The Establishment’s Deckchairs

The Establishment is Owen Jones’ latest book. It is a brilliant critique of the UK’s elite and how they rig politics, economics, business, law and media in their favour. He highlights the hypocrisy of the neoliberals who decry state intervention but then rely on the state for the  implementation of their wishes. His critique is brutally well researched and his findings are damning, yet I do not think his examination of the establishment is sufficiently rigorous. In this brief post I shall add one further criticism to Jones’ multitude.

The Establishment

In essence, The Establishment charts the rise of neoliberalism in the UK. After the second world war and with the rise of the welfare state it was looking as if neoclassical capitalism was here to stay – an active and paternalistic state working with strong unions to foster economic growth. A few lone voices bemoaned these turns of event and think tanks were established to promote neoliberalism – the rolling back of and privatisation of the state with an emphasis on supporting those at the top of the ladder rather than the bottom. Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon are familiar figureheads for this movement and between them they ensured neoliberalism became the status quo. The bailing out of the banks after the late noughties recession and the current government’s commitment to austerity all form part of the neoliberal narrative. It explains why inequality is growing, the rich are getting richer and more people are being pushed below the poverty line.

At the end of the book Jones offers some “pretty timid” solutions to the current problem that sees a greedy fraction of the population twist the system to fill their coffers. He calls for the state to once again play a more active role in society with regards wealth distribution, taxation and public service provision. He wants a clamp down on the banking system and tax avoidance. He calls for a “democratic revolution” without offering much of a guide as to how the public could actually play a greater role in a highly corporatised and economically beleaguered country.

A distinct lack of viable solutions aside my main concern with The Establishment is its failure to articulate the deeper political and economic impetus that has guided our country for decades and served the establishment very well. It is called capitalism – “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” Capitalism takes capital and adds an -ism to it, in other words, it turns money making into a religion. Capitalism measures everything with money. For something to make sense in a capitalist system it must be price tagged. At a national scale a country’s overall material throughput – namely how much stuff and how many services are bought and sold – is measured in GDP, gross domestic product. Jessie J got it wrong, it turns out it is all about the money, money, money.

With this backdrop in mind it becomes clear that whether or not capitalism is guided by a neoclassical or neoliberal inclination it is still capitalism. Increasing profits and GDP will always be the priority, whatever the cost. We are relentlessly having to churn up finite resources, abuse human labour and innovate more soon-to-be-obsolete products so our economies can ‘grow’. So, whether the state is guided by an establishment willing to make concessions to the working class or by one that is cut throat in its pursuit of the bottom line we are still just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic as we remain committed to a political and economic (il)logic that prioritises profit over people and planet.

The lack of a coherent analysis of capitalism may explain why The Establishment is so heavy on criticism, around 300 pages of it, but so very light on solutions, we only get 20 pages of “pretty timid” suggestions. The irony is that Jones has lain waste to the crooks that rig the system in their favour yet fails to hammer home a criticism of the very system that assures their power – capitalist economics. Until we understand the perils of a commitment to contemporary capitalism we remain seated on the deck of a swiftly sinking ship frantically rearranging the deckchairs. Tbc…

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