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Getting the excuses in first

(This is a reworking of comments I sent to a couple of friends of mine in an email. A few points have been cut out because they would not make sense to outsiders, and others have been added.)

I see that Owen Jones, the Corbynite journalist, is in the Guardian pushing the idea that if Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow socialists are elected into government, that elements of the “deep state” and all those dastardly neo-liberal establishment types will try and frustrate him.

In a country that has, or should have, checks and balances in a constitutional liberal order, no government, even if elected with a large majority in the House of Commons, should have unfettered power to re-order a country, to trample on property rights and other liberties.

It could be argued that naively or less so, the operatives of the “deep state” or even less “deep” state – such as civil servants, lawyers, etc might assume they perform some sort of function along these lines, although in a healthy political order that should be unnecessary. Of course it is outrageous if security services, which operate in the shadows, might try and frustrate a democratically elected government; perhaps, however, this is likely to happen if other, more credible curbs on unfettered power have been eroded, as they have been in the UK, over many years. (The proper solution is to rebuild those restraints. In the US, a great advocate of precisely that is Prof. Randy Barnett.)

In arguing that a government duly elected should be able to go all in and do what it wants, and take democracy “to the streets” and workplaces, and who stirs up fears about being frustrated by dark forces, Jones is pushing a sort of “mobocracy”. He is a sort of intellectual descendant of that mad and bad man, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered that no boundaries should exist in the face of any “General Will” of a public to be interpreted by the likes of himself. (I can recommend J Talmon’s book on this episode, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy.)

There is more than just a whiff of the French barricades about Jones, although he would not last long in a fight, I suspect. He imagines that secret agents and other “conspirators” will try and frustrate a government he favours, but frustrating, or delaying, what a government can do is actually not a bug, but a feature, of a liberal order. In short, Jones’ rejection of any kind of restraint demonstrates an authortarian mindset at work.

There is a measure of truth in his claim about attempts by the security services in the 1970s to curb the Harold Wilson government of the time; the security services probably really thought that some in the Labour Party were in hock to the Soviets. I am sure that there were genuine instances of this. And for that matter, consider what is being said and done to Trump today and the claims and counter-claims about the “deep state”. Consider this item by leftist/civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald.  What is ironic is that the sort of claims about what could happen under Labour are being made by those fearful that Trump is suffering or could suffer the same alleged fate.

But beyond such conspiracy theories, there is a broader problem with the Jones article. So much of what is at fault with Jones’ take on the world is his total lack of perspective. For example, he goes on and on about “neoliberalism”. (A term for a sort of hybrid of genuine classical liberalism plus an acceptance of certain state institutions and functions, such as central banking. It is often associated with the influence of the Chicago school of economics and governments of Thatcher, Reagan and other.) But just how “liberal” is our current position? Given that more than 40 per cent of the economy is under state control and a good deal of the rest is regulated, it is laughable to argue that we are in a liberal position although these are matters of degree, of course.

The tragedy of it is that Owen Jones is not completely wrong to damn our current situation. If only, if only he could break free of his collectivism. It would be good to see him direct some of his fire towards asking who really gains from, say, central bank money printing and bank bailouts. (Clue: Not poor people.) He should consider the pockets of privilege created by land-use planning/zoning, or restrictions on entry into certain occupations. Or bash the corruption of quangos, NGOs and the whole structure of regulatory bodies endlessly calling for the control of this or that. Or nanny statist interference in the hobbies and pleasures of working people, such as smoking, drinking or whatever.

There is a lot of traction in the old Gladstonian class analysis of the “masses and the classes”; this is a tradition of thought that has been overshadowed in how class is often thought of as a concern that mainly comes from Marx.

The trouble is that Jones is a socialist and believer in Big Government, and hence hostile to the decentralised market order and thus ignorant of the the information contained in prices; he appears ignorant of the public choice insights of economists such as the late US figure James Buchanan and others. This means Jones lacks the intellectual equipment to understand what is actually going on. At  most, he glimpses a problem here and a partial solution there, but never quite breaks through. It is like watching a man try and measure the depth of the ocean by standing over the water with a telescope. It is genuinely frustrating.

Jones is maddening because you like to think there is a genuinely intelligent person there, is not beyond redemption (sorry if that sounds patronising), but a central part of how he thinks is fouled up. It is very hard to break this down, no matter how much evidence or logic is deployed. Too much of his thinking involves “boo” words (neo-liberalism, etc). And I suspect it would be too humiliating for  him to change course now, although you never can tell.

I would conclude by saying that almost without fail, use of “neo-liberal” in an article of any kind suggests the reader is an aggressive statist.

(As an aside, here is a sharp review of Jones’ book, The Establishment.)

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20 comments to Getting the excuses in first

  • Michael Taylor

    I agree: it’s fairly obvious Jones is intellectually a cut above most Guardian commentators, but can’t – yet – shake off his needy leftiness.

    But it will happen: I confidently expect he’ll end up as Lord Jones of Ruralshire, an honoured and much-loved pillar of the Establishment.

  • Simon Jester

    I hold Owen is somewhat lower esteem than either Johnathan or Michael. I don’t hate him, largely because I don’t respect him sufficiently to regard him worthy of hatred.

    Even Laurie Penny looks like an intellectual colossus next to Owen. (Anyone who loves Firefly can’t be all bad.)

  • Laird

    P.J. O’Rourke managed the shift from lefty to libertarian; perhaps Jones will, too.

  • Bruce

    Fine and dandy to talk about elected types with nasty notions.

    BUT, nobody seems to want to talk about the UNELECTED ones actually running the show. The ones who have the word “permanent” and / or “chief” etc., in their title. The ones who have been filling the ranks of civil “service” for many decades. The ones whose jobs seem to be control of policy, regardless of the alleged “will of the people”.

    The “will of the people” is a bit of a worry these days, as well, what with almost everybody being the recipient / beneficiary of “government” largesse, itself gouged from taxpayers in an enormous, high-spillage, money-go-round.

    There is a reason that sensible Americans want their country to be a republic, not a media-defined “democracy.

  • Paul Marks

    Let us, for the sake of argument, take the idea of a “Deep State” at face value – there may indeed be one.

    This “Deep State” could prevent an elected government following the policies it wants to follow – although, contrary to some of the comments (and much else), the Deep State is likely to be MORE not less in favour of government spending and regulations than ordinary people. It was not the people who asked for any of the big welfare programs or “public services”, it was the educated elite that imposed them – from above. And the same is true for the regulation state.

    But again the Owen Jones argument is confused (a nice way of say “a lie”) – as the problem with socialism is not that the “Deep State” (or anyone else) prevents government control of prices and wages (and so on) being put in effect – the problem is that SOCIALIST POLICIES DO NOT WORK.

    For example, price controls create shortages and government high wage edicts create unemployment – this is due to economic law supply-and-demand. The very thing that Owen Jones knows perfectly well, but pretends he does not know – just like the German “Historical School” of the 19th century really knew that economic law (objective and universal laws of reason) existed – but pretended they did not know (ditto the American “Pragmatists”).

    Owen Jones knows that socialist and interventionist policies will not work, indeed that they will cause terrible harm (economic chaos – as in Venezuela), that is why (as J.P. says) he is “getting his excuses in first”. The real question is why socialists and interventionists support policies they know (and they do know) will cause terrible harm.

  • Rob

    P.J. O’Rourke managed the shift from lefty to libertarian; perhaps Jones will, too.

    O’Rourke has, and had, a sense of humour though. People with a sense of humour also tend to have some self-awareness.

    Jones has neither.

  • Rob

    Jones (and others, especially that moron Richard Murphy) uses “neoliberal” as a proxy for “those who aren’t us”, or “enemy”. The Left must have its demons, and they should be readily identifiable.

  • Michael Taylor

    I don’t think it’s nice to bracket Jones with Richard Murphy, because not only is Murphy demonstrably a moron, but he profits from a degree of transparent dishonesty which is spectacular even by Guardian standards. Indeed, I’d say his dishonesty is properly academic, inasmuch as the research he cites to justify his position actually specifically and remorselessly catalogue the evidence which disproves his conclusions. Even for someone genuinely moronic, it would be impossible to reach the conclusions he does from the sources he cites.

    Possibly just mad.

  • I just “binged” “Owen Jones” and Venezuela.

    The first links presented were – I think – meant to be friendly to him. 🙂 After all, the titles and summaries were his own words.

    28/02/2014 · Columnist Owen Jones argues that socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, ‘we told you so’, but they are wrong. …

    Wednesday 6 March 2013 – Hugo Chavez was a democrat, not a dictator, and showed a …

    etc. Only from the sixth link do I start seeing summaries like

    14 questions Owen Jones and Venezuela’s silent fans on the …

    If only Owen Jones actually understood economic numbers … He has, in recent years, told us that Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela have all …

    From long before Thatcher, Labour’s hard left have been saying – pretty openly – that once they win the election they’ll need to act more rapidly than Britain’s tedious old constitution allows. Exactly the same attitude is why they said, when Maggie won, that they had to get the Thatcher government out “as soon as possible” (i.e. no waiting till the constitutional next election years hence).

    Owen is merely dressing up standard hard-leftism in the jargon of today. He wants not to remove but to replace the deep state – that is, any parts of it (or, more probably, any personnel of it) that might slow the speed with which his party can implement Corbyn’s very deep statism.

  • The Deep State will do to Trump and Corbyn what they did to Jim Hacker.

  • I think Paul is right – hard left totalitarianisms need a lot of bureaucracy, and the deep state is pretty much the now-accepted term for the unelected and irremovable state bureaucracy. They will manage just fine under Corbyn.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    They will manage just fine under Corbyn.

    Owen Jones probably knows that, which is why he is such a prick.

  • Mr Ed

    I don’t recall Lenin having that much trouble with a Deep State, yes, he had a civil war. But he knew that ‘the most determined use of terror’e of terror‘ as was attributed to him was the way to get things done, although it meant famine not plenty, there are limits to what he could achieve, not to what he and his criminals would do.

    From the 1 September 1918 edition of the Bolshevik newspaper, Krasnaya Gazeta:

    “We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois – more blood, as much as possible.”

    Excerpt from an interview with Felix Dzerzhinsky published in Novaia Zhizn on 14 July 1918.

    “We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal’s own confession.”

    In their hearts, every Socialist lusts for the power to kill all in their way. What other reason is there to be a socialist?

  • Jamesg

    I also think Jones will abandon the left at some point. Or he will go mad because his identity becomes too entwined with the left and he can’t escape.

    He has the traits that strongly suggest conversion at some point: he doesn’t hate the right and is prepared to engage with them to understand their position, and is reasonably intelligent. You can see the pain in his face as he recognises the terrible things happening in Venezuela and then deflects ridiculously to Saudi Arabia. Only a matter of time.

  • Paul Marks

    I repeat – the problem is that socialism (for example state control of wages and prices) causes-harm. Economic law is not a conspiracy by the “Deep State” – the laws of reason really do exist, they are NOT just “ideology” (contrary to German historicists).

    And as Niall has pointed out – Mr Jones has a long record of supporting failed regimes and absurd movements.

    It is very hard to believe that Mr Jones does not know that state interventionism causes harm – indeed I believe he does know.

    In short J.P. is correct – Mr Jones is not misinformed, he is evil. Mr Jones supports state interventionism BECAUSE he knows it does harm.

  • bloke in spain

    Why “you like to think there is a genuinely intelligent person there”? Because he writes in acceptable “intellectual” style? The man writes bollocks & is a fool. If you make a career out of denying reality,that’s hardly a mark of intelligence. Unless it’s the intelligence of the successful snake oil salesman.

  • Ken Mitchell

    I’m a fan of Vivaldi, the “new” web browser created by the people who designed Opera – before Opera sold itself to the Chinese.

  • Alisa

    Opera sold itself to the Chinese

    Damn, I missed that… 😡

  • Ken Mitchell

    Your other good browser choice is Brave.com by Brendan Eich after he was hounded out of Mozilla for a political contribution.

  • Alisa

    I use Brave occasionally, but it is not there yet functionality-wise.