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Catastrophe and progress - Ranier Fsadni

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

It’s fashionable to think that ideology has disappeared from the politics of Euro-America. This rule is said to apply to Malta too. It’s said that, at most, a new ideological division is emerging between globalists and nationalists, but this is said to divide the mainstream centre, right and left, from the far right.

There is, however, an ideology of time that’s emerging. It’s a divide about how history is flowing.

Are we in a time of impending catastrophe? Or are we just witnessing an inexorable progress?

It doesn’t divide neatly between globalists and nationalists. Donald Trump’s supporters feel they are finally seeing some progress thanks to his presidency; his detractors feel Trump may well wreck the US beyond recognition.

(This is being written before the mid-term election results are out, but even were the Democrats to win meaningfully, the victory will only mean something because it will signify a brake on the great unfolding catastrophe.)

Meanwhile, the nationalists in mainland Europe are the ones trading in catastrophe thanks to migration, Islamisation and globalisation generally. But in the UK the catastrophists are the remainers.

You might say, rightly, that there is an obvious correspondence here. The catastrophists are in Opposition, the progressivists are in government. So what’s new?

Nothing, at least not there. But there have been important changes in how we understand the two.

The first change has been the way the flow of history, or the direction of politics, has been whittled down to only two choices.

The idea of gradual decline has disappeared. If something isn’t going well, then the only scenario considered is the extreme: catastrophe.

Take Malta. Are we considering party politics? Then the stark scenarios will have nothing to do with a temporal decline of the Nationalist Party. The only scenario to have force is that of its possible extinction.

But it’s not just the PN. Is it tourism you’re considering? Financial services? Real estate? Culture and identity?

In each, the prospect is never regression. It’s catastrophe. The death of the goose that lays the golden eggs. The bursting of a bubble. The collapse of an industry. The eradication of that which makes us Maltese.

Nor are these doomsday scenarios simply the spin of an Opposition. Sectorial experts periodically (sometimes permanently) speak like this as well. They do so even when things are going well. It’s as though we are haunted by the fragility of everything around us, the sense that the music can stop suddenly.

If you think this can be countered by a good dose of optimistic realism, think again. The same thing that has foregrounded the awareness of possible catastrophe has also done funny things to the notion of progress.

Public progress has become illegible. We are too individualistic to think in terms of public goods. The changes are too radical to fit our customary ways of judging trade-offs

The notion of progress once referred to political-economic development. The Italian political scientist, Giovanni Orsina, has shown how, across the main European languages, the term’s use has declined since the 1960s. It is now associated with private life – improvement in personal quality of life. Even self-styled progressivist governments generally congratulate themselves for passing more libertarian legislation – laws granting greater liberties over private lifestyle choices.

However, the same pluralism in values that have legitimised these new civil liberties has also made it difficult to agree publicly on what counts as progress.

The only people who celebrate are the lobbyists for this or that legislation.

The consequence of (whether rightly or wrongly) sanctifying radical individualism is that celebration then increasingly becomes privatised.

What about progress in terms of the economy – lower unemployment or higher incomes? These too are largely made meaningful as private gains.

In public terms, the idea of progress falls under the large shadow of changes so big – radical changes in landscapes, in control over public services like health or education – that only the private gains can be measured.

Public progress has become illegible. We are too individualistic to think in terms of public goods. The changes are too radical to fit our customary ways of judging trade-offs.

The very speed of change suggests that it’s a progress we cannot control and that can get out of hand. Hence, the popularity of the image of an accelerator that must continue to the pressed.

We can talk about the speed of change. But we cannot talk about destinations. It’s not clear even if the industries of tomorrow will be with us the day after tomorrow. Progress is experienced, paradoxically, as a series of disruptions.

Hence, why progressivists and catastrophists share two things in common. One is a sense of lurking danger. The other that these prospects are a natural state of affairs.

They’re not, of course.

They are ideological.

In Malta, the sources of the ideology include at least two dubious assumptions. One is that we can eliminate cyclical thinking. We think about the economy the way we do because our leaders refuse to plan for cyclical downturns and their management.

The second assumption is that we should think of ourselves primarily as consumers, not as people who have broader life projects.

In both cases, short-term thinking is privileged. So are extreme results. Because the more time passes without planning, the more the results are a gamble with huge payoffs or losses. The prospects of huge progress or catastrophe begin to resemble a self-fulfilling prophecy.

None of this is natural. What would be natural would be for adult voters to ask that our leaders treat public affairs in an adult way. That fact that such a demand seems extraordinary is a measure of just how artificial is the state of public debate.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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