Immune to populism? - Saviour Rizzo

Immune to populism? - Saviour Rizzo

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

During the post-war period the political scenario in most of European countries, notably those in the western sphere, was dominated by two factions – one subscribing to the doctrine of Christian Democracy and the other leaning to the socialist ideology. The two parties representing the shades or colours of one of these two sets of belief became the mainstream political parties arming themselves with a well-oiled propaganda machine to battle out in the political arena.

In Malta since the 1947 general election the political scenario has been characterised by such a political divide. During this 70 year period (1947-2018), four years of which (1958-1962) Malta was under direct colonial rule, the Nationalist Party has spent 37 years in office (five of them in coalition) whereas the MLP spent 29 years. By 2022, if the present government holds on to its five year constitutional mandate, the difference between the parties of the years spent in office would be narrower. This goes to prove how the two ideological movements alternated in power.

Through the combination of this alternation a middle-class society emerged which combined a rather egalitarian balance between equality and inequality based on the principles of social market economy.

In spite of the conflict emanating from the two-party political divide there have been several instances of parallelism and in some cases continuity in the policies pursued by the two respective parties. For example, when the Nationalist Party was in office no attempt was ever made to dismantle the social service system set in motion by the Labour Party.

This means that there have been few if any reversals of social service benefits, facilities or rights. Rather than being reversed these services and rights were increased or improved. In other words the neo-liberalism propounded by the Thatcher-Reagan regime in 1980s did not have any effect on the course of this incremental process.

This regime disseminated a culture that celebrates individualism, wealth and self-reliance. The image of the deserving self-made member of the economic elite became a characteristic of this new culture. Although this culture or its residue may still linger in the mindset of the policymakers the political issues and events of the new century have clearly shown that a mentality of individualism verging on self interest may lead to a blind alley.

The hazards implicit in this scenario have been translated into a rise in xenophobia and poverty.

The xenophobia gripping the psyche of many voters across Europe, which includes Malta, has made immigration a very complex issue to handle. Unlike the politicians on the extreme right who advocate a quick fix to the issue of immigration by building borders and adopting a policy of exclusion  the policymakers leaning to Christian or socialist ideals have to be more idealistic and humane in handling this issue.

These policymakers have to face the inconvenient truth that the issue, mostly induced by external factors, cannot be solved by idealism. Very often they have to fend off the widely held assumptions that immigration has caused a downward spiral in wages.

The symptoms of the mood of gloom prevalent on the European continent are also visible in Malta

This assumption is of course missing the point that the main factor exerting downward pressure on wages is the high flexibility of the labour market rather than the influx of immigrants. Hyper flexibility has indeed become a feature of modern society as the digitalised economy is slowly but surely making the labour market one big flexible system.

This is very problematic for the trade union movement which has always invested its ideology and values in certainty and security. Job security means safe and comfortable work place, good career prospects and a reliable safety net. The judicial protests made against UBER which is a worldwide organisation utilising digitalisation to provide taxi service in several towns and cities across the world sums up the intricacies of this flexibility.

The European Court of Justice has warned UBER that it has to conform to the strict EU regulations and directives to operate in Europe. The operations of UBER and other newly set-up enterprises utilising digitalisation tend to validate the assumption held by many social analyst that a hyper-flexible labour market may not be amenable to the goals of economic equality.

This notion of equality has lately been rekindled as the evidence in several countries is constantly revealing the widening gap between owners of capital and wage earners. Inequality does not necessarily resonate with class warfare. In several cases the owners of capital, being aware that the operations of their organisation are highly dependent on human capital, express their beliefs in making their staff or workforce in some ways equity owners. However the legal system does not appear to be well equipped to deal with this type of ownership.

Such initiatives, if or when they are implemented, may give the labour market the ideal stimulus to attain sustainable stability. Unfortunately the austerity measures various governments are being compelled to adopt and the wave of immigrants, often implicitly and sometimes even explicitly portrayed or perceived as being a threat to the mainstream culture, are not conducive to this stability.

This lack of stability has created an overall mood of discontent and fear which is making it difficult for the mainstream parties to connect to their core constituency. Indeed in several European countries the mainstream parties are finding it difficult not only to go beyond their core support but even to retain it. This has spawned a fiery type of populism sustained by parties on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

This brand of populism has not made too much headway in Malta. This however does not mean that Malta is immune to it. The symptoms of the mood of gloom prevalent on the European continent are also visible in Malta. The millennials have developed a keen sense of what they are up to in the new economy. It is within such a context that the two mainstream political Maltese parties have to design their strategies and policies.

Saviour Rizzo is a former director of the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta.

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