Malcolm Hebron's Reviews > The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

The Establishment by Owen   Jones
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In the last week in the UK, we have learned that the Speaker of the House of Commons has taken trips from one part of London to another costing hundreds of pounds, peers have claimed £300 a day just for toddling to the House of Lords (no one seems to check whether they actually do anything once there) while Labour Lord Sewel has been filmed allegedly partying with two prostitutes and cocaine. All this has been paid for by the taxpayer, instructed by these admirable legislators to suck up whatever the consequences of 40% cuts in public spending may be. It seems a good time to read Owen Jones's polemic on the distribution and exercise of power in modern Britain.

Strong points. A clear account of the movement of the ideas of Hayek, Friedman & co. from the margins to the centre (he clearly admires the clever manoeuvring of their proselytes in institutes and the media, the jungle in which our author moves). There's an energising angry conviction, powering us through the facts and figures. The Establishment makes a powerful case that the state has ceased operating for the public good and acts as a conduit for the delivery of profits to tax-dodging corporations, oligarchs, financiers (a particularly good chapter on the City)and under-the-radar private operators of various kinds. The sight of George Osborne in a hard hat faking glottal stops, or IDS punching the air in triumph as budget cuts to welfare are announced, fills out the Jones picture of cronyism nicely, to my mind. The statement that modern capitalist societies are owned by the very rich and run for their own benefit seems a truism. Saying it's stale or doesn't matter misses the point. The chapter on Europe is nicely uncertain: is the EU the last protector of social justice and human rights, or neo-lib left-bashing democracy-hating capitalism in its grimmest greyest form? Both Left and Right have had ambiguous attitudes to it, depending on which of these things they like or loathe.

Weak points. Not much new material here. I seem to remember reading a similar analysis, in cooler tones, in Anthony Sampson, Who Runs This Place? The chapter on the police belongs in a different book: it's about political manipulation and corruption, and hooks on very loosely to the argument based on the new economics. Hayek and Friedman are not to blame, even circuitously, for Hillsborough and Ian Tomlinson. There is a bit of a golden haze around anything pre-1979, and the writing style with its descriptive touches sometimes grates. I don't really care that Geoffrey Robertson's legal offices are in a Georgian building in a nice bit of London, or that the mother of an extradited young man serves Indian delicacies. Michael Lewis does the human story much better. And the title is wrong. The Establishment suggests a much more restricted group, bowler-hatted toffs in an Ealing comedy, while the powerful as described in this book are really brought together by a desentising system which encourages greed over compassion. There are tangled nets of mutual back-scratching and shared holidays, but it doesn't make for the conspiratorial group the title implies (an idea the author himself disowns near the end).It's surprising there isn't a chapter on education. One would think Jones would have something to say about private education and the unearned advantages that come with it. Oddly, given the writer's background, the research is based largely in London.

I looked over some reviews and came away with a poor impression. This should be a straightforward book to analyse. Jones writes clear, classical arguments. That is to say, he makes points and adduces evidence to support them. So a critique would clearly need to question whether the evidence really supports the point, provide counter-evidence supporting different points, and look for logical inconsistencies in the arguments presented. I'm sure the book is open to this kind of scrutiny for the misleading or tendentious('Britain's efforts to wrest the Falklands from Argentina in 1982' seems to be missing a word, for example). But the reviewers paid by the right-wing press simply cannot be bothered to do this amount of work. So criticism is generally on the level of 'Oh, but he writes for the Guardian so he's establishment too' and even sneers at the blurb from Russell Brand, which seems fairly desperate to me. Jones has been reviled for doing reasonable things like attacking (in argument) those he doesn't like and selecting evidence which strengthens his thesis. Shocking! The Establishment serves as a neat compilation of evidence on various topics. Its prescription for change in the last chapter is not altogether convincing, but a critique of the current state of things doesn't necessarily have to be justified by a detailed manifesto for the future. Is Jones a romantic socialist? Odd that those two words have a bad flavour to them. And it seems that Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn might represent a new phase of thinking rather than the rose-tinted nostalgia their opponents anxiously claim. James Meek, Private Island, would be a good follow-up to this committed and pugnacious book.
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July 30, 2015 – Shelved

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