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An angelical face has risen as one of the most influential figures in British politics. Owen Jones is just 31 years old and he has become one of the leaders of the Left. Even the head of the Labour Party borrows his comments about the current debates. His latest achievement? To show who pulls the strings in The Establisment: And How To Get Away With It.
His deep voice with a northern English accent is everywhere, advocating for public health on the streets, discussing the policies of David Cameron's government on television or participating in the People's Assembly movement. Despite his busy schedule, I met him at a downtown coffee shop in London where, of course, he ordered a milk tea to go with the interview.
In your book The Establishment you describe how the current power settles down at the end of the seventies with a neoliberal ideology belonging to the right. It seems that the left was waiting serenely in all this process...
The left collapses for numbered reasons, and various demoralizing defeats. It is set by the American economist Milton Friedman that to get change, you need a crisis. The rise of the new right in the late seventies made use of the economic crisis that affected the West in their own advantage in a way which outmaneuvered the left, and the left wasn't prepared for it. Also, the battering of the trade union, particularly in places as Britain, a traditional backbone of the left.
Above all else, it's about the end of the Cold War and the death of any alternative, not just to capitalism, even to free market capitalism. Neoliberalism went to a triumphalist face, leading to one and absolutely victory over all its opponents. The writer Fredric Jameson says, or he's quoting someone, "it became easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism". It seemed as though that was it and the left was totally demoralized and fragmented, so it shifted to the right in its mainstream forms and the rest are scattered around, generally arguing among themselves.
Do you think that we can currently find an alternative to this establishment? Has the left finally found a coherent message?
I think that it is starting to get out together, Spain and Greece show that the left can get back into action. It is imaginative, creative... and tries to communicate their ideas in another way. It's because all these defeats that demoralized it, and because its divorce from its usual roots and the organized working class; their message was lost arguing with each other, and they started to bring in meaningless arguments, meaningless to anyone looking from the outside.
The left is just beginning to recover from this defeat now, and we see that -particularly in Spain and Greece, but we could see it elsewhere else-, we can start to see it in this country as well actually. The left is finally getting back together; with the economic crisis, that sense of “there is no alternative” has been chipped away gradually. The opinion polls and all researches suggest that people don't support neoliberalism, people don't support privatization of basic services or lower taxes on the rich... That's the elite, but not the public as a whole.
There is a sense of resignation, but that's a different thing: it's a perspective of “there is no alternative to this”. That's kind of how the injustice has been traded in neoliberalism; it's like the weather, you can complain about the rain but there is nothing that you can do about it. When the resignation chips away, that's when neoliberalism faces its nemesis, and that's what we're seeing at the moment in Spain with Podemos and in Greece with Syriza, the beginning of a new phase. That phase will be difficult, challenging and it will be full compromises and so on. I think that the direction is clear, the left is reviving as a political force in a way that didn't exist for a long time.
You also describe this resignation or “lost of class consciousness” in your book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. This revival of the left, is it because of a class consciousness raising?
The popular myth that there is not social class anymore has died now, the whole myth died because of the economic crisis, because of the austerity, because of our own government and its main key thought of favouring the privileged background. So the idea of class has revived, in a sense of the idea of those at the top and what people at the top want, and what we want is different and that is push to a clash, and that’s when you get a sense of class identity. That sense of class is back, even though in the nineties the idea of all being middle class was particularly strong in Britain. But maybe it is back in a passive way, because you've got the breaking down of the organized trade union movement. That obviously gave people a collective identity but also things like the collapse of the old industries. People don't live anymore in this communities based around mines and steel work with lifetime jobs. People now have lots of different jobs in the course of a lifetime, in the course of a year in some cases.
Things are more fragmented now, jobs are far more fragmented, housing as well, because of a push over to own a property in this country which has caused disastrous consequences to my generation... The whole point is about trying to make people feel like individuals. In the seventies, the conservatives released these documents, statements of aims, and they said that the problem in Britain wasn't the existence of class, it was the existence of class feeling. So that's what they wanted to break down. That's when Margaret Thatcher said that there is not such a thing as society, there is only individuals and their families, and just after she left power she said "class is a communist concept". That's something they wanted to break down, and instead they wanted that everyone felt as individuals only looking after themselves and their families,in a way that, if you succeed, that's your effort and if you don't succeed, it's your fault and you deserve your poverty and unemployment because you are just lazy, you are not talented enough. So it is this promotion of individualism that helps to maintain the existent order, the injustice we have, because it makes people think that inequality is deserved, that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor.
I think that class feeling has revived. It comes in different ways, you have Occupy, the Indignados in Spain, with the idea of the 1% and the 99%, the idea that the interests of the majority are very different of the interests of those at the top.
The relationship between corporate interests and political power demonstrated in your book is really disturbing. For example, you describe that in the first fifteen months of the current government, corporate representatives met with government ministers 1,537 times on record, while on the other hand the union representatives met with ministers 130 times. Also you describe different cases of revolving doors. Can this relationship be stopped?
We need to stop the whole corporate funding of political parties because big businesses don't fund parties without a reason: they expect something in return, they expect their taxes to be slashed, they expect workers' rights to be repealed, they expect the privatization of public services... So yes, to get rid of big money in politics I would ban politicians from working for companies that are related to their former positions. They shouldn't go from looking after the National Health Service to working in a private health company. I would have a huge continence for lobbying, lobbying has been introduced as a shadow and now it's cracking down trade unions and charities.
So I think that all those actions are aimed at demarcating politics and big business, so they can be divided as much as possible. For example, the privatization of public services has taken half of all spending, and taxes are going to private contracts for private companies. That's a threat to our democracy, when you put profit above the interests of the people.
But to implement this policies in the current configuration of the states seems complicated. For example, we are now in the creating process of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) that will configure the economic relations between the European Union and United States of America and which even European MP don't have full access.
The TTIP is a very good example because corporations on an interstate order can threaten the elected governments to stop implementing policies when these affect their own profits. In Australia, there is a similar agreement, for example; they tried to introduce plain cigarette packets to stop people from smoking and then Philip Morris, the cigarette company, tried to stop the Australian government for introducing this law because it will obviously affect their profits. That is why the European Union has to be dramatically changed.
The National Railway is a great example. The vast majority of this country wants the renationalization of the railway, but who wouldn't want it, our railway is a joke. It is fragmented, inefficient, the most expensive in the western world... It's often cheaper to fly halfway across the world that to travel by train in your own country. This is madness. The EU has a regulation which promotes competition in the railway, and all the countries, as France, found a way to go around that.
The EU has to be changed, not just in this austerity policies, but also -I think- in order to shift this balance of power within the European Union that promotes privatization to a social policy, to work for the interest of working people. We need to change that but, in this country, criticism to the European Union is often been left to the xenophobic and populist right, that happen to be really loud about it. I think that the left needs to be more critical, and needs to link all across Europe, like Podemos or Syriza, to change the European Union, because it is a threat to democracy when it prevents elected governments to be able to introduce measures that benefit people and challenge companies.
Both your books refer to the importance of media to generate certain ideas in society. Do we need to establish a state control of the media?
No, not a state control. We don't have a free media, generally speaking. I mean, our media aren't busted, we are not North Korea. Instead, they are mostly ruled by a very small group of very rich billionaire media moguls who have every reason to defend their own interests and what specific policies are acceptable for debate in Britain. So, even if most people in this country want renationalization of the railway, higher taxes on the rich, more workers' rights, or the increase of the minimum wage, not a single newspaper, mainstream newspapers of course, supports those policies. It is ridiculous. What they do is that they make out that anyone who challenges that consent has to be ignored. For example, Ed Miliband, who isn't a radical, even him, just because he's slightly outside of what has been the general political consensus, they've thrown everything: the way he eats sandwiches, his look, accusing his dead father -who fought the nazis- of hating Britain or saying, like last week, that he would stab his own country in the back... It's really sinister.
Russell Brown, once again, speaks about all these issues, about the inequality and the way the country is ruled, and then some newspapers, two days in a row, did a form of attack on him because his private landlord avoids taxes. I don't know about you but I don't know anything about my landlord. It is ridiculous, they go after anyone and they make examples of it. If they see anything that seems to threaten them slightly, they have to stop it. Those people who present the alternative or challenge them in any way have to be destroyed.
I would ban media moguls from owning more than one newspaper, you shouldn't be able to own like Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun, The Times, Sky News... so that has to be dismantled. I would ban foreign media moguls for owning any British newspaper, so that would be bye bye Robert Murdoch. It is ridiculous that an Australian born American should be one of the most powerful people of this country, it makes no sense.
Though, with the rise of social media, now we can actually challenge the mainstream media in the way we couldn't before, and that is really a step forward. Take the G20 protest in 2009; a newspaper vendor, who had nothing to do with the protest, was walking home with his hands in his pockets when he was backed in by police officers, thrown to the ground and killed. The police lies about it, as they often do, and they say that he had a heart attack and collapsed on the floor and the police tried to save him and the protesters stopped them of doing so... Unfortunately, someone recorded what happened, because the Evening Standard just said what the police said. So I think we can challenge the media now, so I would like to see more crowfunding in journalism, maybe we can have new forms of it on the Internet because now more and more people use the Internet to access news, and people can build their voice in Twitter or other social media in a way never seen before. That is the case of tax avoidance scandals, where people used Twitter to get their messages across, so it is an organized protest without the mainstream media.
Also, I would include a clause in journalists’ contracts, which can be used to stop the employers from forcing them to do things that aren't normal. We need the unionization of journalists and also to ban unpaid internships, which means you often have to work for free to get into the media, which often means that only rich people can afford to do that, which means that the voices we have in media are from very narrow backgrounds.
That’s what I think, I don't defend state control obviously. We need an independent free media but we don't have that at the moment, and we need to see how we can build it.
Do you think that this is why the endemic racism that you so often criticise in your book has spread so easily?
Media should challenge the authority; instead, they often just repeat what the police tell them. There have been many black men killed in suspicious circumstances. If you are black, you are six times more likely to be stop-and-search on suspicion of drugs. Those issues haven't been properly addressed by the media. It is not a surprise, because if you don't have enough money, you can't get into the media. Actually what we need is a more representative media than the one we have right now. For example, we need more muslims.
Is this situation getting worse with the United Kingdom’s upcoming general elections with the rise of UKIP, the Independence Party?
Yes, because this legitimizes forms of racism defeated in public and in courts. So, racism seems to be acceptable again. Lately they have tried to stigmatize HIV foreign patients and I still remember those big posters, pointing at the people on the street, that said: “26 millions of Romanians and Bulgarians are coming for your job”. They are trying to redirect the people's hate and anger, away from those with power and into our neighborhoods.
Immigrants are used as scapegoat instead of looking responsibilities on those at the top and rather than focusing on the bankers that caused the economic disaster, tax dodgers who don't pay millions of pounds and the big corporations that create poverty subsidized by the state because of poverty wages to their workers. Those are the real ones to blame. But UKIP blame the people down the road. Without immigrants workers our National Health Service will collapses overnight but the only time we really talk about immigrants in the NHS is about the “pressurization” that immigrants are putting on the NHS. They encourage people to blame each other instead of blaming the power and we need to focus in the ones at the top rather than on the people down the road.
Do you think that this election will have influence in the European policy or the policies of the member countries?
Yes, of course. This country it's a significant European member state. What's happening around Europe is an increasing challenge to austerity. Now, the Labour Party is offering the only alternative after they shifted away from the right in subjects like tax avoidance, NHS privatization, 0 hours contract, the bedroom tax...
No one knows what is going to happen. The tories were expecting to be ahead in the polls over Labour by now. Well, the latest poll gives the Labour 2 points ahead. So, they are really panicking, throwing around random policies now, like the extra 8 million pounds to the NHS...
And they didn't even know how to explain the budget for it...
Exactly. It is humiliating. But I think that the consequences if the Labour wins over any other single party then can shift the balance. Not just here; maybe also across Europe.
The tories are the most successful political force, not just in the British history; they've been around since 1830. They ruled Britain over two thirds of the 20th century. If they are defeated, it would be seen as a big defeat of the right, not just here, also across Europe. It would be the beginning of a fight because I rather be fighting a Labour government than fighting a conservative government. And there would be huge fights about the minimum wage, taxing the rich and so on. We would be in a better position to fight those causes with a Labour government that with a conservative one.
Why there is not a left party in Britain that represents your fight values?
We do have a difficult electoral system. It is very difficult for a new party to break through because you need to concentrate support in individual constituencies to win. You can get the 20% of the votes and not win any seat. That also could happen to UKIP, even if they win 15%, they will have 3 seats. The Liberal Democrats are going to get around 7% with 30 seats. It's really inconsistent the way it works. If the people decided to vote for a new left party, they’ll split the vote in the local constituencies if they don’t have the support of the trade union, who are with the Labour party. We need a new electoral system.
Let's see what will happen. It is an exciting time but Labour should look at Greece where there is their equivalent PASOK. In 2009 PASOK won the election with a 40% of the votes. In last elections they got the 4%. Or at Spain, with Podemos. We don’t need to go that far, just look at Scotland. Scotland was the house of the Labour party and in this upcoming election it seems that they are going to lose every single seat in Scotland thanks to the Scottish National Party. What that tells us is no longer take your supporters as granted.
You clearly support Podemos in Spain; you even participated in the presentation in London with Ken Loach and Iñigo Errejón. What do you see in this political party?
I think that they are very exciting and inspiring in their development, they come from the social movement of Indignados... I mean, I was grown up in a left family so I understand the cultures and traditions of the left, most of the people don't, because the left has been so divided and they need to find another way to reach the people. Most people don't think in the terms of left or right, they think in terms of issues to be addressed. It's what Podemos did, in a way that is convincing and coherent according to their experiences, in a language that they could understand.
When British left attacked Podemos, I just thought: look at us, we are in absolutely no position to criticize them. Instead we should be learning from them, why they are succeeding, what are they doing right? Obviously they face inevitable obstacles. The Spanish “casta” is demonizing them and attacking them and so on and that's because they are a legitimated threat and that will have ramifications, not just in Spain, but in Europe. I hope that they do very well in the elections and maybe there would be a coalition government.
Aren't you afraid that Podemos could become a disappointment?
That is always a risk. Look at Greece. It’s a small periphery country in Europe which is fighting the European Union leadership and the International Monetary Fund. It's David against Goliath. Of course it's going to be difficult; it is a ship sailing away. The point is to mobilize people to support a new government, it makes things easier to implement more radical policies if you have the people organized behind you. That's how I see it. It's linking parliamentary and extraparliamentary political action together. That is how we get changes.
The last chapter of The Establishment is dedicated to a needed democratic revolution. What would be the keys to get this?
Well, we get changes thanks to the sacrifice and organization of the common people. A democratic revolution is about shifting the power to our society. That means: a democratic public ownership of public services and utilities that are in private hands such as the railways and energy companies; tax justice with a proper taxation of those on the top; shifting the balance in favor of workers' rights including trade union's; spreading democracy, not just in politics but also in the economy of the workplace so the people can actually have democratic control of their life. Also, public investment across the country to rebuild our economy and to support new industries of the future, like green energy. I could go further but it is a good start.
Last question. After two books with an incredible success, are you working on a third one?
Yes, I'm going to do a book called The Politics of Hope. I want to look at how things can be different with an international orientation. Partly I want to look at Spain and the rise of Podemos so I can teach people all over the world about how a movement can challenge the power, I think that is fascinating. For example, in education, to look for alternatives, like Finland and their education system with no private schools.
Just to see how it looks to give the people a sense of an alternative that does exist, because people like me are keen to know what against. So I want an answer, I want to focus on giving the people hope. As Tony Benn, the British politician who inspired me a lot, and who died last year, said that “Socialism is the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world”. If you just have anger against immigrants or the unemployed, all that becomes resignation. They would just accept injustice in the way I spoke about before. You got to give hope to the people; you got to get to the people a sense of society. That's why I want to focus on that, to give people hope. And probably, it would be more enjoyable to write.
“The Establishment”, by Owen James, has recently been published in Spain by Seix Barral.
An angelical face has risen as one of the most influential figures in British politics. Owen Jones is just 31 years old and he has become one of the leaders of the Left. Even the head of the Labour Party borrows his comments about the current debates. His latest achievement? To show who pulls the...
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