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The political writer John Hilley recently wrote a response to Owen Jones’s Guardian article in late May about why the British left should adopt the language of Podemos. He points out that although Jones’s criticisms apply extremely well to substantial parts of the left, his single solution of reforming the Labour party ought to be questioned: ‘Lamentably, within this lofty endorsement of Podemos, Jones still fails to concede that Labour can never be a credible vehicle for change, that it’s long-done, unreformable, too tainted by establishment ideology, neoliberal doctrine and historic sellout.’
Hilley notes that when Jones is challenged on Twitter to justify his left-Labourism, he quite typically responds with terse jibes like ‘Ever get bored of your sectarianism?’ and, in response to Hilley’s assessment of his Guardian piece, he often resorts to (cleverly) shielding himself from criticism by branding others as ‘dogmatic’, ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘sectarian’. But as Hilley notes, Jones’s unusual sensitivity to challenge and his dismissive responses effectively imply that ‘having a fundamental disagreement on such vital issues constitutes some petty wish for division, or that a challenging view is somehow invalid’. Holding someone’s arguments up to scrutiny should not be seen as divisive, although the fact that Jones very clearly gets a tantrum on whenever prodded tells us more about him than it does about the British left (his persistent use of the phrase ‘people like you’ when addressing such troublesome horrors as Hilley reveals a deeply conservative and even undemocratic instinct within Jones, no matter how superficially socialist and tolerant he and his writings may appear). In addition, Jones fails to make the crucial distinction between individual and organisational sectarianism, with the latter, and not typically the former, being a central obstacle for the left: If an individual chooses to distance themselves from the views of others in a particular domain of discussion, this does not imply that the organisation they belong to, as a whole, will be unable to collaborate and support other forms of organisation and political action.
One of the handful of times I’ve spoken to Jones was last October when he was hosted by a UCL Left Forum meeting. I decided to ask him about Media Lens, the group involved in keeping tabs on the ‘liberal media’ and exposing biases, close friends of Hilley’s. Jones’s face instantly scrunched up. ‘Them lot’, he said. We walked out of the university building, his eyes glued to his feet. He accused them of being self-important and self-aggrandising, resenting the number of occasions they’ve challenged his views on topics ranging from Libya to media ownership. I pushed him on why he’d ever object to these kind of discussions, surely to be welcomed in a healthy democracy. He repeated the line about self-importance but threw in ‘self-indulgent’ for good measure.
Most of what Hilley says, on the other hand, is easy to agree with, although going so far as he does in outright rejecting any substantial differences between the leadership candidates is neither accurate nor helpful. Still, encouraging comparisons between the position of Jones and the Media Lens-style ‘we need a revolution’ rhetoric (as they claimed on Facebook around the time of the election) is plainly to be welcomed, despite the latter’s lack of comprehensive strategy besides building non-profit media outlets and ‘rejecting the state’ and other such notions.
As the sociologist Seán Duffy at Glasgow University pointed out soon after the publication of Jones’s piece, ‘Spain isn’t starting to elect seemingly radical left politicians because Podemos have been “communicating better”, rather because 100,000s of people have been involved in sustained and effective mobilisation against the corruption and incompetence of their government. This simply is not happening in the UK’. It seems to me that Jones is in fact part of the problem here, what with his overly simplistic and cautiously ambiguous calls for ‘hope’. As Chris Hedges notes, ‘this kind of mania for hope is really a kind of sickness, because it prevents us from seeing how dire and catastrophic the situation is if we don’t radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and to the ecosystem’ [http://goo.gl/IvFD3H]. And Jones – by ending his piece by pointing to the (clear and acknowledged) limitations of demonstrations and opting for intensely vague and amorphous forms of action involving what Jones calls ‘communities’ – is not adding anything to the urgent strategic debates being had across the country in organisations from the excellent rs21 to the rapidly expanding Counterfire to the somewhat more spectacle-oriented though inspiring People’s Assembly.
It has been well established through numerous reviews and endorsements that Owen Jones’s book The Establishment: And how they get away with it lays out some important criticisms of international trade, the UK police force, tax laws and the financial system. Yet while the establishment includes for him ‘media barons who set the terms of debate’, Jones fails to mention one of the most influential critical media models, Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model in Manufacturing Consent, which argues that media reporting is influenced by the private interests which fund and maintain news outlets. The media themselves are, after all, corporations, and so are concerned primarily with profit maximisation, but the term ‘corporate media’ is only used once by Jones. He writes that ‘the Establishment could hardly ask for a more effective lobbying operation than the British media’. Yet his chapter ‘Mediaocracy’ completely ignores the Guardian, his trusty employer, with Jones attacking the easy targets (Daily Star, Daily Mail), despite the Guardian’s role in supporting numerous aspects of the neoliberal project (including an aggressive foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) and backing New Labour. With the focus of attack being on wealthy individuals, what conveniently escape attention are firms and trusts (like the Scott Trust – which is a firm, not a trust – owner of the Guardian). Jones is quick to condemn media barons like Rupert Murdoch for their reprehensible actions, but ignores the influence of corporate owners and advertisers (as in the recent case of the Daily Telegraph’s reports of the HSBC scandal, tempered due to commercial interests).
Jones also claims that Harold Wilson was attacked by the British left for ‘giving diplomatic support’ to the US during its bombing of Vietnam. He adds that Wilson ‘did not commit British forces to the conflict’. But Wilson gave much more than diplomatic support, with secret British air flights sending arms to the US, while MI6 dispatched teams to South Vietnam. Jones’s claim that ‘Britain joined the US-led coalition that invaded Afghanistan to depose the Taliban regime’ is also incorrect. The Taliban objective came weeks after the initial invasion, orchestrated after the Taliban refused to extradite Bin Laden and associates when the US demanded, the Whitehouse claiming (without evidence) that they were involved in 9/11.
Jones’s conception of the establishment is also too Tory-heavy, ignoring the strong corporate ties of Miliband’s Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats. In addition, while Labour exhibits extreme institutional hostility to the left, Jones insisted on supporting Miliband to the hilt during the recent general election campaign for his ‘passion and grit’. And whereas Russell Brand’s Revolution quotes controversial anarchists like Chomsky and Graeber, Jones safely quotes The Communist Manifesto, discussing few contemporary writers and activists. Indeed one of Jones’s earliest articles appeared in 2007 on an online Marxist journal, and his special kind of soft left-Labourism may be appealing to some in a time of relentless austerity, but the Labour party shows no signs of breaking with neoliberalism. The core philosophy of the Labour leadership is accommodation, not being wildly pro-austerity to the level of Osborne, but pro-austerity enough to please important City figures, as the current leadership candidates reflect (which the honourable exception of Jeremy Corbyn). Yet the only parts of Labour which The Establishment seems to object to is Blairism and John Smith’s opposition in the early 1990s.
Jones believes in ‘extending democracy to every sphere of life’, including ‘the wider economy and the workplace’ – archetypal anarchist and socialist views, but views which The Establishment rarely translates into concrete policy proposals. Edward Snowden is mentioned once, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks never, while Libya receives a single mention. Like Revolution, The Establishment’s repeated adoption of abstract gesturing and the illusion of tactical instruction often reaches impressive heights; Jones is very good at writing sentences like ‘But the rise of the Internet and, in particular, social media provide fresh opportunities for new movements to link together’.
While Chavs documented the prejudice against the working classes, The Establishment exhibits numerous instances of class hatred, mocking establishment figures for their fake tans, etc. And, as with Revolution, Jones’s book contains some glaring contradictions. He writes that establishment membership is based on shared ‘mentality’ on one page (echoed in subsequent interviews), and on another he claims membership is based not on personal characteristics but institutional position.
Jones concludes simply by invoking the ‘politics of hope’ before reproducing his favourite Tony Benn quote about the flame of anger at injustice. This is great, but an obsession with hope is where Jones differs from Naomi Klein (and Chomsky, Chris Hedges and George Orwell). We do not read these figures to be uplifted and feel optimistic about the state of the world, and yet they provide a much more comprehensive series of alternative political visions. What is needed is an anti-austerity grassroots strategy, something which the currently dominant Blairite wing of Labour plainly cannot deliver. No matter how many times he quotes Benn and stands behind podiums declaring ‘solidarity’ for every movement from DPAC to UK Uncut, by hanging onto the Labour party and only rarely discussing progressive alternatives Jones may well starve the British left of some much needed innovation.