Owen Jones: mouthpiece of middle-class moralism

With the bourgeoisie and workers in retreat, a bland new politics is emerging.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

Having caricatured the working classes in his first book, Owen Jones caricatures the ruling classes in his second. Where in Chavs the less well-off were held aloft by our pitying author as the ‘victims of social problems’, ‘vulnerable’, and ‘lacking… toys, days out, good food’, in The Establishment the rulers of society are denounced as ‘venal’, ‘greedy’, ‘despicable’, ‘zealots’, ‘scroungers’, and possibly even psychopathic. To read Jones’ books is to enter into a super-moralistic world in which all shades of grey have been banned for fear of muddying the narrative. There are only the put-upon and the putters-upon. It must be nice to live in such a binary moral universe. I wish I lived there.

On one level, The Establishment is a difficult book to review – not because of the depth of its analysis (it is basically a collection of undergraduate-level essays), but because of its otherworldliness. I mean, how does one respond to the oft-repeated claim that ‘free-market dogma’ is ‘the new consensus’, that neoliberalism has won a stunning ‘victory of ideas’, that free-market fundamentalism is ‘the new normal’, and that ‘our current establishment is far more ideological than ruling elites that came before it’, especially vis-à-vis the ‘[ideal] of free markets, unencumbered by the deadweight of the state’? All of this runs so counter to reality that it’s hard to know what to say beyond, ‘Have you gone mental?’.

Belief in free markets has possibly never been weaker than it is today, as evidenced by everything from the exponential growth of the state and the public sector in recent decades (yes, including during the Thatcher years), to new global ideologies that explicitly demonise economic growth and consumerism (most notably environmentalism), to the reorientation of the political sphere around managing personal behaviour rather than facilitating the creation of new wealth (‘the politics of behaviour’, as Jones’ beloved Labour Party calls it). As to the idea that the current establishment is more ideological than older ones – again, the only thing one can say is, ‘WTF?’. We live under political regimes that eschew ideology at every opportunity, with everyone from the True Blue Tory to the once Red(ish) Labourite furiously distancing himself from his party’s founding ideals in favour of embracing a middle-ground mush of managerialism. To decry the omnipresence of ideology at a time when ideology has died and been replaced by a dispiriting politics-as-bean-counting is surreal.

So the very foundations of this book – that free marketism is triumphant and our rulers are crazily ideological – are, to be kind, shaky. But the book is still worth a review because of what it reveals about the state of the British left, of which Mr Jones has become something of a spokesman. Jones’ tome speaks to two rotten and not unrelated things at the heart of what passes for the left today: conspiracism and moralism. The former ensures that pretty much every problem is understood as a product of the machinations of largely hidden groups of people, while the latter means that the main criticism made of these people is a moralistic one, attacking their character rather than bothering with anything like a serious analysis of the structural underpinnings of modern capitalist society.

Jones’ book reeks of a conspiracy-theory mindset. It is a self-styled exposé of the bankers, think-tankers and media moguls who dictate the agenda, of the ‘shadowy and labyrinth system that dominates our lives’ and the ‘shadowy organisations’ that fund right-wing think tanks and others and which remain ‘hidden from view’. Jones seems curiously obsessed with those who ‘remain hidden’: the secret influencers and financiers who have apparently spent heaps of cash on turning Britain into a hotbed of free-market fundamentalism (in which case they really ought to demand their money back). This obsession with hidden forces leads to a surreal situation where he can write sentences such as ‘Peter Mandelson was known to enjoy the company of the powerful’ and ‘Tony Blair was fixated with wealthy and powerful individuals’. Wait – so Mandelson and Blair weren’t powerful? That is the probably unmeant impression one is left with. Certainly we’re invited to think that the really powerful, whose company Blair and Mandelson apparently enjoyed, are the oligarchs, the media barons, the tycoons, who ‘holiday on yachts’. Although Jones is very critical of Blair (who has become every Labourite’s favourite whipping boy), his conspiracist mindset frequently leads him to focus more on the forces we can’t see – evil men on yachts – while staring right through the forces we can see: Blair and Mandelson and others, who were plenty powerful, as evidenced by their destructive wars, their obliteration of civil liberty, and their expansion of the state into more areas of life. To wonder about whose yacht these politicians holidayed on is like writing a history of monarchical France that focuses on who made the Bourbons’ tea.

Then there’s the moralism. Where earlier leftist thinkers dug down to discover the materialistic underpinnings and social and political relations of a capitalist society, Jones largely confines himself to denouncing not simply the imagined ideology of the modern establishment, but also the ‘mentality’ of its members. He leaves us in no doubt that these are vile people. They are ‘venal’ and ‘greedy’ and many of them – especially wideboy bankers – are sexist and homophobic, too. But Jones expresses these sentiments in a very underhand way. Perhaps conscious of his tendency towards moralism, he promises in the introduction that this book won’t be a screed against the ‘bad people’ who run Britain. But it is, and it is his interviewees who provide the most moralistic material, saying the things Jones himself is perhaps too coy to say – that many media men are evil, City boys are disgusting, etc. He uses his interviewees as ventriloquist’s dummies to express sentiments he clearly shares but recognises to be politically gauche. He did the same thing in Chavs. Unwilling to state what he really thought of the desire among many of the less well-off to climb the greasy pole of social and material ambition, he instead got people like Hazel Blears and Jon Cruddas to do it. (‘There is a great deal to be said for making who you are something to be proud of’ – Blears; ‘[Too many people] aspire to own more material things’ – Cruddas.)

Jones’ thirst for moralistically condemning the bad people who run Britain leads him to celebrate the exercise of the most awesome forms of state power. So in his chapter on the media, he spends page after page telling us about Rebekah Brooks’ horse and how many times Brooks took tea with David Cameron and Tony Blair. And then a few pages later he criticises the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking at the News of the World for being too soft on that powerful woman and various other Murdochites. It is hard to think of anything more establishment than Leveson, which was set up by a Tory PM, chaired by an unelected lord, and staffed by handpicked members of the Great and the Good to sit in judgement on the low-rent press. Yet here is Jones expressing regret that this explicit tool of establishment power was not even firmer in its condemnation of what he fantasises to be the real rulers of modern Britain.

Jones seems obsessed with the corrosive power of the media. He describes the media as ‘one of the most devastatingly effective forms of political power’. Now, it is true that the media are more influential than ever, but that is largely a consequence of the thing that seems to have passed Jones by: the fact that there has been an emptying out of the ideological and political sphere, which has created the space for the exercise of clout by the Fourth Estate. Jones, however, is convinced that the media are a conscious wing of a coherent, free market-obsessed establishment, battering us with nasty ideas. Indeed, he seems to think the media control people’s minds (not his or his friends’ minds, of course – just ours). He says the media ‘dictate who holds power’ and media misinformation ‘leaves the electorate completely in the dark’. Rough translation: we’re too stupid to work out for ourselves what is right and wrong and so the media can fill our empty heads with any old rubbish. Jones’ fear of media power speaks to his dearth of faith in the people who were the subject of his first book – the poor, the ‘vulnerable’, who are apparently susceptible to brain invasion by powerful media forces. This is always the flipside of the conspiratorial idea that a ‘shadowy and labyrinth system’ controls the world – the notion that it can wield such power precisely because of the tendency towards stupidity among the mass of the population.

Jones misses the main point about the ruling class today – which is that it is in a state of unprecedented crisis, of values, of ideas, of vision. He decries the ruling elite’s ‘sense of triumphalism’. What is he talking about? Does he really believe there is triumphalism among a political establishment that has disavowed ideological conviction, a Church that has given up believing in Hell (and in right and wrong, essentially), a military that is instantly consumed by post-traumatic stress disorder whenever it fights a war, and an economic system that long ago ditched the original bourgeoisie’s ideal of making things, and remaking the world in its own image, in favour of speculating on non-existent stuff? There might have been a sense of triumphalism for six weeks or so after the end of the Cold War, but it dissipated very fast and was superseded by a ruling elite racked by doubt and uncertainty. Jones occasionally hints at the crisis of elite institutions, but he quickly withdraws again into his fantasy about them being strong and ideologically coherent, for where is the fun in admitting that actually the capitalist class is in a state of abject disarray? He constantly mistakes the erratic elite’s troubleshooting for triumphalism. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that felt so wrong in its assumptions.

Why is the ruling class suffering such a profound crisis of values? It’s because of an even more important crisis of recent times – the crisis of the left, and of the working class. The right’s historic defeat of the left in the latter half of the twentieth century ironically induced a massive identity crisis in the right itself, among the rulers of society. For they no longer had an enemy – whether it was the ‘enemy within’ of trade unionism or the enemy without of the Soviet Union – against which to define themselves and to advertise the allegedly superior values of their economic system and their way of life. So we are living through an era of dual crisis, through the moral and institutional collapse of the two great classes that defined political and public life for the best part of 200 years: the bourgeois ruling class and the working class.

And you know what? It was the demise of these two great classes that paved the way for what we might call the middle-class moralism of Owen Jones and others. With the working class defeated, and the ruling class in intellectual retreat, the middle class and its ideas have become influential by default. This is why the Guardian is now the closest thing that fractured, post-class Britain has to a newspaper of record. The middle classes’ moralistic disdain for both the ambitious scope of the bourgeoisie and the militancy of the workers is now the dominant outlook of our times, expressed in everything from environmentalism (make-do-and-mend rather than pursue economic growth) to the politics of behaviour (where the debauched antics of both the blinged-up poor and the champagne-swilling bankers must apparently be curbed). Where the two great classes of old were instinctively disruptive – the bourgeoisie disrupting the natural order in pursuit of growth and wealth, and the working classes disrupting the political order in pursuit of power – the middle class has always tended towards a conservative preference for stability, for the preservation of its own narrow interests at the expense of either major economic expansionism or workers’ power. Now, such middle-class moralism is in the ascendant, and Jones is one of its most visible exponents.

Indeed, parts of his book read as being borderline nostalgic for that period of class consensus that followed the Second World War, when both the cockiness of the ruling class and the militancy of the working class were kept in check by a new set-up and new institutional arrangements. His severe anger with Thatcher seems primarily to be based on the fact that she demolished this consensus, that she overturned the pretty stable, class-conflict-suppressing moment of the postwar period. Far from a class warrior, Jones’ middle-class moralism makes him nostalgic for class pacification.

It is striking how similar are Jones’ criticisms of the poor and his criticisms of the rich. In Chavs, the less well-off were lambasted for their embrace of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’ and their aspiration ‘to own more material things’. In The Establishment, the word ‘greed’ appears frequently to describe the machinations of bankers, media moguls and others. Jones pities the poor and is suspicious of the wealthy, but really he sneers at both – for sinning against the new values of a new elite, which say that material aspiration is bad, big economic growth is dangerous, and maintaining the biopshere is more important than resurrecting massive manufacturing. In this, Jones might just have more in common with Thatcher than he would like to admit. She may have destroyed the period of consensus, but like him she also came from neither the working class nor the ruling class but from the middle class. And like him, she was cagey about both the lower orders and the old establishment, seeing both as a barrier to her personal and political vision. She also considered herself a warrior against the establishment. She was also fundamentally a middle-class moralist, riding the crest of the dual crisis of both the old working class and the old ruling class.

Jones plays a pretty important role in modern media discussion in Britain, in helping to maintain a façade of class battle in what is in fact an era of utterly flattened-out non-politics. The furious exchange of words between Jones and his right-wing critics – they call him a Trotskyist (poor Trotsky), he calls them free-market fundamentalists – gives the glossy but totally skewed impression that Britain remains in the grip of a class war. All sides benefit from this pretence, because it disguises the truth that, behind the shrill spats, behind the fancy-dress re-enactments on Twitter of yesteryear’s wars between hardcore free-market devotees and the working class, in truth pretty much everyone in modern British politics has bought into the state-supporting, stability-worshipping, behaviour-policing cult of middle-class moralism. We could do with recovering the values of one of the two great classes. At this moment it really doesn’t matter if it’s the values of the old working class, and its demand for more stuff and more clout, or the values of the bourgeoisie, which ‘accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’ (in Marx’s praising words). Anyone or anything that can shake up the pieties and pitying and small-mindedness of the middle-class moralism that is the true ‘new normal’ should be welcomed.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

The Establishment: And how they get away with it, by Owen Jones, is published by Allen Lane. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by PA images.

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