Owen Jones, The Establishment and why he might have a point

Since the publication of Chavs in 2011, Owen Jones, now a columnist for The Guardian and an internationally bestselling author, has been on the rise. Placed 7th in The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Top 100 most influential left-wingers’ list last year, the paper suggested, “He gets more media than the whole Labour front bench put together” — having witnessed Jones in action, it’s not difficult to see why. He “may have the face of a baby and the voice of George Formby,” in the words of comedian-cum-activist Russell Brand, but he is intensely charismatic — energetic, sharp and good humoured. It’s no wonder the cameras love him.

So yes, I might have a small crush on Jones — did the sycophantic introduction give it away? But readers will have to trust that my reverence doesn’t stretch to the extent that my assessment of his second book, The Establishment: And how they get away with it, is unduly biased in his favour. 

The core message of The Establishment is simple: an unaccountable, unchallenged wealthy elite, united in a shared neoliberal ideology, lies at the heart of British democracy. Members of this elite include media moguls, Westminster politicians, City financiers and senior members the police. This elite acts to undermine or ‘manage’ democracy in a bid to further their own private interests at public expense. What we need, Jones concludes, is a “democratic revolution” to shift the ‘Overton Window’ — the boundaries of acceptable political debate — to a place where demands for a society run in the interest of the majority are in the mainstream.

The reaction to Jones in the press has been unsurprising, given that many journalists themselves were branded in the book as card-carrying members of this “shadowy and labyrinthine” network. Paul Staines at The Spectator was unimpressed with his “partisan history”, Phillip Hensher from The Independent claims that the “author has little innate understanding of human nature”, while freelance journalist Christopher Snowdon, writing for the IEA’s blog, insists that Jones’ “definition of the Establishment is so broad as to be meaningless.” All in all, pretty damning stuff.

However, what is lacking in these public responses is any real engagement with the core issues Jones raises. Hensher, for instance, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, “People know each other! They hang out with each other!” is how he describes the system of social networks that connect the various strands of the Establishment, arguing that there “is no more a sinister Establishment among politicians and money men than there is among DJs on the club scene”. Except that it is so much more sinister. Sure, MPs can have friends, but it’s fair to raise an eyebrow when the Prime Minister is having Christmas dinner with the man who owns an international media empire. The Press exist to hold the government to account; when the media and the government are in cahoots it is quite clear that there is little hope of that accountability. 

Snowdon, too, is wide of the mark with his criticism of Jones’ chapter on the police. Believing that Jones has attempted to link “the Hillsborough cover up”, “the first Stephen Lawrence prosecution” and “the death of Ian Tomlinson” all to a devotion to “Hayekian economics” in politics, Snowdon misses the clearly stated and more simple argument, that the police “enforce a form of law that cracks down on the misdemeanors of the poor but which, as a general rule, defends the powerful”. The use of Public Order Acts and undercover officers to crack down on anti-establishment protestors (anyone remember ‘‘Occupy’?) are a testament to this fact. The cases of Hillsborough, Lawrence and Tomlinson are reflections of an attitude of contempt toward those at the bottom of the social ladder — attitudes demonstrative of the Establishment.

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Though clearly not an exhaustive defense of Jones, the cases above do demonstrate how liable Jones is to misinterpretation. The reason for being commonly misunderstood, I think, is simple — too few people take Jones seriously; commentators are lazy about critiquing his work. They see a fiery left-wing polemicist and so hear fiery left-wing polemics regardless of what is really being said – that Hensher claims Jones’ views are “absolutely predictable” is especially telling, indicative of prejudicial treatment.

Oxford, springboard for the establishment, especially needs to avoid this pitfall if it is to produce a generation less fixated on personal gain and more with public interest. Those with political, financial or journalistic ambitions (PPEists take note) should not write off Jones as some left-wing loon, and the Establishment as some illusory nightmare he’s concocted to sell his books. They must engage with his assessment of this nebulous network if they are to avoid becoming part of it. Jones was himself an Oxford undergraduate once upon a time — so who knows, maybe there is hope for us all.