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Owen Jones’ The Establishment is a valuable dissection of the networks of power and ideology, but the concept of the ruling class adds a needed dimension, argues Sean Ledwith

Owen Jones, The Establishment: And how they get away with it (Allen Lane 2014), 368pp.

The British establishment likes to keep its nefarious activities below the radar but it has been forced out into the open a few times recently. In September of this year, an unholy alliance of the three major Westminster parties, the BBC, Fleet Street and big business conspired to scare the Scots off the prospect of independence. The following month, Home Secretary Theresa May was forced to ditch Fiona Woolf as the chair of a public inquiry into state collusion with child abuse, when it was revealed that the latter was a frequent dining guest at the home of one of the ministers under suspicion. Woolf, of course, was supposed to be the stand-in for Elizabeth Butler-Sloss who was forced to step down earlier, as the families affected refused to accept someone related to another of the suspected perpetrators!

Going back a few years, we witnessed the grisly spectacle of the establishment being dragged out of the shadows by the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. Six years before that, the British ruling elite had been ingloriously revealed in its calamitous collusion with its American equivalent in the invasion of Iraq. Owen Jones’ highly readable new study, The Establishment, sets out to trace the insidious development of this clique since World War Two, and how its arrogance and  pernicious influence have been critical factors in the cultivation of the neoliberal project currently wrecking the fabric of British society.

As an active supporter of the People’s Assembly, Jones does not write simply out of academic curiosity but primarily to help construct a political alternative to the establishment that can build towards overthrowing its reactionary agenda. He sustains a committed narrative throughout the book, based on a compelling vision of a reconstructed socialist movement in the UK:

‘Britain would be a country both run by and run in the interests of those who keep it ticking, rather than run as a get-rich and keep-rich scheme for the wealthiest. It would mean a society organised on the basis of social need rather than short-term private profit’ (pp.302-3)

Outriders of neoliberalism

Jones begins his dissection of the elite by analysing the role of those he describes as its ‘Outriders’ (p.17), in other words, right-wing pressure groups and think tanks, which appeared to be on the wrong side of history after 1945, but then re-grouped and revived as the Western capitalist economies began to run out of momentum at the end of the 1960s.

He recounts a pivotal meeting of conservative ideologues such as Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek at Mont Pelerin in Switzerland in 1947. They initiated an academic society named after that location that would plot the resurgence of capitalist ideology, which appeared to have been subsumed by the popularity of social-democratic and communist parties in Western Europe. Jones identifies the character of these intellectual outriders who would pave the way for Reaganism and Thatcherism decades later:

‘Hayek and his adherents were reactionaries in the truest sense of the word. They aimed to turn the clock back to a supposed golden age that had been swept away by the trauma of economic depression in the 1930s … They were unabashed in describing themselves as old fashioned liberals’ (p.20).

Groups such as this were forced to watch from the political sidelines for the first few decades of the post-war boom as the social-democratic consensus appeared to have permanently shifted the Western world onto a gentle but distinct leftward trajectory. Post-Thatcher generations probably find it difficult to believe, but this was an era when what would now be regarded as unthinkable was the norm: ‘The top rate of income tax for earned income stood at 75%. Key industries and utilities were publicly owned … this consensus produced a staggering increase in living standards and the greatest, most stable economic growth this country has ever seen’ (p.23). Jones underlines that this perspective was not only espoused by Labour but also accepted by the Conservative Party in the 50s and 60s. Beneath the surface of official politics, however, the Mont Pelerin Society and like-minded members of the reactionary vanguard were burrowing away in academia, preparing to emerge onto the political stage when capitalist crisis gave them the opportunity.

Jones recounts how the Heath government of the early 70s tentatively dipped its toe into this embryonic neoliberalism when its ‘Selsdon Man’ project recommended a wave of tax cuts and denationalisation (p.24). The trade-union movement in the UK was still sufficiently powerful to warn Heath off this plan relatively easily but the right-wing think tanks were starting to tool up in anticipation of a more favourable political climate. The Institute of Economic Affairs flew the kite in the 60s for policies such as abolishing capital controls and privatisation. At the time, they were derided by mainstream economists as cranks, but the IEA had caught the attention of a rising generation of Conservative politicians who would eventually topple Heath from the leadership of the party.

From outriders to insiders

Jones quotes Mark Littlewood, current boss of the IEA: ‘When Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party and then Prime Minister, that was a shift where the IEA had provided the intellectual groundwork to make that possible and to equip Margaret Thatcher intellectually in her first term in office’ (p.35). Before taking over the IEA, Littlewood made his nameas a prominent spokesman for the Taxpayers Alliance, another insidious organisation that masks its neoliberal agenda beneath a veneer of objectivity. Predictably, Littlewood is an over-familiar presence on BBC political programmes such as Question Time and Newsnight, spouting right-wing dogma under the guise of a concern to ‘avoid public-sector waste’ (p.37). Jones also mentions the role of the Centre for Policy Studies, which published a noxious neoliberal tract, Britannia Unchained, in 2010, that included ravings such as the allegation that British workers are ‘among the worst idlers in the world’ (p.42).If the reader is inclined to dismissthis asthe work of the lunatic fringe, Jones soberly reminds us that oneof the authors is Cameron’s education minister, Liz Truss.

Jones links all these outrider organisations under the umbrella concept of the Overton Window (p.44). This was a term coined by conservative ideologues in the US in tribute to one of their own who had written about the importance of a gradual but significant orientation of public discourse away from the social-democratic consensus and onto the terrain of neoliberalism. Jones comments: ‘What the corporate-backed outriders have achieved is this. They have helped shift the goalposts of debate in Britain, making ideas that were once ludicrous, absurd and wacky, become the new common sense’ (p.44). Workers in the public sector are consequently harassed by managers, using terms such as ‘value-added’, ‘benchmarking’ and ‘utilisation’ that would have left theirpredecessors nonplussed. This is one of the most valuable sections of Jones’ book, as it underlines how the current difficulty of union organisation in the workplace was not a wholly inevitable process but was actively plotted by the outriders of neoliberalism.

However, it should also be noted that Jones tends to overplay the role of these pernicious pressure groups as agents of the rolling-back of the social-democratic consensus. Although they undoubtedly blazed a trail for reactionary politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher, an understanding of the structural crises of capitalism caused by the falling rate of profit in the 60s and excessive financialisation in the 80s is ultimately more important in terms of explaining the crumbling of the left-of-centre consensus and its replacement by a more rapacious model of economic development. Jones is reluctant to commit to a more explicitly Marxist framework but without it, he is left to fall back on a portrayal of Hayek and others as dastardly super-villains, ingeniously pulling the strings of their political puppets.

Hollowing out the Labour Party

He is more successful in his account of how this corporate intellectual hegemony moled away inside the Labour Party, emerging in the 90s via the inane grin of Tony Blair. Jones recounts how the party is virtually unrecognisable now from that led by Keir Hardie, who famously turned up to Parliament in 1892 as the party’s first ever MP in his trademark cap, only to be stopped by the police who ‘asked him whether he was there to work on the roof’ (p.57)! The key figure in this transformation of the Party from a vehicle of social-democratic reforms to neoliberalism’s second eleven is, of course, Blair.

Jones outlines how the central strategy of the Blair project from the moment he became party leader in 1994 was ‘a conscious attempt to portray the party as pro-business’ (p.58). The author highlights how many of the apparent achievements of the Blair years came with neoliberal caveats. There was an increase in public expenditure in key areas such as health and education, but this came with the Trojan horse of private-sector infiltration that would steadily corrode pay and conditions on the margins (p.58). The minimum wage would be introduced, but Jones explains that Blair was a grudging supporter of the policy and felt obliged to pursue it only because his predecessor, John Smith had publicly committed the party to it (p.59). The media’s obsession with the so-called Blair-Brown feud only served to mask the reality that both men had bought in, hook line and sinker, to the neoliberal hype. Jones notes that it was the latter ‘who had slashed corporation tax, opened up public services to the private sector and had been chiefly responsible for the government’s fatal embrace of the City’ (p.60).

The insidious right-wing think tanks that had paved the way for the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s had not just spread their tentacles into the Conservative Party but also into its chief Westminster rival. In another illuminating section, Jones traces the career path of Patricia Hewitt, one of Blair’s Health Secretaries. In the early 80s she had been a prominent member of the Bennite left, so much so that MI5 put her under surveillance as a suspected Communist. Once it became clear, however, that the Bennite high tide had receded, she began to roll-back her radical credentials and in 1983 sent letters of support to both rival candidates for the leadership! The rise of Blair gave her the ideal opportunity to detach herself completely from any leftover leftism. As his Health Secretary, she authorised the first PFI schemes that would eventually leave the NHS drowning in debt to private sector construction firms.

Mounting concern from the party rank and file forced her to step down in 2007, at which point, as Jones puts it, ‘she could finally cash in’ on the cosy relationship she had cultivated with private-health vampires such as BUPA and Alliance Boots (p.73). The latter hired her as a special adviser on £300 an hour. That was obviously not enough to fill Hewitt’s trough, so she went to work for the former for £500 an hour. Jones continues that Hewitt was far from alone in the moral vacuum at the heart of the New Labour. In 2010, undercover television journalists secretly filmed Hewitt, along with her ministerial partners in crime, Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers, lobbying for cash from pressure groups eager to acquire access to the epicentre of the establishment. Byers hilariously described himself as a ‘sort of cab for hire’, casually suggesting a fee between £3000 and £5000 would guarantee that appropriate levers would be pulled (p.73).

The establishment and the ruling class

This section on ‘The Westminster Cartel’, as Jones describes it, also makes for informative and entertaining reading (p.46). The reader cannot help wondering, however, about how Jones retains his faith in the ability of the Labour Party to mount any significant challenge to the establishment, when he has so superbly analysed how the party has long since sold its soul to the prevailing institutions of power. He justifiably discusses how, last year, Ed Miliband crossed swords with two pillars of the establishment – the Big Six energy companies and the Daily Mail – and appeared to have been energised by the experience. But since then, Miliband’s failure to learn the lesson that an explicit anti-austerity message is the route to power, has seen him slip back in the polls.

Jones’ other component of an anti-establishment movement is also unconvincing. He calls for a left equivalent of the Overton Window that would play the same role for our side as the IEA and the Taxpayers Alliance did for the right in a previous era (p.294). This is appropriate in so far as it is a version of the truism that the left must popularise its message more effectively, but the idea overlooks the hard reality that right-wing outriders had numerous allies in the machinery of the capitalist state that the left can never match.

The limitations of the proposal also reflect a conceptual weakness in Jones’ understanding of the ‘establishment’. He is undoubtedly right that there is a parasitical layer at the summit of British society which perceives itself to be superior to basically everyone else. They have a discernible set of ideological values and social networks that they manipulate to perpetuate their status. But it is more important to see this clique as a definable ruling class that is integrated into the capitalist relations of production, and which owes its elevated rank to the role it plays in maintaining that system.

The concept of the establishment is a good one for mobilising popular anger against an increasingly remote elite. There is a danger, however, that if we focus excessively on the venal personalities and attitudes of those who make up this layer, the strategy becomes one of replacing ‘their’ people with ‘our’ people. Jones has done a great job of exposing the corruption and hypocrisy at the dark heart of modern Britain. However to  challenge it fully we need to confront not just the symptoms of the decay of the British regime but also its causes, and that means assimilating Jones’ political critique to a Marxist economic critique.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters