Owen Jones’s latest book is causing a stir as most of his writing and public appearances seem to. I haven’t yet read the book but in Peter Wilby’s review of The Establishment in the New Statesman he has been criticised for not calling out the working class for their part in the perpetuation of neo-liberalism and financialized capitalism.
Wilby praises Jones’s dissection of the how the elites reinstated “The New Normal” of capitalism after the crash but does not address how millions of “ordinary people” were lured into becoming individualised speculators and investors through pensions, mortgages, etc. This is a very important point but in fairness to Jones his book is titled The Establishment not the The Precarious, Financialized, Working Class (well probably something much catchier but you get the point). While convincing everyone to be an investor was a vital part of the strategy of “the establishment” I imagine Jones is also engaged in a political game in that he does not want to point the finger at the people who have been hit hardest by the recession regardless of whether they had a hand in it. His book is aimed at a general readership, some of whom already may think of him as a little preachy, not an academic one which requires a balanced argument.
Wilby’s is a line of argument which has been well-covered in social science literature most notably in Colin Crouch‘s work on ‘privatized Keynesianism‘ and Matthew Watson’s on the construction of “monetary conservatives” (Scott Lavery is also conducting some excellent research in this area). But Wilby does end with an interesting note of optimism. The market inflation, particularly of house prices, which has been bemoaned as such a problem for young people who are unable to get a foot on the housing ladder has perhaps pushed them into a more radical position. Young people do not, like their parents, have a stake in constantly rising house values or inflating share prices.
“Members of this generation have nothing to fear and much to gain from steep falls in asset prices. From them, in time, will come support for a new economic order, provided that the left (or even the centre) can produce convincing alternatives.”
This is a nice idea but I am not sure how receptive young people as a whole cohort are to these alternatives. An extensive study of seventeen years of poll results suggested that this generation is more conservative and right wing than their parents. The conditions which Wilby highlights are probably not sufficient to radicalize young people today, or even to necessarily encourage opposition. In two studies of the Warsaw youth in the 1960s by Zygmunt Bauman, which I have written about elsewhere (see pages 4-5 of open access version and pages 119-120 of paywalled, also extensively covered by Keith Tester and Michael Hviid Jacobsen in their excellent book Bauman Before Postmodernity), he claimed that the youth will only become radicalized if three conditions are met:
- there are sufficiently broad channels of political action
- political activity is seen to provide access to social goods
- the youth have been denied status or cultural goods
While today many young people are interested in, and passionate about, political issues they are often quite disconnected from established routes of political action and politicians which means that the first two conditions are not easily met. The second especially so as we have seen little concession by “the establishment” to the demands of mass political activity (eg. the Iraq war protests). As to the third condition the picture is probably very mixed with big divides between young people. But if we restrict the discussion to Wilby’s argument, those who might previously have had a vested interested in shares and house prices are likely to still enjoy reasonably high status and significant cultural goods and those who do not would probably have been unlikely to have been near the housing ladder before the economic crisis, anyway. This is a much more complex argument than I have time to go into here (and there are people much better qualified than me to pass judgement on this) but nevertheless it seems that there might have to be a more substantial event than that which Wilby described in order to shift a generation towards significant opposition.