Sociologist from Malta

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The long march of the New Left

MALTA TODAY INTERVIEW Wednesday, 02 April 2008

AD councillor, Zminijietna activist and Dripht drummer Michael Briguglio talks to Raphael Vassallo about the outcome of the election, the need for the Left to reinvent itself, and whether or not Malta is still “not for sale”

Briguglio he was playing the drums on stage as Dripht’s Nicky Morales screamed well-known lyrics to an audience of frenzied rockers: “Qumu mir-raqda (wake up), Malta not for sale!”

Briguglio wrote the song for his other band Norm Rejection in 1998, and to many in the local rock scene it remains an inspiring anthem of protest against Malta’s slide into wholesale capitalism after the 1990s economic boom. A self-styled advocate of social democracy, Michael Briguglio is more than just a drummer and writer of protest songs. He is also a former member and councillor for Alternattiva Demokratika: The Green Party, and an activist with Zmienijietna – The Voice of the Left.

But here we are, three elections later after a campaign fought largely on the promise of further development, more privatisation still, and Malta being put up for sale in ever-increasing portions… and still, the rockers bang their heads to Mike’s furious lyrics. What’s gone wrong with the Left? Michael admits that Malta’s social democratic movement is somewhat fragmented at the moment, giving as an analogy the example of the environmental lobby and its political influence. “The environmental NGOs today are reluctant to form alliances with politically-motivated groups,” he says as we settle for a coffee at Tony’s Bar at the Sliema ferries. “It was not way that we when we won the ‘golf war’ in the 1990s…” Mike is referring to the Front Kontra l-Golf Kors, which had united 30 NGOs under a single banner between 1997 and 2004, and succeeded in halting a project – the Verdala Golf Course – which many deemed unstoppable at the time. “There was a broader environmental coalition back then, and we hadn’t even joined the EU. Which also means that NGOs had no form of legal backing…”

Today, with EU directives being implemented faster than we can count them, the same NGOs are if anything in a much stronger position than back then. So the change Briguglio seems to be hinting at is not so much loss of interest on the part of the NGOs, but rather a shift in the political landscape itself. “Nobody should expect (for example) an environmental NGO to automatically vote Green. It doesn’t work that way anywhere in the EU,” he explains. “I believe in broader coalitions than just allegiance to a party. For this reason I think political parties should get closer to NGOs (instead of the other way around). What I would like to see is a bottom-up attitude, rather than a top-down one in which political parties feels superior to smaller groups…”

Asked to comment on the electoral results – in which his own former party AD improved its previous standings, but nowhere near how much they expected – Michael Briguglio shrugs and explains that the strategy, both AD’s and that of the Left in general, was entirely oblivious to the people’s real concerns. “The PN had a very good strategy which paid off in the end. They have something no other party can offer: they project an image of stability.” Stability was a major platform of the last election, used heavily to counterbalance AD’s own battlecry of “coalition”. Michael is the first to admit the AD strategy backfired. “In general elections, most people think of governments when they vote. You can’t change that using the magic word ‘coalition’,” he explains. “There are people who are terrified of that word. I’m not saying that AD shouldn’t contest the general elections at all, but it should be more realistic in its aims. Politics isn’t a wish list. It should be representative of society, yes, but the country also has to be governable…”

Having said that, he quickly points out that stability comes at a price, and that it is because of this price that the Left still has an important part to play. “Social inequality has increased in recent years. The cost of living in an issue again. Even people who are comfortably off are finding it harder to make ends meet…” So if the Left is still relevant and the existing political groupings are out of touch, what exactly does he propose?“I look at it as a ‘long march’,” he says, facetiously invoking the rise to power of Chairman Mao in 1934. “It’s a long process, and you can’t get there with a ‘let’s get elected now!’ mentality…”

Michael Briguglio outlines how he envisages the long march’s basic steps, using his former AD as an example. “A party like AD should first consolidate its presence in the local councils – which is already extremely difficult as it is. But here at least we had achieved relative success – electing councillors in Sliema, Sannat, Swieqi and Attard…”The second area, arguably more difficult than the first, is the European parliamentary elections. But above all any left-wing party or organisation should take care not to overlook is the sheer diversity of people’s concerns and interests.

“When people are in politics they sometimes get caught in their own way of looking at things. But what is an intensely important issue to me, might not be at all important to others, and vice-versa. For instance, the state of a pavement is not at all important to me, but to an old lady, it could be the difference between life and death.”Above all, he argues, politicians would be wise to extricate themselves from a media morass they sometimes get drawn into.“

I trust the electorate a lot,” he says. “But there were others who complained about the election result. Somebody wrote on a blog somewhere about the ‘bastard electorate’. There was another comment calling the people ‘ignorant’. But the people do not just absorb everything they hear and read. They are influenced, certainly, but they are also reflective.”Curiously subverting Marx’s famous views on religion, Briguglio insists that the media are not “a syringe that drugs people.”

“There is a tendency to assume they vote how they do because they are told to. But this only underestimates people’s intelligence.”On another level, Michael Briguglio also expresses impatience with the sheer polarity of viewpoints. Drawing from his professional work as a sociology lecturer at the University of Malta, he explains that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily as opposite as they may appear. “The sociologist Anthony Giddens talks of ‘parallel fusion’: a co-existence of the modern with the traditional. In a local context, (Dutch anthropologist) Jeremy Boissevain refers to ‘amoral familism’. I don’t see this as a contradiction. It is perfectly possible to be conservative and liberal at the same time. Look at Britain: one of the world’s most advanced countries, and it still has the Monarchy…”

Having said this, the radical in Michael Briguglio feels compelled to have the final word: “There are some things which get on my nerves. Like the fact that we don’t have divorce. But not everything conservative is automatically bad.”

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