The establishment uncovered: how power works in Britain
In an exclusive extract from his new book, Owen Jones explains how the political, social and business elites have a stranglehold on the country
Who are ‘the establishment’?
It feels good to rail against the establishment. Politicians across the world have found that positioning themselves as the brave outsider challenging the status quo is a political weapon.
Whether they promise to ‘drain the swamp’, take on the ‘deep state’, challenge the ‘metropolitan elite’, or stick it to the ‘chattering classes’, there is a clear urge to identify the establishment and take it to task. But does the establishment exist. If so, what is it?
In Britain, the establishment was traditionally understood along historic class lines, as a network of people who went to the best private schools, went on to Oxbridge, and then took prominent positions in arts, politics and industry.
Today, many allege, little has changed: Eton still produces a disproportionate number of politicians, and, according to the Sutton Trust, alumni of private schools and Oxbridge still dominate top jobs.
But does this account for the changes that the UK and other countries have experienced? Many argue that, whatever the stats on certain top jobs, cultural power – what is often called ‘hegemony’ – resides elsewhere.
They allege that a new establishment, defined less by birth or privilege and more by adherence to certain cultural and political ideas like multiculturalism or feminism, dominates the arts and media. Rather than employing old and declining institutions like the church, this contemporary establishment exercises power through new institutions like social media.
Whatever the truth in these assertions, where do more traditional analyses like class and capitalism fit in? The world economy is vastly more interconnected than previously, with financial and economic elites seemingly as comfortable in Singapore as New York or London. Sometimes termed the ‘Davos set’, some allege these are the real establishment: globetrotters who evade both taxes and democratic control.
All of this raises the question of how to define the establishment. What gives people power: is it money, cultural influence, personal networks, adherence to certain ideas, or something else? Perhaps the idea that there is any single establishment is equally unclear: in a fragmented world, maybe there are multiple establishments depending on the context.
How useful, then, is the idea of the establishment? Is it an indispensable part of a serious analysis of power, or a cheap slur that can be used by any side of an argument? How, if at all, has the establishment changed in recent years, and is there a new cultural hegemony as is sometimes alleged? Who exercises real power today, and how?
Definitions of "the establishment" share one thing in common: they are always pejorative. Rightwingers tend to see it as the national purveyor of a rampant, morally corrupting social liberalism; for the left, it is more likely to mean a network of public-school and Oxbridge boys dominating the key institutions of British political life.
Here is what I understand the establishment to mean. Today's establishment is made up – as it has always been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote.
The establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to "manage" democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests. In this respect, it might be seen as a firewall that insulates them from the wider population.
As the well-connected rightwing blogger and columnist Paul Staines puts it approvingly: "We've had nearly a century of universal suffrage now, and what happens is capital finds ways to protect itself from, you know, the voters."
Back in the 19th century, as calls for universal suffrage gathered strength, there were fears in privileged circles that extending the vote to the poor would pose a mortal threat to their own position
– that the lower rungs of society would use their newfound voice to take away power and wealth from those at the top and redistribute it throughout the electorate.
"I have heard much on the subject of the working classes in this house which, I confess, has filled me with feelings of some apprehension," Conservative statesman Lord Salisbury told parliament in 1866, in response to plans to extend the suffrage.
Giving working-class people the vote would, he stated, tempt them to pass "laws with respect to taxation and property especially favourable to them, and therefore dangerous to all other classes".
The worries of those 19th-century opponents of universal suffrage were not without foundation. In the decades that followed the second world war, constraints were imposed on Britain's powerful interests, including higher taxes and the regulation of private business. This was, after all, the will of the recently enfranchised masses.
But today, many of those constraints have been removed or are in the process of being dismantled – and now the establishment is characterised by institutions and ideas that legitimise and protect the concentration of wealth and power in very few hands.
The interests of those who dominate British society are disparate; indeed, they often conflict with one another. The establishment includes politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy; police forces that enforce a law that is rigged in favour of the powerful.
The establishment is where these interests and worlds intersect, either consciously or unconsciously. It is unified by a common mentality, which holds that those at the top deserve their power and their ever-growing fortunes, and which might be summed up by the advertising slogan "Because I'm worth it".
This is the mentality that has driven politicians to pilfer expenses, businesses to avoid tax, and City bankers to demand ever greater bonuses while plunging the world into economic disaster.All of these things are facilitated – even encouraged – by laws that are geared to cracking down on the smallest of misdemeanours committed by those at the bottom of the pecking order – for example, benefit fraud.
"One rule for us, one rule for everybody else" might be another way to sum up establishment thinking.
These mentalities owe everything to the shared ideology of the modern establishment, a set of ideas that helps it to rationalise and justify its position and behaviour.
Often described as "neoliberalism", this ideology is based around a belief in so-called free markets: in transferring public assets to profit-driven businesses as far as possible; in a degree of opposition – if not hostility –
To a formal role for the state in the economy; support for reducing the tax burden on private interests; and the driving back of any form of collective organisation that might challenge the status quo. This ideology is often rationalised as "freedom"
– particularly "economic freedom" – and wraps itself in the language of individualism. These are beliefs that the establishment treats as common sense, as being a fact of life, just like the weather.
Not to subscribe to these beliefs is to be outside today's establishment, to be dismissed by it as an eccentric at best, or even as an extremist fringe element.
Members of the establishment genuinely believe in this ideology – but it is a set of beliefs and policies that, rather conveniently, guarantees them ever growing personal riches and power.
As well as a shared mentality, the establishment is cemented by financial links and a "revolving door": that is, powerful individuals gliding between the political, corporate and media worlds – or who manage to inhabit these various worlds at the same time.
The terms of political debate are, in large part, dictated by a media controlled by a small number of exceptionally rich owners, while thinktanks and political parties are funded by wealthy individuals and corporate interests.
Many politicians are on the payroll of private businesses; along with civil servants, they end up working for companies interested in their policy areas, allowing them to profit from their public service – something that gives them a vested interest in an ideology that furthers corporate interests.
The business world benefits from the politicians' and civil servants' contacts, as well as an understanding of government structures and experience, allowing private firms to navigate their way to the very heart of power.
Yet there is a logical flaw at the heart of establishment thinking. It may abhor the state – but it is completely dependent on the state to flourish. Bailed-out banks; state-funded infrastructure; the state's protection of property; research and development;
a workforce educated at great public expense; the topping up of wages too low to live on; numerous subsidies – all are examples of what could be described as a "socialism for the rich" that marks today's establishment.
This establishment does not receive the scrutiny it deserves. After all, it is the job of the media to shed light on the behaviour of those with power.
But the British media is an integral part of the British establishment; its owners share the same underlying assumptions and mantras. Instead, journalists and politicians alike obsessively critique and attack the behaviour of those at the bottom of society. Unemployed people and other benefit claimants; immigrants; public-sector workers
– these are groups that have faced critical exposure or even outright vilification. This focus on the relatively powerless is all too convenient in deflecting anger away from those who actually wield power in British society.
And How They Get Away with It
Behind our democracy lurks a powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge profits in the process. In exposing this shadowy and complex system that dominates our lives,
Owen Jones sets out on a journey into the heart of our Establishment, from the lobbies of Westminster to the newsrooms, boardrooms and trading rooms of Fleet Street and the City. Exposing the revolving doors that link these worlds,
and the vested interests that bind them together, Jones shows how, in claiming to work on our behalf, the people at the top are doing precisely the opposite. In fact, they represent the biggest threat to our democracy today - and it is time they were challenged.