In 1911 Robert Michels published a highly influential book called Political Parties. Here, the sociologist came up with his famous “iron law of oligarchy”. Michels argued that political parties inevitably become oligarchic through the control of a small leadership clique.
These rulers become increasingly concerned with surviving in their leadership posts rather than being active for social and democratic change.
Another sociologist, Max Weber, had expressed his concern with the rule of government bureaucracies, whose leadership style results in people’s disenchantment of their social world.
Weber believed that despite its shortcomings, democracy was the best way to stop the monopolisation of power by professional politicians.
During the 20th century, other sociologists belonging to different schools of thought wrote about power elites made up of political and business oligarchs, of their social networks and connections, and of their ideological proximity and mutual interests. ‘Catch-all’ parties were seen as building their media machines and electoral empires through the financing of big business.
Authors in this genre argued that given that most power elites would want to secure their power, they seek to undermine their political adversaries – internal and external – in various ways.
Examples in this regard may include deceit through propaganda, co-opting critics by ‘kicking them upstairs’ in prestigious but relatively powerless roles, bribing those ready to be bribed, and other methods such as exclusion, expulsion and vilification of adversaries.
When power elites finally start losing their power – and history shows that no elite is eternal – they might resort to a variety of tactics. This might range from getting softer to appear closer to the ‘people’, to getting greedier and thus ‘making hay while the sun shines’. In countries with a lack of democratic tradition, independent media, autonomous civil society and institutional guarantees, some elites might also resort to violence and terror to secure their position.
Labour’s oligarchic rule will someday reach its peak and face an inevitable downfall
The power of elites has also fascinated authors in different genres, ranging from literature to popular music. Perhaps George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, is the best example in this regard. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, never ceases to be true.
How is all this relevant to Malta in 2016? It is, according to independent MP Marlene Farrugia, who resigned from Labour a few months ago. She is now speaking about the rule of oligarchs in Muscat’s Labour government.
Others had made similar claims about the Nationalist government in previous years, but now that Labour has been in government for the past three years, I would like to focus on its ruling style in this article.
In my reading, many decisions taken by Muscat’s government are tailor-made to serve certain business interests in sectors ranging from energy to healthcare and from land development to transport. A ruling clique administers the process through political support of appointed gatekeepers in the public service.
Labour’s deputy leadership non-race fits squarely in the formula. Toni Abela was conveniently given a prestigious yet politically invisible role in the EU court of auditors, and Konrad Mizzi, who came from out of nowhere in the 2013 elections and who now calls the shots in so many deals carried out by the Labour government with big business interests, was sole contender for the post. Everything was stage-managed, smiles and all, and there was no inkling of open debate.
These processes enable the oiling of the state apparatus through short-termist and unsustainable methods such as the sale of citizenship and over-reliance on development of land. I imagine that in the run-up to the general election, Labour will increasingly resort to such cash and land deals to buy political support.
Yet Labour’s oligarchic rule will someday reach its peak and face an inevitable downfall. Its leadership will probably not give up without a fight, yet it will probably discover that people who are fickle enough to give support to a party not out of principle but out of convenience, will desert the party when the sun no longer shines.
I hope that the implosion of oligarchy does not lead to other oligarchies, but to increased democracy and dialogue, fuelled by increasingly reflexive voters, media and civil society, and by authentic political pluralism.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.