Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fighting for long defeat: Chris Mizzi

Environmentalists have long warned about the dangers of over-development, with little visible effect but although Moviment Graffitti activist admits the present is bleak he argues that there is still hope for the future

Raphael Vassallo - Malta Today 20 September 2016

I’ve always wanted to open an interview with a quote from Tolkien, and I must say the opportunity was altogether too apt to resist. ‘Fighting the long defeat’ is how Galadriel describes the epochal struggle against the Dark Lord Sauron in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. And while the stakes may have been higher in that struggle, a comparison can easily be made with the fight to safeguard Malta’s increasingly beleaguered environment. 

Certainly, it has come to resemble a ‘long defeat’. The environment may have been a pivotal battleground at the last election; but it has become painstakingly clear that a change of government has not ushered in the promised change in approach to the issue.

Then as now, the most a Maltese environmentalist can do is watch in helpless frustration, while one planning decision after another is taken with almost no regard whatsoever for the long-term environmental effects. The most recent example – in which two gargantuan development projects were approved by the Planning Authority, without even any input from the newly formed ‘Environment and Resources Authority’ – seems to take this pattern one step further. Not only were environmental objections not even raised during the PA meeting… but infrastructural and economic counter-arguments were likewise side-lined or ignored. 

Elsewhere, the Opposition party that had fought tooth and nail against the 2006 ODZ extension, was itself only too keen to extend the development zones further once in power. Apart from offering up virgin land for the construction of a private university at Zonqor Point, Muscat’s Labour administration has also redesigned the country’s entire planning rulebook to permit more ODZ development in future.

And yet, throughout all this time, environmentalist NGOs have been busy fighting their corner… with little or no visible success. When I met Chris Mizzi – an award-winning youth worker, and also active member of Moviment Graffitti – in Santa Venera to discuss this very issue, he had only just returned from an umpteenth environmentalist protest: this time, a blockade of the ERA offices.

Doesn’t it all feel pointless at this stage, however? Much larger protests had failed to halt the ODZ extension 10 years ago… this latest protest likewise seems doomed to failure. Doesn’t a point come when even a committed activist like Mizzi feels the war is lost?

“I understand what you mean. When you look at the experience of the past years, you might easily conclude that activism did not bring about change at all. But when you consider the full experience, you will realise that there were certain victories here and there. I wouldn’t say it was all pointless… There were projects that would definitely have been steamrolled through, were it not for popular resistance. The Ta’ Cenc golf course was a case in point…”

True, and one can also add Manikata and Xaghra l-Hamra to the list. All three concerned proposals for golf courses over large tracts of (partly arable) land. As such, opposition to those projects united a much broader coalition than the one that protested that morning… including farmers, residents and (speaking of unlikely allies) hunters and trappers.

On most other environmental issues, however, popular resistance never seems to get anywhere. Anyone who’s been following planning issues over the past 20 years will surely have felt a sensation of ‘déjà-vu’…   

“Yes, there is a sense of déjà vu. But I think that over the years, activism in Malta has succeeded in bringing about a certain mentality change. You can’t look only at whether an individual project was stopped or not. The sustained pressure – successful or otherwise – has up to a point forced political parties to sit up and pay attention to the environment. If it wasn’t for that pressure, I am convinced that neither the PN nor the PL would bother even mentioning the environment in their pre-electoral manifestos.”

Perhaps, but the fact that both parties now pander to environmentalists before every election does not, in itself, mean very much. It’s what happens after an election that counts… and once the campaign is over, we have time and again seen those promises fizzle out into nothing…

“To be honest, I personally see governments almost as being ‘nothing’, too. To all intents and purposes they are non-existent. They don’t wield real power. The real power is in the hands of others: that includes big business interests, but it also includes the people. Basically, any government will look to see where power lies, and act accordingly…”

On that appraisal alone, it can already be seen that the balance of power lies firmly with the commercial lobby. Doesn’t this call into question Mizzi’s earlier observation that ordinary people also wield power? There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of this in practical terms…

“Yes, that’s how it seems today. There is a reason for it, too. If you go out into the streets and ask people directly, they will all say that they are in favour of change. But if you ask them to what extent they themselves would be willing to change their own lifestyle, you will get a different answer…”

And yet, the objections to the Sliema and Mriehel projects were rooted in the same principle. Whether people like it or not, their lifestyle will be drastically affected. Sliema residents have already been told (by the PA) to ‘shut their windows’ to keep out noise and dust. And after years of inconvenience brought about by construction, they will have to face an exponential increase in daily traffic (over 3,000 cars a day), on top of considerable pressure on an already insufficient town infrastructure.

At this point, the people’s reluctance to change their own lifestyles becomes irrelevant. Those lifestyles are going to have to change anyway… 

Mizzi agrees, but quickly points out that this, too, is part of the reason for the status quo. “One of the issues we encounter as activists is that, although concerns do exist at the level of the local community, they are not extended onto a national level. People are only interested in what happens in their own backyard. Let me give you an example: when we protested against the Manikata golf course, we were overwhelmed by support from the local community. And yet, when we organised a similar protest at Ta’ Cenc, the people who supported us on Manikata were nowhere to be seen. And vice versa, too. That’s where I start asking myself certain questions. It is good that there is a sense of civic ownership at the local community level. But why doesn’t it translate into a sense of ownership at national level? Why do people not care as much for the country as a whole, as they do about their backyard? It’s all connected, after all…”

This brings us to the question of how (if at all) the prevailing mentality can be changed. Graffitti and other NGOs have been tireless in their campaigns over the past two decades, but as recent developments – including, but not limited to, the Sliema and Mriehel permits – indicate, not much has in fact changed at all.

What more can therefore be done in practical terms? Is there any long-term strategy directing environmentalist NGOs at the moment? 

“Ultimately, the idea behind activism is to raise awareness; and through raising awareness – by attracting more people to voice their concerns – the message keeps growing until it becomes too loud to ignore. And I know what you’re going to ask next… because I ask it to myself all the time. I’ve been active in this scene for around 20 years now, and all that time I’ve asked myself when that moment is actually going to come…”

That is, admittedly, the question I was about to ask. But it has another dimension: with so much damage now being done in such a small (and therefore vulnerable) environment, there is a chance that when this great moment of awareness finally arrives – if it ever does – there may be nothing left to actually safeguard…

Mizzi does not, however, share my pessimism on this point. “Things are changing, albeit slowly. Perhaps too slowly, for people who expect change to come about from one day to the next… but one thing that gives me hope is the input we are getting from young people and children. I think that is where the mentality is changing most…”

This change, he adds, does not necessarily arise from any difference in educational or institutional approach. “When you look at our educational system, it is still lacking in leadership and character-building. Children must follow a syllabus which is very academic in nature. Lessons themselves tend to be instructional, in the sense that children are taught to pass exams. Critical thinking is still lacking in the curriculum. There needs to be an overhaul of the system… but even within this system, with all its faults, we have still seen a culture change…”

As an example he refers to hunting and trapping. “It wasn’t so long ago that children would go out trapping for robins, for instance. It was a widespread culture only a few years ago, but it doesn’t really happen anymore…”

Similarly, the hunting situation as a whole has clearly improved, from the days when there weren’t even any hunting laws to enforce (i.e., before 1980). This is indeed hopeful, but when it comes to other areas of environmental sensitivity, it is debatable whether we can expect the same level of improvement. To return to the construction and development sector – and one could extend the argument also to the fisheries sector, which is once again causing an environmental stink (literally, this time) – there are economic considerations that simply do not apply to hunting or trapping.

There is (let’s face it) a deep-seated tendency to value construction on the basis of its contribution to the economy. And to be fair, it doesn’t come only from business or political interests: the population at large also traditionally perceives property as a reliable investment. Even tourism – another stable of the local economy – relies heavily on the construction of new hotels, new facilities, and so on. 

It seems that Malta, as a nation, has never hit on any real alternative to building as a means of generating wealth. Doesn’t that also mean that we are permanently condemned to lose more and more land to unbridled development in future?

“I think we need a new vision, definitely. To come out of a situation, you have to create another situation as an alternative. There’s no point in telling someone not to play football, unless you give him a basketball court instead. Ultimately, I think it goes back to the core issue of our identity as a nation. We have been independent for just over 50 years now, but in all that time we have never really sat down and held a discussion about what direction we actually want to go.

“In fact our economic ideas haven’t really changed at all since then. After independence from Britain, there was a mad scramble to industrialise – to attract foreign investment from here and from there – and all these years later we are still doing the same thing. If you look at the projects that have been approved, they are mostly aimed at foreign buyers. The type of development may have changed, but we’re still stuck in the same economic rut…”

Meanwhile, all efforts to lift ourselves out of this vicious circle have so far failed… as is perhaps evidenced by the suggestion of a ‘new’ tactic (‘new’ in relative terms… it had been used, to some effect, in the distant 1980s): a boycott of companies involved in the aforementioned projects.

This proposal has divided public opinion... lending weight to Mizzi’s earlier point that people may want to achieve change in theory, but may be less willing to inconvenience themselves in the process. But what is Mizzi’s own opinion in the matter? Does he consider a boycott to be an appropriate response? 

“On principle, I agree 100% with the idea of a boycott. And when we discussed it at Graffitti, there was general agreement there also. But one must tread with caution. A boycott is a powerful tool if used properly… but there has to be a clear and consistent campaign, a functional strategy, if it is to succeed. The last thing we would want is to organise a boycott that would be ineffective. That would not only defeat the purpose, but might also rob us of another tool at our disposal…”

I suppose this brings us back to the original question. The fact that we are talking about a boycott at all, only confirms that all other strategies have so far failed. People have time and again proved powerless against the vested interests of Malta’s political-industrial complex. Wouldn’t they be justified in considering the environment to be a lost cause?

“No, I think it’s the other way around. People are not giving up; and they’re not powerless either. I think they are only just beginning to realise how much power they wield. It goes back to the efforts at Ta’ Cence, Tal-Virtu and elsewhere. I have been to consultation meetings where hardly anyone showed up. But in those cases, hundreds of people came to the meetings, to the extent that they needed police at the door. That’s when you realise how much power the people wield. Are we winning the fight? At present, no. But can it be won? I think that’s a different question.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Greek gifts in Gzira

The non-violent direct action carried out by Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent (KEA) at Manoel Island was a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of environmental politics in this country.
The KEA activists basically enabled access to the foreshore of Manoel Island. The foreshore is public, yet access to it has been sealed by the developers, MIDI.
Apart from access to the lovely beach at Manoel Island in this specific case, this type of activism has two major impacts.
First of all, through colourful and spectacular action, it can raise public awareness on certain issues.
This does not mean that direct action will always enjoy such public support. But in the case of Manoel Island, the support was widespread. The island has been rendered to a glorified junk yard, with MIDI’s property sealed off amid a lack of social responsibility. One needn’t be a radical environmentalist to have rage against such parcelling out of Malta’s heritage and public domain.
The second major impact of such activism is internal. Even if a specific campaign is not won, a sense of belonging can be created among activists. If this proves to be resilient to internal and external challenges, it can help create a stronger environmentalist community.
Another interesting dimension of environmental activism is the way in which it is portrayed by the media in Malta’s present political context.
The independent media generally has favourable coverage of different types of environmental activism, whether it comes from KEA or from more moderate ENGOs such as Din l-Art Ħelwa. Independent media also plays an instrumental role in raising awareness and reporting on various environmental issues. Malta’s largest ever environmental protest – the one organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ in 2015 –benefitted from favourable coverage from such media. This included constant coverage in the run up to the actual protest.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media
Then there is the media owned by the Nationalist Party. Whether out of conviction or out of political opportunism, this media is also giving much coverage to environmental activism. A similar stance was adopted by the Labour Party media when the reds were in opposition. In both cases, media coverage did not always tally with what the respective political masters were promising to different interest groups.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media (including the media of the GWU).  The activists were portrayed positively and as being in the good company of the Labour mayor of Gżira.
Maybe one can argue that the appointment of John Bundy as CEO at PBS represents a culture change in the reporting of such activism. Or that the inews portal is realising that the environment matters to many voters, including those who thought that Labour would improve green governance.
Will such positive coverage by Labour-friendly media persist in other environmental issues? If yes, we would suddenly be experiencing a move away from the recent negative portrayal of environmentalists by Labour spin-doctors. We all know the untruthful tune of this tactic: environmental activism was inexistent under previous administrations, environmentalists are blue secret agents, and so forth.
This takes us to a more critical – and cynical – reading of the sudden interest in Manoel Island by the Labour-friendly media. And here one should really keep in mind that Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party is a master of media strategy.
What if the Manoel Island activism was used by such media as a decoy to steer away attention from other issues which are subject to imminent decisions? These may include the Mrieħel and Townsquare controversies. Both will very soon be subject to appeals by ENGOs, and in the case of the latter, also by Sliema local council and the Environment Resources Authority.
Which reminds me of Trojan horses. As the saying goes, beware gifts from the Greeks.
If the government supports the demands of such activism, and if it really wants to give a genuine gift to the public, it has the opportunity to do so. How about actually guaranteeing public access to the foreshore all around Malta, as enshrined in Malta’s law?
The analysis of this issue can also be complemented by some other remarks made on the social media. I will refer to 2 specific comments made on Facebook. 
1. James Vella Clark (15 September): "In politics, timing is key. Strangely enough, there's hardly any talk about Sliema and Mrieħel towers now that we have this Manoel Island saga.....courtesy of PL mayor of Gżira.."
2. James Debono (19 September): "There could also be an interest in labour quarters to push MIDI to sell to someone else"
To which I add, 
1. Yes indeed, I too argued along the same lines on 11 September, as it was interesting to note how certain media outlets in the Labour orbit were suddenly enthusiastic about environmental activism. And this itself raises further questions. For example, what do Johnny-come-latelys have to say about other issues related to access to foreshore, to the MIDI project and to similar development projects in general? I am still awaiting a reply from the Mayor of Gzira as to whether he agrees with the 2012 proposal by the Green Party on the Manoel Island development. I asked him this specifically on Facebook on 15 September 2016.   .   
2. What if there is interest by certain competitors to have less competition in the property market?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Launch: Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Official Book Launch

Sociology of the Maltese Islands, Edited by Michael Briguglio & Maria Brown
Published by Miller

Hon Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education and Employment will be launching the book. The panel will also consist of sociologist Angele Deguara, and journalist James Debono who will chair. 

The book will be available for sale during the launch. The panel discussion will be followed by a reception. 

Sociology of the Maltese Islands provides a broad sociological introduction to various areas of Maltese society currently featuring in public and scholarly debate and research. 

This book may be of interest to a wide range of students, including undergraduates, students at post-secondary level, as well those carrying out research at post-graduate level.

Researchers, policy makers, politicians, journalists, activists and the general public may find this book useful for the provision and scholarly review of data and debates on key issues, areas and concepts relevant to contemporary Maltese society.

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown. Includes contributions by Godfrey Baldacchino. Angela Abela, Katya DeGiovanni, Joanne Cassar, Marvin Formosa, Maja Miljanic Brinkworth, Nathalie Grima, Maria Brown, Ruth Baldacchino, JosAnn Cutajar, Brenda Murphy, Marceline Naudi, Peter Mayo, Manwel Debono, Saviour Rizzo, George Cassar, Valerie Visanich, Noel Agius, Michael Briguglio, Mary Grace Vella, Silvan Agius, Helena Dalli, Ian Bugeja, Jacqueline Azzopardi, Mario Vassallo, Carmen Sammut.

Date: Thursday 6 October
Time: 7pm-9pm
Gateway Hall E, University of Malta

Friday, August 26, 2016

New Blog Series on Social Movements and Institutions

Social movements and institutions are central actors in national and transnational politics as well as core categories of social inquiry. Despite their importance, both terms are still haunted by a lack of thorough definitions. We introduce a blog series with ten weekly contributions on their interrelation, outlining several innovative approaches and suggesting some vantage points for rethinking ‘Movements’ and ‘Institutions’ in a productive manner.

Join the debate
Since this blog series revolves around interaction, one may interact and participate in the conversation
The blog series may be followed by clicking here 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Walking out of the Mintoffian shadow

Times of Malta, 7 August 2016 
Red may have vanished from Labour’s imagery and blue may have become hip as the PL tried walking out of Dom Mintoff’s shadow. On the centenary of the former prime minister’s birth, Kurt Sansone asks if his legacy lives on, with Aaron Farrugia and Michael Briguglio.
It is pure coincidence that Dom Mintoff was born on the feast day of Christ the Saviour – but not for his followers.
Detractors would have a different story to tell, but for those born in the poverty stricken area of Tal-Bastjun in Cospicua like Mr Mintoff, the former Prime Minister was indeed a saviour.
Veterans who remember the Second World War and its aftermath describe themselves as “socialist Mintoffians” rather than Labourites. The label has a deep-rooted meaning for those who feel Mr Mintoff lifted them out of poverty and gave their children a chance to prosper.
Especially for them, this was a man who rose to the highest echelons of power, which culminated with the social revolution of the 1970s and laid the groundwork for a new middle class.
Dom Mintoff was born on August 6, 1916 and died on August 20, 2012. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat paying tribute to him in Cospicua. Photo: Reuben Piscopo/DOIDom Mintoff was born on August 6, 1916 and died on August 20, 2012. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat paying tribute to him in Cospicua. Photo: Reuben Piscopo/DOI
Even when they were faced with the prospect of eternal damnation as a result of Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s interdiction of Labour officials and sympathisers in the 1960s, Mr Mintoff’s followers stood behind him.
The architect from Cospicua was larger than life, and his aura continues to be the subject of debate 100 years after his birth.
For some within the Labour Party, Mr Mintoff’s legacy continues to be the yardstick against which today’s policy decisions are measured.
Aaron Farrugia, a young Labour candidate, says he does get this comparison thrown at him by some of the party’s veterans. Some of it is nostalgia, but some of it is ideologically motivated.
He feels Mintoff’s legacy is an integral part of the chain that leads up to today’s Labour Party, which is rooted in Joseph Muscat’s broad voter appeal.
“Dom Mintoff built the idea of a progressive movement for change but his jargon was confrontational and at times classist. It is this confrontational attitude that the veterans feel is missing,” he says.
However, Mr Farrugia is reluctant to draw comparisons between Mr Mintoff and Dr Muscat. “The circumstances are completely different. The concerns and aspirations people have today are different from those in Mintoff’s time, and so even the remedies have to be different.”
He says Dr Muscat broadened the Labour Party’s appeal by addressing the aspirations of those occupying the middle ground. “Joseph Muscat has allowed the common men and women to dream again and believe their aspirations could be met.”
The tolerance of bad governance today is as bad as the corruption he allowed to fester
In the Eddie Fenech Adami tradition, he adds, Dr Muscat also opened up to business people, in the belief that if they did well, the country would prosper.
“The government should act as regulator while allowing the private sector the space to prosper,” Mr Farrugia says.
During a commemorative ceremony last week, Dr Muscat described the all-time high employment figures and record low unemployment as the best gifts Labour could give Mr Mintoff.
Dr Muscat has often flaunted his pro-business approach as the recipe for success, something that makes some within the Labour Party cringe.
But do not expect open dissent on this approach, which has delivered good economic headlines, prosperity for many, and left others on the sidelines.
Muscat’s Labour has upheld the tradition of a strong leader who is revered, according to sociologist Michael Briguglio.
“This characteristic was introduced by Dom Mintoff after the post-war split with Paul Boffa and consolidated in the 1970s when he clashed with intellectuals within the party,” Dr Briguglio says. This top-down dynamic, he adds, manifests itself in the likes of Glenn Bedingfield, the Prime Minister’s aide, who on his blog lashes out at all government critics.
Dr Briguglio hits another raw nerve for many within Labour wanting to put the not-so-glorious moments of the past behind them. He says the tolerance of bad governance and cronyism today is as bad as the corruption Mr Mintoff allowed to fester around him in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“There is no violence, but corruption is done in a more polished manner,” Dr Briguglio says, with certain ministers being afforded untouchable status.
He says that Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi embodies the description of “super saints” coined by the late Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain in describing the system of patronage in Malta.
Dr Mizzi, who was embroiled in the Panama Papers affair, continued on as minister after a cosmetic Cabinet reshuffle. Others, like Manuel Mallia, were rehabilitated after 18 months, and former parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon was immediately given a government job after resigning in the wake of the Gaffarena scandal.
“There were untouchable ministers in Mintoff’s time, despite the power he commanded,” Dr Briguglio says, “and the situation in this respect remains unchanged today”. However, he believes this may have little to do with a Labour tradition and more to do with society’s attitude towards corruption and bad governance.
Indeed, the 1987 election, which saw the Nationalist Party win after 16 years in Opposition, was only clinched by 4,000 votes, despite the violence and rampant corruption that preceded it.
“Although many are sour because of bad governance, it does not seem to be an electoral determinant, especially because the economy is doing well and the alternative is not credible.”
He notes that Dr Muscat continues to benefit from the wide alliance built over the past eight years, something that sets him apart from Mr Mintoff. “Mintoff’s Labour was more socialist and workerist in attitude, which at times clashed with other sections of the middle class,” he notes.
This bridging with different sectors of the middle and business classes started by Alfred Sant in the 1990s was transformed by Dr Muscat into a winning strategy, Dr Briguglio says.
This broad coalition does not come without its contradictions, he adds, but Dr Muscat’s charisma ensures that it sticks together.
For the time being, a ‘socialist Mintoffian’ can still vote for the same party as a millionaire businessman enamoured with Labour’s can-do attitude.
Published in The Sunday Times of Malta. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Post-Townsquare Reflections

Michael Briguglio - Malta Today 5 August 2016

Yesterday was a sad day for my hometown Sliema: The Townsquare 38-storey highrise project was approved by the Planning Authority.  

It was a close call, as 6 board members (out of 13 who were present) voted against. And this included PA Chairman Vince Cassar, who I know as a  man of integrity. Victor Axiak, the representative of the Environment and Resources Authority was absent due to illness.  The Nationalist Party representative Ryan Callus also voted against, unlike Labour's representative Joe Sammut. 

Again, I know Callus to be an upright and honest politician, and from what I saw and sensed, he showed alot of courage in voting the way he did. 

The Sliema Local Council - of which I am a member on behalf of the Greens - objected to this proposal, through its PN-led majority, and notwithstanding the total silence from Labour councillors. Needless to say, environmental NGOs, AD and the newly-formed PD were also objecting to this proposal.

But environmental campaigns are never simply characterized by the final PA meeting. And neither are they simply decided on the grounds of lack or insufficient analysis, though Townsquare had a surplus of this.

Empirical sociological, anthropological and political research and analyses on environmental campaigns in Malta show that there are a plurality of factors which have an effect on environmental outcomes. 

These include lobbying, mobilization through protest and media sensitization, official and unofficial meetings, and political/social movement alliances. When alliances involve ENGOs, local councils and at least 2 political parties (big+big or big+small), these are usually more predisposed to have an impact. Impacts can vary from victories (e.g. Front Kontra l-Golf Kors; Munxar, Cement Plant; Wied Ghomor and many others in between) to huge mobilization and partial impacts (e.g. Save Zonqor). When both major parties do not support a campaign, it becomes very difficult to obtain victory (the referendum on hunting being a case in point).

In the case of Townsquare, what struck me most was the PN strategy, which worked in the hands of the Gasan developers and the Labour Government. 

Indeed, the PN leadership was conspicuous by its silence on this issue - and here we are speaking of Tigne', a PN stronghold  in blue Sliema.  Whether the silence was intentional or cynical is something that can never be proven.

If it really paid heed to Sliema residents above developers' proposals, and if it really wanted the project to be defeated, the PN leadership could and should have mobilized its supporters in the run up to the PA meeting, in support of the local council and emvironmentalists. But it did not. 

My hunch is that Simon Busuttil will try to bank on residents' anger during excavation and construction. If this is the case, we will have a clear case of poor judgement, cynical politics, and of speaking too late in the day. 

Townsquare and Mriehel are just the beginning in a series of highrise developments in Malta. And this takes us to the political economy of the environment. As Portomaso had shown us back in 1998, and as has been confirmed so many times since then, a symbiotic relationship exists between the state and big developers.

Developers provide economic growth and other incentives; The State provides policy and operational support. This is done at the expense of the environment and people's quality of life. 

Who said the environment is not political? 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sette Giugno’s violence: the start of a new political consciousness

Young historian Mark Camilleri speaks to Teodor Reljic about his upcoming book, ‘A Materialist Revision of Maltese History: 870 – 1919’, which sets out to demystify the traditional historical narratives about Malta, proposing that the Sette Giugno riots were crucial in re-positioning the Maltese people as mere oppressed masses to active players.

Teodor Reljic - Malta Today 3 August 2016

What motivated you to look at Maltese history from this particular angle? Did you find previous historical sources lacking on this count?

Previous local history books strictly abide to the Anglo-Saxon method which I find very accurate and precise, but also quite restrictive. I am very proud of the academic tradition which I have inherited from the Department of History at the University of Malta, yet Marx and Hegel do not have a place in the Anglo-Saxon methodology. I think that Marx and Hegel are necessary to understand any kind of history and this is how I differ from other local historians: I abide with the Anglo-Saxon rules, but I also use Marx and Hegel for my understanding of the experience and the life of people. 

The scope of the book – 870 to 1919 – seems to be quite ambitious. What led you to go for such a wide berth, and why did you think it was necessary?

In 870 the Maltese islands were depopulated by Muslim invaders and were repopulated around a hundred years later by Muslim settlers, thus 870 represents the end of an era. The new era which followed the 870 massacre with the emerging Muslim settlers was an era of misery, poverty and dependence. We have this very wrong idea that Maltese society was self-aware of its freedom, its identity and spirit and it thrived and grew progressively along the years, but the truth is very far away from this. During the years delineated in my study Maltese people were poor, miserable, highly dependent and submissive. Education was unheard of and the Maltese mind was controlled by the clerics. It was only in 1919 when the Maltese working-class began to be aware of its own freedoms and for the first time tried to overturn its objective living conditions out of its own spontaneous will. 

In your research, did you draw from just official documents and accounts, or did you seek out more vernacular sources too?

I used a wide mix of primary and secondary sources. The more sources a historian uses, the better the result. Some particular primary sources which will be revealed for the first time are police logbooks of the early 20th century which are housed at the National Archives of Rabat. 

Why do you believe the Sette Giugno riots to have been so instrumental in the re-shaping of the predominant power dynamic of Maltese society up to that point? Was it a single event that turned the tide, or would you say it was a build-up that culminated with that event?

The Sette Giugno Riots were important because they were the first political act by the masses which came from their own spontaneous will. The violent behaviour of the Maltese in the Sette Giugno Riots was a form of active resistance against whom they believed were responsible for their miserable predicament: the British and the millers. The hunger and poverty fueled the violence, but rather than being an unjust violent act, as some today would like to portray it, it was the beginning of a new political consciousness of the masses and their discovery of their own freedom. The Riots were of course preceded by strikes and agitation from British workers at the Dockyard, so of course it took place in a complex context.

On that note, however... could it be that by focusing on the riots in particular, we risk viewing them as yet another – non-materialist – imposition on history? Why do you think the riots are a more ‘concrete’ action than other historical events that mark Maltese history? 

Yes, there is that risk, and I am very aware of it, however we cannot shy away from its gigantic importance in Maltese history. Along the years many politicians have abused of the Sette Giugno Riots to promote their own agenda, and nowadays there are those who are condemning it in ethical terms, but facts are facts and we can’t deny them. 

How exactly would you define ‘ordinary’ people, in your historical narrative?

It depends on the century and period, but to be simplistic, I would say ordinary people were wage earners, peasants, beggars, children, the sick and the old. The small petty-bourgeois such as lawyers and doctors could also be considered as part of the ordinary people, except for those lawyers who took power by becoming judges and magistrates or those who formed part of the political elite and used politics to defend their own interests such as Enrico Mizzi’s pro-Italian nationalists. Practically, in simple terms, the adjective “ordinary” can be used to describe all of the Maltese except for the 30 – 50 families who owned one third of all the land and participated in most of the commerce which took place, along with the small number of pro-Italian nationalists who took power to pursue idealistic dreams which only served their own personal interests. 

Finally, what do you hope your book will contribute to the discussion of Maltese history?

I hope that my book serves to help us look at history more realistically than with pre-conceived notions of glory and nationalism, but I also hope that my book contributes to the debates and discussions on what is happening today. If we understand our history better, we would be much more able to understand current events and problems and provide even better solutions. 

‘A Materialist Revision of Maltese History: 870 – 1919’ will be launched on August 10, 19:30 at the Fortress Builders, Valletta.