The Establishment is an eye-opening, compelling and sometimes horrifying analysis of the UK’s ruling elite and how they got to be in power. One of the reviews on the back-cover reads: “you will be enlightened and angry” which I think is about right. I’ve read many books that expertly expose the corruption of the government and the corporate world, but what makes this book so valuable is how it uses recent history to explain how the contemporary establishment went from a radical fringe to mainstream discourse in a matter of decades. Such an explanation helps me to gain some clarity about how my country got to be in such a mess, and more importantly offers some hope that this state of affairs is not timeless and can – and will – change.
At the heart of the book is Jones’ concept of ‘the establishment’ which he spends some time defining, because the term is so often bandied about in a fuzzy imprecise manner. For this writer, the establishment is made up of senior politicians, top business leaders, bankers, media barons and the police – and crucially, is not some secret official group but is loosely tied together by a shared ideology. This is the ideology of neoliberalism – a blind faith in the free market, adoration of wealth, belief in natural economic justice, individualism and general suspicion of the state despite relying on it. This shared world-view unites members of the establishment that have never met, and yet Jones tells us that many of them have met, and are in fact close friends, due to the financial and social links and revolving doors that see individuals regularly moving between politics, media and business. Jones underlines that the establishment shape-shifts with the times, and that today’s establishment looks very different to that of a bygone age which would have consisted of the monarchy, the church, the army and the aristocracy. Much of the book is dedicated to how today’s establishment was forged in the mid-1970s, thanks to ideological outriders who had been working tirelessly since the 1940s to bring their right-wing market-fundamentalism from the extreme to the mainstream.
One of the insights from this book that I found most surprising was the vast importance of think-tanks. Jones writes that the maxims of neoliberal theory that now pass as common sense in the UK, the US and many other countries, are actually rooted in the dedicated propaganda efforts of what he calls the ‘outriders’ in the second half of the 20th century. These were right-wing market fundamentalist libertarians who believed passionately that the free market is the only key to liberty – people like Milton Freidman and Freidrich Hayak who were inspired by the ‘old-fashioned liberalism’ of the 18th and 19th centuries. Along with forty like-minded intellectuals they formed the Mont Pelerin Society in Switzerland in 1947. Too far from the mainstream to get any traction, their ideas lay low until being unearthed by new outriders such as Madsen Pirie in the 1970s. All this was during the post-war consensus, when social democracy (capitalism muzzled by a compassionate state) was the accepted norm and even Conservatives and Republicans were doing things that today would seem decidedly left-wing (think council houses, unions and high taxes). The early outriders were regarded as extreme cranks, very far from the establishment, and their preliminary numbers were tiny and scattered. In the early 1970s, these dedicated ideologues started to set up think-tanks to promote their ideas such as the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute and the Tax Payers Alliance among many others. I never really appreciated how powerful these institutions are until reading this book. They produce research papers and reports and policy recommendations, they always have an ideological mission they are trying to push, and most of the top ones are pushing hard neoliberalism. They get much of their power from the relationship they have with the media, where their ideas are frequently quoted as if coming from an objective source, distributed to a mass audience and used to lend intellectual justification for political decisions. Conservative MP Robert Halfon told Owen Jones “If you look at the Thatcher revolution, that was all powered by think-tanks” (p.30).
For me one of the most interesting concepts in this book is idea of the ‘Overton window’. This means the field of acceptable debate on any subject, where anything falling outside is dismissed as crazy, extreme, unworkable, etc. This window is not static, but is constantly shifting around. Jones explains how in political terms, the Overton window of the UK has shifted dramatically to the right in recent decades, especially since New Labour started agreeing with much of neoliberal perspective in the 1990s.The role of the outriders, was to propose ideas that seemed extreme, but also made other beliefs and policies that were not so far out seem much more acceptable. The Overton window shifts through this process of ideological haggling.
The exciting thing for me is that reading about how the shifts in the Overton window came to pass makes me feel empowered that it can shift again.
Owen Jones finishes the book with a single chapter on positive ways to move forward, which I often find frustrating because I would like this to be at least half the book. He calls for a ‘democratic revolution’ where democracy is not only revitalised in its governmental sense but also brought into our workplaces in the form of worker co-operatives. He says that the old dualism of private business or state bureaucracy is not relevant any more, and suggests a model where public services such as train companies are publicly owned, and have a worker representative and a passenger representative on the board, offering heightened accountability and performance. He also suggests that progressives start to build their own new think-tanks, and work on a credible alternative so people are inspired for change rather than simply unsatisfied but resigned to the status-quo. I think his suggestions point in the right direction and I’m inspired that he’s saying there is a path to be forged that rejects both capitalism and state socialism but takes the best bits from both. However I would have liked to see more strategizing on the subject of how to get from today’s neoliberal austerity capitalism to a place where these ideas (and more radical ones relating to post-growth) are within the Overton window of political possibility.
He comes tantalizingly close, but he stops short of questioning economic growth itself as an objective and actually praises it at a couple of points (as long as the proceeds are equitably shared). So many of his views and ideas are in line with ours here at the Post Growth Institute, but Jones doesn’t go quite far enough. However I think if he knew about it, he would find the not-for-profit enterprise model interesting and exciting and I think his large media profile in the U.K. suggests another key ally for the new economy movement.
Over all, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in social change, politics, how ideas come to be dominant, or the recent history of the UK. It’s not an inspiring read, but it is an eye-opening one, and it helps to understand how things got the way they are. Because this points to the way things can change.