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Where modernity has never been

The Maltese seek patronage of different Lords whose interests have never changed

While the debacle over the so-called Pembroke Towers unfolds, and where crowds and opinions have been literally bussed in, residents have no choice but confront powerful developers, while environmentalists are countered by the vested and political interests of a strange alliance between old and new forms of party loyalty.

Following this sequence of events, I couldn't help thinking of how in Malta, feudalism never left us. More to the point, I could confirm (though I have always been inclined to argue) that modernity never really had an effect on Maltese politics.

As school children we were taught how between 1425 and 1428 the Maltese and Gozitans fought the reign of Gonsalvo Monroy. Prompted by the local nobility, they tried to buy back Malta’s fief, in an attempt to exchange their rulers. I can’t remember all details, but I do remember as a schoolboy imagining how on earth could a people buy its own relative freedom from someone, only to seek to be controlled by someone else.

I say “relative freedom”, because we know that in a feudal system, what ruled the roost was a matter of owning the land, which was the source of wealth generation, both for the Lords, and for those who, being the Lord’s property by the default of being indemnified to his land, had no choice but to seek happiness in being faithful vassals. In Malta, wealth creation has continued to evolve in ways where land, commerce, and the servicing of foreign wealth, have remained predominant

In this context, everything else ensued, whether it had to do with the assumption of who should be a Lord or why would the Crown seek to protect the fiefdom and its owner. The Crown’s own pretext came from the notion - thereby accepted as being the Truth - of a God-given power stewarded by the clergy and their bishops.

It was against this backdrop that the medieval population of Malta and Gozo sought to “buy” back their own means of living; and it was also because of that system that they had no choice but to give consent to a nobility which patronized their existence.

Buying one’s fief was a choice made under the duress of such a socio-economic context, and it would be awkward if we try to measure this against the standards and expectations of democratic liberties which we assume to have in the 21st century. However, as one looks back at Malta since and before Independence, one would not be blamed for wondering how in effect, feudalism today has morphed.

If we look at how, in Malta, wealth creation has continued to evolve in ways where land, commerce, and the servicing of foreign wealth, have remained predominant, one cannot but wonder how this had a direct effect on the economic models that Nationalist and Labour governments consistently adopted and sustained in the last four decades.

In all aspects of its socio-cultural and economic existence, Malta practically sidestepped the emergence, peak and decline of modernity. This would explain how the Maltese have managed to inhabit and sustain a curious history which makes Malta what it is today—a strange land where we still build and decorate mock-Baroque churches, where villagers still feud over their patron saints, where a prevalent moral imaginary is determined by personal gain, where patriarchy reigns supreme notwithstanding radical changes in civil liberties, and where politics boils down to a system of patronage and tribal loyalty.

While some would call this quaint and present it as a touristic asset through manufactured histories and a panoply of myths, in effect this seeds the potential downfall of all that our two political parties claim to have built in the last 50 years.

While some historians keep reminding us of Borg Olivier’s liberalism, they conveniently minimise the effect of Archbishop’s Gonzi’s obscurantist delectation in holding his prime minister by his political unmentionables while waging war against Mintoff’s socialist miscreants.

Mintoff’s attempt to jump-start Malta’s history into the sphere of a non-Aligned post-colonial modernity was not greeted with much enthusiasm from a conservative political and religious Establishment. Ultimately, Mintoff’s political earnestness found itself trapped by its own shortcomings. Beyond the merits of his welfare state, Malta could never escape the Peronist complex by which Mintoff tried to fight off what was, in effect, still a feudal mode d’emploi.

Enter the free market, supposedly sustained by the “new” economic order ushered by Eddie Fenech Adami who quickly bargained Malta’s wealth - indeed its fief - against a confessional politics whose only solution remained firmly mercantilist and which systematically destroyed the manufacturing base on which traditionally, the Maltese working classes have sustained their existence.

This is where the current version of Malta's un-modernist existence begins to chime with the predicaments of a political system whose claim to success comes from the perfecting of the house that Eddie built. While enhancing Malta’s corsair economy with EU membership, Fenech Adami’s economic order (only interrupted by a brief glitch, courtesy of Alfred Sant’s social democratic premiership) has sustained a tradition that continues where Eddie’s political dauphin, Lawrence Gonzi, left it - only to be relayed by Joseph Muscat’s premiership. It continues to attract an economy that has nothing to do with either manufacture, nor anything that would have made it modern

In Muscat’s economic edifice of a slick centre for financial services, a steady surplus has emerged from the fine-tuned economic order that has not essentially changed in structure since the 1990s. Nevertheless, notwithstanding its democratic forms of governance which keep her within the European sphere of influence, not unlike many Southern European regions, in economic terms Malta retains all the characteristics of a fief.

While Malta’s fief is not directly paid off or garnered from a strange alliance between the nobility, its vassals and the rest of the population as in the 15th century, nor sponsored by its subsequent colonial masters, it is now firmly handled by a cadre of powerful developers in ways that it continues to attract an economy that has nothing to do with either manufacture, nor anything that would have made it modern.

While one could argue that there was a glimpse of modernity in Mintoff and Borg Olivier’s frustrated attempts to change Malta’s economic trajectory, this was soon adjusted by what emerged in the politics of the last 30 years.

As I hear many making claims against the destruction of the environment symbolised by towers that are built and secured by Malta’s 21st century nobility, I do wonder why we are surprised by the fact that Malta is one of those peculiar places where modernity could never have an impact, because in effect its people have been always kept busy finding ways to buy it back, seeking the patronage of different Lords whose interests have never changed.

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