Durham Book Festival Review: Owen Jones

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The dimly lit gala theatre comes alive as Owen Jones enters, and he is greeted by a host of cheers and applause. Small in stature but large in personality, he commands the stage immediately.

‘2016 has been a tumultuous year’. His voice carries easily all the way to the back of the circle where I’m seated, and his statement is met with affirming nods. With Brexit, Trump and the continuing spread of IS, it is hard to be in denial. After all, 2016 could very well be the year we all look back on and wonder what the hell went wrong.

As a Guardian columnist and author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It, Jones is evidently an avid leftie. He cuts to the chase straight away. ‘We are in a state of national emergency,’ he declares dramatically. ‘All over the world, politics is polarizing, and Europe and the US are vacuums waiting to be filled’.

And following a shocking referendum result, the vacuum is already being filled. Brexit was the result of what he terms the ‘politics of fear’, where in a blast of fury the working class lashed out. Instead of holding the powerful to account, people turned on their neighbours. Instead of blaming employers for exploitative hours and low pay, they blamed immigrants. Instead of growing angry at the fact they had been robbed, people grew angry because their less deserving neighbour hadn’t been robbed.

What we need is education: a world where politics and world affairs are compulsory in schools. We need a ‘politics of hope’ where we think in terms of humanity and address the salient issues. Filled with facts and figures, politics is often divorced from our everyday lives. As a result, it is rendered inaccessible. In order for real change to occur, we need to humanize politics and use stories to evoke empathy. We are bombarded by constant statistics of the latest casualties in the Syrian civil war, but what we really remember is the image of the boy in the ambulance in Aleppo.

And when we are overwhelmed, we must remember our ancestors. Everything we have was not given to us by the powerful, but fought for with blood, sweat and tears. After all, the government did not turn around one day and decide to give women the vote, rather, suffrage was an uphill battle. Change involves a constant cycle of defeat, setback and success. We cannot forget that our problems are temporary and transient, and can be overcome with enough resilience and perseverance.

In order to get a result, we also need acknowledgement. We seem to be stuck in a vicious circle of assuming that we are exploited by the powerful, and if we keep assuming they will keep exploiting. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The Panama Papers were met with disgust, but it did not come as a surprise. We need a change in attitude; we need a world in which we can all exist that isn’t merely a playground for the elite.

Owen Jones’ fervently delivered comments galvanized the crowd, and the last twenty minutes were filled with an abundance of questions, before he rapidly exited the stage to catch his train. But one quote stuck with me in particular, by the soon to be replaced president of the United States: ‘we often have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, even when we do not have boots’.

Photograph: Durham Book Festival

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