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Re-imagining Labour politics

Socialist protesters in Brazil. The political Left must be "radically democratic", says John Baldacchino. Photo: Reuters

Socialist protesters in Brazil. The political Left must be "radically democratic", says John Baldacchino. Photo: Reuters

While hailing Malta’s Labour government for its widening of civil rights, free childcare, lower utility bills, and many other reforms that were long overdue, many commentators also denounce the same Labour government for cronyism, environmental infringement, and affairs related to Gaffarena, Café Premiere and Panama.

Governments must be held to the strictest account. However I would argue that while factual, most of the critique levelled at this Labour government, remains problematic.

Even when a good portion of the Maltese press is far more independent than ever before, rather than address the core problem of governance as a result of a system bound by class and privilege, most critics tend to shy away from taking the issue at root. This results in a critique that is broadly subscribed to the Right.

Traditionally, reformist political parties have emerged to represent rights that were absent from the polity. For centuries, workers, the illiterate, the poor, women, and many other marginalized groups were totally disenfranchised. While some of the living had multiple votes according to their social standing, thousands had neither vote nor influence—and this, when even the dead held onto their votes!

As we celebrate International Labour Day on this 1st of May, we should bear in mind that the emergence of Labour and Socialist parties corresponded to a struggle for a democracy sustained on equal rights and social justice.

The political Left must be radically democratic, wholly dedicated to social justice and equal rights- John Baldacchino

 

As long as there is an Establishment that protects the uninterrupted power of a few who thrive over and above any government we elect, there is always the need for a peaceful yet robust politics of resistance. This resistance is what the Left stands for.

Beyond the disasters of command economies and totalitarian regimes that claimed to be socialist, today more than ever before, the political Left must be radically democratic, wholly dedicated to social justice and equal rights, while championing the social responsibilities and the right of each and every individual as a free and intelligent being, irrespective of gender, race, social belonging, sexual orientation, lifestyle, or creed.

This corresponds to a vision of solidarity, which Richard Rorty views as a goal to be achieved by “the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.” This solidarity, says Rorty, “is not discovered by reflection but created.”

I would add that for solidarity to be created, we must strive to achieve what Ivan Illich calls a convivial society, where individual freedom is realized in personal interdependence.

Yet as we seek to consolidate democracy through a convivial society, we come across a major obstacle—what many, notably Pope Francis, recognize as today’s plague of economic greed and a culture of waste [una cultura dello scarto]. “As conviviality is reduced below a certain level,” says Illich, “no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.” In short, conviviality cannot survive where societies are dominated by incessant material greed and individualistic avarice.

It isn't enough to quote poverty statistics. Photo: ShutterstockIt isn't enough to quote poverty statistics. Photo: Shutterstock

Instead of recognizing the horizontal divide that exists between the haves and the have nots, most of the Maltese commentariat tends to cut the polity vertically, between the PL and PN. This creates the illusion of symmetry between two tribes whose competition for governance appears to entertain the populace.

Likewise it is not enough to quote statistics about poverty or exclusion. These are symptoms. The cause runs deeper. Neither should the debate be wasted on whether a Labour government could operate its social policy from the Left while running an economy that operates on the Right. Frankly, such an argument is not only passé, but it betrays a serious lack of historical understanding of democratic socialism.

It is not enough to quote statistics about poverty or exclusion. These are symptoms. The cause runs deeper.

 

Let’s not forget that democratic socialists originally regarded the market economy as a vehicle and not an aim. Their political objectives remain those of wider participation, social ownership and social democracy. The aim of social democracy is that of social emancipation through radical democratic change.

History has shown that this still works in several democracies, while in others it has failed as soon as the Labour Movement was abandoned by its own party. If Labour politicians don’t learn from this history, they will be at best foolish and at worse irresponsible and selfish.

Labour politics needs to be re-imagined. To appraise its achievements while analysing its mistakes, it needs to articulate those social needs and realities that are still found wanting. Labour politics today must aim for an inclusive democracy founded on work—as our Republic’s Constitution clearly states. Labour can only sustain a healthy relationship with business if the business community plays a transparent and integral role in the world of work.

Ultimately Labour politics today should aim to establish a convivial way of living. Lacking any sense of conviviality, Maltese society risks putting excessive value on individual wealth and selfish interests above all that makes it a community.

And in case some born-again Labourites confuse aspiration with the idea of putting oneself before and above everyone else, I would remind them that this is not what Labour Movements around the world celebrate on May the 1st.

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