Owen Jones at the Union.

My friends were reasonably suspicious of sarcasm being expressed on my part when I left the Union the other night claiming the problem with Owen Jones is that he’s far too conservative. But I was, believe it or not, being sincere. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which he’s the sort of public thinker on the left that aggravates me for appearing too naively ambitious, eager to endorse proposals for overhauling socio-economic set-ups with no apparent eye for feasibility. How, exactly, the democratic socialist ‘solution’ of collective ownership and management of public utilities by workers and customers would pan out seems entirely without historical precedent, and so remains simply beyond me. But on the other hand, there’s something frustrating about the way his otherwise intricate understanding of types of oppression and exploitation seems totally limited to creating concern only for conditions within Britain’s borders. There is certainly a place for analysing and opposing the socio-economic inequality directly around us, and Jones has that arena of injustice mastered. But when the time arrives to recognise the fact that in global terms, he’s picking fights between the privileged and the ultra-privileged, the worldview that’s left over appears far from compelling. He talked briefly about his alleged “internationalism”, but the upshot of it is only that he wants the changes he advocates here to happen in nations everywhere. I saw no concern for or recognition of global poverty as the moral crisis of our time that calls for action from us. And nowadays, I just struggle to see the pull of an ideology that’s so blind to the big picture. Because let’s not forget what that picture looks like:

Yes, even a family of four with one adult working on the minimum wage in Britain earns enough to put him or herself in the wealthiest fifth of the planet. That’s adjusting for Purchasing Power Parity, and that’s before we factor in the benefits that arise from living under a stable state with well-functioning public services and so on. Such considerations only compound the comparative privilege. I see little in the monolithic campaigning and political passions of people like Jones that pay due respect to this fact.

Perhaps this is far too harsh. The public, after all, has little appetite for global egalitarian advocates in the media, and if Jones pursued such a career path then his social clout and capital would have never grown to the extent that it has. Perhaps it’s best to emphasise the smaller injustices because they’re the only injustices that the press could potentially push people to effectively address. If that’s genuinely the case, I guess Jones can be understood and forgiven. And insofar as he’s managed to create a personal brand through social media that’s made him border on being a household name, perfectly capable of carrying readers with him wherever he decides to write, he’s a rare breed of British journalist who is using his new-found power in an understandable and commendable way.

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One thought on “Owen Jones at the Union.

  1. So, we might suppose that Jones takes it that certain problems (pisspoor education in some schools, inequality above a certain level, too-great corporate influence, & so forth) are such that they are just harmful to democracy. Now, it seems to me that there are compelling arguments for that position (although they’ll have to go unstated here). If that’s true, then it might simply be that the further work (work that could well even be more important) can’t be done until he takes it that some minimal level of control has been returned to, speaking broadly, the people.

    This is something that you come close to, in retrospect, in the last paragraph. The public does have a limited appetite for that sort of egalitarian advocacy, and one can quite plausibly imagine that Jones doesn’t even believe that there’s much of a point to any larger sort of advocacy unless these less important problems which stand in the way of that advocacy’s effectiveness are addressed. I’m not sure I want to go so far as to say that Jones is trying to make the taste by which he is to be judged, but I do get the impression from what (admittedly little) I’ve read that he might believe that first one has to develop some sort of political space in people are slightly more amenable to these discussions & these changes. Presumably a culture in which what little foreign aid the UK does give can be routinely sniffed at isn’t quite one in which sweeping changes to the amount & structure of aid can be seriously considered.

    Generally, I’m willing to grant that someone like Jones would, with the changes he wants in place, then move to the larger problem. There is, however, one uncomfortable problem with that. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the sort of changes required to make ‘the world’, rather than the UK, more equal would demand a good deal from everyone living in the UK. Meat, say, would become a luxury if it could be eaten at all, & so forth. Now, the problem would be that Jones gives us a very attractive account of how the country should turn out, but it’s probably not the sort of life that everyone could have. It appears to follow that, once Jones et. al. had convinced the country to bring the desired changes about, he’d then have to get back on the campaign trail & convince everyone to change once more, this time sacrificing some of the tangible goods that had come about as a result of declining inequality. One wonders whether that would be possible, & even whether he’d think it desirable when the time came.

    Forgive the length, & any lack of a real conclusion, it’s much too early in the morning for this sort of thing.

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