As we begin, ponder for a moment: what is the difference between a controversial understanding of the world, and a conspiracy theory?
I imagine that – if you thought much about it – you might reasonably uttered the single word “evidence”. But what constitutes evidence, and are you a good judge of the quality or truth of any evidence you are presented with?
Here is a thing I have been pondering since reading Owen Jones’ book The Establishment (And how they get away with it).
You might also reasonably think that evidence is irrelevant, or that differentiating between conspiracy theory and controversial thinking is pointless (or naive), but that is the first notion which Jones tackles. He presents a history of how the modern consensus of free market politics arose – from the post-war socialist settlement through Thatcher to the financial crash. The common through-line is that the controversial thinking of today can shape the common-sense logic of tomorrow, and becomes canon under appropriate circumstances. The “outriders”, as Jones calls them, are those who push the boundaries of what is politically and intellectually acceptable – and not always for the better. This is done either by careful thought with a grain of truth, or by discarding inconvenient information and fabricating more acceptable facts. To differentiate between these is to begin to dismantle the ideology from ideas.
Jones then goes on to outline the main thesis of his book, that people with aligned interests tend to act together to consolidate power. This, he claims, is what has resulted in the modern Britain – a place where power and money are deeply concentrated. He tells us that wealth is increasingly gathered by fewer people, and that the others are being left to rot. A glance at modern Britain shows that he is not wrong, and he tries to identify the mechanisms by which this concentration of power works. He implicates the outriders with politicians, politicians with corporations, and corporations with the outriders. The police, the tabloids, the BBC, the EU – few institutions escape his eye, and not least the financial industry.
And here is where I began to wonder whether if I replaced the word “banker” with the word “lizard-man”, “journalist” with “alien” and “government” with “Illuminati”, I would have discarded the book at the outset. Perhaps I would, even in the presence of the facts and figures I would so readily claim differentiate this book from mere conspiracy theory.
So, I come to my answer: a conspiracy is about finding a scapegoat and picking only the necessary facts to support that conclusion. A good considered opinion acknowledges where it is vulnerable, and doesn’t hesitate to welcome exceptions. Here is what makes Jones’ book – and by extension, his thesis – so good. There is, as the last chapter acknowledges, no simple answer. Re-nationalizing the railways alone won’t solve the problem. No, the solutions to the problems identified in the book are many, varied, complex. No conspiracy theory contains sufficient depth of thought into the consequences of its solutions, nor serious thought to how their proposals will be opposed.
Ultimately, the humility and wit of the book is pointedly refined in its penultimate paragraph. “The illusion of every era is that it is permanent.” This is both a rousing call to action to end the current neoliberal consensus, and a warning that to neglect our self-consciousness will be our downfall.
I didn’t enjoy reading this book – it made me think hard. It made me upset. It made me angry. It reminded me that I am fallible, and my opinions are doubly so. Nevertheless, right at the end I sat and wondered at how beautiful it is as a piece of social commentary. It was worth every minute I spent reading, and every Euro besides.
I didn’t enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it.