of ideas: theirs is the power, networks, and influence (are Oxford commas Establishment commas?) to ensure that when dissent is heard nothing actually rocks their boat.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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