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To each his own

In Malta, clientelism continues to sustain the Establishment

Cartoon: Burlo'

Cartoon: Burlo'

All twenty articles that I have since written for this blog, come from one premise: that the “disagreement” between the Opposition and Government is an expedient way to sustain tribal interests which continue to weaken democracy while sustaining the uninterrupted power of the few.

Unless we see this, we would fail to understand why the environment remains in a bad predicament, why corruption never goes away, why development seems unstoppable, why education is always confused with schooling, why poverty is always ignored, why we are trapped in a long spell of populism where those who are powerful will continue to reign, whoever happens to be in government.

In the light of Ernesto Laclau’s analysis of populist logic, it is easy to see how in Malta, both parties aim at the same goal: to identify and in turn claim a “chain of demands” that would capture hegemonic consensus and give them enough votes to win elections.

What is increasingly worrying is that the PN and PL’s demands are more or less founded on a shared notion of populist policies whose measure is always that of the populace’s relative comfort.

A good example is civil rights reforms, which saw a radical change in Malta’s legal approach to sexual and gender diversity. However, on claiming to agree on civil reform, the PN and PL have shown that ultimately it is all a matter of giving “a ciascuno il suo” — to each his own — so that, in return, those established forms of hegemony which sustain political power would remain unchanged.

The actual test comes when one asks: “Does it mean that we have a progressive and inclusive Malta?” The sad reply is: “Only where it matters to the narrow interests of most of the electorate.” In other words: Only when the chain of demands adds up.

When it comes to racial or religious diversity, the Maltese are not that sanguine on equal rights. It had to be the Dominican Order and the President of the Republic to take leadership and try to solve the recent issue of a place of worship for a group of Muslims over whom a local council took umbrage. Neither the PL nor the PN took a lead.

To understand Maltese politics, I recommend that one revisits Leonardo Sciascia’s novel A ciascuno il suo — which inspired Elio Petri to produce and direct a film with the same name in 1967. In his essay on Antonello da Messina, L’ordine delle somiglianze — the order of resemblance — Sciascia reminds us how in the manner by which the political and artistic imaginary operates, what one looks like is often more important than what one thinks or does. In this essay he also characterises the Sicilian mind — il modo di essere Siciliano — which could well be a characterisation of how the political imaginary has evolved in Malta over many years.

In Malta, meritocracy comes as natural as coming across a kangaroo in Republic Street.

I make reference to Sciascia because he offers an analysis of a society that is not only founded securely on a populist logic, but also a societal imaginary that sustains the boldest example of individualist selfishness. This yields a political world dominated by a form of clientelism that directly sustains the Establishment.

Here we are not talking about the Labour or Nationalist voter who jumps the queue in a hospital or gets a job as a cleaner in some Ministry, but an Establishment ready to do everything to keep its power intact, no matter who happens to be in government.

Not surprisingly in our political banter, we often accuse each other as being Mafiosi, as sustaining a politics of omertà. This comes natural to us because the political-cultural approach is still founded on the same instincts — those of tribalism, of personal greed, of selfish interest, dictated by a fear of the other, and ultimately of an insularity that is so crassly provincial that when under international scrutiny, Maltese politicians act as if they rule the world.

However modern and slick the PL or PN may appear, Malta’s political establishment is basically conservative, provincial and incapable of change. Both parties are sustained by an army of fanatics who have found in online commenting and social media an even louder way of voicing what they say in their respective każin. Instead of dialogue, they offer vulgarity. Instead of reasoning they opt for ad hominem attacks. Both sides are fueled by pettiness, jealousy, and a hatred towards anyone who appears to succeed. In Malta, meritocracy comes as natural as coming across a kangaroo in Republic Street.

So what’s new? Nothing, except that the stories are new while the same protagonists keep emerging. I am amazed by how the same names seem to recur, and how they easily switch from one side to the other. We find people and interests which were once welcomed in Pietà. Yet now they are welcome in Ħamrun — to the dismay of those Labour loyalists who, rightly or wrongly, claim to be left behind. At the same time, Nationalist loyalists argue that THEY are left behind! Are they both right or are they simply seeing it their way?

I am amazed by how the same names seem to recur, and how they easily switch from one side to the other.

Looking back at Sciascia, while reminding myself of what is going on in elections and referenda in Europe and the US, what I see evolving is the death of politics. As in the 1930s, just before the rise of fascism, we are currently witnessing the bankruptcy of the liberal state, where ideals and principles are discarded as ideological claptrap, and where the attempt to think outside a partisan mindset is regarded as mumbo jumbo.

It is with this heavy heart that I sometimes wonder whether the fight against populism, can ever be won.

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