Owen Jones and the Class Struggle


Matt Cooper

According to Owen Jones Britain is dominated by an unitary elite — the Establishment. This is defined not so much by its wealth and power but by its ideology and mentality.

Acting as a united group, it promotes its interests and undermines popular democracy. Superficially this is an arresting thesis. It is, however, full of inconsistencies and gaps.

Jones does have some class-struggle politics. For instance he argues the post-1945 welfare state and Keynesian economic policy was the result of the growing working-class power. He sees the victory of neo-liberalism under the Thatcher governments as a corollary of the defeat of the working class, especially of the miners in 1985.

However Jones makes little attempt to relate the Marxist ideas of class to his narrative. That is, he does not dwell on the fundamental conflict between the ruling class which owns and controls the economy and the working class who through their labour create the wealth. He does not dismiss such ideas as wrong, just ignores this key idea of the socialist tradition.

Is this because Jones thinks it would put off a new layer of younger activists, or is it because he finds it irrelevant? That is not clear.

Jones focuses on ideas and ideological conflicts. The old Establishment that dominated Britain after 1945 was defined by a mix of Tory paternalism and social democracy. The crisis of the 1970s was an opportunity for neo-liberal ideologues to transform the Establishment into one devoted to the dictats of the free-market, a rejection of the state as a protector of the citizenry (although it continued to promote the Establishment’s interests), media scapegoating of the poor, and foreign policy defined by Atlanticism, the special relationship with the USA.

The new Establishment was forged in the early years of the Thatcher governments. It consists of the financial institutions of the City of London, the political elite in Westminster and Whitehall and the owners and controllers of the media. There is a revolving door of personnel between these institutions. The police as a whole (not just its senior officers) are also part of this Establishment, but in recent years have been sidelined by the drive to privatise and cut its state functions.

Although Jones admits the ruling bloc potentially has competing interests, overall the Establishment is presented as a monolith. A more subtle understanding of the British state and society would have looked at the competing sectors of capital and their relationship to other important powerful groups. But for Jones the Establishment appears as a single-minded conspiracy with no room for internal conflict.

For instance the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal is used to show the self-serving mentality of the new Establishment. But this example actually undermines the idea it is self-serving unity. Jones ignores how the Commons’ repeated attempts to stop the release of the information on expenses was undermined by the Lords, the Information Commission and the High Court. Eventually, a full list of MPs’ claims was leaked to (that organ of popular justice) The Daily Telegraph, which remorselessly ran with the story. And the Metropolitan Police refused to investigate the leak because, they argued, a prosecution would not be in the public interest. All of these institutions support the existing free-market order, but have their own institutional position and interests within that order. Jones’ overarching concept of The Establishment adds nothing to our understanding of how these institutions work.

Another example. Jones describes how BBC Radio 4 Today Programme journalist Andrew Gilligan exposed some of Blair’s shoddy propaganda over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2003. For Jones Gilligan was acting against the Establishment. But if the Establishment exists Gilligan and his associates (The Telegraph, Boris Johnson, The London Evening Standard) are part of it! It is true, parts of the state and media turned on Gilligan and the BBC, but the story is best understood as division and competition within sections of the state and media.

Not all capitalist institutional actions are reducible to the “ interests of capitalism” . There is a long and important Marxist theoretical tradition in understanding how capitalism works and how its interests are articulated via the state, the media and other institutions. All of that is entirely ignored in this book.

This lack of theoretical ballast is clear in the book’s conclusion, where Jones outlines his political programme.

Jones calls for a “ democratic revolution” against the Establishment. But this gradiose idea turns out to be a series of limited reforms for a nicer capitalism, including putting MPs on the average wage, renationalisation of the power companies with compensation for their owners, keeping the bailed-out banks in state hands with a remit to lend to manufacturing industry and small business and more redistributive taxation policy.

Some of that is okay or okayish. And the agencies of the “ democratic revolution” are two small campaigning groups (UK Uncut and the New Economics Foundation) and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Could such an incremental programme, pushed forward by well-meaning, small and medium-sized, activist groups really shift the balance in British politics to the left?

Jones tells us nothing, indeed deliberately does not try to tell us anything, about how to reverse the defeats the working-class has suffered since the 1970s.