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Two ugly, boring and oppressive political parties

They bicker and brawl, but is there any substance behind the bluster?

'Rather than think freely and intelligently, many prefer to be reassured by their party'.

'Rather than think freely and intelligently, many prefer to be reassured by their party'.

Joseph Muscat’s Labour government and Simon Busuttil’s adopted strategy to oppose him, might shed some light on the anxiety that many voters express when faced with a choice between voting for either large parties or taking the risk and voting for a third party.

Here I am identifying five “narratives” by which one could begin to explain this quandary. These are: parochial governance, corrupt practices, lazy intellects, stubborn managerialism, and a sense of belonging. I will deal with each of them briefly.

Parochial governance though increasingly secularised, Maltese culture remains “catholic”, in the exact sense of the word: as a community that in its diversity is mostly moulded by around a sense of belonging. Jean-François Lyotard sees Catholicism as both good and ugly: it is good because it emancipates diversity in a sense of belonging. It is ugly because it suppresses the same diversity into a oneness. In political terms, the latter is expressed by the model of the parish. Again, the parish gives us an identity, yet it also cuts us out of the rest. Though the Maltese are increasingly secular, the madness of the village

Though increasingly secularised, Maltese culture remains “catholic”, in the exact sense of the word: as a community that in its diversity is mostly moulded by around a sense of belonging.

The only people who are neutral in Malta are found in the Addolorata.

Jean-François Lyotard sees Catholicism as both good and ugly: it is good because it emancipates diversity in a sense of belonging. It is ugly because it suppresses the same diversity into a oneness. In political terms, the latter is expressed by the model of the parish. Again, the parish gives us an identity, yet it also cuts us out of the rest. 

Though the Maltese are increasingly secular, the madness of the village festi rests unabated. This is a good example of what is meant by a form of inclusion that excludes. Parochialism is what moulds our political imaginary: how we live together, and yet how we insist on “us” and “them”. As a place, the town and village are expressions of this: two or three band clubs, a PN and PL club, a Church with two or three saints; and finally, a Council which is also expressed across party lines. On a national level, Malta is a big parish. Parliament is the place where PN and PL fight for their supremacy, as band clubs do in the festa.

Corrupt practices

This appears tricky. Actually, it’s not. As far as I remember, every government has been, in the eyes of the opposition of the day, the “most corrupt government” ever. This is a truism in that partisan politics tends to play on collective memory to obfuscate what came before. We now speak of Panama, but a few years ago we spoke of the oil scandal. We now speak of brothels, but a few years ago we spoke of Maltese clocks and football trips abroad. With libel suits aplenty, and now with the added tools of garnishees and online crowd funding, the story of corruption in Malta is never dull. Yet we conveniently forget that corrupt practices are a constant, tiresome and debilitating culture which has destroyed politics.

Lazy intellects

There is a difference between “stupid” and “lazy”. The Maltese are not stupid. Nor are they uneducated. The problem is the adoption of a willed laziness where, rather than think freely and intelligently, many prefer to be reassured by their political party.

In the past we had the parish priest’s sermon. Today we have TV “infotainment”, which “entertains” a much as it “informs” by the notion of a “common sense” reached by people shouting over each other. As we’ve heard recently from many politicians, including Donald Trump, people are fed up of intellectuals and politically correct commentators. They want to “say it as it is.” Mr Trump told us that the people want to think for themselves. So, they listened to the alternative facts which politicians have been peddling since the times of Cicero — though then, it was called “rhetoric”. So, it seems that politicians must speak “simply”. Those who don’t—like Barack Obama and a few others like Justin Trudeau—are considered to be politically correct snobs.

Stubborn Managerialism

In the old days, we had the strong leader who goes out there to get deals for us from his (mostly his, not her) mates in Europe or beyond. Now we have slick managers in a suit who babble EU-speak and are proud to be fiscally conservative with a social bent. They tell us that principles depend on a good deal. If Mr Trump weren’t so vulgar, he would be their hero. (Then again, maybe he is their hero).

In the policies expressed in their manifestos and occasional document, the PN and PL are cut from the same cloth. No grand narratives. (After all, we are postmodernists and our measure is that of performance, while our demeanour is that of the expert.)

These days Malta has become the land of summits and smartly dressed delegates in conferences. At the risk of irking the Maltese petite bourgeoisie, we even dare mix the odd pastizz with managerialism. Why not? As long as we cut a deal and keep the refugees at bay in free and democratic Libya, we could all agree over a pastizz or two.

A sense of belonging

I remember when I married and we set up our marital home in a village where, unlike my wife, I could not vouch allegiance to either of the Saints celebrated there. As it happens, they were the same person — the Virgin Mary.

I was allowed to stay neutral because I was “minn barra r-raħal” [basically a foreigner]. At a national level, it seems that I have no excuse. We all have to belong. “Int ma’ Mintoff jew Borg Olivier?” Even at a tender age, in school, we had to belong, and this was a question that I could well remember since I was five or six.

These five traits promise a safe space. No risks and actually no politics. As I have argued in my previous blogs, the parties are rather quietist when it comes to ideological commitment or indeed principles that may appear a bit too risqué. These traits are not exclusively Maltese. But the way they come together brings out a unique value, especially when set against a Maltese political landscape.

Whenever I comment in this way, many are suspicious of such talk. Being on the Left, I must be a Labourite. Given that everyone tends to have belonged to one tribe or another, mostly by dint of family, then it is impossible not to be either pro-PN or pro-PL. As Mintoff, or someone else I can’t remember, once said, the only people who are neutral in Malta are found in the Addolorata.

Yet given the way both the PN and PL have evolved, I could say with some ease that while my abode is not the Addolorata and that I am not neutral, I find myself, like many others who are alive and kicking, very happy to be outside the PN and PL. I do feel liberated from having to belong to either.

For far too long I have felt trapped by two parties bickering with each other over anything that moves. The PN and PL are very happy to hurl insults at each other over bloggers, ministers, scandals, and brothels. Yet they refrain from discussing politics.

Unless to grab votes, the PN and PL hardly ever speak of the single mother and her children who is evicted because she can’t pay rent; the father who can't bring enough money home because he is stuck with a minimum wage or precarious work. They fail to explain their curious refusal to introduce a living wage; the priorities they give to their baronial friendly developers, while they fail to embark on quick and available social housing. We hardly know why both parties refuse to tackle racism and the hatred towards immigrants (maybe because they risk losing votes?). They never commit to a solid welfare state sustained on social justice.

All of this is far too contentious for our dear leaders, while they are all too happy to agree on the benefits of online gaming, “financial services”, and EU declarations over pushbacks courtesy of North African nations.

The PN and PL would rather continue to sustain themselves as they are. The status quo serves them well and they like taking turns in government. Their hegemony has been long and oppressive, as much as it has become boring and frankly ugly. And yet, the majority of Maltese voters, seem to like it that way.

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