I’ve just finished reading Owen Jones’s polemic The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It. Almost anyone reading it should come away angry. Angry because if you’re part of the “Establishment” you won’t like the effective hatchet job done on your lack of social morality. Or, if you’re like the rest of us outside the “Establishment”, you’ll be – or should be – angry because of the exposition of the various ways in which a small group of people are lying to us and screwing us.
The fact that Jones’s reasoning is at times specious, his selection of targets somewhat scattergun and his use of evidence all too obviously intended to support his thesis doesn’t detract from the impact of the book. What he is saying – broadly – is that successive governments since 1979 have espoused the rhetoric of a “free market”, have deregulated and privatised, and in so doing have allowed big business – particularly the financial services sector – to exercise unaccountable power in society on an unprecedented scale.
And the irony, as Jones makes clear, is that big business in this “free market” is highly dependent on publicly-funded support, ranging from the provision of roads to the bailing out of the banks in 2008. The lie of free market capitalism in the UK – supported by supine mass media whose proprietors and editors are themselves part of the “Establishment” – reaches its apogee in the handing-out of government contracts for public services, from weapons for the armed forces to cleaning services in hospitals.
It’s interesting that Jones doesn’t make more of privatisation in the utilities sector which is the clearest example of giving away state assets to private interests. He tilts at the privatised railway, but train operator franchises can be revoked and much of the infrastructure is already back in public ownership by another name (Network Rail).
More worrying is the outright sale of the energy and telecoms sectors, where the infrastructure itself has been sold. My local telephone network is old and has disrupted our phone and broadband service twice this year. But it is owned by BT Openreach, an organisation seemingly beyond public influence. BT Group as a whole has lashings of funds to promote sports and other optional digital services but clearly sees no profit in spending money to modernise the Openreach-owned cabling.
Similarly the failure of successive governments – yes, when the decisions are hard ones they’re for the government, not the private sector – to renew our energy infrastructure has led to panic measures such as the new nuclear generator in north Somerset to be built by the French in exchange for a guaranteed energy price of twice what would be expected in a “free market”. Where is the investment risk in such a deal?
Of course with those corporations running what used to be public services, risk no longer plays a serious part. There will always be a demand for energy, transport and telecoms. If the going gets tough, the company just walks away, as National Express did when it found it couldn’t make enough money out of the East Coast rail franchise. Contracts are drawn up so that the private sector contractor is guaranteed a minimum level of income irrespective of the state of the “market”. Ever wondered why there are so many unnecessary minor road schemes – a new traffic island here, a crossroads redesign there – even though your local council is cutting essential services? Have a look (if you can) at the contract between the council and its highways consultants.
All these are profoundly serious issues. But what is even worse is that the people running these risk-free companies have grown richer and the people who work for them have grown poorer. Recent studies have demonstrated this growing gulf beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet instead of acting as a fair-minded distributor of wealth-generated public funds, government has become a means of channelling taxpayers’ money to its chosen “partners” in the private sector who retain it for their own bosses and shareholders rather than their workforce.
Much, much more could be said. What is needed is action, to start rescuing this country from the moral sink it is drowning in. Jones comes up with some old die-hards such as a greater role for trade unions, or the Peoples’ Assembly movement that he is helping to set up. The trouble with the unions is that when they did have power they abused it – remember the 1970s? – and the Peoples’ Assembly, however worthy, is destined to bring out the usual collection of lefty activists who fail to connect with the essentially conservative (small “c”) majority. In other words, with people like me.
So what to do? A revolution, yes. But of what sort and how to achieve it? I’ll post some ideas in a future blog. Meanwhile, read Jones’s book (and no, I don’t know him and this isn’t a plug) and get angry. It helps.