The ‘establishment’ has increasingly become one of the most frequently used words in political commentaries and debates across the world. Simply put, it describes a tightly-organised matrix of shadowy ‘elites’, whose invisible actions and secret decisions engineer the economic, political and social fates of the polity.
During the 2016 presidential campaigning in the US, the populist Republican Party candidate Donald Trump and the left-leaning Democrat Party contender Bernie Sanders were often described as ‘anti-establishment’, whereas another contender, the Democrat Party’s Hilary Clinton, was understood as the candidate of the ‘establishment.’
The term ‘establishment’, in the context that it is generally understood today, was not part of any political lexicon or jargon till 1955, when the British journalist Henry Fairlie used it in an article for The Spectator. Fairlie had used the term while writing about the disappearance of two UK foreign officers. By ‘establishment’ he had meant to describe the influential people who were defending the officers’ families from the press.
Yet, within a few years, the word had been picked up by scores of political commentators, journalists and activists to mean something a lot wider than what Fairlie had originally intended it to mean.
After Fairlie’s article, the term gained more mention and momentum in the US than in the UK. For example, during the primaries for the 1964 US presidential elections, the conservative author Phyllis Schlafly lamented in her 1964 book A Choice Not an Echo that the Republican Party was being manipulated by the ‘Republican establishment’ to keep out those who threatened its interests. She also claimed that this establishment was made up of ‘kingmakers’ who use ‘hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques’ for this purpose.
However, ironically, the kingmakers did not hesitate to nominate the far-right firebrand and populist Barry Goldwater as their candidate for the 1964 elections. He was someone Schlafly was more than happy to see contesting the ‘liberal’ incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson swept the elections.
The ‘establishment’ is sometimes taken to be a term used by outlandish conspiracy theorists. But while it may not involve powerful men in secret smoke-filled rooms, it exists and is often hiding in plain sight
By the 1960s, even though the term ‘establishment’ was increasingly being used in England and the US, my research in this context did not produce even a single mention of this term in the editorials and op-ed pieces of Pakistan’s two largest dailies, Dawn and Jang, or in India’s The Hindu, published between January 1960 and January 1970.
However, The Hindu did use the word ‘syndicate’ in 1969 to describe the ‘kingmakers of the Congress Party.’ The syndicate was described as a group of party elders who were against Indira Gandhi’s ‘anti-business’ ideas. In the Pakistani press (from 1967 onwards) there was mention of a powerful matrix of the military, the bureaucracy and ‘22 families’ running Pakistan as a dictatorship.
In his 2020 book Empire of Democracy, the political scholar Simon Reid-Henry writes that the seeds of the existential crisis that democracy is facing today were initially sown during the economic and political upheavals of the 1970s, which saw politicians and established political parties lose their ability to control the outcome of events.
Rising inequality, growing domestic and international tensions between races, ethnic groups and nations, and the startling exposition of political scandals, unleashed a powerful sentiment of mistrust towards mainstream political players.
In an April 2, 2014 essay for the BBC website, the British journalist and documentary film-maker Adam Curtis writes that the aforementioned mistrust was so great that a 1976 book on Jack the Ripper — the infamous 19th century British serial killer — by an obscure journalist Stephen Knight, became an instant bestseller. It claimed that the prostitutes ‘Jack’ had murdered were actually killed by the British royal family, to hide a scandal.
Knight had based his book on the theories of Josef Gorman, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the painter Walter Sickert, who Gorman believed was one of the men hired by the royal establishment to kill the prostitutes. But to Knight’s dismay, Gorman soon retracted his claims and told The Sunday Times that they were entirely fictional.
The consensus that was achieved after the World War II, between the mainstream left and right groups in democratic countries, had begun to crumble. This created an opening for groups who were seen to be sidelined for being ‘anti-establishment.’ These were adherents of ‘negative liberty’ coming in to eradicate the ‘excesses of positive liberty.’
In 1958, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin defined two concepts of liberty. To Berlin, ‘positive liberty’ involved pursuit of liberty that was driven by reason and not restricted by inner constraints such as irrational passions, desires, etc. ‘Negative liberty’ is when the pursuit of liberty is not restricted by external constraints, such as state and government interference in the lives of people. The emergence of ‘neo-conservatism’ in the 1980s is a case in point.
The neocons emerged to announce that they will be rolling back government interference in people’s lives. They saw themselves as the anti-establishment. But there were inherent contradictions in what they did.
Take, for example, Ronald Reagan’s America and Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan. Both greatly lessened state interference in matters of economics so that the people could achieve individual growth by acting upon their desires of acquiring material wealth. Yet, even though this freed the state/government from trying to aid society through ‘costly’ welfare programmes, it coupled economic freedom with a new set of external constraints, such as abstract ideas of morality, tradition and faith.
After the economic crash of 1987 and rising incidents of contradictory behaviour that peddled amoral materialism with religious piety, this set of self-appointed anti-establishmentarians, the ‘neo-cons’, also began to be seen as being part of the ‘establishment.’
There is no tangibility in the image of a group of powerful men sitting in a secret smoke-filled room, deciding the fates of the polity. Instead, the term’s usage is often the result of a condition — mostly to do with a society facing economic, political and social crises.
But this is not to suggest that segments influencing a nation’s politics and economics do not exist. But not in smoke-filled rooms, as such. As the veteran US congressional aide Mike Lofgren once stated, such groups, call them establishment or deep state, ‘hide in plain sight.’
Take Pakistan’s so-called ‘military establishment’ for instance. It doesn’t really conceal its political influence. That’s because power cannot be fully exercised from the shadows. Those wielding power need to be seen if they are to be obeyed (or feared).
The ‘establishment’ is therefore not a shadowy conspiracy but a position of visible power that many want to become a part of. Many do.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021