Across Europe there has recently been a rash of popular and populist books explaining the various crises through which our continent is going. No such work has emerged in Britain. Here the populist “state of the nation” books are coming from a quite different political angle. These books claim that “we” ordinary people are being held both down and back by an “establishment”. They ride on feelings of inequality, powerlessness and the undeniable failure of many of our institutions. As with their continental counterparts, one reason for their success is that they are not onto nothing.
At the end of 2014 two books were released in the UK which covered the disgruntled politics of the moment from this peculiarly British angle. Owen Jones’s The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It has a front cover endorsement from the author of the other book, Russell Brand, author of Revolution. Through cross-fertilising puffs and events the authors have helped each other to attain enviable sales and to dominate the non-fiction bestseller lists in Britain.
Both play the “us” versus “them” game without irony. If our continental brothers and sisters are blaming recent incomers for much of their strife, these British authors return to the old British underdog tune of blaming “the powers that be”. By the end of The Establishment Jones even tries to resurrect the “working-class boys spilling their blood for the establishment’s wars” theme. Surely not heard for a century at least?
Both works are, it should be said, littered not only with falsehoods but with sloppy and basic errors. At the less serious end Jones has Andrew Neil as the “owner” of the Spectator (he is Chairman of the company which publishes the magazine). At the other extreme there is a serious muddle over statistics, percentages and dates so that his most incendiary “original” figure (over the percentage of the top 50 publicly-traded UK firms with parliamentarians on the board) turns out to be simply wrong.
Nor is he any better on definition, a problem he is careful to absolve himself from blame over in his introduction. The establishment, he warns us, is a “shape shifter, evolving and adapting as needs must”. Journalists are part of the “establishment” if they ever worked for the now-defunct News of the World, but not if they work for the Guardian. Think tanks and pressure groups which favour free-market economics are “establishment” because they are funded by people with “special interests”. The pressure group Hacked Off, on the other hand, is not part of the establishment, despite being secretively funded by rich celebrities seeking to keep their personal failings out of the public eye. Goldsmith family money is capable of an especially noteworthy transmogrification. In the hands of the late Sir James, the family money creates “establishment” entities. Groups funded by Goldsmith’s left-wing heiress daughter Jemima, however, miraculously become “not establishment”.
The Oxford-educated Jones is unclear on whether education at Oxbridge makes you a member of the establishment. Had he attended some other place of higher learning one suspects that it would have been clearer. The state-school-educated author is nonetheless certain that anyone who is privately educated is part of the establishment, unless they repent enough to hold precisely Jones’s far-left politics. So the editor and author David Goodhart may be a lifelong left-winger, but he is dismissed as part of the establishment with a nod and a slur. The nod is that he is an Old Etonian, the slur is Jones’s claim that Goodhart’s “overriding passion appears to be an almost obsessive opposition to what he regards as mass immigration”. This claim alone is sufficient for Jones to dismiss not just Goodhart but Demos, the left-wing think tank with which he is associated, as being “establishment”.
Elsewhere in this paranoid parallel universe the Mont Pelerin Society is among the most powerful forces in the world. Jones says, “To understand the guiding principles of today’s Establishment, we have to go back to 1947 and the sleepy Swiss village of Mont Pèlerin.” How I wish the late Ken Minogue, who presided over this meeting group of free-market economists, were still with us to laugh at the vast political power he is now presumed to have had.
Jones in turn encourages his readers to laugh at the Mont Pelerin Society’s 1947 claim that “over large stretches of the earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared”. He nowhere mentions that the main reason for this was that much of the earth’s surface was at that point covered by the menace of Communism — an ideology which in a book devoted to some pretty obscure and unimportant corners receives not one mention. This is perhaps suitable in a work that elsewhere cites the crazed conspiracy theory website Spinwatch as a legitimate source.
By now it should be clear what type of politics we are dealing with here. For Jones “the establishment” is shorthand for people he does not like. People he does like are not establishment.
The same prejudice is, like everything else, even clearer in Brand’s book. So whereas Jones is careful not to state his evident ambition (that Labour’s leaders step aside and put control of the party into his uniquely authentic hands), Brand is less bothered with any track-covering. From the strange Rasputinesque cover photograph on, it is clear Brand does not wish to persuade: he wishes to convert. The result is unreadable; although Jones does not write well, when put alongside Brand he reads like Noel Annan.
Revolution is not just un-researched, ill-disciplined and meandering. It is, I would say, clearly the product of a drug-wrecked mind. Brand does sometimes swerve onto subjects other than himself. But whenever it happens he is careful to return as swiftly as possible to his chosen specialist subject. It is also quite amazingly puerile. This man, whose career ought to have ended when he used his position in the BBC establishment to taunt and demean the retired actor Andrew Sachs, remains especially (one might say unwisely) keen on dismissing people by reference to their physical appearance. One of his more printable efforts dismisses David Cameron, Donald Rumsfeld and Rupert Murdoch as having “dish face, dishrag, anodyne-plus appearances”.
As with everything else with this type of politics, if one were to highlight an inconsistency among those who complain about politics being a vacuous beauty contest while simultaneously turning it into even more of a vacuous beauty contest, Brand has a way out. Being a “joker” as well as a full-time multi-millionaire revolutionary, Brand is capable of his own shape-shifting. If at one moment his concerns are those of ordinary people, the next he will be saying, “Don’t ask me, I’m only a comedian.”
During one recent interview for the BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis tried to test one of Brand’s claims by bringing up a graph. The interviewee instantly hollered: “I don’t want to look at a graph, mate, I haven’t got time to look at a bloody graph . . . This is the kind of thing that people like you use to confuse people like us.” The interviewer was soon cowed into promising that he was in fact “trying to help” Brand. How politicians must dream of having a Newsnight interrogation like that.
This is one of the real problems with these new anti-establishment designer demagogues. They pose as the little men — the only legitimate voice of the people. But they are probably the most powerful people in our society, who expect never to be challenged by the media. When Brand was recently asked an inconvenient question by a Channel 4 interviewer he ended up seizing the journalist, intimidating him, calling him names, and ordering him to ask different questions. If you wonder what tone political interviewers now employ to speak to Brand, it is the one their predecessors once reserved for senior politicians. And while today’s politicians are treated on the airwaves as liars whose untruths must be exposed, Brand is offered the “Is there anything else you would care to share with us?” soft-balls.
And there lies a clue to one of the things which is going on. We live in an inverted political order. Anybody who believes that politicians in the House of Commons are a uniquely powerful establishment which must be brought low cannot have been paying attention. Many people spend their entire lives working to become Members of Parliament. But when they get there they notice that they are in reality almost powerless. One simple cause for this observation may be the proliferation of other places of law-making, most noticeably Brussels, which render membership of the Commons far less meaningful than it was even 25 years ago. Meanwhile, the public have been persuaded — again not wholly without justification — that MPs are uniformly and uniquely corrupt. Our MPs are now less well paid than an average first-year lawyer at a London solicitors’ firm. We have passed the point where the public wishes to punish their representatives. We are now at a stage where there may be something not just sadistic but anti-democratic about keeping hatred of powerless politicians at this pitch.
There is also something deeply troubling about where all this is heading. There are currently allegations of members of the UK’s recent political “establishment” not only carrying out sexual abuse of children but of consorting to cover up such abuse. An inquiry into these historic allegations has been announced by the Home Secretary. It has got through two chairpersons before it has even started — both having been deemed by alleged victims to be part of the establishment they are meant to be looking into. Newspapers are now running front-page stories claiming that establishment paedophiles have even murdered their victims and covered up such murders with the help of the police. I have no idea whether such claims are true, though they strike me as unlikely. But in our current atmosphere of anti-establishment anti-politics such charges have the possibility of being not just widely expected to be true but to lead to ends which are profoundly dangerous.
People like Brand and Jones seem perfectly happy to whip all this sort of thing along. A recent interview with the Guardian writer George Monbiot on Brand’s personal YouTube channel is titled “Who does David Cameron really work for?” Perfectly in accord with someone who suggests in his book and interviews that 9/11 was an “inside job” of the US government. Elsewhere in his book Brand writes of believers in the free market, “They are not going to do anything to prevent ecological meltdown; it contravenes their ideology, so change has to be imposed from the outside.” Who is this “they”? It appears to include anybody who knows that, for all its faults, free-market capitalism has dragged more people out of poverty than any ideology in history. Such believers in the “free market” are not just wrong, “they” are so evil that they are actually happy to destroy the planet. Nowhere in their rants against the free market do Jones or Brand acknowledge that it is the only economic system in history so benevolent that it can make even its wildest critics rich.
But while British commentators are delighted to identify the Vichyite conspiracy theories in Eric Zemmour’s French bestseller Le Suicide Français, they are far less willing to notice how toxic this stuff closer to home might be. At a time when much of the British public expect any day to hear that our politics is comprised of organised rings of murderous paedophiles, what is needed is not a pulling down, but a building up. There are many problems in our society which we could agree on a need to solve. But inventing powerful secret cadres of definable yet indefinable people to explain them is no basis on which to start that discussion.
Writing about those rioters who in the summer of 2011 smashed, burned and looted shops across Britain, Brand writes that their actions were no worse than the consumerism which he describes as having been “imposed” upon them. And this, I cannot help thinking, is an especially revealing phrase — entirely at one with a popular world view. That view sees “us” as poor victims of forces and temptations which are not only pushed upon us, but to which, when they are pushed upon us long enough, we will inevitably and necessarily succumb. If you are in a “consumerist” society long enough how could you be expected to just not buy crap you can’t afford when you don’t need it? No — the answer must be that of course you will succumb. And from there any bad behaviour — even looting and burning — will be excused because it will be someone else’s fault.
This is the world view of an addict. And the answer to all our society’s problems of the addict Brand is one answer which some addicts seek for their addiction — which is that everyone is to be blamed for their failings except themselves. Grand conspiracy theories and establishment plots offer great promise and comfort to such people. They suggest that when we fail or when we fall we do so never because of any conceivable failing or inability of our own, but because some bastard — any bastard — made us do it, has been planning to do it and perhaps always intended to do so. Of course the one thing missing in all this — the one thing that doesn’t appear in either of these books or in any of their conspiratorial and confused demagogic world view — is the only thing which has saved anyone in the past and the only thing which will save anybody in the future: not perfect societies, perfectly engineered economies and perfectly equal, flattened-out collective-based societies, but human agency alone.