Adam Higgitt's Reviews > The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

The Establishment by Owen   Jones
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did not like it

To appreciate this book, you have to understand what Owen Jones means by "the establishment". It turns out he means anyone who disagrees with his politics or has been instrumental in some way in frustrating the success of those politics over the past 30 years. The police, America, New Labour and virtually anyone with money are all included in this somewhat expansive definition.

After a few chapters, it becomes clear that the real purpose of the book isn't to identify and expose our controlling elite. Rather, it is to offer an explanation as to why his alternative politics has existed only on the margins of popular debate for the last four decades. Just as the Marxists of yesteryear turned themselves inside out with the theory of "false consciousness" so, we are told, the establishment has succeeded by making its own perverted ideas the orthodoxy and by bullying all others out of viability. It's not, we are told, that the people don't want a radical left-wing agenda, but rather that the institutions and instruments necessary to give voice and effect to such an agenda are all under the grip of its enemies.

That isn't to say there is no merit at all in such a case. In looking at the hysterical media and business response to Ed Miliband's modest and moderate attempts to critique Laissez-faire capitalism, it is clear that there is often a stiflingly homogenous view of how British society and the economy ought to be organised. But it's also an incredibly convenient excuse for why the sort of social and economic policies Owen Jones wants to see enjoy precious little public support despite what nearly everyone agrees has been the manifest failings of the existing orthodoxy. If this book really has a goal, it is to vent frustration at this this fact.

That could be an powerful polemic. Or it could be an honest confessional tract. Sadly, it's neither. In the first instance. it is sloppy and slap dash (hilariously, he complains at one point that a 1300-page contract outsourcing part of the NHS is so long as to defy scrutiny. Presumably he means "too long for me to read while researching this book"). He attempts to use polling evidence to show a public yearning for greater public ownership and so on, while ignoring all the contrary and contradictory such findings. And if you come to this book looking for anything approaching a clear-eyed reflection about the left's failings to make and win its case, you are going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, there is not so much a hint that entities such as the trade unions (in their own way as much a part of the establishment as anything else he identifies) have been other than the victims of a vicious and self-serving plutocracy.

And when Jones does grab hold of a decent argument he mostly manages to undermine it by excess. He rightly picks up on Barack Obama's presidential election assertion that behind every successful private business stands an array of public services. But he illustrates this point in stupid ways, such as claiming that the iPhone is really an innovation of the state. And he goes on and on about this, as if it is his insight.

And because he has chosen to identify anyone who stands against his ideology as the establishment and anyone who stands with him as being outside it, he gets into to all sorts of trouble. So UKIP, because he defines them as right wing as part of the establishment, while the EU - because he perceives that it espouses good social democratic principles - isn't. The section on the EU is actually the most embarrassing of all to read, as Jones twists first this way then that. He knows - and indeed notes - that the Commission in particular lacks democratic legitimacy. Yet he also sees that it is the enemy of the vast, hegemonic right-wing conspiracy now in control of our country and is therefore a realpolitik ally.

By far the best section of the book is his conclusion, where he has a stab at outlining the alternative vision and how it could work. But it only underlines to remind you that this isn't an expose of the establishment and its many vices, but one almighty moan that the politics other than his own hold sway. This is book is not therefore just a missed opportunity to lay bare the established order and the crisis of legitimacy it has engendered. If it was, we could all safely ignore it. Instead, the danger is that that such an ineptly argued case actually provides his enemies further ammunition and thus buttresses them. The trouble with this book is not just that it's bad, but that it is sucking the oxygen away from those who might be able to make a more cogent case that we need to change both those in charge and their ideology.
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Reading Progress

January 29, 2015 – Started Reading
January 29, 2015 – Shelved
February 4, 2015 – Finished Reading

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