Economic Theory

The Establishment by Owen Jones: A review

Owen Jones’ new book, The Establishment, promises to be more than your average left-wing polemic against austerity, banksters, globalisation and ConDems. The blurb promotes it as an exposé of the ‘shadowy and labyrinthine system that dominates our lives’ with our hero setting out ‘on a journey into the depths of the Establishment’. This is a excitable way of saying that a Guardian columnist shared a few coffees with politicians and City traders in central London. The Establishment he ‘exposes’ is no hidden cabal, rather it is – as Jones explains – made up of ‘politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy; police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful.’

Jones’ hypothesis – and the book’s unique selling point – is that all these factions are wedded to the ‘dogma’ of free-market economics, as promoted by the Establishment’s ‘outriders’ in think tanks, which they use to feather their nests while collaborating with each other to shield themselves from the electorate. It will be an attractive theory to many readers, but his claim that these players are united by a shared passion for neoliberalism, rather than being driven by often competing self-interests, is difficult to sustain. When the facts don’t fit the theory, Jones is forced to either take a flight of fancy or make his Establishment so inclusive that it involves almost everybody but himself.

For example, a perfectly good chapter about police corruption is marred by Jones’ attempt to link the skirmishes between the National Union of Miners and the police in the 1980s with the Hillsborough cover up, the shambles of the first Stephen Lawrence prosecution, the death of Ian Tomlinson, the phone hacking scandal and the Plebgate affair, along with the suspicious deaths of various black men in police custody. He ties this all together with the theory that Margaret Thatcher bought the loyalty of the police force with a pay rise in the early 1980s, leading to the boys in blue showing their appreciation by beating up miners during the strike. This, he argues, was the police’s first act as enforcers of the Establishment before going completely off the rails, hassling potheads when they should be hunting down bankers and tax-dodgers.

Jones’ examples of police brutality and corruption are certainly troubling, but they do not easily lend themselves to a unifying theory. He provides no evidence that the police were better behaved before Thatcher came to power, or are better behaved in other countries, and there is certainly no evidence that they have ever been interested in Hayekian economics which is, Jones claims, the ‘shared mentality of the modern Establishment’. For the bankers, media barons and politicians that make up the rest of the elite, motives are hard to find. A defeat for the miners may have been welcome in 1985, but it is hard to see what they had to gain from seeing the killers of Ian Tomlinson or Stephen Lawrence go free. In the case of the latter, as Jones fails to note, it was an Establishment voice – the Daily Mail – that pursued the perpetrators with the greatest zeal.

By the time Jones reaches the Plebgate affair, he is forced to grapple with the internal inconsistencies of his argument. When Andrew Mitchell, an establishment figure by any criteria, was stitched up by the police, the newspapers – and particularly The Sun – hounded him for weeks. Faced with the fact that two key elements of the Establishment had suddenly turned on one of their own, Jones concocts ad hoc justifications for the media and the enforcers jumping ship. He puts it down to The Sun being upset by the Leveson Inquiry while the Metropolitan Police were angry about £500 million of services being privatised. Neither explanation is convincing, and his claim that the Establishment felt able to dispense with the police in 2012 because it was ‘no longer facing any organised movements that posed any perceived threat its existence’ is risible. A simpler, more realistic interpretation is that newspapers want to sell copies, the police look after their own, and Mitchell was the victim of a personal or political vendetta. If political, the Plebgate cover up suggests an anti-Tory (and therefore, in Jones’ terms, anti-Establishment) bias in the Met.

The chapter on the police force is a microcosm of the book as a whole. Just as its examples of corruption and violence have nothing in common except that they involved the police, so the rest of the book describes various events which have nothing in common except that they involved people of whom Jones disapproves and who have money or power. He spends half a chapter treading the well worn ground of the Iraq war without adequately explaining its relationship to the bailing out of the banks, phone hacking, public sector cuts, the expenses scandal (which, incidentally, was exposed by the ‘Establishment’ Telegraph) or any of his other bête noires. Yes, powerful people were involved, but it could hardly be otherwise.

Jones’ definition of the Establishment essentially comes down to anybody with influence, power or wealth who does not believe in Jones’ antediluvian version of state socialism. It includes all politicians (except Caroline Lucas and a handful of Labour backbenchers), all media (except the Guardian and the New Statesman) and all think tanks (except the New Economics Foundation). From Jones’ perspective on the fringes of the hard-left, almost everybody is a right-winger. Everyone to the right of John Prescott (who Jones describes as a centrist) is a neoliberal and so everybody from Boris Johnson to Alistair Campbell is part of the Establishment. But whilst the traditional, mid-twentieth century establishment was made up of aristocrats and fusty old judges who had never heard of the Beatles, Jones’ Establishment is dominated by people who are at least accountable to market forces or the electorate. Tellingly, his Establishment does not include unelected supra-national bodies (except the IMF), the third sector, the public sector, trade unions, the House of Lords, the European Commission, the judiciary or the universities (except economics departments). It does, however, include the Church of England (it owns a lot of land), but not Rowan Williams (he’s quite left-wing).

If you only had Jones’ book as a guide, you would think that opponents of free markets could fit in a phone booth. The influence of left-wing think tanks is dismissed as being negligible, but Jones’ ‘no true socialist’ approach means that he doesn’t recognise most of them as being left-wing in the first place. The centre-left IPPR, he says, is too Thatcherite and receives funding from some corporations (he does not mention the six figure sums it receives from statutory sources, including the European Commission). Demos also gets two black marks for being run by an Old Etonian who is too sceptical about immigration for Jones’ liking. The influence of the undeniably socialist Fabian Society is ignored altogether, as is that of the Resolution Foundation, the Equality Trust and Jones’ own Class think tank. The leftist agitation of large charities, often state-funded and staffed with Labour activists, also fails to warrant a mention.

Even the BBC is portrayed as a neoliberal mouthpiece. In Jones’ eyes, the corporation is ‘staunchly pro-business, biased towards right-wing voices, and acts as a consistent platform for Establishment perspectives.’ Its news coverage even has ‘a strong pro-Israeli bias’, he claims. As evidence for this surprising assertion – which goes against the recollection of former BBC employees such as Robert Aitken and Peter Sissons, as well as those who have ever listened to Radio 4 – he lists a handful of BBC staff who have conservative tendencies, such as Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson, but fails to balance this with the (longer) list of Labour supporters and ex-Guardian journalists who work at the corporation. Since Jones believes that virtually the entire Labour Party is bewitched by free-market ‘dogma’, such a list would probably do nothing to change his mind; at one point he cites the appointment of the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell as further evidence of the BBC’s right-wing agenda.

Once it becomes clear that Jones’ definition of the Establishment is so broad as to be meaningless, the book can be read for what it is – a collection of extended Guardian columns about Jones’ favourite themes. His complaints about so-called ‘austerity’ will be familiar to anyone who has read the Guardian or Independent in recent years. Suffice it to say that the ‘austerity’ programme is not designed to cut the ‘debt’, as Jones claims, but to cut the deficit, which is the amount that is added to the debt every year. The deficit has been rising since 2001, despite the economy booming until 2008, and last year stood at £108 billion. The national debt is in the region of £1.3 trillion and is in no danger of being cut for several years, if then. British taxpayers currently spend £50 billion per year just to pay the interest on it. The idea that any government could continue borrowing at this rate indefinitely is as delusional as the belief that a clamp-down on tax evasion would be enough to make the country live within its means.

More interesting is Jones’ claim that Britain practises ‘socialism for the rich’. He ignores the fact that there is plenty of socialism for the poor – and for the affluent, for that matter – in a country where the government spends nearly half of GDP and subsidises the incomes of the majority of the population, and yet ‘subsidies’ for the rich remain worthy of discussion. Some of his arguments are contrived, such as his attempt to portray state education, road building and railways as perks for the wealthy on the basis that they provide trained employees and infrastructure for business. Aside from the fact that businesses frequently complain that state-educated job applicants lack basic skills and that universities are churning out graduates with useless degrees, the primary beneficiary of education is surely the child. Moreover, roads and railways are used by – and paid for – individuals and businesses alike. Even those who use neither road nor rail for personal transport benefit from goods being delivered by train and lorry rather than, say, barge and mule.

But Jones is on stronger ground when talking about tax credits and housing benefit, the first of which is, he says, a subsidy for employers to pay ‘poverty wages’ while the second is a subsidy for landlords to charge exorbitant rents. Jones overstates his case (a third of those who receive tax credits do not work at all and many others receive a reasonable hourly wage but do not work enough hours), and yet he has a point. These benefits are bound to distort the labour and housing markets to some extent. And he is certainly correct when he says that the 2008 bail out of the banking system was an act of socialism.

As an employee of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – and therefore what Jones calls an ‘outrider’ of the Establishment – I am happy to agree with Owen Jones on this. The IEA has been arguing for an end to subsidies and bail outs for many years. Within days of the US government bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2008, my colleague Philip Booth wrote a blog post with a headline – ‘A welfare state for bankers’ – of which Jones would be proud. In it he called for failing banks to be allowed to collapse. The title of other IEA articles are self-explanatory, including ‘Thumbs down for Bush’s bailout’, ‘Banking on corporatism’ and ‘Sort out mechanisms to wind down banks’. Plenty of like-minded think tanks, economists and journalists have argued the same. We were in the minority at the time and remain so.

Jones accepts that there are some ‘libertarian right-wingers’ who criticise ‘socialism for the rich’, but this understates the scale of opposition in the free-market movement. Bail outs, tariffs and subsidies have virtually no support in the mainstream economics that Jones claims is the dogma of the Establishment.

The IEA was formed in 1955. Since then, public spending per person has more than trebled in real terms and taxation has risen by almost as much. Government has become more bloated, regulation has spread like a virus and there has been an increasing micromanagement of people’s lifestyles. You would think that after 59 years of developing ‘a cohesive ideology to bind the Establishment together’, as Jones puts it, we would have made more headway by now. Alas, the truth is that the only people in Jones’ imaginary web of power who actually believe in free markets and individualism are a few think tanks. The police don’t. The media don’t. Businesses don’t and, judging by how governments have behaved over the years, most politicians don’t. They are all self-interested actors who have largely, and quite understandably, rejected out-and-out socialism without adopting economic liberalism. What we are left with is form of crony capitalism in which private interests can extract favours, such as monopoly power and subsidies, from powerful ‘public servants’. This is not new. Adam Smith wrote about it in 1776. More government is never the answer.

Owen Jones doesn’t believe in free markets and individualism either, of course, which is a shame because the policies of the IEA would be far more effective in achieving his ends than the list of paleo-socialist recommendations that bring his book to a conclusion, many of which would increase the power of the state, stifle growth and create new opportunities for powerful rent seekers and crony capitalists to enrich themselves at the expense of the working taxpayer. 280 pages after he complains that people see him as a 1970s throwback, he ends his tome with ‘a modest attempt to reassert democracy’ (actual democracy having let him down all his life) which explicitly includes a huge hike in the minimum wage, relaxing trade union law, a return to ‘full employment’, nationalisation of ‘key utilities’, an industrial policy, restrictions on foreign ownership of housing, a 50 per cent top rate of income tax ‘as a start’, a renegotiation with the EU to get rid of the free market elements, and free Slade records and space hoppers for school children.

Okay, I made the last one up but, for a history graduate, Owen Jones is strangely incapable of learning from the past.

See also What Owen Jones gets wrong, by Ryan Bourne.

Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".

15 thoughts on “The Establishment by Owen Jones: A review”

  1. Posted 08/09/2014 at 15:30 | Permalink

    I wonder how large a proportion of the national income could be spent by the government and it still be possible to claim we have a ‘free market’ economy? Surely Christopher Snowdon is right to suggest that anything like 50 per cent is far too high a proportion? If indeed 40 per cent of national income is the highest proportion that can be collected in tax revenues and if the British government aims not to run a budget deficit, then presumably no more than 40 per cent? In his foreword to Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes’, Philip Booth suggested less than 30 per cent. (Perhaps Colin Clark’s suggested maximum of 25 per cent? Or even lower? …) Hayek’s words in ‘The Road to Serfdom’ [page 45] are worth bearing in mind: ‘Where, as was, for example, true in Germany as early as 1928, the central and local authorities directly control the use of more than half the national income (according to an official German estimate then, 53 per cent) they control indirectly almost the whole economic life of the nation. There is, then, scarcely an individual end which is not dependent for its achievement on the action of the state, and the “social scale of values” which guides the state’s action must embrace practically all individual ends.’ That is hardly a free market economy!

  2. Posted 08/09/2014 at 17:52 | Permalink

    Jones is the left-wing media’s equivalent of an English Premiership player: grossly over-paid and over-egoed, whilst being seriously under-skilled, uneducated, and of limited talents outside the bedroom – where he has none.

  3. Posted 09/09/2014 at 07:54 | Permalink

    I cant help thinking that Jones’ destiny is to end up at 65 as a reactionary bellicose Express columnist ranting against sexual and ethnic minorities.

  4. Posted 09/09/2014 at 09:34 | Permalink

    Owen Jones isn’t old enough to remember when policemen were human, this would be pre-1975, when you could actually stand and converse with them. Where do you see police actually living in the community, as in Heartbeat’, after 1975? He also fails to mention, the miners were beaten by ‘Army’ and Militia dressed up as Police, this was Maggie’s war on society.

    Cast an eye over our history (the West) and see just when all Police forces changed attitudes, it seemed to be around 1975, just after the break-up of the Bretton Wood agreement, when Richard Nixon reneged on $35 dollars an ounce for gold and ripped off half of Europe. This is when the EEC (now EU) started getting a foothold, then we had the UN calling for reports and implementing policy, that set in motion the destruction of society as we know it! Agenda 21.

    From 1992 onwards, our policemen have grown to resemble combat soldiers, why? Our democratic rights are being slowly eroded and taken from us, the EAW, being a prime example. Under this we lose Habeas Corpus, Trial by Jury and Innocent until proven Guilty. On the up side, via TTIP, Corporations will gain everything, including dictating policy, if their ISDS is left in the agreement?

    The future doesn’t look very promising, because of EU free movement of labour, we will never see ‘full employment’ and a constant stream of cheap labour, will never allow wages to rise. This brings me back to the Agenda 21, whereby Corporations rule the world and we are their slaves!

  5. Posted 09/09/2014 at 09:42 | Permalink

    Owen Jones is a fool.

  6. Posted 09/09/2014 at 10:07 | Permalink

    A much better expose of the failings of freemarket economics can be found here in
    Prof Alexanders book,

    The Globalisation of Addiction.

    A very balanced book.

  7. Posted 09/09/2014 at 13:23 | Permalink

    I wouldn’t call the Daily Mail an establishment paper – the predominant tone of its commenters is one of powerlessness.

    The entire post-68 British “left” are paper tigers, running dogs of capitalism. No one’s profits are threatened by the SWP, the modern Labour Party or any of the far-left groups.

    If they were really a threat to capitalism, they’d be harassed by the State, find it hard to get bank accounts, have vexatious legal actions against them. Laws would be changed to make it harder for them to operate. Their public sector members would be dismissed. Wealthy individuals would fund groups solely devoted to giving them a hard time – up to and including physical assault. Members on their way to demonstrations would be ‘preventatively’ arrested, held until the demo was over, then released.

    Now does left-wing politics attract that kind of reaction? Why not, if it’s such a threat? In the past left activists were imprisoned, transported, harassed and worse. Today the only parties who get that treatment are those which wish to restrict immigration.

    Now that IS a threat to profits, as working wages have been pretty much static (and declining in real terms) ever since A8 accession.If you can’t get the staff, don’t raise wages – import some more !

    The UK left is so cosy in the elite’s warm embrace that the majority of their activists come from the public sector, and a disproportionate number from the higher education sector. If they’re so dangerous to our rulers, why aren’t they all worried about being fired? I don’t think they lose too much sleep on that account.

    “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”

    The post-68 Left social agenda has almost completely triumphed in the UK – witness Cameron joining the “antifascist” group Hope Not Hate and campaigning for gay marriage.

    At the same time the Left economic agenda has been so utterly defeated that terms and conditions for the average worker are being driven down remorselessly – even as total remuneration for the top few percent accelerates into the distance.

    Haven’t any of these educated lefties wondered why this might be? So much success in one sphere, so little in another?

    Why, it’s almost as if there’s an inverse relationship between the two!

  8. Posted 09/09/2014 at 14:12 | Permalink

    What suspicious death of black men in custody, the MPA or the IPCC/CPS have said they’ve either been lawfully killed,or unlawfully killed and Pre Chris Adler, there has t been proof to prosecute, as for Ian Tomlinson, he was unlawfully killed, different pathologist gave different results, as such a jury found it wasnt beyond reasonable doubt, that it was manslaughter, the IPCC found the police didn’t say the things the press claimed they’d said such as first aid was applied and the police suffered attacks from bottles while it was happening,PlebGate and whether PC Rowland’s did hear Mitchell ay that is on going.

  9. Posted 09/09/2014 at 15:08 | Permalink

    The lack of paragraph formatting in these comment fields is most vexing.

  10. Posted 09/09/2014 at 15:23 | Permalink

    Why does this fool get so much press? He talks so much nonsense and has the debating skills of a simian.

  11. Posted 09/09/2014 at 16:09 | Permalink

    It is interesting that you criticise Owen Jones for linking together various police scandals when Teresa May did the same in her speech to the police federation. And of course there is a link between the police scandals, the bank scandals over rigging the libor rate, the Rotherham sex abuse issues, parliamentary expenses and many more. The link is that when institutions are not open and accountable they make decisions and take actions in their own interests and not those of citizens. The problem is, as Owen Jones recognises, that democracy in Britain is highly flawed.

  12. Posted 09/09/2014 at 17:19 | Permalink

    Jones is further proof of lower standards in education, and is, or should be, an embarrassment to Oxford University. If i didn’t know otherwise, i would have rated him a graduate of ‘Chad Valley’ university…….but he is the darling of the wretched BBC, as much as is Galloway, another, excuse my language, gobshite.

  13. Posted 09/09/2014 at 18:09 | Permalink

    Laban (14:23) is spot on. A broader version of much the same case is made in Walter Benn Michaels’ *The Trouble with Diversity*, which argues for a hard connection between galloping wealth inequality since the 1970s, and the rise (and triumph) of the social diversity agenda. Michaels’ examples are all (I think) from the US (where he is a literature professor), but many would carry across to British and European settings. As he points out, diversity asks relatively little of us, other than that we respect a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.. Equality, in the economic sense, is a much taller order, because the poor don’t want our respect, they want our money. The left has, of course, surrendered that fight. Instead, it takes up causes which are delightful in themselves — gay marriage is a wonderful thing — and which cost precisely nothing. How pleasing it must be to the undertaxed billionaire community to see the left busy itself with such matters, instead of floating vexatious proposals about wealth redistribution and the like. I’m reading (well, skimming) Mr Jones’ book now, and on every page I’m struck by its naivety in respect of its own critical discourse.

  14. Posted 10/09/2014 at 09:56 | Permalink

    I suspect much of Mr Jones’s out put is based on “What me dad told me”.
    As I understand it, his father was a public sector employee (Stockport MBC) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and a member of the SWP.
    As one living through those days and not too far from that area, I have to say that Mr Jones Sr would have been Part of the Problem.

  15. Posted 10/09/2014 at 10:22 | Permalink

    Personally what annoys me is that Private Eye has been covering the existence of this Establishment for years before Squeaky Jones decided to do his rehash. Anyone who isn’t aware of its existence really has to be really naïve.

    To try and prove the Establishment doesn’t exist by suggesting ‘well we haven’t reached free market utopia yet’ is risible. You haven’t achieved because barely any humans want it. For example only the rich want to get rid of the NHS.

    Nonetheless by creating a neo-lib consensus that has pretty much died outside Westminster, this Establishment is making our democracy look more like a corporate dictatorship. Exactly why Scotland is voting Yes – it’s the least nationalistic vote for Independence ever.

    The Mitchell comments are equally ludicrous. This was carried out by some disgruntled officers at the a low level. It is at the high level where the establishment’ element is found and evidence is there in Hillsborough, miners and hacking.

    I suppose IEA also consider the US has also fallen short of ‘full free market’ – this place where the sick can’t afford to be treated and cities go bankrupt. Live the dream!

    And although you argued for banks to fail, what of the those people who had savings? And what of the people who ran the banks? Those bank bosses would still be enriching even if the banks had been allowed to fail. So I do not recognise that as meritocracy.

    It seems to me we are divided quite evenly along one axis. Those who really hate humans and wish to live as individuals in an economic-apartheid state and those of us who think that whatever our difference, actually we can all get along just fine and actually we have an obligation to do so.

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