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.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Profile of an ISIS recruit

Picture: The Laacharoui brothers

What motivates ISIS terrorists? This was the question asked by Jeff Goodwin, a global sociological authority on the study of social movements, during the recent International Sociological Association forum in Vienna, in which I participated.
I was very curious to see what Goodwin had to say about ISIS, both as a sociologist but also as a father who, like many people, feels an eerie sense of anxiety with the terrorism phenomenon.
It is as if terrorism is now a fact of life, a lottery of death for persons busy living their lives in different continents. And if the terrorist imagery is now so present in public discourse, it is very important to understand what it is and what it is not.
I am very wary of quick-fix replies and rock-solid certainties which come so easy to various populists of our times. Such rhetoric can, of course, offer nice sound bites but this is not often reflected in informed and evidence-based policy formulation. Indeed, I believe that if we need answers that can help policymaking, we should give more importance to asking questions that matter.
In this regard, some of the findings of Goodwin’s research on ISIS were very different from what we are accustomed to hear in public discourse.
If the terrorist imagery is now so present in public discourse, it is very important to understand what it is and what it is not
For example, he reported that even though Tunisia provides the largest number of ISIS recruits in absolute terms, a more accurate quantitative analysis reveals a different story.
A look at recruits’ nationality per capita shows that fighters are more likely to come from democratic, affluent countries. They are also more likely to come from relatively ethnically homogeneous societies where Muslims are a minority. Examples in this regard include Finland, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Belgium.
Goodwin then delved into a real-life micro-example of two Belgian brothers with radically different life outcomes, namely Najim and Mourad Laachraoui. They came from the same family and had similar upbringing. Yet, Najim became a bomb maker and suicide bomber. Mourad, on the other hand, became a medal-winning sportsman who proudly waves the Belgian flag. So why did one integrate in Belgian society and the other one not? “We don’t know” is what Goodwin could humbly reply, before deconstructing popular opinions on terrorists.
For example, the ‘Muslims are terrorists’ hypothesis is incredibly simplistic. Indeed, how can we explain one terrorist out of, say, 30,000 Muslims sociologically? And what about terrorists who are not Muslims?
The ‘youth’ rebellion hypothesis is not necessarily useful. Sure, some young people join ISIS but others join national armies to fight ISIS, and many many others have motivations which have nothing to do with this issue.
The ‘social media’ hypothesis has gaps too. It is not only ISIS which uses the internet but practically society in general.
Some people do opt for psychological terrorism but others would seek Pokemon and songs on YouTube. Or chatting with their grandmother. Besides, more and more social movements of different stripes and colours are using Facebook and Twitter nowadays.
The ‘radicalisation’ hypothesis is problematic too, according to Goodwin. Again, yes there are Muslim radicals in ISIS’ ranks. There are also recent converts but there are also ISIS fighters who don’t really know or understand what Islam is about. And there are many, many Muslims who oppose ISIS tooth and nail.
Therefore, more data is needed to understand the motivation of such persons, unless we are content with crass generalisations. And this presents us with a huge research dilemma.
To study the motivations of such individuals, a biographical approach could be most useful. Here, the focus is on qualitative and long face-to-face interviews, in line with established research methods and ethical procedures.
Yet, this is easier said than done.
One main quandary is the lack of access to such persons. In the case of Najim Laachraoui, he is dead, as is the case with other suicide bombers or fighters. Others are active in inaccessible places like ISIS territory. And others are in prison, which are not likely to be very accessible to sociologists and other researchers.
Perhaps the biggest quandary of all is that there are many other potential or actual ISIS recruits who we don’t know about and who might hit the news headlines in the future.

Vienna, July 2016: World-famous sociologist Jeff Goodwin discussing ISIS at #ISA16 #RC47. Reminded me of Max Weber's concept of verstehen. Trying to understand motivations of ISIS recruits. A fascinating presentation.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Open Letter Condemning the Purge of Academic Institutions in Turkey

As academics and administrators affiliated with colleges and universities around the world, we the undersigned strongly condemn the recent attacks on academic freedom by President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Read more about this, and sign the global petition through this link:

Please share widely.  You can use the following hash-tags on Twitter and Facebook #turkey #turkeypurge #turkishwinter

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rainbows and the dark

Michael Briguglio
Just as gay pride was being celebrated in many countries around the world, terrible news of the terrorist attack in Orlando hit the global news headlines. The horrific mass murder of 49 persons in the gay nightclub reminded us that the achievements of the LGBTIQ movement around the world remain uneven.
An increasing number of countries, ranging from Malta to Belgium, from Argentina to Canada and from South Africa to Sweden, have been introducing policy reforms which legalise equality in various areas, from employment to family life.
Others, such as Russia and Uganda, have restrictive and oppressive policies, while some – such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia - can even resort to the death penalty to punish LGBTIQ persons.
Besides, as the US example has shown, in countries with progressive legislation homophobia is still present even when policies state otherwise.
Therefore, the call for equality from the gay rights movement remains vital, though applied differently in different contexts.
In this regard, Malta provides a very interesting case study about the impacts of its own gay rights movement. Suffice to say that from a European laggard, Malta has now become a European (and world) leader on LGBTIQ rights in a matter of few years.
How did this happen?
From a socio-cultural perspective, globalisation, Malta’s EU accession and cultural modernisation have made LGBTIQ issues more visible and acceptable to an increasingly reflexive and discerning public.
At the same time, however, the call for equality was spearheaded by the Malta Gay Rights Movement, which was established in 1999 and which has now become a major player in Maltese social and family policy.
It was not the only player in the field. The Green Party, for example, supported MGRM and prior to the 2013 general elections proposed same-sex marriage.
MGRM also wanted same-sex marriage but campaigned for civil unions, knowing that this would more likely be accepted by major political parties. Hence they produced a more consensual and moderate discourse to have political impact.
Globalisation, Malta’s EU accession and cultural modernisation have made LGBTIQ issues more visible and acceptable
Still, without the Green call for same-sex marriage there would have been much less of an electoral ‘threat’ for big parties to take up the matter. Yet, Gonzi’s Nationalist Party did not follow suit, but Muscat’s Labour successfully occupied a vacuum and progressively updated its policies along the way, with politicians such as Evarist Bartolo consistently supporting MGRM.
In the meantime, as LGBTIQ organisations such as Drachma and Gender Liberation proliferated, others such as Moviment Graffitti supported the cause. The independent press and various liberal and progressive voices in academia also gave legitimacy to such claims.
It would be far-fetched to say that Labour won the 2013 general election because of LGBTIQ issues. But this was surely part of Labour’s ‘moderate and progressive’ package which aimed to reconcile different – and at times contradictory – interests.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appointed Helena Dalli – a progressive sociologist – as minister responsible for such matters, and in turn, experts such as Silvan Agius – a former Green candidate and policy officer of the International Lesbian and Gay Association – helped formulate Malta’s forward-looking legislation in the field.
The current situation is now characterised by a situation where political parties simply have no choice but to support LGBTIQ equality, unless they want to miss out on voters who prioritise such issues.
Simon Busuttil’s presence in the recent Gay Pride is very symbolic in this regard. Gay Pride has transformed itself from a curious fringe event to a mainstream celebration. The President of Malta is also increasing legitimacy to the whole issue.
Is this to say that in Malta there is no longer room to discuss LGBTIQ issues? I disagree. To begin with, not everyone agrees with all policies in the field. Besides, one may agree with the ideological thrust of policies but favours more social dialogue to ensure greater consensus and that rights are matched with responsibilities in all areas.
Besides, cultural and legal changes do not mean that homophobia has sud-denly disappeared.
The above also does not mean Malta is now a progressive utopia. When it comes to good governance, development of land, low wages and precarious employment, the Labour government has a strong relationship - this time with big business - at the expense of the common good.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Zonqor Conflict in Malta featured in the 2015 Social Conflict Yearbook

Dr Michael Briguglio's article 'The Zonqor Conflict in Malta' features in the 2015 Social Conflict Yearbook, published by the Observatory of Social Conflict at the University of Barcelona.

This article deals with the conflict on the ‘American University of Malta’. This was characterised by the creation of a new environmental movement, Malta’s biggest ever environmental protest, and by revisions by the Government in its original development plans. Consequently, the conflict had a variety of impacts.

The article, which is in English, can be downloaded from this link (also includes a summary in Spanish):

Reference: Briguglio, M. (2016). The Zonqor Conflict in Malta, in M. Trinidad Bretones, C. Andrés Charry, J. Pastor, J. Quesada (Eds). ‘2015:  Social Conflict Yearbook, pp. 210-219. Observatori del Conflicto Social: Universitat de Barcelona.

Dr Briguglio is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of Malta.