Who are ‘the establishment’?

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

It feels good to rail against the establishment. Politicians across the world have found that positioning themselves as the brave outsider challenging the status quo is a political weapon. Whether they promise to ‘drain the swamp’, take on the ‘deep state’, challenge the ‘metropolitan elite’, or stick it to the ‘chattering classes’, there is a clear urge to identify the establishment and take it to task. But does the establishment exist. If so, what is it?

In Britain, the establishment was traditionally understood along historic class lines, as a network of people who went to the best private schools, went on to Oxbridge, and then took prominent positions in arts, politics and industry. Today, many allege, little has changed: Eton still produces a disproportionate number of politicians, and, according to the Sutton Trust, alumni of private schools and Oxbridge still dominate top jobs.

But does this account for the changes that the UK and other countries have experienced? Many argue that, whatever the stats on certain top jobs, cultural power – what is often called ‘hegemony’ – resides elsewhere. They allege that a new establishment, defined less by birth or privilege and more by adherence to certain cultural and political ideas like multiculturalism or feminism, dominates the arts and media. Rather than employing old and declining institutions like the church, this contemporary establishment exercises power through new institutions like social media.

Whatever the truth in these assertions, where do more traditional analyses like class and capitalism fit in? The world economy is vastly more interconnected than previously, with financial and economic elites seemingly as comfortable in Singapore as New York or London. Sometimes termed the ‘Davos set’, some allege these are the real establishment: globetrotters who evade both taxes and democratic control.

All of this raises the question of how to define the establishment. What gives people power: is it money, cultural influence, personal networks, adherence to certain ideas, or something else? Perhaps the idea that there is any single establishment is equally unclear: in a fragmented world, maybe there are multiple establishments depending on the context.

How useful, then, is the idea of the establishment? Is it an indispensable part of a serious analysis of power, or a cheap slur that can be used by any side of an argument? How, if at all, has the establishment changed in recent years, and is there a new cultural hegemony as is sometimes alleged? Who exercises real power today, and how?