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11 September 2014updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

Risky business: Peter Wilby on Owen Jones’s The Establishment

Jones is excellent on how the state, supposedly rolled back, has just changed its nature so that, as big as ever, it has become a creature of capital, controlled by the corporate sector.

By Peter Wilby

The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It 
Owen Jones
Allen Lane, 358pp, £16.99

When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, sparking the deepest recession in at least 70 years, it seemed that the end of neo­liberalism, even of capitalism, was close. This was the biggest market failure in history, largely attributable to the dismantling of regulatory structures that had once restrained bankers, traders and speculators. We had long been told by neoliberals that markets were super-efficient vehicles for allocating resources and that, left to themselves, they would deliver prosperity for all. Surely nobody would believe that any longer? Surely the merits of the state, so long reviled as a meddlesome enemy of enterprise and initiative but now compelled to step in and rescue the masters of the universe, would at last be recognised? Surely governments would take control of banks and perhaps other commanding heights of the economy as Labour Party pioneers envisaged? Surely bankers would lose their lavish salaries and bonuses? The party was over, wasn’t it?

It wasn’t. On the contrary, almost nothing changed. What had gone wrong, we were told, was not the market but the state. Its reckless overspending, particularly on welfare, was responsible for the crisis. Governments, not private companies, had borrowed too much. The pain was inflicted on families with modest incomes while, for bankers, the champagne continued to flow. Neoliberalism’s cheerleaders scarcely paused for breath. In 2011, the Institute of Economic Affairs, one of Thatcherism’s original outriders, published a report calling for public expenditure to be cut by half. The state’s main policy response to the crisis was to create more money through quantitative easing (QE) and to give it not to ordinary consumers but to financial institutions. As the Bank of England admitted, the main beneficiaries were those who already held most assets: according to one estimate, the richest 10 per cent gained £322,000 each up to 2012, while the poorest 10 per cent lost £779 each.

How was all this possible? How do the rich in general and bankers in particular get away with it? That is the question Owen Jones attempts to answer. In this, despite thorough and admirably vivid reporting, he only partly succeeds. He is excellent on how the state, supposedly rolled back, has just changed its nature so that, as big as ever, it has become a creature of capital, controlled by the corporate sector. As Jones shows, British capitalism is highly dependent on state largesse and rich corporations are the biggest scroungers of all.

Rail, arms, nuclear energy and (post-crisis) banking are examples of industries that receive big state subsidies. Companies such as Atos, A4e, Serco and G4S make substantial profits from supplying outsourced state services, which do not offer obviously better value for money than when the state ran them. Under the private finance initiative (PFI), hospitals and schools pay large “service fees” to private companies. Chunks of the NHS are now, in effect, being privatised and, if the Tories are returned to power, schools cannot be far behind. Lawyers, accountants and consultants are richly rewarded for drawing up the complex contracts that govern these arrangements.

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Jones is good, too, on how the business and political elites have become inter­twined. Donations to party coffers and sponsorship of party conferences and ministers’ pet projects (such as academies) are the tip of a sizeable iceberg. In the first ten months of this coalition government, ministers met corporate representatives 1,537 times against just 130 meetings with trade unionists – and that excludes chats on the phone and informal contact at conferences, parties and dinners. Former ministers and top civil servants take up board positions or consultancies with the same corporations they dealt with in office. Ministerial advisers and quangocrats, many of whom used to come from academia, trade unions and consumer groups, are increasingly from the corporate sector. Big accountancy firms help to design tax policy and then advise clients on how to get round the rules. The tax collector, HMRC, has developed cosy relationships with those same firms so that, according to the Tax Justice Network campaigner Richard Murphy, the global financial elite has “captured” both the writing of tax laws and the policing of them.

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One of Jones’s interviews was with Douglas Carswell, the right-wing Tory MP who recently defected to Ukip. According to him, Britain is now corporatist rather than capitalist, with “big business and big government getting together and carving up a large slice of the economic pie for their advantage”. Together, they form a new establishment. This establishment gets away with it, Jones writes, because it has a cohesive ideology supported by a media that is largely controlled by corporate interests. Any proposal to clip its wings is “bad for business” and so bad for jobs and national prosperity. New Labour, despite its mildly redistributive policies, was much loved by the business sector because it accepted the establishment’s ideology, along with its cleverly twisted language in which the words “vested interests” mean workers and unions, while “reform” and “modernisation” mean handing over public services to unaccountable private capital.

Yet neoliberalism has palpably failed to deliver the goods, except to an ever-richer elite. Most voters recognise this and, as polls show, support a cap on energy prices, for example, and renationalisation of some essential services. So why aren’t protests against government policies louder and more insistent? Why isn’t blood, at least metaphorically, running in the streets?

This is where Jones doesn’t go quite deep enough. What is missing from his account is how the masses were also captured by neoliberalism and how they bought in to capitalism to such an extent that it became all but impossible to escape. Margaret Thatcher said in 1981 that her aim was to change “the heart and soul of the nation”. The greatest tribute to her success, as she often observed, was that the Labour Party eventually accepted her agenda. In effect, she abolished the British working class, making a working-class lifestyle, in the conventional sense, unsustainable.

This was not only because her economic policies hastened the decline of the manufacturing industries that had provided stable employment. Her legislative programme diminished the unions, which were not only the main instruments through which workers protected and improved their living standards but also the vehicles through which their leaders could emerge, acquiring skills that might lead to parliament and ministerial office. Her discounted sale of council houses, coupled with increased council house rents, transferred more than a million families into the property-owning bourgeoisie. Her abolition of credit controls and weakening of mutualised building societies undermined long-standing habits of financial prudence. Her privatisations compelled families to “shop around” for basic services and seek the best “deals” if they were not to be ripped off.

The same privatisations lured millions, if only temporarily, into owning shares. So, more indirectly, did the destruction of defined-benefit pension schemes, which, along with the abolition of a state second pension (known as “Serps”) and a revised formula for annual state pension rises, left many dependent on the money markets to ensure a secure old age. Thus, almost all of the structures that once gave security to working families were stripped away, forcing them to participate, however marginally, in the individualistic risk-taking of capitalism. The alternative was to drop into what became known as the “underclass”.

Almost everyone above a certain age now trembles at a fall in house values, watches bond and equity prices anxiously and frets over interest rates. Everyone feels locked to some degree in to the neoliberal economy, knowing that, if it crashes, those of modest wealth and income will lose proportionately far more than the plutocrats who exploit them. That explains why the 2008 crisis didn’t lead to a revival of the left, which was in any case woefully short of coherent answers. On the contrary, by exposing the fragility of capitalism, it made most voters keen to avoid further jeopardy.

Yet politics, like most things in life, is cyclical. Contrary to the “end of history” thesis, nothing lasts for ever. The under-thirties do not care about falling house prices or crashing stock markets because they do not have a stake in the neoliberal economy and see little prospect of acquiring one. Owner-occupation has fallen sharply; the proportion of shares owned by individuals is far lower than it was 50 years ago. Members of this generation have nothing to fear and much to gain from steep falls in asset prices. From them, in time, will come support for a new economic order, provided that the left (or even the centre) can produce convincing alternatives.

Jones recalls how, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, neoliberals were dismissed as fantasists and dreamers. Only through the patient marshalling of their case, skilful manipulation of the media and assiduous wooing of politicians, opinion-formers and rich donors did they eventually turn the tide. Paradoxically, it is to their story that the left must now look for hope and inspiration.