Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Social Reform or Social Revolution?

The journalist, Owen Jones, has followed up his book about CHAVS with a study of the ruling class in Britain. He has called his book THE ESTABLISHMENT: AND HOW THEY GET AWAY WITH IT (Penguin 2015).

Jones points out that the richest 1000 individuals are worth £520 billion while thousands of others have to queue at food banks. Instead of being criticised for holding such wealth the “elite” and their political servants redirect people’s anger to the very bottom of society (p.29). He defines the establishment as a powerful interrelated political force that “represents an institutional and intellectual means by which a wealthy elite defends its interests in a democracy” (p.293).

He goes on to say that the current understanding of “democracy” is severely limited in scope and application and what is needed to address the gross inequality in society is a “democratic revolution” (p. 294). There needs, he believes, to be a sustained battle of ideas against the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy known as “economic liberalism”. These political ideas represent the ruling paradigm; a totalitarian market-informed hegemony that imposes, without question, the dogmatic doctrine of “there is no alternative” or TINA for short.

Jones argues that economic liberalism “…has proved a tremendous ideological victory, fostering widespread acceptance and resignation and sapping the will to resist” (p.294).

Jones explains the reason for the dominance of economic liberalism by reference to “the Overton window”; an opening through which people see the limits of what is politically possible. And what is seen today to be politically possible is the irresistible forward march of globalisation, free trade and free markets on and on into the future without any reasonable opposition or feasible alternative. Such a view of the world now constitutes a sensible, common sense and common ground to which all the main political parties subscribe.

As Jones remarks “… ideas that are outside the window are dismissed as extremist, dangerous, impossible” (p.294). The political group of fanatics who push the agenda of economic liberalism Owen calls the “outriders”, committed believers found in the dozens of free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute for Economic Affairs and the mis-named Adam Smith Institute. These well-funded think-tanks formulate policy for governments and percolate their ideas through a tame and uncritical media to the general public.

However, as Jones points out, the Overton window is not static; the ideas that are now deemed to be common sense were once extreme themselves (p.295). And Jones recalls a point made by Marx in 1846 that: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, 1846, Collected Works, Marxist.org.com).

There are other competing ideas – socialist ideas - which are not the ideas of the ruling class, but they are currently ineffectual against the relentless and almost daily propaganda claiming capitalism to be natural and destined to last forever. This does not mean this will always be the case. Jones forgets that Marx also showed two years later, in 1848, that the capitalist class supplies the working class with: “its own elements of political and general education” (The Communist Manifesto) and the insights of Marx’s own scientific study of capitalism which allow socialists to comprehend theoretically: “the historical movement as a whole” (The Communist Manifesto).

However, what helped economic liberalism to become a dominant political force was the apparent end of the Cold War in 1989 and the utter defeat of the Soviet Union, its economic nationalisation programme and the political ideas associated with it. Politicians stated, over and over again, that there was no alternative to the capitalism found in the West, history had come to an end, and any opponents were ridiculed as deluded and dangerous extremists.

And it was important to split the working class to maintain the momentum of the new faith in capitalism without a practical alternative. A politically conscious and organised working class, acting in its own interest, is a threat to the New Order. So it has to be “divide and rule”: As Jones points it (p.296):

Low paid workers are encouraged by the media and politicians to envy the supposedly luxurious conditions of benefit-claiming unemployed people; rather than resent the employers for paying them insufficient wages. Private sector workers with no pensions are encouraged to envy public-sector workers whose pensions are still intact. Those who cannot get council housing…or…secure jobs are encouraged to envy migrants supposedly getting what is rightly theirs..

The disappointing albeit predictable part of the book is Jones’s prescription on what is to be done. He states that opponents of the establishment have no ready-made, coherent alternative to offer and the problem is further compounded by increasing political apathy and disinterestedness by a sizable section of the electorate.

Jones believe that democracy should be extended to every sphere of life (p.302) coupled with a politics that needs “to inspire the majority” (p.312). He surveys the scattered political dissidents and remarks: “If supporters of a democratic revolution are to succeed, it means bringing those fragments together, creating our own effective outriders “(p.302)

Of course for an effective response to the dominant ruling class ideas of today we need to win, what Marx called; “the battle for democracy”. This requires socialist ideas to take hold and become the norm. Rather than a democratic revolution there is an urgent need for revolutionary socialism. And contrary to Owen Jones’s pessimistic view of the political landscape, a coherent political response to the ideas defending capitalism already exits, the ideas of Marx and the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

But socialism is not what Jones wants, although he continually describes himself as a socialist. His politics is the politics of the social reformer. Here is his list of social reforms which he believes are necessary to kick-start a radical and revolutionary politics:

* A living wage
* Elected representatives on boards of directors
* Nationalisation of key industries
* Taming financial institutions
* Reform of the media

What have these social reforms to do with Socialism? Absolutely nothing. You cannot even call these reforms stepping stones to socialism for many have already been embraced by sections of the capitalist class and their political representatives.

There are capitalists and politicians like Boris Johnson who do want a living wage to be enshrined in law but for interests of their own against competitors getting cheap labour through tax credits and housing subsidies (BBC 5th November 2012). The INDEPENDENT and some of its journalists like Andreas Whittam Smith and Lee Williams, no supporters of socialism, have long argued for the nationalisation of the railways, utilities and the banks. Capitalism in Germany already has trade unions on boards of directors which has the negative effect of undermining the clear and distinct interest of workers. And what reform of the media does Jones have in mind? Perhaps he has The Guardian as a role model for a new responsible media? Yet the newspaper’s owner, the Scott Trust, is made up of the great and the good from the very establishment that Jones criticises, and whose board includes people such as Will Hutton who despise socialism and believes the case of the SPGB is impractical and utopian. As a consequence, The Guardian pushes an agenda of futile social reforms while acting as capitalism’s bleeding heart liberal conscience employing journalists like … Owen Jones.

There are serious flaws in Jones’s argument. First, are the reform measures he puts forward really stepping stones to a radical alternative? Clearly not.

And second, who is going to initiate his reforms proposals – the Labour Party? There is more chance of the Pope abandoning Catholicism and embracing Marxism than of the Labour Party ever becoming socialist. The Labour Party has never been, is not and never will be a socialist party. It exists solely to administer capitalism on behalf of the capitalist class.

Jones appears to be unaware of the reason why the Labour Party exists and, like other deluded workers, still supports this disreputable political organisation, dripping in workers’ blood from either initiating or supporting wars from 1914 to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In spite of this bloody record, he tells voters to vote for a future Labour government at the General Election.

Jones could do no better than read the articles written by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. He would read a unique critique of capitalism and an argument for socialism deriving from a principled political programme which has shown, time and time again, the abject futility of reformism. Instead of reforms the SPGB has argued for socialism and nothing but socialism in line with the SPGB’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES.

Jones though does make one very good point. Economic liberalism, like protectionism, a regulated capitalism and large scale nationalisation, is not solid but friable and transient; just as Keynesianism was in its heyday. And its success has also become its failure. Capitalism, according to the “outriders” in the free market think-tanks was never meant to go into an economic crisis but it did.

Market anarchist “outriders” could no more stop the economic laws acting on capitalism than the Keynesian “outriders” before them. The promises of globalisation, free trade and free market have been buried under global wars. Markets have seen to fail, no more so than with the global damage to the environment. Free trade and free markets are now synonymous with an assault on trade unions, attacks on the level of pay and working conditions of workers as a whole through the “liberalisation” of the labour market and a future for the working class and our children looks bleak, ugly and unpredictable.

The consequence is a political and economic crisis of capitalism; an economics profession held in disrepute; politicians despised and perceived as cynical chancers with their snouts in the trough; and the contradictions of a world-wide capitalist system of class exploitation which is forcing the working class to see itself having a shared experience out of common material interests as wage and salary workers. That is, a global working class slowly seeing itself as having its own distinct economic and political interests. In this process of becoming “a class for itself” the political ideas of the Socialist Party Great Britain articulate a far greater coherence for winning the battle of democracy than anything dreamt of in Jones’s reactionary philosophy

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk