The Savonarola of Suburbia

Owen Jones, Labour Party Conference 2016

The Savonarola of Suburbia

Henry Hopwood-Phillips debunks new leftism

Owen Jones, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, Allen Lane, London, 2014, pp 368, £16.99

If you’ve heard of him its possible that is you’ve been blocked by him on twitter. Famous for his intolerance of ‘trolling’ (a Stalinist term for criticism) and looking at thirty like a sandblasted baby, in The Establishment, he offers his thoughts on those who rule us. His definition of the puppet-masters is non-existent, however. Indeed, it’s not who they are that is fixed, it’s a reciprocal system: people buy into it so that it buys into them.

The first warning signals go off when Jones notes that anybody to the right of Lenin that challenges the system (so everybody then) are not radicals at all but agents of the establishment, basically feeding and reinforcing false-consciousness (blaming immigrants etc.), a convenient concept historically used by Marxists to deny the real working people, as opposed to the abstract liberator class, any respect whatsoever. And one that Jones must apply to the British people as a whole if he is not to deny research later included in the book, which demonstrates that the British electorate is, for the most part, more socially conservative and economically interventionist than its light-touch socially liberal elite.

As the argument develops, it becomes clear that Jones, despite his quibbles about democracy, identifies far more with the latter than the former. He plays the outcast well but his protestations, like many an emperor assuming the purple, ring hollow. One only has to read the list of names in the acknowledgements (David Blanchflower, Mehdi Hasan, Eric Hobsbawm and Geoffrey Robertson just to give a few) to realise this is not a man who has to worry about ‘earning a crust’. If Jones is not a major component of the establishment, he is certainly a part of it in much the same way Her Majesty’s Opposition is a part of the governance of the realm.

The reality is of course that Jones knows that whistle-blowing within the circus of power is a monetisable role, and one that is, more importantly, not incompatible with being a member – in fact it gives him a patina of rebelliousness – a shroud the establishment loves to cover itself in, like a dog dressed in fox poo, to cover its real scent.

The real question that haunts The Establishment is whether the author actually knows he is producing agitprop or not. Jones went to Oxford and yet he has set up an intellectual playing field so tilted that a mountain goat would dismiss it as impassable. And it’s not as if the tricks employed are either new or clever. Instead, Jones’ criticisms of capitalism display the simplistic and monolithic tendencies he would doubtless abhor anywhere else. One of his favourite techniques is to characterise pro-capitalists as idiots with interests and no principles but then, when it suits him to admit to their ideals, to cast them as ‘true believers, zealots even.’ Likewise, his definition of reactionary hinges on ‘the aim to turn the clock back’ – a risky line of attack for a Marxist. He insists on calling libertarian think tanks ‘outriders’ with a view to making them sound like prejudiced cowboy salesmen. And he knows the BBC is a right-wing mouthpiece because people like Chris Patten work there (which is a little like arguing Peter Mandelson’s company, Global Counsel, must be a communist cell because it has him in it).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the section Jones devotes to the Madsen Pirie mission and how free markets offered answers at a time that the postwar economic consensus had stalled. It is a shame that, again, the language used makes the movement sound like an evil counter-reformation to Jones’ utopia. It is clearly to Jones and his ilk what the Frankfurt School theory is to the right: an expedient explanation as to how the heretics got into the citadel.

There are many valid questions that could have been asked from Jones’ starting-points. He had the opportunity to shine his torch down some of the darkest folds of the Western mind. He could have, for instance, investigated whether capitalism in its advanced stages is compatible with democracy or on a less abstract level, looked into the psychology of the elites. Instead, however, we get a jumble of chapters, with not enough distance or analysis to be considered history but too much of both to be reckoned journalism. Each topic, from policing to media, feels like a hook on which to hang a range of grievances on that lazily imply conspiracy.

The result is a rather sulky, immature text that sags with references to the ‘Murdoch-owned The Times’ – a formulation he repeats throughout like a toddler in love with his own revelation. Any sense of outrage that I felt could have been kindled (as a writer I have many reasons to dislike capitalism, not least my bank balance) is repeatedly dulled by a grasp of the facts that leaves one mistrustful. Readers will be stunned to hear for instance that ‘ideologically conservatives have no doubts about capitalism.’ Red Tories, Ruskinites, Chesterton types, fascists and Roger Scruton would beg to differ.

The real tragedy is that Jones does have a justifiable target. Both the elite and the society it brings about often lack a democratic mandate but this is a phenomenon better covered in Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class (2008). Capitalism, too, in the West at least, has become distorted to the point that it barely serves its own narrow ends but again this is a problem better addressed by Daniel Pinto in Capital Wars (2014).

In going for the bigger picture, Jones has fallen between many stools. But worse than this, his glaring omission of the left’s marriage of convenience with capitalism in breaking western society’s norms makes for a lopsided read. Although capitalism and leftism are correctly perceived as historically opposed, both share an interest in eroding Western values. The former because institutions such as child rearing wives, education systems geared to antiquated subjects etc. bore opportunity costs; the latter because it believed that these institutions were oppressive and patriarchal. The result has been that the establishment consensus on truth lies where Foucault (indebted to Nietzsche) left it – essentially as a mere justification of power. For the author to have overlooked this, the most important element in the ideology of the new establishment, is unconscionable.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips works in publishing


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