The Establishment

The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of powerful groups to "manage" democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests.

Prime Minister Robert Abela came in for huge criticism when, during the campaign for the European Parliament and local councils elections, he accused The Establishment of playing dirty and being intent on undermining the Labour Party.  Strangely, in the wake of the outcome, he acknowledged that the voters had sent “messages” to the ruling party but there was not even a whimper about how The Establishment had stolen thousands of votes from the PL. 

The faster one forgets about the claim, the better.  However, that does not mean, as many anti-PL media would have us believe, that there is no Establishment in Malta.  Of course, it did not help that Abela and the PL media did not specify whom they had in mind, except for some references which seemed to limit the Establishment to the Judiciary.  Perhaps that was the whole point   ̶   to plant the idea of The Big Steal, Trump-like, and let it do its work.

That it did not succeed does not, however, imply that one cannot explore whether an Establishment exists in Malta.  Without the shadow of a doubt it does, as it has done in societies everywhere since time immemorial.  For, in sociology and in political science, the term The Establishment describes the dominant social group   ̶   an elite who control a country, a community, an organisation, or an institution.  The Establishment usually is a self-selecting, closed elite entrenched within specific institutions   ̶   hence, a relatively small social class can exercise all socio-political control.

The dominant group is the hegemonic, or most powerful, group present in society: they are at the top of the social hierarchy.  As the dominant group, they have the most privileges, and are in control of one or more of the following: resources, jobs, power, influence, etc. in society.

In the old days, the Establishment in Malta consisted of the Nobility, the Catholic Church, the landed gentry, the few families who controlled importation, the lawyers and notaries, and the small exclusive group that was entitled to vote.  With “progress”, the Establishment grew to include a small group of mighty businessmen and entrepreneurs, and the developers’ lobby.  Other Establishments in the making are the rule of law NGOs and the environmental lobby. 

By the Establishment I do not mean only the centres of official power   ̶   though they are certainly part of it   ̶   but rather the whole grid of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Malta cannot be understood unless it is recognised that it is exercised socially.  Of course, one wouldn’t find the Association of Millionaires, the Society for the Welfare of Politicians, the Network of High-Brow Intellectuals, the Circle of Wheeler-Dealers, or the Persons of Trust Club militating for their members.  They don’t need to organise themselves in that way because they have tentacles everywhere.

Definitions

In the celebrated article that popularised the term in 1955, the journalist Henry Fairlie argued that the term “the Establishment” did not have a stable referent but rather included a range of possible meanings and uses.  Whichever the definitions of “the Establishment”, they all share one thing in common: they are always pejorative.

Right-wingers tend to see it as the national purveyor of a rampant, morally corrupting social liberalism – in Malta’s case, they would have Joseph Muscat in mind as a prime example; for the left, it is more likely to mean a network of higher-class and privileged boys and girls dominating the key institutions of the state   ̶   in Malta’s case, they would have in mind Magistrate Gabriella Vella.  It matters little whether the persons concerned are the standard-bearers or not; the point is to have the bogeymen.

Fairlie did not think ideology was the glue that held the Establishment together: the people concerned do not help each other out because they sympathise with any particular ideology.  Instead, it is an unthinking allegiance based on personal connections. Social ties trump political ones. What mattered, Fairlie said, was not what you believe, but “who you know”.

As far as I am concerned, today’s Establishment is made up – as it has always been – of powerful groups that seek to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote. The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to “manage” democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests.

The Establishment in today’s Malta

In today’s Malta, the Establishment includes the government of the day, the state institutions – that are effectively controlled by the government, state entities that are nominally independent but carry out the government’s wishes, the top echelons of the Civil Service, a small group of no more than a dozen entrepreneurs and developers, the politicians, the media, the Church, and a relatively small group of professionals (mostly in the legal and academic arena).  What distinguishes them is not necessarily their numbers, but their ability to use the levers of power for their own ends. 

Naturally, it goes without saying that the interests of those who dominate Maltese society are disparate; indeed, they often conflict with one another. The Establishment includes politicians who make laws (like the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Members of Parliament on both sides of the House); media houses that set the terms of debate (the Times of Malta, TVM, and the political stations); businesses and financiers who run the economy (Joseph Portelli, the Mizzis, the Stivalas, and other dynastic families); the police force, that is strong with the weak and weak with the powerful; the Courts of Justice, which administer the law in a justice system where money can buy you the best defence you can get and, occasionally, a more lenient sentence, while low-income people cannot afford to defend themselves.

A common mentality

The Establishment is diverse but also shaped by the common mentality that those at the top deserve their power and their ever-growing fortunes.   This is the raison d’être that has driven politicians to pilfer expenses and businesses to avoid tax.   All of these things are facilitated by laws that are geared to cracking down on the smallest of misdemeanours committed by those at the bottom of the pecking order – for example, benefit fraud. “One rule for us, one rule for everybody else” might be another way to sum up Establishment thinking.

The modern Establishment is also often equated with “neoliberalism”   ̶   the ideology based on a belief in so-called free markets: in transferring public land and assets to profit-driven businesses as far as possible; in support for reducing the tax burden on private interests; and hostility towards any form of collective organisation that might challenge the status quo.

The Establishment is further cemented by financial links and a “revolving door”: that is, powerful individuals gliding between the political, corporate, and institutional worlds – or who manage to inhabit these various worlds at the same time.   It is hardly believable that this has taken extreme forms recently.

Quite a few politicians, along with civil servants, end up working for companies interested in their policy areas, allowing them to profit from their public service – something that gives them a vested interest in an ideology that furthers corporate interests. The business world benefits from the politicians’ and civil servants’ contacts, as well as an understanding of government structures and experience, allowing private firms to navigate their way to the very heart of power.

A lack of scrutiny

The Establishment does not receive the scrutiny it deserves. In many countries, it is the job of the media to shed light on the behaviour of those with power. But the media itself is an integral part of the Establishment.  So, One News wouldn’t dream of criticising the government, nor would Net News have anything to say about the shortcomings of the PN, while TVM alternates between total subservience to the government and calculated indifference to the Establishment’s failings.  It is left to the printed and online Press to do the job, though even here one often senses the work of parts of the Establishment behind the scenes.

Whereas the position of the powerful was once undermined by the advent of democracy, an opposite process is now underway. The establishment is amassing wealth and aggressively annexing power in a way that has no precedent in modern times. After all, there is nothing to stop it.  The situation will only get worse if more people decide they have had enough of politics and simply fall off the electoral process.

The Anti-Establishment and Counter-Establishment

What makes the situation even more desperate is that traditional forms of opposition to the elite, such as trade unions, have fallen away.  The Church in Malta has never been particularly unfriendly to the Establishment, having been absorbed into it over hundreds of years.  Some experiments by a couple of church leaders did not obtain momentum, particularly because the Church is becoming increasingly superfluous.

Meanwhile, new technology has not yet helped: online protest movements to acquire the force and cohesion needed to take on established power.  The rise of the internet, and in particular social media, have provides fresh opportunities for new movements to link together. So far, however, they have failed to do so in a coherent way.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the current Establishment can rest on its laurels. Banging on the door are the Anti-Establishment and Counter-Establishment who want to overthrow them, not to cancel the Establishment once and for all, but to become The New Establishment.  Mostly, they are on the right and far-right, nationalistic, anti-liberal, anti-globalisation, and socially conservative.

The current Establishment is finding it difficult to counter them.  At first, it treated them as a bunch of eccentrics, almost ideological automatons.  It couldn’t see how individualistic people with apparently no social solidarity could challenge them.  But the Anti-Establishment has one big thing going for it: frustration with the current ruling classes.

We have seen plenty of it in the recent elections.  Whether these individuals will coalesce to replace the current Establishment is the million-dollar question.  It is not only the PL and PN who need to worry.  

Image: Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images

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