The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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Understanding the establishment

Mark Said Sunday, 16 June 2024, 08:28 Last update: about 2 months ago

You’ve heard it, you’ve read it and you’ve seen it.

Definitions of "the establishment" share one thing in common: they are always pejorative. Rightwingers tend to see it as the national purveyor of a rampant, morally corrupting social liberalism; for the left, it is more likely to mean a network of church-school and elite educational institutions-educated boys dominating the key institutions of Maltese political life.

What does the term "the establishment" exactly mean? It likely made its first appearance in print in 1958, in the British magazine New Statesman, about the ruling classes that dominated social, religious and political life in Great Britain. To young Maltese in the late 1960s, it meant the entrenched powers in the seat of government, which were mostly made up of older conservative white men. In other words, the Nationalist Party.

Ultimately, the counterculture did little to whittle away at the status quo or the political power it wielded. While the term "the establishment" remains derisive, what has changed is the number of people who are now part of it. Today, just about everyone who holds a political office is considered part of the establishment. Still, there have been a few outliers in recent years.

Although many Labour activists can certainly be included in the establishment, and there are a few so-called radical Nationalists who baulk at the political orthodoxy, the term traditionally refers to the permanent political class and structure that make up the PN. The establishment within the Nationalist Party tends to control the rules of the party system, party elections and funding disbursements. The establishment is typically viewed as more elitist, politically moderate and out of touch with true conservative voters.

A series of loosely organised protests in the post-Simon Busuttil era eventually gave rise to one of the most widespread revolts against the establishment in decades. Although made up primarily of conservatives, the Adrian Delia-inspired rally was organised in part to hold the PN establishment accountable for betraying certain key conservative principles.

The PN's strategy of winning at any cost also drew open-minded party activists’ ire. Such an establishment position led to the support of a sizable part of the nationalist electorate of politicians on the other side of the political fence and cast the deciding vote for Joseph Muscat, and later, despite Labour’s scandal-hit administration under his watch, his successor, Robert Abela.

Here is what I understand the establishment to mean: today's establishment is made up, as it has always been, of powerful groups that need 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 and make sure that it does not threaten their interests. In this respect, it might be seen as a firewall that insulates them from the wider population.

We've had nearly a century of universal suffrage now, and what happens is that capital finds ways to protect itself from, you know, the voters.

Back in the 19th century, as calls for universal suffrage gathered strength, there were fears in privileged circles that extending the vote to the poor would pose a mortal threat to their own position—that the lower rungs of society would use their newfound voice to take away power and wealth from those at the top and redistribute it throughout the electorate.

In the decades that followed the Second World War, constraints were imposed on Malta's powerful interests, including higher taxes and the regulation of private business. This was, after all, the will of the recently enfranchised masses. But today, many of those constraints have been removed or are in the process of being dismantled, and now the establishment is characterised by institutions and ideas that legitimise and protect the concentration of wealth and power in very few hands.

The interests of those who dominate Maltese society are disparate; indeed, they often conflict with one another. The establishment includes politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy; and police forces who enforce a law that is rigged in favour of the powerful.

The establishment is where these interests and worlds intersect, either consciously or unconsciously. It is unified by a common mentality, which holds that those at the top deserve their power and their ever-growing fortunes, and which might be summed up by the advertising slogan "Because I'm worth it.".

This is the mentality that has driven politicians to pilfer expenses and businesses to avoid tax while plunging the country into an economic and social disaster.

All of these things are facilitated, even encouraged, 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.

It may no longer be fair to define the establishment as solely the PN’s old guard but, rather, those who want to preserve the status quo because they directly benefit from it and don't challenge the political-media industrial complex.

If you go with one dictionary definition of the establishment, “a group of social, economic and political leaders who form a ruling class," you have to at least give the social and movement conservatives their due.

Whatever you call them, they’re no longer fighting for a seat at the table. In many of the state’s top offices, the establishment table is theirs.


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