I knew those extremist theories that I rejected in my adolescence would come in handy one day

Two apparently unrelated observations from the past week. The first is the widely commented upon fact that Jonathan Aitken, though owing millions of pounds in legal fees and filing for bankruptcy, still seems to be in possession of the things that very rich people possess. Most people expected that his houses and cars would have to be sold in order to repay his creditors, but it emerged that the house he lived in and the car he drove were actually owned by his ex-wife (from whom he has been very recently divorced) and he was just being allowed the use of them.

Second, there was a fine article in the Guardian by Ken Worpole about the extra distortions in the state education system resulting from the greater mobility that richer people have. Worpole quotes a remarkable statistic. Some people defend the grammar school system by arguing that it provides the best means for children of poorer people to rise in society. One straightforward way to assess the number of poorer children in a school is to look at the percentage of children who receive free school meals. In the state system as a whole the figure is 18 per cent. In grammar schools it is 3 per cent.

Who was it who, discussing American society, coined the phrase "socialism for the rich, free market capitalism for the poor"? I'm starting to think I'm going to have to go up to the metaphorical attic of my extremist adolescence and retrieve the analyses I rejected because they were absurdly crude. Here's one, so covered in dust that you can hardly see what it is. I'll need to bring it out into the light, give it a good blow. Oh yes, I recognise it now. It's the old argument that the law exists only as a mechanism of class oppression. Prisons and policemen and law courts were never meant for middle-class people (except for the libel laws and things they can make use of).

Ridiculous. But do you remember during the miners' strike when trade unions made pathetic attempts to transfer their assets in order to defend them from sequestration? They were exposed, accurately enough, as ruses and they failed abjectly. And now Nick Cohen has suggested, wrongly one hopes, that Kosovan refugees arriving in Britain may be forced to sell personal possessions before receiving state aid. Or perhaps they can quickly hand them to their relations to look after. Except that it wouldn't work for them.

Here's something else in a dark corner of the attic. Blimey, it's my old anarchism. Never thought I'd see that again. Mikhail Bakunin is now remembered as the quintessential anarchist with the fizzing bomb, but he also wrote about how any institution, whatever it is set up to do, will become concerned with its own status and survival and this will distort its functioning. He was clear from the beginning that a state constructed on Marxist principles would inevitably become a brutal tyranny because it gave unlimited power to certain groups and then trusted them to give up that power in a way that nobody in history has ever done.

Bakunin's solution to this quandary - which was to destroy all the institutions of state control right away, if necessary by blowing them up - wasn't exactly satisfactory, but his analysis of the way that institutions do different things from what they say they do still remains compelling. You see examples everywhere. You put managers into hospitals to improve efficiency, accountability and transparency. They do some of this but they also construct grandiose offices for managers, while a doctor can't use the photocopier without "purchasing" the "service" from some other "provider".

Would anybody, on whatever side of the debate, disagree that the educational system in England and Wales isn't really a system at all? Grammar schools fight for their own survival; comprehensives do what they can in a system that isn't comprehensive; the school inspectorate has become a peculiar symbolic power in the land. (To the extent that Prince Charles said he would emigrate if Chris Woodhead were forced to resign - now there, finally, is a good reason for driving Woodhead from office, whether he is innocent or guilty.)

I've been sitting here trying to imagine explaining to a foreigner what this thing is that the English have with education. I've been recalling all those awkward conversations, or evaded conversations, on the subject with friends. And I think that Aitken, there for 23 hours a day in his cell learning New Testament Greek, may be on to a good thing.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote