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A famous prostitute

Back in the late 1980s, in the heyday of Mikhail Gorbachev, an old doyen observer of politics used to tell me and those who cared to listen: “Perestroika was a famous prostitute!” … normally followed by a couple of expletives, usually in Maltese.

I am tempted to borrow my late interlocutor’s phraseology and characterise “the Establishment” in the same way, though the impact will fail, because these days the word has become a fanciful way of hitting at anyone who is undesirable.

In Malta, “the Establishment” as a term seems to have had a surge after Donald Trump claimed to “defy the Establishment” - which many still find absurd, given that the man, though claiming to be an outsider to mainstream politics, was, is, and remains in tune and an integral part of the Establishment. And yet, the claim of the outsider stuck, and with it, the term “Establishment” found itself distorted to the extreme.

The Establishment is neither the Illuminati, nor some occult clique residing in a hierarchy. The Establishment is a system of vested interests and power, which is not to be confused with a hegemony, as in itself “hegemony” denotes an overarching power structure

In other words, like Perestroika, the Establishment has indeed become a “famous prostitute”, but for all the wrong reasons. Not only that, but in this storm of nonsense, the Establishment unexpectedly found itself strengthened and indeed enhanced.

The fact is that party hierarchies, just like those running a boċċi club, or a parish council, do change. However, the Establishment does not. This is because the Establishment is neither the Illuminati, nor some occult clique residing in a hierarchy. The Establishment is a system of vested interests and power, which is not to be confused with a hegemony, as in itself “hegemony” denotes an overarching power structure.

The Establishment represents a specific set of interests and a moral imaginary that prevail and become part of a nation’s fabric. This is why the Establishment wrenches its raison d’être on most, if not all, governments voted in a liberal democracy. The only exception is when a party in government decides to specifically challenge the Establishment with radical reforms which, ultimately, would have to put up a gargantuan fight with not one, but an array of constituted bodies.

In liberal democracies, the Establishment is not identifiable with a party, nor some kind of group. There are parties that are closer to the Establishment than others, but it is evident that the Establishment knows no party, but only endears to sustain identifiable ways by which democracies run.

This also evolves, but one could see one constant aspect that never changes. This constancy is manifest in a specific social structure, a privileging of certain forms of power, and in the prevailing global socio-economic paradigm by which capital is used as the instrument and means of generating wealth through its forms of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.

The notion that somehow the articulation of power is directly and solely custodied by Parliament is a very limited way of understanding the complex reality of liberal democracy

As to who owns this wealth and in what proportion, that’s another matter. Those who can afford to can quibble on such matters. Those who have nothing can’t entertain such a 'luxury. You could see this from the Left or the Right or the Centre. From above or below. But ultimately, the notion that somehow the articulation of power is directly and solely custodied by Parliament is a very limited way of understanding the complex reality of liberal democracy.

In Malta, are the Church, the Courts, the University, business, the developers, lobbies and other identifiable sources of power, including some trade unions, part of the Establishment? That is a question that needs to be asked, but to which there is no one answer. Yet to argue that the only Establishment is in Castille is short of outright barmy, because we know that as soon as whoever resides in Castille crosses certain identifiable lines, those incumbents begin to fall out of sync with the Establishment and quickly lose influence, actual power, are pushed aside and will lose the general elections.

In this light, the election of Adrian Delia as leader of the PN represents a considerable reinforcement of the Establishment, just as Chris Said would have done the same as Busuttil was already doing. There was going to be no real effect on the Establishment if Said got in. While his conservative views were in line with the yarn that has been spun for several decades since Fenech Adami took the PN’s helm, it is evident that the writing was on the wall for that kind of narrative. More than personal integrity, this is a matter of political strategy.

Delia may well be spinning a different narrative, though in effect and in substance he is confirming a system of governance that is beholden to a managerial drive towards efficiently serving the interests of Malta’s Establishment.

If we don't understand this, everything else falls by the wayside. This explains why, beyond his claim that the PL was led by people whom he regarded as being corrupt, Simon Busuttil did not offer a manifesto that was that different from the PL’s.

We are all implicated in its ecology and if we want to beat or change it, we need to move out, indeed propose a new ecology that will radically shift the nodes of power

So, is this a game of hide and seek? Is it all corrupt? Is it so undemocratic that we might as well forget voting for our party of conviction? Actually, these are the wrong questions to pose.

The Establishment is real inasmuch as it operates in its prescribed patterns, but it is also ecological inasmuch as we all form part of one ecology. As Umberto Eco once put it with regards to the Red Brigades (BR): The BR wanted to hit the heart of the State, but to do that they need to kill everyone as we all form the State.

The same goes with the Establishment. We are all implicated in its ecology and if we want to beat or change it, we need to move out, indeed propose a new ecology that will radically shift the nodes of power.

No party is offering that, even if they both change their leaders every Tuesday morning.

Perhaps when we say that the party is over, we need to read this from its actual meaning: yes, the party is over and we need to think of something else to entertain our political frustrations. Worse still, the Establishment is not going away unless someone radically challenges its fundamental structure — that is, until we refrain from giving it our own tacit consensus.

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